In honor of Halloween week and those of you who love horror, spooky, or scary any time of year, today’s post is about writing monsters. The first real monster story in Euro-American literature was born (er, came alive) in 1818 with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Monster stories have been popular ever since then because they personify society’s fears. Monster stories are also a shorthand for tales about good versus evil and the gray area in between. Often monsters are shown to have been created by evil or unthinking deeds of “regular” people. Monsters are terrify, and most of us enjoy the thrill of a fright…especially this time of year.
What are Monsters?
A monster is usually grotesque, powerful, amoral, and non-human. If it takes human form, it’s usually an altered human, like a zombie. Monsters prey on what we’re afraid of or what disgusts us. This is why monsters are usually ugly or gross. Humans have an instinct to turn from misshapen, rotten, or grizzled features. Think of witches, ogres, or zombies—they’re all nasty. (I never could look at Freddy Krueger’s face.)
Other monsters are terrifying because they appear benign, but their cute or banal appearance belies their danger. Misreading a situation can cost a person their life, so that makes these monsters terrifying. Think Chucky—aww, it’s a harmless doll. No, it’s a killer doll. Gremlins are small, fuzzy, and cute. How could they be scary? Well, just wait until they multiple. Monsters that take human form are fearful because they’re not easy to identify as dangerous.
Want some tips on creating non-traditional monsters? Check out this post: Writing the Other Monsters.
Why are Monsters Scary?
We Don’t Understand Them
Monsters are scary because humans don’t understand them, and they can’t control them. The less your characters know about a monster, the more terrifying it will be. Monsters have powers that humans don’t: maybe they’re stronger, can fly, can spew metal-burning snot, can multiply…. The list goes on. But when your characters think they’ve escaped and then the creature flies up the building—wow. Now they wonder: what’s next? Your reader will be on the edge of her seat to find out. The more unpredictable your monster is, the scarier it will be.
We Can’t Control Them
The more you can tap into human fears, the better. We dread not being able to control our environment. Humans have big egos because we’re the most innovative species on the planet. While we’ve made great inventions, like AC and pina coladas, we’ve also polluted to the point we’re seriously talking about colonizing Mars if Earth becomes uninhabitable. Oops. We never realized those carbon emissions were going to be so problematic. What else might we create that’s horrible? Maybe Frankenstein? My point here is that monsters in fiction help us deal with monstrous consequences in real life. Monsters are scary when they spin out of our control. The less power your human characters have over the monster, the more terrifying they’ll become.
They are Immoral
The other major reason monsters are scary is that they are immoral. Their heartstrings aren’t tugged at the sight of human suffering. They don’t mind amassing all the power, they will not be benevolent, and they don’t care about justice. We fear leaders will be this way, and so when it happens with a monster, it’s a way of expressing that fear. You can’t argue or bargain with an all-powerful creature that has no sense of decency.
When it comes to writing terrifying creatures, lean into what makes them scary. Make sure the danger escalates. The more you know why your monster is scary and what psychological fear you’re tapping into, the more effective it will be. Happy haunting!