You’re probably familiar with all the typical tropes: monster under the bed, outside the dark window, etc. But each of these examples have certain qualities in common that make them so effective in their stories. Ask any reader who’s read either horror or a book with a strong supernatural or thriller element – that closed-in, freaky feeling hits hard. But why is this?
Usually, it involves a good dose of the unknown. I learned this in college as part of my Gothic Literature class, and what it basically means is that the best writers leverage the reader’s own imagination against them. Tapping into this broad category is step one to a fantastic fright – and the intriguing thing about it is that it’s fluid. Everyone who reads your work will be afraid of different things, so having a monster who can conceptually shape-shift has proven to be effective.
This week, I’m breaking down some methods you can use to craft your own terrifying monsters that go bump in the night. Spoiler alert: not all monsters have big teeth and horns – and I’d even argue that the best ones don’t! It’s far too much on the nose – your readers aren’t children (I assume anyway, if you’re writing horror).
Tap into the uncanny.
Yet another thing I learned in Gothic Literature class (can you tell it was one of my favorites?) – build something familiar, but just a little off. This concept was introduced by psychologist Sigmund Freud, and it’s one of my favorite elements to come across in literature. Basically, introduce something mundane and familiar – like a lampshade – but maybe it “grows” another polka dot on its shade whenever someone dies. That’s just one silly example, but it’s a great concept to play into. And of course, don’t reveal the correlation until later in the story – let the reader wonder alongside the characters if they’re just seeing things.
Spawn an evil twin.
The idea of a twisted other is a powerful one. With a figurative (or literal) mirror image creating an alternate reality and consciousness, your character could slowly descend into madness… at their own hand. When the monster turns out to be you, what’s an innocent character to do? Were they ever really separate at all? Maybe the monster was inside them the whole time. See where I’m going with this? Lots of possibilities for weird and creepy existential terror. Build a foil for who you thought the character was, then bake until golden brown and crispy.
Develop a surprising motive and backstory for your monster.
That too-cool-for-you character with the perfect hair and style? Oh yeah, she’s got another face at the back of her head and eats kids for breakfast. There’s something delightfully tongue-in-cheek and slapstick about monsters that don’t initially look like monsters. And once you establish that as the norm, everyone could be a monster. When you don’t know who is and who isn’t… that breeds even more tension for your reader. Challenge stereotypes to keep them on their toes – because the best monsters are the ones no one expects. For more help developing antagonists, read this villainous article HERE.
A good example of this might be Mother Gothel in Disney’s adaptation of Rapunzel – sure, the evil stepmother thing is a common trope, so it wasn’t THAT shocking. But she was so nice at the beginning of the movie, even suggesting to viewers that she loved Rapunzel. Heck, maybe she did. But that love was built out of obsessive, psychotic obsession with eternal youth once it’s later revealed she kidnapped Rapunzel to have access to her healing properties. The transition from attractive woman to the hag she always was once her “drug” runs out is a pivotal one (and let’s be honest – pretty dark for a Disney film). If you can pull off something like this, you’ll make a great point about stereotypes, while reminding readers to stay vigilant.
After all, you never know what’s hiding in the shadows.