How to Write Monsters that are Truly Scary
If you want to write compelling horror stories involving monsters, you should think about what they truly represent, and why they’re so scary and effective at sending shivers up our spines. Why have classic monsters endured in our collective psyche? Dracula was written over a century ago, and Frankenstein was written two centuries ago, but even today, we are constantly seeing new versions of those stories being made, spinoffs, parodies, and homages. Why do they endure? What are they really about?
First I will mention some basic human fears that keep us up at night, and then I will give several examples of old and new monsters, and discuss which fears they tap into to terrify us to the core.
Some may be obvious, some debatable, and perhaps some are contentious, but they are just my opinions. You may have your own opinions, but even if they differ greatly from mine, you can still benefit from learning what they mean to other people and it can still inform your writing.
If you are inventing your own monsters, choose one or two primal fears and design with them in mind. If you naively try to make your monster scary by simply giving it powerful muscles and sharp claws and rabid fangs and a thirst for blood, you’re likely to miss the mark and make something boring and unengaging. You have to know why your monster is scary, and focus your entire story on the particular fear or fears it taps into.
Basic Human Fears
Fear of the Dark
This fear evolved because it protected our ancestors. The rustling of the bushes nearby may just be the wind, but it also may be a hidden predator ready to pounce. It’s better to err on the side of caution and hop it. Better to be a timid mouse than a delicious snack. The darkness contains all the horrors of the world, and not knowing where they are or what they are doing is the most terrifying fear of all.
Fear of Science
It’s not so much a fear of science that people have. It’s the fear of opening Pandora’s box and unleashing horror of unimaginable power and mystery into the world. It’s the fear of what science can create, if left unchecked.
Fear of Pain
This is obviously an extremely powerful fear, a powerful incentive. We all know what it is like to get hurt, so if there is a threat of pain, it is a fear we can all relate to. There is a whole subgenre of horror called torture-porn, which explores torture as a horror premise.
Fear of Death
We all fear death. It is an innate fear of every animal capable of feeling that emotion. It is deeply embedded in our psyche through hundreds of millions of years of evolution. We fear our own death, and the deaths of people close to us.
Fear of Disease
Disease and death are morbid bedfellows. To see someone else suffering is to fear that we might soon be in the same situation. Pain, suffering and ultimately death is a very real end to a lot of diseases. Not only that, but we fear infecting our loved ones and being the cause of their pain and death.
Fear of Sex
Sex is a very visceral thing, as fundamental as our fear of death. It guides our laws, our advertising, our media, our institutions, our religions. It’s complex and wonderful and terrifying all at the same time.
Fear of Violation
This is a fear of our bodies being violated in horrific ways. It can be either a fear of sexual violation, which is different from a fear of sex, or a parasitic invasion, which is different from, but related to, fear of disease.
Fear of Creepy Crawlies
Maggots, spiders, and snakes, oh my! Again, this is a very vivid, innate fear, that is related to a variety of other fears, such as fear of pain, fear of violation, fear of disease, and fear of death.
Fear of the Supernatural
Humanity has lot of different opinions on what happens when we die, what there is beyond the veil of our universe. It is a ‘fear of the dark’ with magical overtones.
Fear of Meaninglessness
Picture an ant in your garden, totally oblivious to your plans to build a patio over her nest. What if that was us? Lovecraft was the master of this genre. Bleak nihilism comes down to this: We are nothing but pathetic, insignificant, impotent amoeba, at the whims of unimaginable forces. Life is meaningless and fleeting.
Fear of Losing Ourselves
Many of us have seen relatives shrivel and decay into dementia, because of Alzheimers, head trauma, or something else. We fear that happening to us, that is, not being us any more. We fear losing our unique special spark. On a related note, many Americans were brought up to fear communism during MacCathyism and the Cold War, and were taught to fear loss of individuality.
Frankenstein is clearly a warning about the dangers of science, especially science for science’s sake. The alternate title is “The Modern Prometheus,” which makes the author’s intentions clear. Prometheus is the God that gave fire to humans. It represents the taming of the elements, the progress of science. At the time it was written, great strides were being made in medicine, and a new understanding of biology was well underway. But it was considered grisly and taboo. The book taps into the fear of science out of control, with a garnish of death and mutilation.
Godzilla is not exactly a horror monster, but it does tap into a similar fear. It’s clearly an allegory of atomic weaponry. Born of radiation, he breathes devastating fire across the land and demolishes entire cities beneath his feet. He is immense, unfathomable, destructive power personified. It’s fear of the awesome uncontrollable powers that science can unleash.
Jurrassic Park is also not a horror, but again, just like Godzilla, it is a warning against unchecked scientific progress. It could so easily have been turned into a terrifying horror movie, with a minimal tweak of tone. T-Rex and Velociraptors are terrifyingly powerful monsters, brought back by greedy science.
Splice is a modern take on Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Instead of creating a being by sewing together disparate parts, the creature in this movie is made by combining together animals at the genetic level. Again this is a fear of unchecked scientific tinkering with modern tools.
Demons are more effective if the personal already has supernatural beliefs, but even for people who don’t believe in demons, they can still be pretty scary. The Excorcist is the quintessential demonic possession story, but more recent movies are leaning towards making the supernatural nature more ambiguous.
Ghosts are of course our fear of supernatural mysteries, death and a nihilistic view of the afterlife. What if people stick around forever, with nothing to do but dwell on their own death and mess with those still living?
Body Snatchers were born of 50s paranoia. MacCarthyism was making people suspect their neighbours, looking for evidence that they’d been brainwashed by the “commies”. Body snatchers are aliens that tap into fear of losing oneself. Fear of loss of our individual spirit.
The Thing focuses heavily on fear of loss of ourselves just like Body Snatchers, and fear of violation. Since the victims don’t know about it’s true nature, or where it is at any time, it’s also a fear of the dark.
The Xenomorph’s main fear is of disease (getting eaten from the inside out) and sex (oral violation). Both those aliens get inside our bodies and use us in their disgusting life cycle. They are also examples of cosmic horror, since they don’t kill us out of malice, they are just alien animals looking to reproduce. Humans are relegated to a substrate for their self-replication.
Zombies tap into multiple fears. Death, disease, loss of individuality. Modern zombie stories often leak into fear of science, since there are more and more stories about pandemics and biological weapons as the cause of zombie-ish behaviour, rather than supernatural, magical causes.
Mummys are special case of zombie, often with supernatural powers, and their animation comes from a specific curse. It has become politically incorrect to feature mummys, as it is seen as indicative of colonialist insensitivity to North African burial rites. Also, zombies, especially the slower one, are scary en masse, whereas mummys are solitary monsters.
Cthulhu is the most well known of Lovecraft’s monsters. He slumbers beneath the ocean, ready to wake up and reclaim the earth as his own, and there is nothing we can do about it. He reinforces the idea that humans are pitiful and fleeting. The main idea of cosmic horror is that the universe doesn’t care about us. We’re just in the way.
Werewolves represent uncontrolled male sexuality. It is the beast within. Sex can change someone into a beast. Really. It can be a horrifying transformation, where they lose themselves and become a primal monster, thinking of nothing but fulfilling their need. The kind handsome gentleman who gave you flowers, bought you dinner, held the umbrella over you as he escorted you home. But once invited up for coffee, he changes before your eyes into a cruel, mindless, voracious wild animal.
Vampires, on the other hand, represent female sexuality and loss of innocence, from cultures that placed great emphasis on the value of female virginity. The handsome refined man who promises you the world is just a veneer to hide the hideous vampiric beast, who’ll rob you innocence with one bloody, sexy, sensual bite. And there’s no going back. You’ll become one of them. Dirty, shunned, always an outcast. There’s no return to innocence, no return to the protection of society you once knew. Be gone, you filthy carnal beast of the night!
In conclusion, there’s usually more to a monster than the surface level danger it represents. There are deeper themes and meanings, more innate fears that are scratched at by movie monsters. What do these monsters mean to you? What other monsters scare you? Why do they scare you?
Think about the different fears you have. Maybe you are at peace with humanity’s nihilistic flotsam status, but are scared of creepy crawlies. What is that really gives you the creeps? Look for deeper, more visceral fears that good horror stories exploit, and use that in your own writing. Then you’ll definitely scare the pants off your audience.