What makes a scary monster in writing?
What do they do that is so scary?
What makes a scary monster in writing?
What do they do that is so scary?
Human characteristics. Distorted figures. Little information about the monster, or too much information. Characteristics that incorporate fear - think death, suffocations etc.
Distorted movement etc.
It taps into our innate fears.
There are many, many scary things you can put into a monster. I think some of the best examples can be observed in cinema. Let’s take one of my favorite films of all time: Alien.
The Alien has a total of 4 on screen minutes. 4. Alien is the epitome of “don’t reveal the monster.” In addition, the design of the Xenomorph incorporates human and non-human characteristics. The reproduction and evolution of the race are also extremely violent and terrifying, but I won’t go into the particulars there for obvious reasons.
We can also look at more brutish monsters for inspiration. Hell, we don’t even need to look at villains, per se. Let’s look at the Incredible Hulk. In Avengers 1, Hulk shows up after the helicarrier gets hit with an explosive breaching charge arrow. In the following scenes involving Hulk and Natasha, there are clear horror themes at play. The action follows Natasha, as she attempts to escape not just being hurt, but being SEEN by Hulk. The monster is so ridiculously destructive and deadly to a “normal” human that evasion is clearly the best course of action.
What if the monster is more prominent and intelligent, you say? Treat it like a character. Should we consider Leatherface or Jason or Michael Myers to be human? I guess we could, but these villains clearly perform feats of destruction, endurance, depravity, or raw insanity that most would hardly consider the word in a descriptive clause.
Overall, I think the answer to all of these questions comes down to a few factors that can change, or be omitted depending on what creature you want to build:
Raw power. Obviously a monster isn’t scary if it can’t be a threat in some way. Xenomorphs are strong but also silent and relatively durable. The thing that makes it stay away from the crew of the Nostromo is never explained, but I tend to think that it prefers to hunt singled out prey. These are things to think about.
Human qualities. Intelligence cannot be understated here. A monster that out-thinks protagonists can lead to the dissolution of several plans. Tremors is an example of this. Awesome cult-classic b-movie horror film with Kevin Bacon in it. (And Reba McEntire, too!)
Non-human qualities (what?). There are things that make monsters creepy to think about(see 2.), or dangerous to the characters (see 1.)… and then there are things that produce shock factor. This is where you think about those. I can bring in an example from my current WIP for this. In the prologue, I have a monster that is extremely large and fast (1) vaguely humanoid in shape (2) and is composed of several (that’s right, several) human corpses compiled in a mish-mosh of muscle tissue, jagged bone, and flesh. All of it is Frankenstein’d together (in some cases literally) to form something foreign, dangerous, and vaguely reminiscent of the human condition.
Assumptions based on feats of the creature. This one is fun. Alien is another good one here, in reference to its reproductive phases, but I like looking at Predator for this one. In Predator, the Yautja hunter can cloak, using technology in its bracer to become partially invisible. The audience knows this at some point, but what’s even crazier is how it’s revealed to the characters. One of the bystanders says in Spanish after the Predator kills and abducts the corpse of one of the terrorists: “The jungle came alive and took him.” That is a spine-chilling description of a creature, if I’ve ever heard one, and likely leads the characters to some radical assumption of what they might be up against. (After they start believing in the story, of course) “There’s something out there waiting for us… and it ain’t no man.”
Imagine what thoughts rushed through Billy’s mind after he saw a nigh-invisible force kill his teammates, with the description “The jungle came alive and took him” as the only thing to go on.
And of course, we can’t forget about mystery. Most of the time, these things are never answered, but add some shred of uncertainty and other-worldliness to the creature. Why is Michael Myers bulletproof? What happened to cause Leatherface to become the murderous maniac he became? What exactly is the Creeper from Jeepers Creepers? Where the hell did this thing come from, and are there more? some questions don’t need to be answered to produce frights and thrills, or maybe, they should even be left alone, if the true horror lies in the speculation.
I believe there are two main types of monsters: one that is physically scary, and the other that is more a monster inside. The first one is the creature with disproportionate features and physical characteristics that make you cringe. The second one is the seemingly normal gentleman/gentlewoman who’s actually a psychopath inside.
The first one is obvious. Deadly powers. Scary figures.
The second one is also scary not only because of its ability to us harm, but also because we often notice too late what is hidden underneath the human skin.
Kind of answered it before.
To simply answer your question, someone that is without a shred of sympathy. This is to the point where they feel no fear. You can consider them psychotic really.
There is nothing else more dangerous than a person such as that. They are unpredictable, and should be taken extreme caution towards.
When the scary monster looks a certain way, or treats you in a negative way.
That’s a really smart response, wow, you just made me feel I knew nothing!
I agree, the fear of the unknown is important, and playing on humans fears is important. Innate fears is important too - needs to have that human element.
Ah a very juicy essay on the powers of monsters within film and literature, thanks for replying.
You make such good points.
Absolutely, the xenomorphs are terrifying, possibly the most Sci Fi/thriller ever; I’ll never go into space again without fearing those things (or possibly never space at all). I like how you mentioned they’ve human elements.
I have yet to see the Hulk but an interesting observation that even non-evil monsters display menacing tones through their looks.
Perhaps Michael and Jason are most terrifying for their link to humanity; the same way I’m terrified when I see a homeless man and think, ‘Wow, there’s not much separating his situation to mine ….’
Raw power, absolutely, power defeats human abilities. Are we not frightened of those in society physically stronger, should it a dark and unfamiliar setting?
I like a smart monster; even Jurassic Park and the Raptors are well done.
Ouch, your villain sounds terrifying, nothing worse than a monster made from bodies! Cool.
Assumptions on feats of creature is clever, and begs the question of the unknown or strange, again, executed well in Alien.
Mystery is my favourite; sometimes we fear things we shouldn’t because it is unknown, like a job, person, situation.
Great writing Gruber.
What’s weird is that we write about creatures with disfigurements, and yet in society some poor people probably have these characteristics (me, I probably have plenty) .
Yet a monster without weird stuff going on just ain’t the same.
I agree, some monsters are clothed as humans, and that’s frighting, and awesome for horror writers.
And exist in real life, scariest of all. Cheers.
Completely agree, ill-treatment paramount.
There’s a lot of really good detailed answers here, but my answer is something that you know that you can’t beat.
If you can’t beat it, you feel that you’re completely lost and you have no power whatsoever to win against this thing. I think that’s the scariest characteristic of a monster. The realization that there is no way humanely possible that you can beat it.
I agree, stacking the odds against the protagonist is key to an engaging read.