Everyone loves a cool monster design.
I recently came across a Twitter thread on the subject and it got me thinking about what goes into effective horror monsters. There are a lot of schools of thought regarding horror in general, and because it’s such a broad genre, its appeal will vary quite a bit from person to person. Some people like the general horror aesthetic, some people like the scares, and some people like the dread that lingers in the mind. For my purposes, I’m going to focus on that last bit.
Dread, or terror according to Ann Radcliffe and Stephen King, is a subtler sort of horror. It’s often less immediately frightening than enormous monsters with gaping maws and tentacles. Dread relies on tension, the fear associated with recognizing that something is creepy, but not knowing if it poses a legitimate threat. Dread forces you to be on high-alert, to second-guess your senses and intuition. I find that many of the memorable monsters that people find scary draw heavily upon this sort of fear.
It’s not enough for a monster to merely be scary, though. In fact, what makes a monster frightening is highly dependent on individual preference, and isn’t really one characteristic, but several. The environment is as important as the monster itself in many ways, and even mundane creatures can be made far more frightening in the right lighting and locale. Put Pyramid Head in Cloud Cuckoo Land and you’ll have a hard time making him quite as horrific as he would be in a poorly-lit abandoned asylum. Gone Home is an excellent demonstration of how setting influences mood — while there aren’t any monsters in the game, the limitations of the lighting and the narrow, empty corridors create a chilling environment in which anything off feels far more sinister than it would otherwise be. Television static, a blinking microwave, a flickering light, an ominous note — none of these things is especially frightening on its own, but it becomes deeply unsettling in a creepy house, even if you know objectively that it isn’t dangerous.
The story also plays a role. The convention in one-off horror films is to create bland protagonists that can be picked off without much audience investment. This is acceptable if the intent of the story is to inspire fear through creature designs, gore, or atmosphere alone, but I often find this approach a misjudgment of the appeal of the genre. If the audience doesn’t care about the people in the horrific situation, you’ll have a far harder time getting them to feel that same sort of fear. This is why relatively minor horror elements in films and books outside of the genre can cut you to your core. Watching some rando get dragged away by a werewolf is unsettling, but it’s outright petrifying if that rando is your favorite character. Not all series want to appeal to that sort of fear, and I respect that. If you want to truly chill your audience though, pitting the monster against relatable, well-rounded characters is a reliable way to do so. It’s part of what makes Game of Thrones so captivating, even though it’s hardly a horror series.
Even if the monster doesn’t directly harm lovable protagonists (or if the protagonists have limited appeal), it can still be terrifying if it does something in the story to raise the stakes. Many games build up a newly introduced enemy by showing an NPC come upon them and suffer the consequences. This establishes the monster’s potency and gives the player time to worry about when they’re going to have to face that beast. The player’s first encounter with a Big Daddy in Bioshock is a prime example of this approach. In it, the player wanders along catwalks above a stage where a small girl, one of the game’s Little Sisters, is being attacked by the game’s basic enemies, Splicers. You hear thudding footsteps as the Big Daddy approaches and bursts through the wall, horrifically dispatching the Splicers. You aren’t in danger yourself, but you have an excellent view of the whole event, and a clear warning of what happens if you mess with the Little Sisters.
Okay, so now that the peripherals are in place, we come to the fun bit: the actual monster designs. You can make a frightening monster with setting alone — many effective horror narratives do just that, putting a simple mask over a humanoid assailant. You can make a pasty zombie or Roswell-style alien and terrify your audience. But let’s be honest with ourselves, those aren’t the monsters that really scare us. Too goofy or plain and the monster risks bringing us out of the experience.
No no, we want a proper monster.
There are several schools of thought when it comes to monster designs. The aim of the creature greatly impacts how it should look. Discussion of alien designs is a good baseline — terrifying aliens like the Xenomorph draw upon common human fears of reptiles, insects, and skeletons, leaving out the eyes to make the creature exceptionally uncanny. The more unfamiliar you make a creature, the more unsettling it becomes. Many monsters pull from obscure natural creatures, particularly those that are less human or mammalian.
Of course, eventually you’ll work your way out of the uncanny valley and just end up with a blob or piece of muck if you keep tacking inhuman features onto the creature. While the uncanny valley is a perpetual problem for designing protagonists, it’s a boon for monster designers. Often the most effective creature designs are not merely strange aliens, but creatures that are made of a mix of familiar and unfamiliar features. The Ritual‘s Jotunn is one of the great modern examples of an uncanny creature; it’s big, certainly, and powerful enough to cause considerable damage if it wants, but it’s the humanoid face and limbs dangling from its animalistic body that turns it from a big elk to the world’s creepiest centaur.
Creature designs themselves must accomplish four main things:
- They must be clear. Showing bits of a chaotic monster to build up anticipation for its reveal is one thing, but a blurry monster is a disappointing monster.
- They must be unique. If you can see the monster clearly, but you’re not impressed by what you see, that’s not much better than having a blurry monster. This also applies to monsters that are designed to look subtly frightening, such as human murderers. Characters like Hannibal Lecter have very particular presentation choices that make the most of a seemingly mundane appearance.
- They must be uncanny. Cool monsters are fun, but if your goal is to frighten your audience, you’re going to have a hard time doing that if your audience is trying to admire how cool your creature looks.
- They must blend into the story. The monster is never just a monster; it is a representation of something as well, a fear or apprehension, a vice that grows out of control. You don’t need to be so overt and give your
Let’s get to some monsters.
The Other Mother (Coraline)
Stop-motion animation is a wonderful realm for monsters. The necessarily stilted movement and physicality of the figures make for unique visuals, and several stop-motion artists specialize in characters with a Halloween flair thanks to influences from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Coraline is a more recent take on stop-motion horror and puts considerable work into its uncanny atmosphere and highly detailed figures. While there are many characters in the story that would haunt your worst nightmares, the Other Mother steals the show. An eyeless doppelganger of the protagonist’s aloof mother, the Other Mother transforms toward the end of the film into a spider-like monster with bony hands made of sewing needles — hands that, unlike anything else in the story can pass from the parallel world of the film to the real one. The design is chilling, as is her goal throughout the film: to take the protagonist’s eyes and sew buttons in their place.
The Spider (Limbo)
Limbo is a dour game with a similarly dour environment, and it’s full of strange dangers. None, however, nearly comes close to delivering the same sense of terror as the spider. Spiders are common enemies in video games, to the point where I might consider them the least interesting bosses a game has to offer. However, the spider in Limbo is different. In this game, you are not trapped an a confined space with the enormous arachnid; you are running from it. Perpetually, it seems at first. The spider is faceless, blending seamlessly into the environment, even to the point where even if you know the spider is in the game, it can still catch you off-guard. The spider vanishes and reappears multiple times, always coming in from the corner, legs first. You defeat the spider, which diminishes its horror value a bit, but the way you do so — by tearing it apart using the very environment it uses to its advantage — is thematic. There’s an amount of satisfaction to be gained from destroying the spider, but it’s unsettling, and the number of times the spider returns, even after you’ve damaged it, makes you second-guess yourself even when it’s surely dead. The spider is a force of nature, a thing that creeps at the back of your mind, and a thing you can never fully escape.
The Corinthian (The Sandman)
Are we sensing an eye theme here? I’ve doted on the Corinthian’s character design — and the lack of eyes in monsters — many times in the past, but as a stand-alone monster, it works. The Corinthian is an ordinary human with teeth for eyes. That’s it. That’s all you need. Creepy little sharp-toothed mouths that speak in a different voice than the character’s main mouth, and eat eyes. Monsters like this are subtle, not truly horrific or spectacular or awful, but normal enough that you can almost let your guard down around them, almost trust them, even. These monsters are the intersection between figures like Hannibal Lecter and more, well, monstrous monsters. I think it will come as no surprise to anyone that monsters that looks almost, but not quite, human are my favorite.
The Coffin (Preacher)
Sometimes a monster doesn’t even have to be an animate object. The Coffin is essentially a grown-up version of the Chokey from Matilda, a device designed for torture, but not explicitly lethal. The concept is disturbingly simple — the victim goes in the box and gets dumped under a swamp for an indeterminate amount of time, alone in the dark, given enough air and sustenance through those tubes to ensure they don’t die. The Coffin is a bit player in the Preacher series, only in it for a short time, but long enough to have a lasting effect on the main character and audience. While the series itself isn’t wholly a horror series, this thing scares the living shit out of me, so I’ll take any chance I get to talk about it.
The Thing (The Thing, 1982)
The Thing from its titular movie is a marvel in many ways. The effects used to create it were spectacular for the time and hold up, rivaling the animatronic and puppet work of any film before or since. The different shapes the creature takes are unsettling on their own, but the film also uses its narrative details to its advantage. The film is a simple horror setup (it’s an adaptation, actually, and a fascinating one at that): a crew of Antarctic researchers encounter a strange dog that’s run away from a destroyed Norwegian base. After bringing it back to their own center, they learn that it’s a shapeshifting alien (there’s another theme for you — this entire film draws upon the idea that shapeshifters are terrifying because they undermine trust and create uncertainty), and proceed to turn on themselves as they try to determine which among them could be the monster. The normalcy of scenes where the creature is hidden produce intense dread throughout the story, and even more when the monster suddenly reveals itself by transforming into a mutated form of whatever it’s eaten. Even without the gore and gruesome animatronics, this film still works, but it’s by limiting those effects to a few well-paced scenes that the film manages to leave you shaken.
Children’s media loves to throw in an odd moment or two of disproportionate terror against an otherwise charming exterior. It gets the older kids on board with the thing, see. They can like the kiddie bits ironically, and the juxtaposition of the creepy things with something innocent makes for good Creepypasta knock-offs. Psychonauts doesn’t aim for an especially young audience, but it pulls off this trend quite well on a few occasions, most notably with the Nightmares. These creatures only appear three times in the game, twice in a main mission, and earlier in an optional side area that is objectively creepier. The Nightmares are unsettling to be sure — they have claws and hands reaching out of glowing tears in their bodies, they move like they’re made of liquid, and they have those eerie glowing eyes. In the back area, the Nightmares can’t actually hurt you because of their restraints, but that doesn’t stop them from whispering in the distorted voices of children who died in a fire. In the narrative of the game, these creatures are physical manifestations of a person’s fears and dreads, distorted memories that make real-life horrors even worse.
Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
Call me uncultured, but I have little familiarity with Thomas Harris’ books, so instead, let’s look at this character as he appears in The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is a unique sort of monster, a human, and a frail human at that, yet unpredictably dangerous. His introduction is a beautiful demonstration of how cinematography can enhance audience unease, suggesting each successive inmate Clarice encounters down the corridor is more inhuman and depraved than the last, then throwing a curve ball as it reveals Lecter waiting calmly, surrounded by delicate drawing and other signs of culture. He’s a thinking man, well-educated and sharp, able and willing to converse even to the point where he’s aiding the protagonist through most of the story. All we need is the framing, Clarice’s fear, and a guard joking about “Hannibal the Cannibal” to realize that no one should let their guard down around this man, but Anthony Hopkins gives a chilling, unblinking performance that lends a further uncanniness to the character. Lecter is terrifying in his cell alone; the prospect of him escaping is almost unthinkable. Yet the film ends on that, with relatively little demonstration of his capabilities, but enough for the audience to fear him just as much as our protagonist.
The Pale Man (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Finally, it wouldn’t be right of me to end a quick discussion of monsters without one of the most unsettling creations of the twenty-first century. Guillermo del Torro’s work often features elaborate prosthetic work and puppetry, and while Pan’s Labyrinth only features a handful of magical horror creatures, all are unique and creative. The film is grim and full of villains, the most violent of which is Captain Vidal, a real-world monster that makes the creatures of protagonist Ofelia’s imagination seem tame by comparison… except for, that is, the Pale Man. The Pale Man is a cannibal, specifically a cannibal of children. He lacks eyes on his face (hello again, favorite horror theme), but carries a pair on a plate that he can put in sockets in his hands to see by. Aside from this, he is sickly-looking, essentially a skeleton draped with skin. What caught me off-guard with this monster was how goofy he looked. I had the monster hyped up before I saw the film, so I was expecting a more traditionally scary villain. Instead, the Pale Man is surprisingly quiet and entirely harmless to the protagonist until she eats his food. He’s creepy, to be sure, sitting like a wax figure at the end of the table as Ofelia explores the room, the only indication of his deeds a graphic mural and a pile of old children’s shoes. Even when he does move, he’s slow, stilted. He holds his hands out over his face to see, which is objectively silly when he could use them to grab things.
But that’s what makes him so terrifying. The Pale Man is not frightening because he is dangerous; he is frightening because he is dangerous, but doesn’t look it. He moves slowly, but he still moves, lurching forward in unpredictable steps that make his gait hard to judge. His lack of facial expressions make his motives difficult to determine — is he like an animal, or is he willfully cruel? At first he seems easily halted by a few colorful faeries. But when he grabs them, they meet an immediately grizzly fate. The sillier aspects of the character suddenly become sinister as you stare in rapt horror at what you previously almost laughed at. The Pale Man, like many excellent horror monsters, is only in the film for a quick minute, but he does what he’s there to do. The combination of the physical attributes of the creature, its mannerisms, its environment, and its role within the story all come together to create a creature that, while not the focus of the story by any means, still lingers in the mind of many who watch the film.