WHAT MAKES A MONSTER SCARY?

The clock is ticking on the imminent release of Writing Monsters, so how about a full chapter to whet your appetite?

I’d like to meet the first person who ever ate a lobster.

Imagine being the first to pick up that horrible, red-brown spider-thing with terrifying claws and twitching antennae and saying, “Yum!” To me, a lobster is a giant bug with claws—I’d have run screaming from a lobster. But now we know what a lobster is and what it tastes like and that it isn’t really dangerous. The only thing scary about it is the unknowable mystery of its “market price.”

We’ll want our monsters to maintain a greater degree of mystery or at least begin with a greater degree of mystery than that.

Start by asking . . .

What are people afraid of?

I asked myself this question while working on a fantasy novel in which I envisioned a world overrun by demons. In an effort to build a sense of increasing danger in the book, each new sort of demon my characters meet is more dangerous, more powerful, and more frightening than the last. To do this, I decided to look at my readers’ deepest fears and inject those fears into the demons. So off to the Internet I went in search of the top ten phobias. This is what I found:

  1. Arachnophobia (fear of spiders)
  2. Social Phobia (fear of a hostile audience)
  3. Pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying)
  4. Agoraphobia (fear of an inability to escape)
  5. Claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces)
  6. Acrophobia (fear of heights)
  7. Emetophobia (fear of vomit or vomiting)
  8. Carcinophobia (fear of cancer)
  9. Astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning)
  10. Taphophobia (fear of being buried alive)

Phobias are irrational, pathological fears. Though some of them are more rational than others. Most people are at least a little bit afraid of cancer, which is a highly prevalent illness that can strike anyone at any time. But there’s a crucial difference between being nervous about a routine cancer screening and being literally paralyzed by fear of cancer when there’s no rational reason for you to think you actually might have it. Phobias take common fears to the pathological level.

If these are the ten most common phobias (and I’ve found a few different lists, so your search may yield slightly different results), there’s a good chance that someone reading your book, seeing your movie, or playing your game will have one or more of them to some degree. And even if your readers don’t completely collapse at the sight of a spider, they probably share a common low-level uneasiness in the presence of them.

In order to create that sense of progression and escalation of danger, I simply reversed that top ten list so the final, scariest demon embodies the most prevalent phobia. That means the lowest level demon comes up from underground and pulls you down and buries you alive, and the “boss” demon is a spider, or something that looks and/or behaves like a spider.

Turns out, those are fairly easy fears to apply to a monster or demon, but what about pteromerhanophobia, the fear of flying? Richard Matheson made quite a splash in 1961 with the short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which a poor soul suffering from pteromerhanophobia encounters the dreaded gremlin tearing pieces out of the wing of the plane he’s flying in. This story became one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, a vehicle for a young William Shatner. So yes, a monster absolutely can prey on your audience’s fear of flying. That particular phobia might be tough to handle in a medieval fantasy world with no airplanes. But what if the demons can fly? They might snatch up their victims and carry them off into the sky, release them into a free fall, catch them again, repeat the tortuous exercise, and toy with their fears. A reader who dreads air travel will squirm through that story.

But please don’t think that triggering your audience’s phobic responses is the only way to make your monsters terrifying. In a broader sense, monsters are scary because . . .

They are unpredictable

Can that lobster take your hand off with one of those claws? Turns out, no, but what if it could? What if lobsters were large enough and powerful enough to do just that? What if one of them grew to the size of a minivan? In real life we know they can’t hurt us, and that makes them predictable, and predictability is the enemy of horror.

Humans tend to have a pretty good sense of what another human is going to do next. We can tell when someone is getting angry. We sense when things might get out of control or violent. But monsters don’t necessarily give out those human signals. This is a creature, after all, outside our normal experience. Who knows what it’ll do next?

We’ll discuss setting rules for your monsters and how important it is that you follow those rules, but keep in mind that while you know the rules that govern your monster, your characters don’t. In fact, the less your characters know about what a monster can and can’t do, the better. It’s this unpredictability that will keep your readers on the edge of their seats, playing into the power of the imagination.

And that’s the next thing. Monsters are scary because . . .

. . . they have a disturbing capacity for violence

Monsters don’t just attack you, they attack in particularly gruesome ways, as shown in this paragraph from the short story “The Little Green God of Agony” by horror master Stephen King.

 Melissa had seen where the thing came from and even in her panic was wise enough to cover her own mouth with both hands. The thing skittered up her neck, over her cheek, and squatted on her left eye. The wind screamed and Melissa screamed with it. It was the cry of a woman drowning in the kind of pain the charts in the hospitals can never describe. The charts go from one to ten; Melissa’s agony was well over one hundred—that of someone being boiled alive. She staggered backwards, clawing at the thing on her eye. It was pulsing faster now, and Kat could hear a low, liquid sound as the thing resumed feeding. It was a slushy sound.

Want to scare the crap out of someone? Go for the eyes.

It’s up to you to set a degree of “goriness” that your story will contain. Movies like The Blair Witch Project are terrifying without spilling a drop of blood, while some contemporary “torture porn” like the movie Hostel, is gross, even disturbing, but scary?

I tend to describe “gore” as unmotivated violence—a violent scene done badly, in which all the reader gets is a sense of the quantity of blood and guts without the emotional and psychological (read: character) connection of well-written violent action. I’ll refer you to the scene in Haruki Murakami’s brilliant novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in which a Japanese soldier is skinned alive as an example of terrifying violence written with an impeccable hand for character, story, and psychology—but don’t blame me if it scars you for life.

Take a second look at the example from Stephen King. No blood. There is some yucky language in there (“It was a slushy sound.”) but mostly we get Melissa’s experience of this cringe-worthy act of violence and her efforts, however vain, to make it stop.

Exploring truly disturbing events can be difficult for many authors to work through. Horror in particular, but fantasy and science fiction, too—really any genre of fiction—can ask you to plumb your own psychological depths. So what scares you? A little creature that eats your eyes first? Is that disturbing enough for the psychological sweet spot you’re trying to hit?

They exhibit an “otherness”

Monsters come from the Unknown (note the capital U), which is a place “out there,” beyond our normal experience. The Unknown can be a physical place, or it can be more spiritual or supernatural. Again, lobsters aren’t scary because we know they come from the ocean, we know where to fish for them, we know how they behave, and better yet, how they taste. But things that come from an alien terrain—literally an alien planet or some uncharted dimension—are terrifying until proven mundane.

In his short story “The Cold Step Beyond,” author Ian R. MacLeod presents a world full of strange creatures hunted by a character who may well be a monster, too. This sense of his monsters’ “otherness” is evident in a single line.

 The true aliens, the real horrors and monstrosities, lay not in the far-flung reaches of the galaxy, but sideways.

What an uneasy concept that is. We have at least a basic understanding of “the far-flung reaches of the galaxy,” imagining that there are other planets out there with strange animals on them, but the idea of some other dimension, some place we can’t even properly quantify, much less imagine, creates a greater distance between our irrational fear of monsters and our rational understanding of animals.

What an uneasy concept that is. We have at least a basic understanding of “the far-flung reaches of the galaxy,” imagining that there are other planets out there with strange animals on them, but the idea of some other dimension, some place we can’t even properly quantify, much less imagine, creates a greater distance between our irrational fear of monsters and our rational understanding of animals.

And in the story “The Other Gods,” author H.P. Lovecraft takes us to his Dreamlands—the ultimate Unknown locale in which sleep reveals an entirely separate reality, inhabited by things you wouldn’t want to see in the waking world.

But now they have betaken themselves to unknown Kadath in the cold waste where no man treads, and are grown stern, having no higher peak whereto to flee at the coming of men. They are grown stern, and where once they suffered men to displace them, they now forbid men to come; or coming, to depart. It is well for men that they know not of Kadath in the cold waste; else they would seek injudiciously to scale it.

And then there are the distant worlds of the endless universe, the epitome of the Unknown. “Much like a monster,” Richard Baker says, an alien is, “inhuman, it’s alive (or animate, anyway), and it wants to destroy you. In addition, it’s definitely outside the norms of terrestrial nature or experience in some important way—it’s not from around here, and the reader or viewer doesn’t have anything in his frame of reference to understand the rules that govern the alien’s behavior. He has to figure them out.”

When it comes to aliens, veteran author Alan Dean Foster gets nightmares from “the thought that Homo sapiens might be the only intelligent species in the galaxy.”

To circle back to phobias for a moment, this idea that monsters come from “out there” plays directly into our underlying, or too-often overt, xenophobia—fear of foreigners.

Our imagination makes them scarier

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And the human imagination is more powerful, too. How many times have you imagined something will be absolutely terrifying—a roller coaster, a job interview, a scary movie—and when it’s over you immediately think, That wasn’t so bad.

And another great quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t talking about Godzilla, but he may as well have been. This plays back to the idea of unpredictability and “otherness.” We have no idea what to expect from this thing and no way to determine its motives, so we start to fill in the blanks with conjecture, which tends to make something quite a bit more terrifying than it should be. Our imagination, and thus our fears, becomes the true monster in this case.

Strangely this can also work in reverse. A lot of monster stories start with monsters that are scary and then turn out to be nice (Beauty and the Beast, for example). Others, such as Star Trek’s tribbles, start out as cute and harmless but become something else entirely. When the crew of the Enterprise first encounters tribbles, their assumptions take over. They imagine the tribbles to be cute, harmless little puffballs, but have no specific information about their true nature. The tribbles slowly reveal themselves over the course of the story to be a sort of plague, like a swarm of locusts. Assumption and imagination can be very dangerous.

Play with the assumptions of your characters in this way, and you’ll be playing with the assumptions of your readers right along with them. We have a tendency to assume that many beings we encounter have a certain sense of right and wrong, or at the very least a sense of their role in relation to other beings around them and what they must do in order to not just survive but co-exist and thrive, but monsters can be particularly scary when they seem to lack this sense.

Coming Soon!

Coming Soon!

They are amoral

Human society, by definition, is a set of rules—or more accurately, a set of moral and ethical standards that then inform a code of laws. When a moral standard is violated there are consequences, which is why most of us know exactly what we can and can’t do in public, what should be kept private, not done at all, and what will be offensive or disturbing to those around us. But what about some thing outside of human society—some creature from somewhere else—that doesn’t have anything resembling a human conscience? A monster doesn’t care how you feel, and it has no sense of the pain its actions cause others. It doesn’t give a second thought to consequences or the rights, feelings, or treatment of its prey. Or, worse, it might have a truly immoral goal—not just the capacity for evil but a tendency to revel in the terrible, the violent, the grotesque.

There’s something particularly unsettling about beings that do the wrong thing on purpose. In his novel Excession, Iain M. Banks describes a particularly amoral monster in the form of an artificially intelligent spaceship:

 The Grey Area. The ship that did what the other ships both deplored and despised; actually looked into the minds of other people, using its Electro Magnetic Effectors—in a sense the very, very distant descendants of electronic countermeasures equipment from your average stage three civilisation, and the most sophisticated, powerful but also precisely controllable weaponry the average Culture ship possessed—to burrow into the grisly cellular substrate of an animal consciousness and try to make sense of what it found there for its own—usually vengeful—purposes.

This thing simply doesn’t care about how what it’s doing affects its victims. How do you argue with something that doesn’t even recognize you as anything but material?

They are beyond our control

Humans generally like to be in charge. We spend a lot of time trying to control our weight, our relationships, our personal finances. We take classes to learn how to train our dogs, motivate our employees, and so on. So what happens when a monster makes its way onto our starship and simply won’t follow the rules? It eats what and when—and who—it wants to eat. It bleeds acid all over the place without regard for the hard vacuum of space just a bulkhead away. You can’t negotiate with a monster. You can’t calmly tell a Denebian slime devil, “Okay, wait. I’m going to go to the store and buy you a bunch of steak—don’t eat me in the meantime.” That monster does what it does, and it neither seeks nor respects your opinion.

Simply put, monsters don’t play by our rules—and that scares us.

They are terrifying in appearance

Here’s another example from H.P. Lovecraft, from the classic short story “Pickman’s Model”:

It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch, and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present prey and seek a juicier morsel. But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountainhead of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.

Lovecraft goes to great length to describe a foul-looking creature here, made more ominous by what it’s doing (gnawing on “. . . a thing that had been a man . . .”) and what it might do next (“. . . seek a juicier morsel.”), but it’s important to keep in mind that not all scary looking monsters have to appear classically “scary” in order to be so. In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, author Ransom Riggs described a less traditional, but no less unsettling creature:

“But these weren’t the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around—they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don’t recognize them for what they are until it’s too late.”

This monster has the ability to hit closer to home, describing the human potential to become inhuman through political, military, and/or social assimilation. Not as frightening as a “nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes,” but equally monstrous on the inside. Later in the book we’ll go deeper into what makes a monster scary, something you’ll need to keep in mind as you develop your own monsters. For now, we will take an extended look at what I think is the principal reason monsters are so scary.

They turn us into prey

People are drawn to monsters because they flip the predator/prey relationship on its head, turning us from the hunter into the hunted. This, more than any other quality, is what makes a monster truly scary.

Most people in our modern civilized world no longer think of themselves as “predators,” per se, but we are still wired that way. By nature, humans are omnivorous hunter/gatherers. And we’re pack hunters. One guy with a pointed stick versus a woolly mammoth is going to go hungry. A dozen guys all working together with pointed sticks will feed the whole tribe. We’re not the only animals who do this, by the way. Wolves are pack hunters, as well, and there’s every reason to believe that our long relationship with wolves’ human-altered offspring (dogs) springs from a certain mutual understanding: We get each other. We operate in the same way.

Monsters hunt, too. Some hunt in packs (such as the velociraptors in Jurassic Park) and some hunt alone (to use the same film reference, how about that T-Rex?), but just like us, most predators aren’t looking for a fight, even when they’re hunting. Spiders and other venomous animals have evolved ways to paralyze or kill their prey before moving in to feed. Sharks, such as the bull shark for instance, might bump their prey a few times, testing and prodding with caution before biting. Great whites are ambush hunters, hoping to catch prey unawares.

It’s not easy being a predatory animal. You have to get right in there to bite something, risking your eyes and other injuries, so caution is still key.

One of the things that early humans sorted out, thanks to our complex, creative, problem-solving brains and our nimble-fingered hands, was how to kill things from a distance. That makes hunting safer. If you have to get close enough to a wild boar to stab it with a flint knife, the boar has an opportunity to fight back, but if you can shoot it with an arrow from several yards away, maybe even from the safety of a tree or some other high ground, you run the risk of missing but dramatically reduce the risk of being gored by your would-be dinner.

As the centuries stretched on, we became better and better hunters. Then we invented agriculture, domesticated the animals we thought tasted best, killed off competing predators in our chosen ranges, and, at some point in the distant past, became fully removed from the predator/prey relationship. We are no longer concerned with being preyed on by other animals.

Then along comes a monster…

What makes the alien in the movie Alien, or the shark in Jaws so scary? Both are presented as the apex predator—“the perfect killing machine”—and it’s loose on our starship or swimming through our beach party. It’s hunting us, and our natural weaponry, which has made us a rather lazy apex predator over the years, is no match for its brute “animal” instincts and desires to kill, feed, and in some cases, reproduce.

We humans still have those hunter instincts buried deep inside of us, but we don’t have a natural enemy anymore. Monsters force us to find and use those instincts again.

In Alien, we meet a cast of recognizable and relatable space truckers, and all of a sudden this thing is hunting them. They are totally unprepared to deal with the situation and they’re confronted with difficult questions: What is this thing? Where did it come from? We didn’t know about this. No one told us this was going to be here. It just seems to want to eat us, one by one. It’s treating us like prey.

They do eventually approach the alien as hunters would—tracking it down, trying to trap it when it’s still small—but their efforts are complicated by the alien’s inconvenient defense mechanism: acidic blood. The crew of the Nostromo can’t just shoot it. They can’t stab it. They are, basically, defenseless in a face-to-face fight, which lands them a place at the bottom of the food chain.

Humans don’t have the powerful jaws of the shark or the acidic blood of the eponymous alien. Drop us in the middle of the ocean in a Speedo and the shark will win. Put us on a starship where we all die if the acidic blood eats through our hull, and we’re in big trouble. Our teeth are basically useless, and we haven’t much in the way of claws, either, but nature gave us weapons that end up being a lot more powerful than a shark’s jaws: intelligence and technology.

What makes both the shark and the alien scary, even if we eventually win the battle, is that they attack when we’re unprepared or unsuspecting. We either don’t have our weapons handy (paddling around at the beach with our friends) or our weapons are rendered useless or dangerous (the acid blood eats through the hull of your starship and everybody dies). The most effective—the scariest—monster stories always take away those things that humans rely on to tip that balance in our favor.

And beyond technology and our wits, we also still depend on each other. It’s scary when we find ourselves isolated from the rest of the “pack” like the arctic explorers in the movie The Thing (or the original John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?”) or the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. The creators of these monsters also create divides that separate us physically and emotionally. The Thing’s ability to hide in plain sight breeds an environment of suspicion, where no one can tell who is good or bad.

“A monster is something that turns life on its ear. Whether its Gary Ridgway or Godzilla,” Scott Allie, editor-in-chief of Dark Horse Comics, says, “it challenges how we look at the natural order, externally or internally.”

This is the visceral thrill of the monster. The ultimate “What If?” What if you were being hunted down by something you don’t understand, something you couldn’t shoot or bludgeon, that was stalking you in some remote location where you couldn’t just call 911 or animal control? What if you were dropped out of your secure place not just at the top of the food chain, but effectively removed from it—rendered defenseless, isolated, and obsolete?

The monster has turned the tables. Predator has become prey.

Scary stuff.

—Philip Athans

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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6 Responses to WHAT MAKES A MONSTER SCARY?

  1. bardotbarbiturate says:

    I don’t think there’s ever been a “monster”, either in TV or film that I’ve genuinely been scared of. The gore fests do nothing at all for me other than make me jump at the appropriate times. When friends say they watched such and such film and were terrified I just think, “Really?” I quite like Japanese horror, it’s quite a different take to the more conventional fare offered by Hollywood. I did recently see a short film called Lights Out which scared the HELL out of me (this is the link if you’ve not seen it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fDzdDfviLI). Thirty seconds in I was only watching it out of the corner of my eye. My big thing is people watching you when you don’t realise, especially when they have a maniacal smile. The scariest thing I’ve seen on TV was the first episode of Twin Peaks when Laura Palmer’s mother is thinking back to when she was in Laura’s room and suddenly recalls Bob hiding behind the bed, just smiling. Urgh. I’m intending to add an element of that in my book although just thinking about it makes me shudder.

  2. JPWilder says:

    This is a great post and very useful.

  3. Kristoffer Harbo says:

    I have The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in my bookshelf, but I haven’t begun reading it yet. I had no idea Haruki could go into such horrifying details. Personally I think he is a wonderful writer, Norwegian Wood was like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece he mentions felt necessary, no matter how irrelevant it may seem. None of the characters he describes felt generic, each was an INDIVIDUAL with a significant role in the story.
    The other book I’ve read by him was a self-biography about his jogging pastime. It wasn’t that that entertaining for me though, I got the impression he was pushed into writing something… anything.

  4. dccowanauthors says:

    I have a friend who writes teen horror novels (I know … not another teen novel! lol) but I’m going to forward this post to her. Thanks.
    =D
    http://www.fantasyfictionkingdom.com/

  5. katyleese says:

    This is a brilliant post! Thanks for the read, it really helped me out🙂

  6. Pingback: WIP Term 3 Week 5: Character Design Research – richardthomasgamesdevelopment

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