So, it is not exactly a controversial statement to say that Horror as a genre is extremely reliant on what we could call a “monster” for the central conflict, be it an explicitly inhuman creature or a human who has been given distinctly inhuman traits. And it is also not controversial to suggest that most Horror (at least by volume) is fucking terrible at it. So, why is this, and what are the factors in those instances where it is done well? This is what I seek to answer today.
The aspects of an effective monster are, in ascending order of importance, what it is/how it looks, how it moves, how often and how much it’s used, and the symbolism of it. First off on this list are what it is and how it looks, two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, this doesn’t count for much. You could have the most ridiculous looking monster available within your means, and it can still be amazing if you use it correctly. The xenomorph was just a cheap rubber suit, Sadako was just a girl with a little makeup, and so on, yet they worked because they were used well. In fact, a lot of the best horror properties look slightly shit, because they are fully conscious of those limitations and have no choice but to be more creative in order to work within the means they have available.
Next up is how it moves. This is a lot more specific, explicitly referring to monsters which are not directly moved by humans, ie, nobody in suits, or makeup, or what have you. In other words, monsters you animate the movement of. And it kind of applies to monsters controlled by humans, but not quite so much. As a baseline, monsters which move less like humans normally would come off as more unnerving as a result. Take, for example, stop motion vs CGI for animation. It is (or should be) no surprise that one of my favorite movies of the genre is Coraline. Directed by Henry Selick and based on a book by Neil Gaiman? Absolute dream match. Anyway, Selick really outdoes himself when the Other Mother becomes a more horrifying monster in appearance and movement, her movements have distinctly artificial and inhuman character to them, much more so than most of the other characters. While I cannot 100% prove this is deliberate, I mean, come on. It’s not like his craft would slip a notch at the most important part of the movie, at least for the animation. So yeah, the way the Other Mother moves in her more monstrous forms is unnerving in how inhuman it is, because we are, to greater or lesser extent, hardwired to identify with our own and treat things that aren’t as potential threats. In this case, since this thing is an actual threat, the best way to reinforce it is to put emphasis on this visually, both in how it looks and how it moves. It’s much harder to notice the second, but it ultimately has the greater effect.
Next is an interesting one, which is how often its used and how much of it you get at a time. And for an extra challenge, I will explain this without using Jaws as an example. So, there are two aspects to this. First is the most obvious, how much screen time is given to this monster? To quote HP Lovecraft, “…the oldest and deepest fear is fear of the unknown.” Now, this rule is not universal, the aforementioned Coraline had a lot of exposure to the main antagonist, but the catch there is that she was disguised with a more human form and more friendly persona for most of the story. The mystery that comes with little exposure to a monster is an excellent source of fear, even if writers (especially Lovecraft himself) can have a tendency to overdo it. Put it this way, to quote Clive Barker, “There’s only so many occasions in a book when the author can tell me that the monster was so terrible he doesn’t have words to describe it before I become irritated.” It’s all about striking that balance between what you do and don’t show in order to create something truly terrifying. This principle also applies to how much you show of the monster in the time it’s given. Or, to put it another way, what does it do with that time, how much of it do you see in a scene of it, and how does that execution affect the monster’s “scariness” factor overall? There’s a deleted scene in the original Alien where the xenomorph crawls out and stands up to its full height before attacking someone. Now, this was not only deleted from the theater cut, but even the director’s cut doesn’t have it. Admittedly, this is explained by Ridley Scott as being because if you actually saw the whole alien, it would be so obvious that it was just a guy in a kind of dumb looking rubber suit, but it doesn’t erase the genius of the move in general. Because you see so little of it at a time, it maintains enough mystery to always be intimidating because you don’t know what else it’s capable of. This principle applies very well to horror as a whole, unpredictable will always be scarier than the alternative.
Speaking of Alien, this brings us to the final and most important category: the symbolism. And this is by far the most fascinating, at least for me. As confirmed by film writer Dan O’Bannon, a lot of aspects of the alien are deliberate allegory for some pretty uncomfortable concepts, at least in so far as empathizing with them goes. The Face Hugger is the most overt in this regard, with its method of laying eggs in the victim’s throat being a deliberate evocation of the imagery and trappings of oral rape. Similarly, the Chest Burster is an evocation of childbirth, albeit with a deliberate phallic nature to its design. And then we come to the death of Lambert, which has a few disturbingly suggestive aspects of its own, with Scott saying in a later interview that the implication was meant to be something “really hideous” happening to her off screen. Combine that with how the last few shots of her are framed, with the tail of the alien flicking at an uncomfortable angle between her legs, and the rape symbolism implies something of a much more literal sort. (A much more detailed analysis of this theme can be found here.) And this was, to quote O’Bannon again, a way of “making the male audience squirm”, in this case by having them witness situations allegorical for things that tend to be both unfamiliar and deeply horrifying to think about for most men, and the brief feeling of empathy it creates is extremely disturbing. This use of symbolism, coding, and allegory is absolutely brilliant, and I wish more examples of horror media were willing to do stuff like this. Reality has many things that are fucking horrifying, and a lot of the greatest horror is that which evokes those things in some way or another. For another, totally different example, let’s look at the mystery/horror that is Legend of the Golden Witch. Yeah, that’s right, I managed to find a way to gush about Umineko here too! So, in the first book, the character of Beatrice is not seen in person until the very end, but her presence is constantly felt, as if she were constantly looming over everyone at every moment. The most we see of her is indirect signs, such as the golden butterflies when Kanon makes his last stand, or the vague hints of her presence when Natsuhi challenges her near the end. But that in itself is the symbolism of her presence, as implied in later books. Beatrice the witch from a symbolic perspective is a symbol for the unknown, the gaps people fill in between the blanks when they cannot explain everything about a given scenario, as well as when they’re led to believe something to be true. In essence, she is the embodiment of superstition given physical form. And it works so well that Battler, ever the grounded voice who never once entertained the notion of Beatrice being real, is thus utterly taken aback when she appears before him. In a way, it is as if his fear itself has gained physical form, and seeing this thing he denied for so long appear in front of him is an incredibly shocking moment. The symbolism is, instead of drawing on real world horror, using the audience expectations and questions about the story itself to make a symbolic point about its own narrative, something it would continue to do in all the other parts.
These elements are key to effective use of a monster, and the use of them is sadly rare among most horror stories. And their scarcity means that I am rather lacking in horror stories that genuinely interest me, at least for those which are based around some sort of monster. I’m always on the lookout for more good ones, though sadly I may be starting to exhaust the list.