Welcome to Know Your Trope, your rough-and-tumble monthly guide through horror history. In this column, we’ll be diving deep into the conventions of the horror films we love, hate, and love to hate. The definition of “Trope” we’ll be rocking with is a commonplace, recognizable plot element, theme, or visual cue that conveys something in the genre. This month, we’ll be diving into: The Harbinger. Short for the better-known name of “Harbinger of Impending Doom,” The Harbinger is someone or something that warns of the threat to the protagonists.
Let me paint you a picture: Five young adults are loaded into a van passing through rural texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Suddenly the driver swerves to avoid hitting a woman walking on the road. When they stop to ask after her, she is unresponsive, seemingly in shock. They get her in the van and attempt to take her somewhere safe. When the van starts heading toward the nearest town, the woman beings to resist. Trying to force the van to turn around, she yells “You’re going the wrong way!” The group can’t grasp what the drifter is trying to tell them. In her desperation to avoid whatever they are headed toward, the woman pulls out a gun and ends her life. This is the opening to Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003).
“The Harbinger is someone or something that warns of the threat to the protagonists.”
In this opening scene, we have a perfect example of a Harbinger but they come in many forms. They could be a gas station attendant refusing to sell gas or give directions, an uninvited party guest that shows up covered in blood, or this case, a traumatized hitchhiker. And they can often serve as the first victim to die on screen. The origin of this plot device is so old it’s biblical. In revelations, the idea of a herald of death is introduced: “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him“. Like many Biblical stories, it’s very metal.
Fast forward to the 1930s. Studios have seen success in silent horror films like TheCabinet of Dr. Caligari and have started investing in talking horror films. Enter Universal Pictures’ Dracula (directed by Tod Browning), starring Bela Lugosi. In this film’s opening scene, we see Renfield (Dwight Frye) traveling to meet Count Dracula when his hired carriage stops for the night. The villagers warn Renfield that the man he is meeting is a vampire and he “mustn’t go there.” With these words, a trope is born.
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The fun of this particular trope is its evolution and the way it has adapted to audience preference over time. In the time of films like Dracula, it was common for the “knowing” characters to survive in order to serve a moral narrative that rewards those who recognize the difference between good and evil. By the time we get to Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968), the attitude toward moral stories has changed drastically. In the opening, Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are visiting their father’s grave. While in the cemetery, Johnny taunts his scared sister with playful warnings, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…”
In a shocking twist, the warnings are proven correct immediately when a nearby “man” attacks Barbara. Johnny steps in to protect her and becomes the first victim of the living dead. Because the film was independently produced and was focused on social commentary (as opposed to morality) it played with previously laid foundations for the genre, creating a new set of rules and launching horror fans into the next phase of iconic horror films.
There are a few uses of the trope that, like Night of the Living Dead, provided a lot of influence during the eras they were released. One of the most recognizable in the Slasher sub-genre is a character lovingly known as “Crazy Ralph” in Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980) who appears solely to warn the incoming counselors of the tragic history of Camp Crystal Lake, which he refers to as “Camp Blood.” Crazy Ralph would be a springboard for future variations of the trope which combine The Harbinger with the “creepy gas-station attendant” character previously seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977).
In the 1990s, this could be seen in films like Urban Legend (Jamie Blanks, 1998), when the first victim meets the gas station attendant, and his pleading with her to get out of her car scares her into driving off frantically. It’s only when she’s off the lot that we realize the attendant has a speech impediment and he was trying to warn her, “there’s someone in the backseat!” But it would be too late.
When the internet started evolving drastically in the mid-1990s-2000s, the focus of the audience shifted again, and there was a theme of anxiety around technology in media. The Harbinger that was previously just some creepy townie took on a new incarnation. In Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), the warning came directly from the killer in the form of a menacing phone call. Ghostface (Roger L. Jackson) would taunt the victims before attacking, quickly teaching the audience to anticipate danger with each ring on the landline. A variation that was executed especially well in Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998). The phone call itself sends the person on the receiving end into a psychotic downward spiral which serves as a warning to all who follow after.
In the late 2000s, there is a return to classic forms of The Harbinger. In 30 Days of Night (David Slade, 2007) The Harbinger is written as a seemingly classic creepy guy with no central tie to the story, only for it to be revealed that he is acting in service of the pack of vampires that is headed to the isolated Alaskan town. In The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007), while the shoppers in a local supermarket react to literal sirens and emergency vehicle alarms, they are also met by a terrified local covered in blood who runs in screaming “there’s something in the mist!”
The trope takes its final form, like most do, with a spoof. In the meta-comedy The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2011) a group of college students heads off to a vacation destination, completely unaware that they are the subjects of a ritualistic sacrifice, disguised by a simulation. The gang makes the obligatory stop for gas in the small town and is given the classic harbinger treatment. They load back into their van and head toward their destination, shaken by the encounter.
In a later scene, we’re in the office of the managers of the simulation. An assistant lets them know that “The Harbinger” (actually the character’s name) is on line 2. When they put him on speakerphone he, while still in character, begins to update the managers that the group has been properly warned, only to interrupt himself by dropping character and asking if he is on speakerphone. While many horror fans and critics might have already been calling this trope “The Harbinger,” it’s this film that solidifies it in the modern lexicon.
The Harbinger has become a staple in horror and their appearance on screen is something fans of the genre have come to anticipate. The longevity of the trope is due in large part to being a literal mouthpiece for the well-versed audience. We know that Camp Crystal Lake is dangerous before we ever hear Crazy Ralph call it “Camp Blood,” but there is something satisfying in hearing someone call out the obvious truth. More recent adaptations of this trope are written with that sentiment in mind.
In Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), The Harbinger and the wisecracking sidekick are one-in-the-same in Lil Rel Howery’s character Rod. From the minute Rod is given the most basic information about Chris’ plans to meet his girlfriend’s family, Rod is calling it a bad move. Bluntly and without hesitation, Rod is saying the quiet part out loud and acting as the stand-in for the audience that had theories about the ending before they even entered the theater. The service that The Harbinger pays directly to the audience has been and will continue to be the key to its longevity. As long as scary movies are made, The Harbinger will be there to warn us all of the horrors ahead.
“The service that The Harbinger pays directly to the audience has been and will continue to be the key to its longevity.”