Monsters are more than just things that bite. What do they represent? What makes them scary beyond the physical threat—if there’s a physical threat at all?
Let’s begin with a few basic assumptions about monsters, with examples from the classic Stephen King novella “The Mist” in which we see Stephen King show (not tell!) that monsters …
… are different and scary …
Something came; again, that is all I can say for sure. It may have been the fact that the mist only allowed us to glimpse things briefly, but I think it just as likely that there are certain things that your brain simply disallows. There are things of such darkness and horror—just, I suppose, as there are things of great beauty—that they will not fit through the puny human doors of perception.
… are things we’ve never seen before …
There was the Flat-Earth Society, headed by Norton. They were a vocal minority of about ten who believed none of it. Norton pointed out over and over again that there were only four witnesses to the bag-boy being carried off by what he called the Tentacles from Planet X.
… are dangerous …
One of them wrapped around Mike Harlen’s left arm. Another whipped around his neck in a series of quick winding-up snaps. His jugular went in a jetting, jumping explosion and he was dragged away, head lolling. One of his Bass loafers fell off and lay there on its side.
… threaten our personal safety …
Looking at this nightmare, so like the death-black spiders brooding over their dead flies and bugs in the shadows of our boathouse, I felt my mind trying to tear completely loose from its moorings. I believe now that it was only the thought of Billy that allowed me to keep any semblance of sanity. I was making some sound. Laughing. Crying. Screaming. I don’t know.
…but most of all they upset the expected predator/prey relationship…
One of the spiders had Hattie Turman. It was big. It had knocked her down. Her dress had pulled up over her scrawny knees as it crouched over her, its bristly, spiny legs caressing her shoulders. It began to spin its web.
I’m not sure that most people in the civilized world of 2016 think of themselves as “predators,” per se, but we are. By nature, humans are omnivorous hunter/gatherers—we’re pack hunters. One guy with a pointed stick vs. a woolly mammoth is going to go hungry. A dozen guys all working together with pointed sticks feed the whole tribe.
One of the things that early humans sorted out—thanks to our big, complex, creative, problem-solving brains and our nimble-fingered hands—was how to kill things from a distance. This made hunting much safer. As the years stretched on we got better and better at this, then 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 fully removed ourselves from the predator/prey relationship.
At this point in our history—and this has been true for quite some time—we are entirely unconcerned with being preyed on by other animals, and our relationship to the natural world as predators has become a form of recreation. Hunting is fun (or so I hear) but we don’t have to do it.
Of all the things I have to worry about today, being taken down by a leopard or something is not one of them. And I live in an area where predatory animals are actually wandering around. A young bear wandered into my backyard a couple of years ago, and another onto the soccer field at my son’s middle school while a gym class was outside. The teachers got the kids inside, and the bear wandered off. I’ve seen a couple of coyotes in the neighborhood, and there’s the occasional cougar sighting, too.
Even then, my day-to-day life is nothing like the day-to-day life of, say, the Cro Magnon man, who maybe did have to keep one eye open at all times for some kind of predatory animal who might be looking for a light snack.
Write Like Stephen King: Weapons in Nature
Humans are now the apex predator in every environment on Earth. In fact, we’re so far beyond merely the apex predator category that we’ve turned into something entirely separate. We don’t just kill competing predators, we experiment on them, catch them, and put them in zoos and circuses for the amusement of our children.
This is not to say that we never fall victim to nature, red in tooth and claw.
The most common cause of death from an animal comes from contact with a venomous animal or plant: about 1 in 36,000 deaths. Your chance of being killed by a dog is about 1 in 115,000, and how about the terrifying shark? 1 in 8,000,000. By contrast, your chance of being struck by lightning is 1 in 700,000, so that popular benchmark has been met. You’re 11 times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be killed by a shark. Okay? So calm down about sharks already. Actually, there’s a 1 in 4000 chance that you’ll die from falling out of bed, a chair, or other furniture.
So what really kills 21st-century Americans? You will die of one of two things: heart disease (1 in 5) or cancer (1 in 7). Everything else is a wild statistical outlier.
What I most often hear as an argument against the idea that humans are the apex predators on Earth is that we don’t have the powerful jaws of the shark or the razor-sharp claws of the tiger, and that’s true. Drop me in the middle of the ocean in a Speedo and the shark will win. Drop me in Siberia in the same unprepared state and the tiger is boss.
But that’s not fair. Nature gave us a weapon that ended up being lots more powerful than a shark’s jaws or a tiger’s claws: invention. To be fair, if the shark gets to keep its teeth, you have to put me in the ocean in a Trident nuclear missile submarine—at which point the shark simply becomes irrelevant. Me in an M1 tank vs. tiger? Hardly fair for the tiger.
This is why the most effective—the scariest—monster stories always take away those things that humans rely on to tip that balance in our favor. We’re 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 take away our weapons, usually by giving the monster some way to out-smart us (as in the thing’s ability to hide in plain sight) or render our weapons useless—or just as dangerous to us—like the acid-bleeding creature in Alien.
This is the visceral thrill of the monster. What if I was being hunted down by something I couldn’t just shoot, that was stalking me at some remote location where I couldn’t just call 911 or Animal Control?
Scary stuff—and there’s lots more where that came from. I get into the subject of things that go bump in the night in my new online course Horror Writing Intensive: Analyzing the Work of Genre Master Stephen King, and in much more detail in my book Writing Monsters.