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Death by Pragmatism
One of the wonderful things about Horror Films
is that the Jerk Ass will die
a gory and satisfying death, usually by machete or eating crow. However, it's not always the obvious things like sex
, or materialism
that can do characters in, but... pragmatism?
The thing is, anyone even approaching
behaviour that is reasonable and appropriate to continued survival in the Slasher Movie
will die. This isn't necessarily because of Wrong Genre Savvy
or them being an anti social Crazy Survivalist
. Instead, it serves two purposes:
First, it serves as an easy way to bring up and dismiss 'obvious' solutions, often via what amounts to a strawman — it often wouldn't be a very long movie if the pragmatic character calls the authorities, has everyone sit together someplace safe until they arrive, and resolves everything in the first half-hour, would it? So the pragmatic character has to be dealt with, often accompanied by excessive vilification
to try and tar their sensible ideas along with them
. Never Recycle Your Schemes
is applied in spades here, too — often the pragmatic character will be shown attempting to do some obvious thing that could ruin the movie (call the cops, leave the area
, keep everyone from splitting up
, whatever); they'll fail and die gruesomely, and nobody will ever mention the pragmatic solution again.
Second, while leading a group to safety or simply survival, the leader
rarely has the chance to be polite
, or allow the "niceties"
and universal empathy
. Things that, to the fellow characters and the viewer, make them decidedly unpopular.
And yes, this is just as big a wall banger as Death by Genre Savviness
, as those surviving are Too Dumb to Live (but usually nicer).
Maybe they chose to leave the Zombie Infectee
behind because of the risk, had to be authoritative to get things done but was very... "brusque"
when going about it, or has outright had to choose to actively sacrifice others
for the good of the group.
And they say "sensitivity training" is useless.
Compare The World's Expert on Getting Killed
, where a supposed expert on a threat is killed by it.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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Films — Live-Action
- The snooty guy in Snakes on a Plane was doomed because he was the only one smart enough to throw the dog to the snakes.
- In the new Dawn of the Dead (2004), the security guard who wanted to barricade themselves in the mall, rather than letting others in at risk of also letting zombies in, died near the end, after having been "redeemed." Tellingly, he was a Crazy Survivalist who prioritized the survival of himself and the three guards over the other refugees, even making them sleep in a separate and locked store for the trio's protection. Granted, he was a huge dick, but one of them was a latent Zombie Infectee.
- This example - and much of this trope - possibly has much basis in the 'original' Zombie Apocalypse movie Night of the Living Dead, in which much tension comes from the argument between charismatic, heroic Ben and cowardly, selfish Harry, about what is the best way to save everyone's lives; Ben wants to barricade the house, whilst Harry wants to take everyone down into the cellar, despite the fact that Ben believes that to be a death trap. Throughout the movie, Harry is portrayed in a cowardly and venal fashion, quite happy to lock people out of the house to save his own skin... and he's also ultimately shown to be right. Ben's plan results in the deaths of pretty much everyone but himself, and Ben himself only survives the night by, wait for it, locking himself in the cellar.
- Zig-zagged in Feast. One of the characters decides to save herself and steals the last remaining car, leaving the others stranded to be eaten by the monsters, and manages to survive. However, it returns with a vengeance in parts two and three, where we watch the same character almost make it out of the nearby town (now overrun with monsters), only to take a serious hit to the back of her head and fall, apparently dying. The credits roll while we watch her bleeding out. Then she snaps awake, screaming, and the movie cuts to black. The third movie picks up right there, and she's killed almost immediately by a monster.
- In Return of the Living Dead, the characters are finally killed because they decide they can't deal with the zombies themselves, and decide to risk prosecution by calling the military. The military nukes the whole town...take that as you will.
- Debatably the case with Bridget von Hammersmark in Inglourious Basterds after she shoots the unarmed Wilhelm in cold blood. Killing him is clearly the only sensible thing to do to protect the mission, but the audience has reason to like him and it comes across as a bit chilling. She then almost at once makes the murder pointless by leaving behind obvious evidence that incriminates her and leads directly to her own death.
- The colonel of the SS, Hans Landa, gets a Swastika Forehead Carving By Pragmatism.
- Averted by the Friday the 13th (2009) reboot. Clay is the only person in the film who isn't either stupid or trigger-happy (probably because he's Sam Winchester). While Jason is still attacking at the end, he is clearly going after the sister, not Clay, and the two of them are the only ones left alive. If anyone makes it out, it will be Clay. If he fails to make it out, it will be because he couldn't bear to leave his sister and run like hell.
- Piranha 3D had a particularly cold example of this. The pragmatist was determined to get to shore, so he used his motorboat to plow through people being attacked by Piranhas, almost certainly killing some of them. Then his propeller got caught in a girl's hair, and in the process of trying to start it up again he ripped off her face. It did no good, he was dead in the water, his boat was overturned by people trying to get away from the piranhas, and he was promptly eaten.
- Averted in Alien. When Dallas and Lambert return to the ship with Kane and the facehugger, Ripley demands that they remain in quarantine, rather than give Kane medical attention. Her sensible (if cold-hearted) order is ignored by Ash, much to the relief of the rest of the team. But look who ends up as Sole Survivor...
- Justified in The Gingerdead Man. The Rich Bitch comes up with the entirely sensible option of leaving the bakery where the homicidal gingerbread man is hiding. Unfortunately, the monster is clever enough to have trapped all the exits, and she is paid for her pragmatism with a knife to the face.
- In The Thing (1982), Blair is probably one of the very first members of the team to realize just how bad the situation is. This causes him to completely flip his lid. He begins destroying vital equipment such as the radio, then kills all of the base's dogs, then nearly kills several people. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that these were entirely valid decisions. He destroyed the radio (and possibly sabotaged the vehicles) to prevent a breach of quarantine, killed the dogs as they were the most likely to be infected, and tried to kill the others when they moved to stop him. By the end of the film, he not only dies, but we discover he is now the last and most intelligent of the infected, basically becoming the movie's Big Bad.
- Jeff, in Scott Smith's The Ruins. From the beginning, he is painted as something of a Jerkass due to his cold and calculating nature. In retrospect, this makes him seem like the ideal hero of the situation after the horror kicks in at the second act. Turns out he embodies this trope as well as Decoy Protagonist. He is certainly pragmatic, what with being a medical student and all, and when one of the protagonists (the non-English speaking Woobie of the cast), becomes horribly injured, it is he who suggests an improvised amputation of both that character's legs, in order to prevent infection. Naturally, given their limited resources, his friends reject this idea. He is also the one later on who makes the discovery that this is the least of their worries, namely the Man-Eating Plant covering the hill they are trapped on. After a few more deaths, he additionally suggests cooking and eating the bodies of their fallen friends, in light of the fact they have next to no food or water. The remaining survivors are not thrilled with the idea, and neither is the audience, despite him simply demonstrating the need to survive. One could label Jeff as a Crazy Survivalist, but when you compare him the other heroes, he seems to be the only one with a brain. Naturally, he is not rewarded for it; despite attempting the only logical solution of trying to sneak past their Mayan captors at nightfall. True to the trope, it doesn't work, and he takes 3 fatal arrows for his troubles, as well as being finished off by the sinister vines.
- This basically happens in The X-Files. The Syndicate delayed an alien invasion by half a century, attempted to buy time to resist, and failing that to save at least a small portion of humanity. It was the only rational course of action, but yet they were STILL portrayed as villains.
- This is, of course, because their Deal with the Devil meant they assassinated people looking into them, experimented on innocents, and generally had their own set of evil plots. Still, they were Well Intentioned Extremists rather than irredeemably evil.
- On Stargate Atlantis, the heroes frequently Shoot the Dog as needed (although it sometimes seems they do it even when a perfectly workable and non-morally compromising solution is available). Doing so also frequently comes back to bite them in the ass a season or so later. Oddly, the otherwise highly Genre Savvy characters don't seem to have picked up on this pattern yet.
- The Masters of Horror episode "Dance of the Dead" did this, although the victim's pragmatic decision was unquestionably one of the coldest things on this list. A mother of two sold her older daughter, who was a strung-out junkie in the process of overdosing to a man who would reanimate her lifeless body to dance in his freak show, so that she could support her younger daughter. In the end she was killed and the surviving daughter traded the mother's body for the sister's so that the sister could be buried.
- In The Venture Bros. season 3 episode "The Lepidopterists", a running joke about 21 and 24's seeming invulnerability despite their total lack of competency throughout the series leads up to their concluding that if this were a TV show, they'd be main characters and therefore don't have to worry about being killed. The flipside is that smart and competent Henchman 1, aka Scott Hall, must suffer Death By Samson after his first appearance simply because that's what happens to people who take their jobs seriously in this show.
- Ultimately subverted at the end of season 3 and a ways into season 4 — 24 dies in the season 3 finale, while season 4 reveals Scott to be very much alive if completely unhinged.
- South Park had an episode where the kids all get stuck on a bus teetering over the edge of a cliff. The only reason they don't leave is due to a fear of a monster outside (which the driver made up). The only child (who also happens to be wearing a Red Shirt) to leave the bus promptly gets eaten by said monster.