We horror fans love monsters. Big monsters, ugly monsters, terrifying monsters. We love them. We love being scared by them, we love seeing them at the corner of our vision after a particularly good horror movie. Sometimes we are in awe by them.
A monster can be anything. This can apply to a demon, a slasher, a kaiju, an eldritch horror of an unknown origin.
So to help writers, here are some ways to think about your monsters to help capture some of those feelings. I tend to break this down into three pieces. These are no rules or guidelines, but ways to think about your scares.
This is everything leading up to the attack or reveal of your horror. The buildup is the most important part of any monster attack or horror set piece. The chase is the tension, the terror. This is how you build the slow anticipation of what is about to happen.
You need characters you care about. This is storytelling 101. So I’ll be brief. If you don’t have actual compelling characters and a story, no one gives a shit about your monster.
You’re characters can be bad people. In Stephen King’s short story Popsy, a kidnapper steals a child. You learn about his debt and allegiance to mobsters. You hate him, but there’s a rationale to this actions. So the buildup to what the kid and his “Popsy” is is all the more terrifying.
Read and watch examples of extreme tension building. Watch the techniques employed in JAWS where you don’t see the shark until the midpoint of the film, same in Jurassic Park.
Be patient with your creature and learn to tell a compelling story before considering your monster. The buildup is more about what you don’t show. You hint at the growing threat, at its possibilities. Terror is when you know something is coming, but you don’t know where, how, or when. The waiting. The fear. That is what true horror fiction is.
A problem with a lot of horror fans is that we want to show off the monster as much and as early as possible. We want to describe every pore and scar.
Choose the right time to reveal your creature. Draw it out. Make your characters feel their terror rising.
The single greatest monster reveal is in Neil Marshal’s 2006 masterpiece, The Descent. When the crawlers explode on to the screen it is a chaotic moment where the camera in night-vision mode flashes back and forth from each of the terrified characters. Then when it returns to the first girl, it is the greatest jump scare in history. It is earned because of how long the creatures are hidden and only hinted at.
Here is an exception to playing it hidden. The recent IT film gave Pennywise lots of freedom to jump around and be seen. He isn’t hiding. He is terrifying because he is everywhere and unafraid to show himself. He dances around like a possessed marionette, he is a physical danger at all times and it is filmed so you know he’s coming for YOU.
Here is the part that you’ve been waiting for. The final reveal of your creature and the horrors you are about to unleash.
This is the part that can make or break a story. This is the easiest part, but the easiest part to fuck up. In 2017’s The Ritual by David Bruckner, they did everything flawlessly; compelling characters, a bad situation, excellent build up and foreshadowing. You even learn what the creature really is before you see it.
Then they fucked it up because the creature, to me at least, looked like a Muppet strapped to an elk. I understand what they were going for, but it didn’t work for me.
You can describe your horrors any way you like but there are a few things you should consider.
Monsters, especially in film, have complexity in their designs. Pennywise and the Xenomorph both have very complex designs but they have simple silhouettes. You read it as them immediately, but you could look at them for hours. They are complex, but not loud, as I put it. They aren’t overwhelming in their designs. They have lots of stuff going on but it all highlights how terrifying the creature is.
In The Descent the crawlers are very simple, but the way they are presented is absolutely terrifying. The difference between a good and bad Cenobite in Hellraiser is how elegant and simple their design is, but the longer you look at them the more horrified you are of what they’ve done to themselves.
With the aforementioned, The Ritual, the creature is too loud, to complex. They wanted it to be a pile of human parts, a giant deer, a pagan god, but still be able to be intimate with the characters.
When writing, be both specific and brief with your creatures. You need to capture the image in the reader’s mind as quickly and economically as possible.
In my own short story, Record of the Saint Peter Facility, published by Telescope Magazine (https://www.teleportmagazine.com/2019/04/06/record-of-the-saint-peter-facility/), they liked the story, but I had been too coy with the creature. I described it as indescribable, giving the reader nothing to latch on to and no form to the creature.
The editor asked me to given it a more concrete form for our terror and the story was better for it. If you read it, and you should, you see how I use all three of these concepts (buildup, reveal and creature design) as a way to instill terror.
Three final quick points about your monsters:
- Personality, Alien succeeds because the Xenomorph is entirely acting on animal instinct, similar to Jaws or the T-Rex. You don’t have to make your monsters, animals. They can have personality and backstory just as any character would. This is why we like 80s slasher movies. You’re monster can have character, backstory, motivations. It can be more than a wild animal. The Godzilla films are full of creatures with very distinct personalities.
- They can change. Guellimo del Toro has mentioned that in order for your monsters to be characters, they require change. A video essay on Del Toro’s creatures discusses how transformation creatures are more interesting creatures. I highly recommend watching it.(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HrabNyt630&t=374s)
- You’re monster can also mean something. Whether it’s the nuclear age with Godzilla, the terrifying social decay that is Pennywise from IT, the Xenomorph as phallic rape personified. If the story is right, a monster can be the personification of social evils. The recent Get Out and Us by Jordan Peele show how we can be the biggest monsters.
Monsters can mean things. They can stand in as the personification of something else, or being the final savage attack in a long line of indignities for the victim.
I hope these help you in your own storytelling. I could discuss this stuff for hours.
Thank you so much, K. T. Rose for giving me the opportunity to write this.
Z. F. Sigurdson is a young writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has Honours B.A. in Political Studies with deep passion for books, film and music. His writing attempts to blur the boundaries between genres and is heavily influenced by horror and fantasy.
Currently, he writes for The Manitoban as an Arts and Culture Contributor. He posts regular short fiction and blogs on his website www.zfsigurdson.com.”