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Horror Hates a Rulebreaker

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"All these traditions... jack-o'-lanterns, putting on costumes, handing out treats; they were started to protect us. But nowadays? No one really cares."
Steven Wilkins, Trick 'r Treat

The good news is, supernatural terrors tend to follow rules. The bad news is, you might not know them, and if you broke them it might already be too late. Maybe you couldn't resist the dare to enter the woods, or being told to stay away from the creepy house made it all the more tempting. Perhaps your car broke down on the wrong backwater road, or you were kind hearted enough to lend the wrong traveller some assistance. It would have been nice if the Untrusting Community were more willing to warn outsiders (or at least have someone more credible than a creepy old man warn people), but hey, the last few ignored them anyway.

Sometimes this is an inherent part of how the horror works; the main characters have cursed themselves by doing the wrong thing or being in the wrong place. Other times, it might be more a case that they're in the hunting grounds of some supernatural creature, and have to follow the rules to avoid it (or should have followed them to avoid this situation). More often that not, the rules are consistent, but absurd, unfair or both, and creatures bound by them are more than happy to use Exact Words.

If you're lucky, maybe it's not too late to do something about it. Perhaps there's a way to break the curse once and for all, through Magic A Is Magic A. Maybe it will leave you alone once you follow the rules. On the other hand, it's often the setup for a Cruel Twist Ending (indeed, combining such an ending with this trope is effectively the horror equivalent to a Fair-Play Whodunnit, as it establishes it's entirely reasonable that the cast are already doomed). You Can't Fight Fate, after all.

Pops up in many Urban Legends and Creepypastas, especially ones that centre around performing specific rituals to a certain end. Even for ones that don't actually have any rules you must follow there's still a handy survival guide to help your chances of survival (the idea of rules in horror could be considered the ancestor of The Universal Genre Savvy Guide for any form of fiction).

Subtrope of Inevitably Broken Rule. This trope could be considered the origin of quite a few other tropes (for example, the idea of a Weaksauce Weakness comes from monsters in folklore that could be defeated by everyday items, if used correctly). It's the calling card of The Fair Folk when they're played for horror, and often how a creature subject to The Punishment operates. It is also closely related to the way Gothic Horror revolves around the Natural Order of Things (whether Nature, God, or some other cosmic structure) punishing those individuals who dared to break its rules. Taken to its logical conclusion, you end up with Cosmic Horror, where the rules are so beyond human comprehension even a slight understanding can drive you mad.

Also not to be confused with Supernatural Law. May overlap with Now You Tell Me if someone tells the person about the rules too late.

Super-Trope to:


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    Anime and Manga 
  • The Laughing Salesman: Moguro Fukuzou, the titular Humanoid Abomination with incredible magical powers, can make any wish of yours come true for free, provided you can follow the terms of his agreement. His "agreements" usually consist of one single rule that you must never, ever break. When his clients almost inevitably do, he uses his powers to humiliate them, ruin their lives, or at times even cause their deaths (though he doesn't directly kill them). However, simply not making a deal with Moguro isn't an option — reject his services, and he'll ruin your life anyway.
  • Pet Shop of Horrors involves Count D and his petshop of very rare and very exotic pets, many of which often can appear human to clients who are searching for something in life - a pet to help them get over the loss of a child, or to cope with unrequited love. Count D's contracts always include specific instructions in regards to taking care of these pets, including things that they are not to do. And when these rules are inevitably broken, Bad Things tend to happen to the clients as a result.
  • YuYu Hakusho: Yuu Kaito from the Chapter Black Story Arc has an ability called "Taboo" which lets him implement word games that those within his territory must adhere to or their souls will be extracted from their bodies. Even he's not exempted from the rules of his word games.

    Film — Live Action 
  • The Cabin in the Woods:
    • In order to ensure humanity's continued survival, every year the Organization must sacrifice a group of people to appease the Ancient Ones. These days, simply throwing someone into a volcano won't cut it, and a more elaborate ritual is needed: namely, having five sacrifices act like horror movie stereotypes via drugging, having them disturb one of many artifacts which summon monsters from deep in the Organization's vaults, and then having them hunted down by that monster. The "Whore" has to die first, and the "Virgin"'s death is completely optional. The "Athlete", the "Scholar", and the "Fool" can be killed in any order, as long as they're not the first to be killed and as long as the "Virgin" outlives them all. However, the sacrifices must be killed off before sunrise the next day. Marty, their designated "Fool", ends up becoming immune to the drugs the Organization was using thanks to his personal stash of marijuana that they missed, and survives with Dana (at least, until the Ancient Ones throw a tantrum in response). The Organization thinking that they'd killed Marty and prematurely announcing that he's been sacrificed is the first moment that gets the Ancient Ones grumbling.
    • There are other scenarios playing out in other countries around the world that are meant to follow the tropes specific to the horror stories of those cultures. Only one of these scenarios is needed to succeed, but these all went Off the Rails too, causing the Ancient Ones to wake up and destroy the world.
    • This also happens inside the scenario the organisation has to run - the subjects have to be warned about what they're getting into, and they have to choose to go into the basement containing various doom artifacts. However, the odds are stacked by making sure the Harbinger (the person delivering the warning) is as unpleasant as possible to make ignoring it easier, and by ensuring the basement door is found when the subjects are already making various drunken bets.
  • In Dead Silence, the antagonist (the murderous ghost of a female ventriloquist) can't kill someone if they don't scream first. She does NOT make it easy to keep silent.
  • Drag Me to Hell has Christine Brown cursed by Sylvia Ganush, an old woman who curses Christine because she wouldn't extend Sylvia's mortgage. This curse sets a horrendous demon against Christine to terrorize her for three days, after which she'll be Dragged Off to Hell. However, Christine can break it by cursing someone else to go in her place, as well as make a sacrifice to the demon Lamia. As a result, Christine kills her own pet cat, then uses a button from Sylvia's coat to condemn her in Christine's place. Except not. Turns out a Cat Scare caused Christine to mix up the button for an old coin, meaning the curse was never broken, and she's dragged down to Hell anyways.
  • In The Gravedancers, the protagonists draw the wrath of three angry ghosts by dancing on their graves during a drunken wake for their friend; having been encouraged to do so by a mysterious poem they found on their friend's grave.
  • The Gremlins series is a classic example of this trope/genre of horror. The adorable little Mogwai named Gizmo had a number of rules that anyone taking care of one needed to know. The first rule was never to place a Mogwai near bright light, especially sunlight as that would kill them. The second rule was never to get any water on them or have them drink it, as this was their primary means of reproduction, and when this rule was broken, it resulted in a number of Mogwai getting born from Gizmo's back who weren't nearly as nice as him. The third and final rule was never to feed a Mogwai after midnight (something the new Mogwai tricked the protagonist into doing by means of ripping the wires out of a mains-powered analog clock), because that would result in the Mogwai undergoing a transformation into one of the eponymous Gremlins. The key to defeating them turned out to be weaponizing the first rule, which worked on both Mogwai and Gremlins alike.
  • Grave Encounters 2 has Sean being demanded to finish the film that Alex is working on in order to escape. It refuses to elaborate in an effort to torment him, but he ultimately complies. It kills him anyway and gives the honor to Alex and lets him go instead. Ultimately Alex publishes his film to avoid the hospital forcing him back within its horrifying walls.
  • The Grudge has a fairly harsh example; the moment anyone enters the haunted apartment, the ghosts begin stalking them relentlessly, killing them and making them new tortured spirits to claim yet more victims. Even leaving can't save you. The franchise eventually takes this to its logical conclusion making the curse become The Virus after it escapes the apartment.
  • Hellraiser: Anyone who solves the Lament Configuration will summon the Cenobites and be dragged into their dimension. While most people who seek the box are aware of its true purpose, the Cenobites don't care either way, as Kirsty finds out when her curiosity gets the better of her. The only reason they'd make an exception is if the person was forced into it by someone else, as it is desire that summons them, not hands.
    • The 2022 Hellraiser film adds in a new concept to the franchise with the ability to obtain a great reward from Leviathan. It requires someone to solve all six configurations of the box, and each one must be paid for with a sacrifice, which is chosen by stabbing the victim with a blade that pops out of the box each time a configuration is solved. The thing is, once the process is started, the Cenobites demand it be finished. This wasn't a problem with Voight, who wanted a reward and was willing to sacrifice anyone to get it, but Riley understandably refuses to continue after several unwitting sacrifices. The High Priest, angered by Riley's refusal to participate, solves the next puzzle for her and makes it stab Riley's palm. The High Priest then offers Riley a Sadistic Choice: either she choose another sacrifice to take her place and finish the remaining configurations, or she'll be sacrificed and someone else will carry on with the process.
  • It Follows effectively turns this trope into a metaphor for an STD. Having sex with someone carrying the curse passes it on, causing a malicious spirit (taking the form of a random bystander, and only visible to anyone cursed) to relentlessly stroll towards you, killing you if it catches up and moving back to stalking whoever passed it on. The only solution is to keep moving, or pass it on and hope for the best.
  • Ready or Not (2019): The protagonist must spend the entire night on the mansion's grounds in a literal life or death game of cat and mouse. The rules say she can leave freely after that, however the family who own it must kill someone during the game as a sacrifice. It's not made exactly clear whether newcomers (Grace, in this case), must be the sacrifice, as several maids were offed during the game, but the family decides not to take any chances. At the end Mr. Le Bail, true to his word, allows Grace to leave with a respectful nod, and kills off the entire Le Domas family after they break the rules trying to kill her as the sun rises.
  • The Ring: Watching the cursed tape will attract the attention of Sadako (Samara in the US version), who'll show up to kill you seven days later. The only way around this is to copy the tape and trick someone else into watching it, passing the curse on to them. Even finding Sadako's corpse and laying her body to rest won't help; she's too bitter and angry to let the curse go.
  • Suckablood: The titular monster is invoked by an Ironic Nursery Rhyme calling for it to kill a child who sucks his/her thumb. It turns out that it's more interested in killing the invokers.

  • Talk to Me: Instructions for the conjuring ritual clearly specify that the candle must be blown out within 90 seconds. Riley becomes possessed (or appears to) by the spirit of Mia's mother. Eager to talk to Rhea, Mia stops the others from blowing out the candle. Riley pays the immediate consequences by smashing his own head and nearly plucking out his own eye.
  • Trick 'r Treat: Samhain's mere presence tends to give rise to a lot of supernatural events wherever he goes, giving him a wide variety of ways to kill people who break from Halloween tradition. But as long as people give out candy, stay in costume, don't blow out the jack-o lanterns, and otherwise adhere to the Halloween "rules" until midnight, he'll leave them be. However, he doesn't take kindly to anyone murdering trick or treaters (more specifically, kids), and will go out of his way to kill the culprit, even if they do adhere to the rules.
  • In Truth or Dare (2017), the Entity immediately kills anyone who refuses to participate in the challenge after they've agreed to it.
  • The Village (2004): The titular Commune lives in fear of monsters in the woods and have a strict set of rules to avoid their attention. Subverted with The Reveal that the monsters are villagers in costumes, trying to keep the community isolated by fear.
    "Let the bad color not be seen. It attracts them.
    Never enter the woods. That is where they wait."

  • There are three Simple Rules in "Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell". Don't kindle flame, don't shed the blood of another, don't run at night. Breaking them sends the shades that inhabit the Forests into a homicidal rage.

    Mythology and Folklore 
  • There are many ways to kill a skinwalker. In Navajo culture, Skinwalkers can be defeated if you find out its real name. Other known ways to defeat or kill a Skinwalker is if you call it out on being one in public. You can also defeat them by getting them to talk in animal form.
  • Fairies are typically depicted as beings that you do not want to cross. There are many fairy rules that you should follow, should you encounter one. Their main weakness is Cold Iron.
  • Japanese myth, urban legends, and ghost stories tend to be particularly fond of this trope. Most of the popular urban legends and creepy pastas to come out of Japan have some set of rules you must follow or a special trick in order to survive:
    • The Aka Manto will appear to people in the last stall of a public restroom and offer a choice of either red or blue paper; if you choose the red paper he will slash them up until your corpse is drenched in your own blood, if you pick the blue paper he'll strangle you until your skin turns bluenote . If you try to out wit him by asking for a different colored paper you'll instead be Dragged Off to Hell, except for yellow paper in which case he'll dunk your head in the bowl of the toilet you were still using. The only way to avoid any of these unpleasant fates is to refuse any paper.
    • Hachishaku-sama is an eight foot tall woman who, after "liking" a child, will hunt them down until she can kidnap them, never to be seen again. One particularly famous story involving her, has the protagonist, who lived in America but was visiting his grandparents in Japan, escape her when his grandparents go to a Miko who gives the boy a piece of paper with a protection spell written on it and gives his grandparents a very specific set of instructions:
      • Lock the boy in his room with four bowls of salt, a bucket to relieve himself into, a statue of Buddha to pray to and all the windows covered with newspapers, written with more protection spells on them.
      • Leave him in the room until 7:30 AM, with explicit instructions not to open the door for anyone until then, especially since Hachishaku-sama can imitate other people's voices.
      • While the boy is locked in his room, they were to gather as many blood relations as possible.
      • Once it was safe for him to leave his room, have his relatives form a caravan and escort him to the airport.
      • The boy must leave Japan forever, never to return, for if he ever sets foot in Japan again Hachishaku Sama will come after him again.
    • The Kukkuri Game is a type of divination game, similar to a ouija board, where you use a 10 yen coin and a sheet of paper with the Japanese words for "yes" and "no" a drawing of a shrine gate and the entire Japanese alphabet written on it, with which you summon a spirit called Kokkuri-san and ask her questions; it's usually play as a simple party game but there are a list of rule that you absolutely must follow:
      • Never play alone.
      • Never use the game as the setup for a prank.
      • Not for the feint of heart.
      • Do not take your finger off the coin until the game is over.
      • You can't leave the game halfway through.
      • If Kokkuri-san doesn't return to the shrine gate, keep asking until she does.
      • Once you've finished playing, you must destroy the paper (usually by tearing the paper into at least 48 pieces) by the end of the same day and spend the coin within the next 3 days.
      • there aren't any accounts of what's supposed to happen if these rules aren't followed, but the fact that the rules are in place to begin with…
    • The Kuchisake-onna will ambush you while you're walking down the streets alone, wearing a face mask and carrying a large pair of scissors, and asks if you think she's pretty: if you say "no" she'll kill you with the scissors, if you say "yes" she'll remove the mask, revealing a horrific Glasgow Grin and ask the question again; this time if you say "no" she'll cut you in half with the scissors and if you say "yes" she'll use the scissors to inflict the same mutilation of you so that you can be "pretty like her". You can't simply run away from her because she's as fast as the wind, but you can distract her by throwing her coins or candy as a distraction, confuse her by saying she looks average or asking her if you are pretty, or tell her you have a prior engagement so she'll leave you alone.
    • Kunekune are strange figures that that appear in the distance, wiggling about like a piece of cloth in the wind; evidence form stories is that the best thing to do about the Kunekune is ignore them, if you touch them or even get too close to them they'll kill you and if you try to observe them from a distance, through say a pair of binoculars, or even watch them for too long you'll be driven completely insane.
    • Mary-san is a vengeful living doll who, after accidentally being thrown out when the family that owned her moved, repeatedly called the girl with a blow by blow of her journey to the family's new house, even after she unhooks the land line, culminating in her appearing behind the girl and stabbing her. Some versions of the story say that after you hear the story Mary-san will come after you next, unless you tell the story to five other people; besides that the advised strategy is to do the opposite of what the girl did:
      • Don't answer Mary-san's calls.
      • Keep all the doors and windows locked.
      • Keep your back to the wall.
      • If Mary-san gets behind you don't turn around.
      • If you can, get behind her before she gets behind you.
    • The Teke Teke is the ghost of a girl who was cut in half after falling onto a railway track; she walks of her elbows and carries a scythe with which to bisect her victims. One specific legend concerns her appearing to those who have learned her story and threatening to kill them in the same whey she died unless you answer her questions correctly; in order to survive you must address her by her real name (Kashima Reiko) and tell her to find her legs on the Meishin Expressway, or by shouting "Kamen Shinin Ma!" ("Mask Death Demon!").
  • Some construction projects in Iceland check for the approval of the local elves via mystics that approach the construction planning committees on their behalf. Inexplicable malfunction of construction equipment and workplace accidents are sometimes attributed to displeased elves. Here are articles from NY Times and Gizmodo about it.
  • Iranian folklore has a monster called the Mardazmay, meaning "man-tester". Basically, if you're male and alone in the woods at night, it might appear in front of you (sometimes in the form of your worst fear) and will kill you if you show any sign of fear. If you just stare it down as The Stoic, it'll apologize and leave.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Chronicles of Darkness: Each domain of The Underworld has its own Old Laws that range from simple prohibitions (e.g.: "Your Word Is Your Bond") to elaborate obligations (e.g.: visitors to the Killing Fields must join a side, receive a rank, and behave appropriately to it). The ruling Kerberoi sense any breach of the Law and take great pains to punish it — fleeing back to the living world doesn't deter them.
  • Zigzagged in Dungeons & Dragons with warlocks. Once a warlock makes a pact with their patron, they get a supernatural gift that allows them to cast their spells. Unlike a Cleric or a Paladin (which could potentially lose their magic if they disobey the tenets of their deity), a Warlock cannot lose their power if the contract with the patron is broken. Considering that Warlock patrons are Physical Gods at the low end of the power scale, making them angry at you by breaking their rules is a very bad move, but you can do it.

    Video Games 
  • In Persona 4, Shadows have a magically-enforced right to be acknowledged (though not obeyed) by the person they're a part of. A person can hate their Shadow, work to minimize it, keep it under lock and key- but saying that the Shadow doesn't exist or isn't part of them is a lie. At that point, the Shadow is free to respond in kind, which usually means murdering the person who denied it.
  • In Poppy Playtime, Mommy Long Legs actually does play by and enforce most of the rules of the test games you play, even giving the player parts of the train code as a reward for doing them, and you're outright told to follow the rules - she only becomes much more directly hostile when the player is forced to leave the final game through an unapproved exit.
    Mommy Long Legs: I HATE CHEATERS!
  • Until Dawn basically has two rules; stay away from the mountains after dark (where you're at risk of being eaten by Wendigos), and don't eat human flesh while you're there, allowing the spirits to possess you and transform you into one. The latter was broken in the backstory by some miners who were trapped in a cave-in, and the former's done by the main characters, and also happens in the prologue ( which also ends with the character being forced to eat the flesh of her dead twin to survive, allowing a Wendigo spirit to possess her).

  • In the world of Horror Shop, the cosmic role of closet monsters and other horrors is to haunt rulebreakers and punish them for breaking the rules of society.
  • Irrational Fears discusses the feeling of safety from monsters under the bed we get from being covered by a blanket, stating that it's a rule we're born knowing.
    We know, though — absolutely — that it can't get you so long as you're completely underneath the blanket. If no skin is exposed, you might asphyxiate, but you're safe.
    It's a rule. You're born knowing it.

    Web Original 
  • CatGhost: A mysterious entity only appears when Elon looks in a mirror. The only way to make it go away is for Elon to run away from her reflection.
  • The Holders Series: Each installment is a set of precise, albeit usually florid, instructions to pass the Holder's trial, with any minute deviation bringing death or worse. Success earns an Artifact of Doom in a Cosmic Horror Story, so there isn't really any winning option.
  • How to Survive Camping: The whole series revolves around the list of rules written by the campsite owner, and how breaking them always ends horribly for those involved. Break rule #9note , and the lady in chains will kill you. Break rule #6note , and something will probably kill you in your sleep. Break rule #18note , and the owner will kill you, as a precaution. Break rule #4note , and the dancers may not even grant you the mercy of death. Break rule #21 note , and you really have only yourself to blame for your subsequent and completely mundane hospitalization.
  • The SCP Foundation is basically all about studying these sorts of entities...and using those rules to keep them contained (even if it costs the lives of a few "D-Class" personnel). Sometimes this is as simple as keeping a cursed item in a locked drawer, or keeping a monster in a Tailor-Made Prison. Other times it can be as bad as keeping entire towns cordoned off, and filled with highly trained (or disposable) agents.
    • SCP-1384 is a humanoid statue with seemingly omnipotent powers — but it's also a pawn in a life-sized board game whose rules it refuses to divulge because it knows the Foundation wants to contain it while it wants to be free. It's fully sapient and quite chatty, but a single wrong move or misstep allows it to take a turn and move closer to freedom. And one of the rules they do know is that if thirteen days pass without the Foundation making a "move", the statue can advance a space.
    • The unnumbered SCP in the 4000 slot is heavily implied to be the (or at least a) Land of Faerie. The place has a byzantine network of rules, many of them concerned with names and the act of naming, and breaking any of them has dire consequences. The short version: Follow Procedure 4000-HALLOWAY to the letter, always be polite, and never, ever describe something the same way twice. Proper names are right out.
    • SCP-2317 has Procedure 220-Calabasas which must be followed to the letter to avoid a being bursting into our reality and killing everything in it ... or, at least that's what the foundation wants you to think. The truth is that there is no way to stop it, and Calabasas is a placebo that is strictly enforced to trick the personnel of the site from abandoning it in a panic.
    • SCP-231 has a procedure that is done to a woman who is potentially pregnant with some horrific abomination that, if birthed, will destroy the world. Procedure 110-Montauk is described as being so horrifically inhumane and awful that there is no record of the staff on the project, and all staff must wear concealing helmets, clothing, and voice changers. Additionally, a member of the D-Class with the ability to carry out the procedure without killing SCP-231-7 must be used in testing. We are never told exactly what Montauk is as only onsite staff and the O5 council are allowed to know. One of the O5 council mentions in a memo at the bottom of the article that Montauk is a horrific procedure, but that failing to follow it will likely result in, with no uncertain terms, the decimation of humanity.
  • Snarled: In "The Noonwraith", Ola's father tells his son, his daughter, and his daughter's friend Sophie not to go outside on a scorching day. Naturally, Sophie, who Ola notes loved ignoring rules, talks Ola into going out into the grain field with her, where she lights up a cigarette. The titular spirit kills Sophie, and Ola only escapes with her life because her little brother arrives to pull her away.

    Web Video 

    Western Animation