How to survive a horror movie

Halloween 2020 edition

Once upon a time, my father the film professor wrote an academic research article analyzing the behavior of horror movie victims in the light of Darwinian theory. He titled it, “Don’t Do That, You Twit!”

It got published. Seriously. In an academic journal.

As I was the biggest horror-movie nerd within reach, Dad enlisted my help to edit and expand his research. Thus was born my personal list of how to survive a horror movie. Because you and I, dear reader: we’ve seen what happens when you don’t pay attention at the local cineplex. You end up tripping over roots in the high heels you wore to the campout, and bam! you’re monster food.

Every Halloween for many years, I have curated this list with the help of readers, friends, fellow horror writers and other denizens of the internet to ensure that we will survive the demon onslaught. Unlike the characters of horror films, we are resourceful, we are capable, and we have IQ’s larger than our shoe sizes.

The Rules (which predate Scream’s attempt to create its own list in 1996) are based on the Film Professor’s Darwinian theory — well, sort of. To wit: Those who survive get to procreate. And that’s fun.

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So, without further ado: here’s this year’s list of ways to survive a horror movie. New additions are in bold! All the better to see you with, my dear.

1. If the house you’re living in tells you to “GO AWAY,” do it.

2. If you’re a virgin, stay that way.

3. If a killer with a knife is chasing you around the house, do not go upstairs. Go out the front door.

4. For the love of God, turn on the lights.

5. Never split up.

6. Never stoop over to see if the killer is dead.

7. Never get naked in front of a window.

8. Avoid the following geographical locations: Amityville, Elm Street, Crystal Lake, Transylvania, remote islands, lover’s lanes, abandoned asylums, empty fairgrounds, secluded mountain resorts and all small towns in the state of Maine.

9. Never pick up hitchhikers.

10. If a small town off the highway seems deserted, it’s probably for a very good reason.

11. If your speedometer starts running backward, trade the car.

12. Don’t dig up strange-looking objects in the woods.

13. Never bury pets or loved ones in old Native American burial grounds. (Duh.)

14. Don’t try to solve puzzles that open doorways to hell. That’s a real Darwin move, people.

15. Find out what your parents were up to when they were younger. You never know if they burned up a serial killer, had a mysterious “other child,” are not your real parents, let a disabled child die while having sex, or opened up a doorway to hell.

16. Ask yourself seriously, “Do I really want to float?”

17. If there is a knock on the door in the middle of the night, but no one appears at the peephole, do not open the door and step outside to see who’s there.

18. Never turn your back to a door or press your ear against it to hear what’s going on in there.

19. Don’t assume it’s your naked boyfriend/girlfriend under the sheet.

20. Never mess with DNA.

21. No sex in graveyards!

22. Keep the car filled with gas, tuned up, and for God’s sake keep the keys with you.

23. On Halloween, there is no such thing as coincidence.

24. For that matter, there is no such thing as coincidence.

25. Never stay overnight in the old house at the end of town that’s supposed to be haunted. Let them think you’re chicken. Even if the prize is one million dollars. It’s not worth it.

26. Pig’s blood does not make for a good practical joke.

27. The guy conducting the “insomnia study” in the spooky old mansion that no one will approach after dark is not telling you the truth.

28. Watch out for the guy with an accent purchasing the abandoned abbey next door who seems to work the night shift.

29. If you’re alone in the house and something calls out your name, leave through the nearest exit.

30. If there is no exit, make one.

31. When you’ve shot the monster six times to no effect, throwing the gun at it isn’t likely to help.

32. Do not answer distress calls from deserted planets that never see daylight.

33. Don’t touch the TV that calls your name.

34. When the power goes out, do not go into the basement armed only with a candle to see if the fuse is out.

35. Reasons to consider moving out of that great house that was such a bargain:

  • bleeding walls
  • disembodied voices
  • too many flies
  • a room in the basement painted red that wasn’t on the blueprints
  • a bunch of crazy creepy statues that seem to move around when no one’s looking
  • phone service that seems to come and go
  • windows that look like eyes
  • next-door neighbors chanting in the middle of the night
  • a history of horrible murders
  • secret passages behind the bookcases
  • all the women in town loooove to do housework.

36. In fact, when these things start happening, just set fire to the house. It always ends that way anyway and you’ll save time.

37. There is no good reason why anyone’s eyes should glow red.

38. The crank caller breathing heavily into the phone is already in your house.

39. Children speaking in deep, scary voices should be listened to.

40. Yes, there IS a boogeyman.

41. If a kid says, “I see dead people,” believe him.

42. If you just ripped your phone out of the wall and it rings anyway, don’t answer it.

43. Clothing to avoid: high heels, dangling earrings, ancient amulets you don’t understand, scarves of any kind. No capes!

44. Never break quarantine.

45. People wearing hockey masks, ski masks or any Halloween costume that covers the face should be avoided. Note: Does not apply in time of pandemic. Wear your bloody masks!

46. Don’t back up. Look where you’re going.

47. The crazy old guy everybody mocks knows what he’s talking about.

48. Leprechauns and genies really don’t want to grant you three wishes.

49. The deal with the devil isn’t worth it and the monkey’s paw is not your friend.

50. Elevators going up and down by themselves have something wrong with them that a maintenance man can’t fix.

51. Do not attempt to kill your spouse for her inheritance/life insurance/to marry your secretary. You will not get the results you seek.

52. The killer is one of your friends.

53. Reasons you are probably toast: you’re a mayor, sheriff, high school principal or some other person of authority who doesn’t believe in the monster; a corporate lawyer, politician, CEO of a polluting corporation or other sleazeball; a cop, doctor or similar adult trying to help the teenagers; you are obsessed with sex and/or drugs; your breasts are bigger than your brain; you bullied the hero; your name does not appear among the first three in the credits.

54. Never try to open the locked door.

55. Don’t go in the water.

56. Pay attention to dogs, cats, horses and other creatures more intelligent than you. If they’re nervous, scram. P.S. If the rats in the sewer are running, that’s your cue to run faster.

57. When using a matter transporter, triple-check the pod for flies. Then check again.

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58. Don’t mess with the Romani.

59. Never repeat any names while staring into the bathroom mirror.

60. If the price of that really neat knickknack includes “a favor,” you don’t want it.

61. Never take anything from a clown in a sewer. Duh.

62. If you’re part of an elite military team on a secret mission, kill your teammates now. There’s only going to be one left at the end, it might as well be you.

63. Screaming does nothing but annoy the dogs.

64. That quaint harvest ritual? If you aren’t part of the coven, you don’t want to be around for it.

65. If your intake doctor is John Glover, your shrink is David Warner or your priest is Max von Sydow, you’re already in hell.

66. There is a good reason why the town is not on the map.

67. Those kids aren’t Amish.

68. Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t care how crazy they are.

69. Never say the following sentences:

  • Trust me.
  • It could be worse.
  • I think we’ve lost them.
  • Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe.
  • I know where we are.
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • I have a plan.
  • Hey, watch this!
  • You have to believe me!
  • There’s no such thing as ghosts.

70. Your shaky-cam footage will not make you a star. (It will help identify the body.)

71. Is the prom really that important when there’s a serial killer on the loose?

72. The closet is a lame place to hide unless that’s where you keep the shotgun.

73. Showers are generally a bad idea. Baths too. And swimming. In general, save the water sports and personal hygiene until after the movie. Especially skinny-dipping.

74. Do you see a sculpture/device/piece of construction equipment sitting out with something sharp pointing UP? Yeah, someone’s getting impaled on that before the end of the night. Make sure it isn’t you.

75. That doll is moving around by itself when you’re not looking.

76. Buy a frigging flashlight. Buy several. With good batteries.

77. Don’t go back for the family pet. Humans first! Scram.

78. Don’t blink.

79. Is tonight the anniversary of that terrible murder/natural disaster/mysterious disappearance/historical injustice? Tonight is a good night to stay in and lock the doors.

80. You need a bigger boat.

81. Aim for the head.

82. Don’t watch the videotape.

83. When meeting the parents of your mysterious new girlfriend at their remote country house with creepy servants and no cell service, have a solid escape plan in mind.

84. Don’t pick on the miserable geek or the ugly, unpopular girl. You’ll get yours.

85. Skip the shortcut.

86. You won’t be right back.

87. The aliens are not friendly.

And finally…

No, it’s not your imagination.

Happy Halloween!

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Do you have any survival tips we missed? Share them in the comments!

Journalist for more than 20 years, president of St. Louis SPJ, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author. Subscribe at

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