Writing Monsters: What Makes a Monster Scary?

What makes a monster scary? Learn about five qualities that will make your readers' skin crawl when you're crafting monstrous creatures.
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(Editor's Note: The following excerpt is composed of selections from the second chapter of Writing Monsters, by Philip Athans.)

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

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Imagine being the first woman or man 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.”

(Defining and developing your anti-hero.)

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 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), then there’s a good chance that someone who is 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 at least a common uneasiness in the presence of one ... or worse, many spiders!

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. As it 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. […]

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 ...

Monsters Are Unpredictable

Can that lobster take your hand off with one of those claws? Turns out, no, but if it could and you weren’t expecting it ... that would be pretty scary, right? In real life we know they can’t hurt us, and that makes them predictable, and predictability is the enemy of horror. But add an unexpected element to a predictable situation and you enhance the potential for fear.

(8 journeys and motives behind evildoers, anti-heroes, and antagonists.)

Humans tend to have a pretty good sense of what another human is going to do next. We can tell via body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice when someone is getting angry or upset. 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.

Monsters Have a Disturbing Capacity for Violence

Monsters don’t just attack you; they attack you 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. (From the anthology The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Four, edited by Ellen Datlow.)

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

Writing Monsters by Philip Athans

Writing Monsters by Philip Athans

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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. … Take a second look at the example [above] 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, in the horror genre in particular. But fantasy and science fiction—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? […]

Our Imagination Makes Monsters Scarier

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And the human imagination is pretty powerful. 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 say, “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 or Dracula, 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, become the true monster in this case.

This application of our imagination can work in many ways. As stated above, we can fear something we don’t know, but a lot of monster stories start with monsters that are scary and then turn out to be nice. The Beast from Beauty and the Beast is an example from classic fairy tales, and Frankenstein’s monster is another, a creature who looks terrifying but is layered, emotional, and yearning for understanding ... and later, revenge.

In another way, creatures may seem harmless because they appeal to the softer, friendlier side of our imagination, but become monstrous when their true nature is revealed. Star Trek’s tribbles are an excellent example of this. When the crew of the Enterprise first encounters tribbles, their assumptions take over. They imagine the tribbles to be cute and harmless 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 also have a tendency to assume that many of the sentient 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 to not just survive but coexist and thrive, but monsters can be particularly scary when they seem to lack these assumed morals. ...

Monsters 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, our schedules, everything. We even try to control others by taking 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 our rules? It eats what and when—and who—it wants to eat. It bleeds metal-dissolving 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.

(Creating emotional frustration in your characters.)

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

Monsters Are Terrifying in Appearance

Here’s another example from H.P. Lovecraft's 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.

Frightening, but here’s an interesting take on description: Lovecraft goes to great length to describe a foul-looking creature here, but it is made more ominous by also describing what it’s doing (gnawing on “... a thing that had been a man ...”) and what it might do next (“... seek a juicier morsel.”). And it’s important to keep in mind that not all monsters have to appear classically “scary” in order to be so.

In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, author Ransom Riggs describes 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.

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