This question refers to the horror genre, however the desired term might well be applicable to other films or narratives.

I'm looking for a term that refers to the transgression that often begins a horror film. For example, Marion's theft at the beginning of Psycho (1960, 1998). Another example would be the disrespect for the cemetery at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead. Note that this crime or transgression is often unrelated narratively to what follows, but is thematically or emotionally related - it evokes the feeling that the character(s) deserve punishment.

(I sometimes read about horror, and I've run a few searches, without noticing such a term.)

  • 3
    Are we talking about karma even if not in its truly religious sense?
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 4, 2016 at 13:58
  • 2
    "If they don't transgress, they can't be punished". Transgression seems appropriate to me. Oct 4, 2016 at 19:42
  • Even though the actual, original definition is completely different, I'd think the term "Original Sin" would probably get used quite a bit to describe it. Oct 4, 2016 at 20:19
  • not exactly what you are looking for but related: hybris en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubris (usually found in greek tragedies to kick off the plot)
    – falsedot
    Oct 5, 2016 at 18:33

4 Answers 4


It's not specific to horror movies, but the event or action that kicks off the plot of a movie is typically called it's inciting incident.

This is a literary term that applies to almost anything with a plot. Usually there is a short portion of the movie, the "setup" or "backstory", then some seemingly minor event that triggers all of the players to start interacting is the "inciting incident".

What you're asking about is something slightly more nuanced, though, in that the inciting incident doesn't just get the plot going, but that it sets up the main characters to deserve their eventual fate, even if it's not being punished directly for their initial acts. As @Tetsujin mentions in his comment, I don't think there's a specific term for this kind of event, but you could describe it as "karma" (or "poetic justice") stemming from the inciting incident.

The movie Cabin in the Woods, which is a "genre-saavy" horror movie with a lot of meta references in it, uses the same word you did, "transgression", to describe the action that the victims took that "allows" the system to punish them, so that seems as good a word as any:

They have to make the choice of their own free will. Otherwise, system doesn't work. [...] They have to choose what happens in the cellar. yeah, we rig the game as much as we have to but in the end, if they don't transgress they can't be punished.

  • Good answer. Also, viewers naturally don't like it when bad things happen to good people. This is a good way to let them to accept what happens next.
    – John
    Oct 4, 2016 at 17:46
  • 3
    Needs a trope..
    – Pysis
    Oct 4, 2016 at 18:31
  • 9
    Cabin in the Woods actually calls it a transgression. Relevant quote Oct 4, 2016 at 19:43
  • Thanks for all answers. KutuluMike, understood. As you say, "inciting incident" would only cover some examples. In Night of the Living Dead, the inciting incident might be the zombie attack itself (there's also a throwaway line about a space-probe explosion that might be the cause). Barring a later answer, it looks like there's no specific, agreed-on term, although "transgression" seems to be gaining. Oct 5, 2016 at 23:47

Hitchcock referred to it as the MacGuffin, a plot device that kicks off a story but is often forgotten or unimportant to the overall plot (Marion's theft that you refer to is a perfect example). It brings together the main characters, gives them a reason to get involved in something, then further action means the MacGuffin is no longer necessary and generally is forgotten.

  • 2
    That's something completely different. He's talking about negative action of the characters that makes it seem like it's related to their bad fate in the future, while it's not (or at least that's left up to viewers imagination). Oct 5, 2016 at 8:04
  • 2
    A MacGuffin is normally a physical object that the characters are chasing after. Not what's asked about here.
    – cde
    Oct 5, 2016 at 15:22

All movies follow a basic theme: Good Vs Evil. The good people are Protagonists, and the bad people are Antagonists. So, what you're talking about is the point where the Antagonists... well... antagonize. And from that point on the rest of the movie is generally centered around the Protagonists metering out some form of justice or karma.

That central transgression is sometimes referred to as a "defining conflict", which eventually leads to the final justice.

  • "all movies"?! No. Not even close. Many movies follow a good-vs-evil pattern, but many are just stories.
    – warren
    Mar 6, 2018 at 19:55

I might refer to it as as "Act 1".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Act_(drama) While this doesn't refer to horror movies in specific, you mentioned more of a catch-all term for all narratives. While the concept of Act I is surely more broad than just the single transgression you call out, it definitely would happen in that Act.

When I talk about lit (or heck, movies, tv, etc) to my friends, I use the term "Act I" to describe the start of a plot. This includes conflict for a protagonist, and yes, the "screw these guys" for slasher flicks.

  • 1
    Act I refers to the entire first act of the movie, which is typically about 1/3 of the movie (most movies these days follow the classic 3-act structure), which includes way more than just the inciting incident.
    – KutuluMike
    Oct 5, 2016 at 11:20

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