What Makes a Monster Scary?

Not what makes a villain villainous, or what makes a person ‘evil’, but what makes an actual dark monster incur fear in us.

For this Doctor Who day, I’m looking at the creatures, the ideas behind why we feel scared of, for instance, the Cybermen and the Daleks. In many plots, a creature of the deep is needed – in films and TV, this is for watcher thrill as well as plot-tension. In books, a similar idea is used, but less for visual, though I myself ‘see’ characters and settings in my mind. We might want to shock the readers; we might want to raise the tension and the horror element. With our natural curiosity of the macabre, monsters make the perfect emotion teasers. When our heroes are facing a monster, we quake for them.

But what exactly creates that?

Take Hopper from A Bug’s Life, for example. You might think this is a weird example, but when I was little, I loved A Bug’s Life to the point that my mother bought me all the themed toys related to it. The characters, I played with, and the figurines, I stared at. But there was one item I couldn’t enjoy.

I loved the idea behind the Hopper alarm. A 12 inch model with a press button for movie quotes and a motion sensor setting, where he would quote if we walked by – “you’re not supposed to be here. Back off!” In my room, though, it terrified me, especially with my fear of the dark.

Though, actually, one of my very first stories was a fan fiction of Hopper – ‘Hopper’s Revenge’. I lost the 2-page, red-pen piece, but it remains in my heart

I think that was something to do with the aesthetics of the model, of the creature in general. Alien-like with bulging eyes (one blinded) and gangly limbs, Hopper casts an unpleasant shadow on any desk. He’s not what we would call ‘normal’. He’s a monster by more than his sharp tongue and hateful attitude.

In the movie, of course, he is not the size of a regular grasshopper (that is, not the size we humans regularly see grasshoppers as), but we are shrunk to the size of ants, and clever camera shots have made him tower over us. I always liked that the animation was from the perspective of ants – but that meant that whatever they were afraid of, we were afraid of.

And Hopper was creepy.

So: size, shape and strangeness all add to what makes us cringe or want to duck behind the sofa. Take the other usual monster elements, perhaps: a gravelly/different/robotic voice; some sort of power or ability that makes them a true threat; and evidence to show that they are prepared to kill, whatever the victim. Then you’ve got something to be feared.

Work on how to show these traits for fearsome inspiration.

To conclude, monsters, or gruesome beings/acts, bring the xenophobia out of us, being a hit because we leave our jaws slack in disgusted wonderment – “how is this twisted fiend/animal/thing possible?” Even if we are not aware of those exact feelings, they’re there, in the base animalistic twitches of our humanity.

An in-group, out-group complex suggests to us that different or ‘ugly’ humanoids/creatures can become monsters. Obviously, this is a theoretical generalisation, and something to which I, as an author (rather than a Psychology student) am opposed.

A difference lies between villains and monsters, but I try to make the characters or things I specify as ‘monsters’ unassuming/not so obvious by their beauty or averageness. The obvious monsters are the mindless things rising from the ether at a call. This is not realistic. Monsters – however they be defined – have their own minds and activate their own lives, but they still cause the chills to run down our spines. They may not be the puppeteer, but they have their own motives, evil or not.

For instance, the paragraph I use to describe the evil fairy/imp/creature in my short story could be recycled for a romance piece (give or take some of the words). He exists in a handsome form, but his dark green chest is riddled with scars, and that makes the MC fear him. He’s different to what she’s ever seen: a monster to her.

Scary, yeah?

Oh, and I was also afraid of the Heffalump. This backs up the theory, as the big, colour-changing elephant-like creature was always jumping out of nowhere, looking creepy, even when it wasn’t. What monsters were you afraid of as a child? Why do you think these rational or irrational fears occur?

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One thought on “What Makes a Monster Scary?

  1. Reblogged this on Miss Alexandrina and commented:

    As some sort of excuse for my lack of recent posting, something which will likely continue into next week – though I will try and reblog some articles, etc – here’s an article I wrote last year, approximately, about one theory of psychology behind why monsters appear scary to us. Appropriate for Hallowe’en day, yes?

    Also check out Aussie Owned and Read’s Hallowe’en Hop, where bloggers are invited to post and read about what scares them.

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