Don’t be so simple. People adore monsters. They fill their songs and stories with them. They define themselves in relation to them. You know what a monster is, young shade? Power. Power and choice. Monsters make choices. Monsters shape the world. Monsters force us to become stronger, smarter, better. They sift the weak from the strong and provide a forge for the steeling of souls. Even as we curse monsters, we admire them. Seek to become them, in some ways…. There are far, far worse things to be than a monster.
How to Write a Monster Story
Everyone loves a good horror story. Try to write one, and you will quickly discover that it’s not simple to create a monster. You must also create a reason for the monster to exist. Or, to quote the great Albert Camus, who would have turned 100 this year, “A character is never created by the author. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously.” In all great horror stories, literary or otherwise, the monster is often a manifestation of a character’s inner monstrosity, or sometimes a society.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create a monster (real or imagined).
Introduce the monster. To do this, you’ll need to state the following: Where is the monster? Who sees it? How does that person feel about the monster? (This last part is perhaps the most important. If the character is terrified for her life in the first sentence, the story will proceed much differently than if the character is amused or irritated.)
What kind of world is it? Do monsters appear all the time? Is the world under siege by monsters? Or is this a regular world with a very personal monster. To answer this question, you will also need to figure out your character’s place in the world. If the world is a stage full of roles that people must play, which roles are being played by your character?
What kind of monster is it? Why has the monster appeared to this character at this time? Monsters and victims should be well matched. To answer this question, figure out the character’s life, problems and conflicts that existed before the monster arrived. In a way, you’re adjusting the telescopic lens through which the story views the monster. If you begin by focusing on Conflict A, then Conflict A will always be present in the story (unless you stumble upon a better conflict; in that case, throw out Conflict A and switch to Conflict B). Regardless, if you make the character’s personal conflict part of the story from the beginning, the monster will naturally be viewed as part of that conflict.
Good luck and have fun! You’re writing a monster story. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, if that isn’t nice, then I don’t know what is.
Write your monster story and read it out loud in class!!
Be careful in the company of monsters that you don’t become one.
How to write a horror story: 6 terrific tips
This guide to how to write a horror story covers the basics. First, read a definition of horror and common elements of horror fiction. Then read 6 tips on writing horror stories that you can use to evoke intense feeling in your readers, even if you don’t exclusively write horror:
The word ‘horror’ means ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust’ (Oxford English Dictionary). The word comes from the Latin horrere, meaning ‘to tremble or shudder’.
5 common elements of the best horror stories
The best horror stories share at least five elements in common:
They explore ‘malevolent’ or ‘wicked’ characters, deeds or phenomena.
They arouse feelings of fear, shock or disgust as well as the sense of the uncanny – things are not what they seem. There is a heightened sense of the unknown and/or mysterious.
They are intense (as the dictionary definition reminds us). Horror books convey intense emotion, mood, tone and environments. Together, these produce the sense that everything is charged with ominous possibility.
They contain scary and/or shocking and scintillating plot twists and story reveals (unlike episodes of the cartoon Scooby Doo, in which the bad guys are typically conniving realtors dressed as paranormal beings – ghosts, werewolves). In horror the ghosts and werewolves are very, very real.
They immerse readers in the macabre. Horror tends to deal with morbid situations, from repetitive cycles of violence to death-related uncanny scenarios. Zombies march, vampires make you join their legion, or (in subtler scenarios) long-dead friends or relations pay unexpected visits.
How do you write a horror story or novel like Stephen King, Clive Barker or (looking further back in the genre’s history) Edgar Allan Poe? Start with these six tips:
1: Learn how to write horror using strong, pervasive tone
Tone and mood are two elements that contribute to how your story feels. Great tone and mood can have readers’ spines tingling before a single character has even spoken or made a terrible decision.
How you describe settings, character movement and actions creates an overarching tone. In horror writing, a dark or frightening tone is often pronounced. Take this example from Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always:
‘Half closing his eyes, he crossed to the window and fumbled to slam it, making sure that the latch was in place this time.
The wind had started his lamp moving, and when he turned back the whole room seemed to be swinging around. One moment the fight was blazing in his eyes, the next it was flooding the opposite wall. But in between the blaze and the flood it lit the middle of his room, and standing there – shaking the rain off his hat – was a stranger.
He looked harmless enough. He was no more than six inches taller than Harvey, his frame scrawny, his skin distinctly yellowish in colour. He was wearing a fancy suit, a pair of spectacles and a lavish smile.’
The scene is suffused with a sense of the unsettling. Objects that should be stationary move. The room itself seems to move. The viewpoint character is disoriented. A peculiar character seems to materialize out of nowhere.
Barker also creates an ominous tone through indirect means. ‘He looked harmless enough’ draws our attention to the possibility the man could in fact be harmful. The ‘scrawny’ frame and ‘yellowish’ skin both make the stranger unsettling and increase the sense of unfamiliarity.
Whether you are an aspiring horror author or not, work at creating consistent mood and tone. If you want to write a scary novel, focus on ways you can make actions and descriptions work together to establish an uneasy atmosphere.
2: Read widely in your genre
Whatever genre you write in, whether psychological or paranormal horror read as many books by respected authors in your genre as possible. Examples of celebrated horror authors include Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, John Lindqvist and more.
As you read authors in your genre, make notes on what aspects of your genre the author excels in. Is it great, spooky settings? Copy out your favourite quotes that create an eerie sense of place and re-read when trying to make your own settings more vivid. Actively learning from great authors will improve your mastery of the horror genre.
3: Give wicked characters better, credible motivations
When you write a horror novel, it shouldn’t read as though a malevolent force is sitting at a bus stop, waiting to infiltrate your unsuspecting characters’ world ‘just because’. Give every malevolent character a strong, clear motivation. Revealing exactly what the motivation is can be part of the mystery that sustains your story and keeps readers guessing why unsettling things keep happening.
If there’s a malevolent force, being or stranger in your horror novel, make their motivation similar in magnitude to the character’s actions. Readers will scoff if a creepy doll goes on a murderous rampage in your novel simply because somebody took its batteries out.
4: Use the core elements of tragedy
This is excellent horror-writing advice from Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds. As Wendig puts it: Horror is best when it’s about tragedy in its truest and most theatrical form: tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps.
The horror genre uses the core elements of tragedy so nakedly that some of these have become clichés. ‘Don’t go in that house, idiot,’ you might shout at the screen while watching American Horror Story, because the character has the tragic flaw of being oblivious to personal danger. In horror stories, we get scared because, as readers, we see the signs foolhardy characters don’t.
At its heart, tragedy teaches some important lessons, for example:
The destructive, rippling cause and effect acts of cruelty can set in motion (the frightening way the title character of Stephen King’s novel Carrie unleashes her powers due to bottling sustained psychological abuse is a good example)
The value of seeing situations and scenarios from multiple perspectives (e.g. You could tell yourself, ‘That house is abandoned because the property market fell’. But also: ‘That house is abandoned because something terrible happened there (and keeps happening there) and people are afraid of it.’)
The lesson that bravery means making a choice in full awareness of danger, whereas making choices in blissful unawareness of their potential consequences leaves people vulnerable
To write a credible horror novel, in other words, show that the horror-filled situation is dependent on a network of character choices, past or present. At its heart, horror fiction reminds us that cause and effect is real, even in the fantastical realm of storytelling.
5: Write scary novels by tapping into common human fears
If the point of horror writing (and horror elements in other genres such as paranormal romance) is to arouse fear, shock or disgust, think of the things people are most commonly afraid of.
Live Science places an interest choice at number one: The dentist. It’s true that you can feel powerless when you’re in the dentist’s chair. Couple this with the pain of certain dental procedures and it’s plain to see why a malevolent dentist is the stuff of horror nightmares.
Making readers scared creates tension and increases the pace of your story. Even so there should be a reason for making readers fearful. A terrifying situation should be central to the plot and should be driven by some or other cause (even if the reader can only guess, ultimately, what the precise cause is).
Here are some of the most common fears people have. As an exercise, list the reasons why we might find these things terrifying. Most relate to physical and/or mortal danger, but you can also drawn on other common fears. Fears such as fear of humiliation, inadequacy or failure:
Most common fears – fodder for horror novel writing
Fear of animals (dogs, snakes, sharks, mythical creatures such as the deep sea-dwelling kraken)
Fear of flying (film producers combined the previous fear and this other common fear to make the spoof horror movie Snakes on a Plane)
The dark – one of the most fundamental fears of the unfamiliar
Other people and their often unknown desires or intentions
Ugly or disorienting environments
Think of how common fears can be evoked in your horror fiction. Some are more often exploited in horror writing than others. A less precise fear (such as the fear of certain spaces) will let you tell the horror story you want with fewer specified must-haves.
6: Terror vs horror: Learn the difference
To learn how to write horror novels, it’s useful to understand the difference between horror and terror. Both have their place in horror writing. ‘Terror’ describes a state of feeling. Oxford Dictionaries simply define it as ‘extreme fear’. To ‘terrorise’, means to use extreme fear to intimidate others. Horror, however, also suggests elements of disgust and surprise or shock. Thus the word ‘horror’ describes not only extreme fear but also revulsion and a sense of surprise and the unexpected.
7 Tricks for Writing Terrifying Horror Fiction & Monster Stories
The bottom line for all fiction is that the story is a lie the reader can believe in, with characters he comes to know and care about. In horror fiction and monster stories, the bottom line is that the reader will believe and be afraid. The monster scares him, the villain’s powers and agenda scare him, and the characters’ own vulnerabilities scare him. The best horror stories force the reader to turn the pages with growing dread and prickling anxiety. These tales make the reader feel terrifyingly alone and ask how much control humans have over their fate.
So let’s get down to brass tacks on how to successfully achieve fear and believability when crafting tales of terror, especially those with monstrous antagonists:
1. INTRODUCE THE FRIGHTENING ELEMENTS EARLY.
Most horror and monster stories start fairly briskly, introducing the horror early or at least hinting at or establishing a pinprick of foreboding. For example, in the opening scenes of The Exorcist, the family hears a scratching noise from the walls and thinks they might have a rat infestation. As in The Exorcist, the characters might not take the threat seriously at first, but the neck hairs of moviegoers and readers are starting to prickle.
2. USE DELAY TACTICS TO ELEVATE THE TENSION AND SUSPENSE.
While the threat appears early, fear of the unknown is delicious, and you also must delay the ultimate dustup with the monster. Delay any questions nagging at the reader to create suspense. After all, before Little Red Riding Hood meets the Big Bad Wolf, she must walk alone in the dark woods. The reader must hear her hesitant footsteps and the wind sighing and moaning in the trees, see the deep shadows cast by the giant firs as she draws closer and closer to the wolf ’s razor-sharp fangs, and feel that the world is eerily off-kilter and dangerous.
But don’t delay too long. While delay can be delightful, depending on the length of your story, typically by the end of Act 1 the reader must be fully involved with the physical reality and threat of the monster.
3. MAKE SURE THE MONSTER OR THREAT APPEARS TO HAVE THE UPPER HAND AND IS UNSTOPPABLE.
In stories where a monster is on the loose, the humans are all vulnerable, at risk and trapped in a nightmare that appears as if there is no escape. In every dangerous encounter and around every creepy corner, the reader needs to be reminded of death and the fear of death. Often, the cauldron for your story—the vast ocean if it’s a sea monster, or a creepy castle if it’s a ghost story—must also give the monster some advantage.
4. TURN UP THE HEAT WITH PLOT TWISTS, SURPRISES AND REVERSALS THROUGHOUT THE STORY.
A story with a monster must depict what we rarely or never want to meet in real life. Keep in mind that all writing requires a series of twists and surprises while taking the reader where he doesn’t want to go. The reader wants your character to stay home tucked safely in bed, locked away from the sociopathic creep who is murdering women in the small town. So what does the character do? She spots a mysterious light flickering in the woods behind the house and sets out to explore, while the reader is yelling, “Get back into the house and bolt the door!” The reader is worried about what might leap out in the gloomy woods, but what if you sent the story in an even more sinister direction? What if the character is in layers of trouble, and not only is there a serial killer in her midst, but also something supernatural lurking right behind her?
5. USE THE STORY AS A TEST OF CHARACTER.
Most horror stories require the protagonist or victims of the monster to rise up to an extreme challenge or test of character. As in action stories, characters will manifest bravery and bravado. Because characters are oft en fueled by desperation and face overwhelming odds, including the unknown and the unexpected, the reader admires them just for surviving. A monster story provides writers with a particular showcase for a character’s primary traits. A courageous person will likely act courageously, and a coward might wimp out. The point is that this story type is perfect for unveiling characters and making the reader care about the outcome.
6. MAKE THE SETTING ATMOSPHERIC.
Following in the Gothic traditions from where it began, horror story settings must crackle with tension and danger and also create a world the reader can believe in. When a world that we know, with its smells of coffee and toast and bacon, is invaded by a monster, the results are deliciously involving. In horror stories, the world is unsettling and realistic at the same time. Language and sensory details are key to creating an atmosphere of tension and threat. However, the world must be tangible and believable. If the story world feels realistic, then when incredible events or never-before-seen creatures arrive on the scene, the incredible element will be more easily believed.
7. PROVIDE THE READER WITH AN EXTRA DOSE OF CATHARSIS IN THE ENDING.
Fiction endings generally provide catharsis, but in horror stories, when the monster or antagonist is driven back or destroyed, the catharsis is enormously relieving. Stories with monsters provide a kind of safety valve from the stresses of everyday life. There are so many shadow traits in the monster that it is no longer seen as redeemable. Typically, a monster must be destroyed and the protagonists must triumph because of determination, goodness, ingenuity, a tool or some solely human solution.
Horror fiction explores our primal fears and acknowledge the violence, lust and beastliness of human nature. But the best fiction sheds light on some aspect of humanity, opens our minds and gives our imaginations a workout. When you write to frighten, the story and themes must explore realms of humanity, loss and emotion. It’s part thrill ride, part waking nightmare, part contemplative tale. Make your antagonists and monsters deadly, but also make them fascinating—not merely killing machines.
I’d like to meet the first person who ever ate a lobster.
Imagine being the first woman or man to pick up that horrible, red-brown spider-thing with terrifying claws and twitching antennae and saying, “Yum!” To me, a lobster is a giant bug with claws—I’d have run screaming from a lobster. But now we know what a lobster is and what it tastes like and that it isn’t really dangerous. The only thing scary about it is the unknowable mystery of its “market price.”
We’ll want our monsters to maintain a greater degree of mystery, or at least begin with a greater degree of mystery than that.
Start by asking …
WHAT ARE PEOPLE AFRAID OF?
I asked myself this question while working on a fantasy novel in which I envisioned a world overrun by demons. In an effort to build a sense of increasing danger in the book, each new sort of demon my characters meet is more dangerous, more powerful, and more frightening than the last. To do this, I decided to look at my readers’ deepest fears and inject those fears into the demons. So off to the Internet I went in search of the top ten phobias. This is what I found:
1.Arachnophobia (fear of spiders)
2. Social Phobia (fear of a hostile audience)
3. Pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying)
4. Agoraphobia (fear of an inability to escape)
5. Claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces)
6. Acrophobia (fear of heights)
7. Emetophobia (fear of vomit or vomiting)
8. Carcinophobia (fear of cancer)
9. Astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning)
10. Taphophobia (fear of being buried alive)
Phobias take common fears to the pathological level. If these are the ten most common phobias (and I’ve found a few different lists, so your search may yield slightly different results), then there’s a good chance that someone who is reading your book, seeing your movie, or playing your game will have one or more of them to some degree. And even if your readers don’t completely collapse at the sight of a spider, they probably share at least a common uneasiness in the presence of one …or worse, many spiders!
To create that sense of progression and escalation of danger, I simply reversed that top ten list so the final, scariest demon embodies the most prevalent phobia. That means the lowest-level demon comes up from underground and pulls you down and buries you alive, and the “boss” demon is a spider, or something that looks and/or behaves like a spider. As it turns out, those are fairly easy fears to apply to a monster or demon, but what about pteromerhanophobia, the fear of flying? Richard Matheson made quite a splash in 1961 with the short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which a poor soul suffering from pteromerhanophobia encounters the dreaded gremlin tearing pieces out of the wing of the plane he’s flying in. This story became one of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, a vehicle for a young William Shatner. […]
But please don’t think that triggering your audience’s phobic responses is the only way to make your monsters terrifying. In a broader sense, monsters are scary because …
THEY ARE UNPREDICTABLE
Can that lobster take your hand off with one of those claws? Turns out, no, but if it could and you weren’t expecting it … that would be pretty scary, right? In real life we know they can’t hurt us, and that makes them predictable, and predictability is the enemy of horror. But add an unexpected element to a predictable situation and you enhance the potential for fear.
Humans tend to have a pretty good sense of what another human is going to do next. We can tell via body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice when someone is getting angry or upset. We sense when things might get out of control or violent. But monsters don’t necessarily give out those human signals. This is a creature, after all, outside our normal experience. Who knows what it’ll do next?
We’ll discuss setting rules for your monsters and how important it is that you follow those rules, but keep in mind that while you know the rules that govern your monster, your characters don’t. In fact, the less your characters know about what a monster can and can’t do, the better. It’s this unpredictability that will keep your readers on the edge of their seats, playing into the power of the imagination.
THEY HAVE A DISTURBING CAPACITY FOR VIOLENCE
Monsters don’t just attack you; they attack you in particularly gruesome ways, as shown
in this paragraph from the short story “The Little Green God of Agony” by horror master Stephen King.
Melissa had seen where the thing came from and even in her panic was wise enough to cover her own mouth with both hands. The thing skittered up her neck, over her cheek, and squatted on her left eye. The wind screamed and Melissa screamed with it. It was the cry of a woman drowning in the kind of pain the charts in the hospitals can never describe. The charts go from one to ten; Melissa’s agony was well over one hundred—that of someone being boiled alive. She staggered backwards, clawing at the thing on her eye. It was pulsing faster now, and Kat could hear a low, liquid sound as the thing resumed feeding. It was a slushy sound. (From the anthology The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Four, edited by Ellen Datlow.)
Want to scare the crap out of someone? Go for the eyes. It’s up to you to set the degree of “goriness” your story will contain. Movies like The Blair Witch Project are terrifying without spilling a drop of blood, while some contemporary “torture porn” films, like the movie Hostel, are gross, even disturbing, but scary?
I tend to describe “gore” as unmotivated violence—a violent scene done badly, in which all the reader gets is a sense of the quantity of blood and guts without the emotional and psychological (read: character) connection of well-written violent action. … Take a second look at the example [above] from Stephen King. No blood. There is some yucky language in there (“It was a slushy sound.”) but mostly we get Melissa’s experience of this cringeworthy act of violence and her efforts, however vain, to make it stop.
Exploring truly disturbing events can be difficult for many authors to work through, in the horror genre in particular. But fantasy and science fiction—really any genre of fiction—can ask you to plumb your own psychological depths. So what scares you? A little creature that eats your eyes first? Is that disturbing enough for the psychological sweet spot you’re trying to hit? […]
OUR IMAGINATION MAKES THEM SCARIER
Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And the human imagination is pretty powerful. How many times have you imagined something will be absolutely terrifying—a roller coaster, a job interview, a scary movie—and when it’s over you immediately say, “That wasn’t so bad.”
And another great quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t talking about Godzilla or Dracula, but he may as well have been. This plays back to the idea of unpredictability and “otherness.”
We have no idea what to expect from this thing and no way to determine its motives, so we start to fill in the blanks with conjecture, which tends to make something quite a bit more terrifying
than it should be. Our imagination, and thus our fears, becomes the true monster in this case.
This application of our imagination can work in many ways. As stated above, we can fear something we don’t know, but a lot of monster stories start with monsters that are scary and then turn out to be
nice. The Beast from Beauty and the Beast is an example from classic fairy tales, and Frankenstein’s monster is another, a creature who looks terrifying but is layered, emotional, and yearning for understanding … and later, revenge.
In another way, creatures may seem harmless because they appeal to the softer, friendlier side of our imagination, but become monstrous when their true nature is revealed. Star Trek’s tribbles are an excellent example for this. When the crew of the Enterprise first encounters tribbles, their assumptions take over. They imagine the tribbles to be cute and harmless but have no specific information about their true nature. The tribbles slowly reveal themselves over the course of the story to be a sort of plague, like a swarm of locusts. Assumption and imagination can be very dangerous.
Play with the assumptions of your characters in this way, and you’ll be playing with the assumptions of your readers right along with them. We also have a tendency to assume that many of the sentient beings we encounter have a certain sense of right and wrong, or at the very least a sense of their role in relation to other beings around them and what they must do to not just survive but coexist and thrive, but monsters can be particularly scary when they seem to lack these assumed morals.
THEY ARE BEYOND OUR CONTROL
Humans generally like to be in charge. We spend a lot of time trying to control our weight, our relationships, our personal finances, our schedules, everything. We even try to control others by taking classes to learn how to train our dogs, motivate our employees, and so on. So what happens when a monster makes its way onto our starship and simply won’t follow our rules? It eats what and when—and who—it wants to eat. It bleeds metal-dissolving acid all over the place without regard for the hard vacuum of space just a bulkhead away. You can’t negotiate with a monster. You can’t calmly tell a Denebian slime devil, “Okay, wait. I’m going to go to the store and buy you a bunch of steak—don’t eat me in the meantime.” That monster does what it does, and it neither seeks nor respects your opinion.
Simply put, monsters don’t play by our rules—and that scares us.
THEY ARE TERRIFYING IN APPEARANCE
Here’s another example from H.P. Lovecraft , from the classic short story “Pickman’s Model.”
It was a colossal and nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes, and it held in bony claws a thing that had been a man, gnawing at the head as a child nibbles at a stick of candy. Its position was a kind of crouch, and as one looked one felt that at any moment it might drop its present prey and seek a juicier morsel. But damn it all, it wasn’t even the fiendish subject that made it such an immortal fountainhead of all panic—not that, nor the dog face with its pointed ears, bloodshot eyes, flat nose, and drooling lips. It wasn’t the scaly claws nor the mould-caked body nor the half-hooved feet—none of these, though any one of them might well have driven an excitable man to madness.
Frightening, but here’s an interesting take on description: Lovecraft goes to great length to describe a foul-looking creature here, but it is made more ominous by also describing what it’s doing (gnawing on “… a thing that had been a man …”) and what it might do next (“… seek a juicier morsel.”). And it’s important to keep in mind that not all monsters have to appear classically “scary” in order to be so.
In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, author Ransom Riggs describes a less traditional but no less unsettling creature.
But these weren’t the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around—they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don’t recognize them for what they are until it’s too late.
This monster has the ability to hit closer to home, describing the human potential to become inhuman through political, military, and/or social assimilation. Not as frightening as a “nameless blasphemy with glaring red eyes,” but equally monstrous on the inside.
One of the oldest subgenres of horror is the monster movie. From Edison’s 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein to the 1915 film Der Golem, aberrant beings and evil beasts have haunted the screen since the early days. How do we keep them fresh and scary, then, when the formula is so familiar? There must be a way – creature features still delight and terrify us, as evidenced by the blockbuster reboots of Godzilla and King Kong.
Here are a few tips that can give your monstrosities their own terrifying life:
CALIBRATE YOUR PACING: Films must be exciting, of course – especially when they’re about bloodthirsty aberrations – but it’s easy to waste all of your thrills in the first act and wear your audience out in the process. When the foremost goal of your film is to frighten, this is especially important. Showing your monster for the first time is arguably the most vital and difficult part of making a successful creature feature. And no matter how impressive the effects are, the audience can tire of them after a while. Keeping the monsters at a low dose will help ensure their effectiveness, and give more room for character.
There are endless examples of this. An American Werewolf in London solves the wolfman-movie pacing issue through David’s terrifying nightmares, which create psychological drama before the corporeal horror begins. The Descent sets up the dreadful circumstances of its setting before the monsters come into play. Alien is extremely deliberate in its pacing, unveiling its enigmatic mythology patiently until the titular villain finally (literally) bursts into the story. That first appearance is crucial, and it has to hit hard – we can only see the monster so many times before it loses its power.
KEEP YOUR MONSTER HIDDEN: As the granddaddy of tentacled monstrosities, H.P. Lovecraft, noted – the greatest human fear is that of the unknown. Keeping a monster in the shadows, only unveiling its appearance at the last moment, will keep it a mystery; and what we don’t understand, we fear. Horror is defined by its focus on dread and the uncanny, which is diminished once we understand too much.
Jaws is so creepy because we don’t see the beast as it drags people to their doom; though this is attributed more to production accidents than writing. Joe Dante’s The Howling manages to actually terrifying with its werewolves because it keeps them a secret, unleashing them only in the last moments. The Host keeps its focus on human drama, punctuated by emotionally volatile appearances by the monster. Cloverfield only shows its beast fully onscreen once or twice, if that, and it never explains its origins. The creature is the centerpiece, of course, but it must be scary. Only show it at the most crucial moments, and the mystery will remain to haunt viewers after the credits roll.
MAKE YOUR MONSTER UNIQUE: After so many decades of horror cinema, it’s difficult to find physical or motivational specificities to set your monster apart. This is essential, though; if we’ve seen a monster before, we can’t truly fear it. That doesn’t mean that each new film must invent a mythology from scratch – its approach just needs to be different. Considering the insane amount of folklore material in the world, this isn’t too much of a challenge.
Trollhunter and The Hallow both draw on their respective locations’ folklore, literalizing myths in intricate and full-bodied ways. Even common beasts, such as a werewolf or vampire, can be given fresh takes – American Werewolf and The Howling both provided unique spins on this creature in the same year, one with dark humor, one with eerie cultish overtones. Hellraiser gives its Cenobites an almost Biblical mythology, lending them a poetry almost unseen in the genre. Then there’s films like The Thing or The Void, both of which feature shapeshifting monsters that provide endless visual invention. Whether it be unpredictable takes on classics or an entirely fresh creation, the creatures must speak for themselves. But…
KEEP IT HUMAN, EVEN THE BEASTS: This mantra applies to the design as well – humanoid beasts are uncanny due to their resemblance – but it’s most important for the story. While monsters provide the visual threats, the true villains of The Mist are paranoid, desperate people. The Babadook would lose its power without the central metaphor regarding mental illness and grief. As evidenced by its predecessor’s lack of honest impact, Cronenberg’s version of The Fly proves the need for pathos – its monster is ultimately a figure of tragedy. The oldest example of this comes from Frankenstein – poor adaptations of Mary Shelley’s classic fail when they forget that the man-made monster just wants to be accepted. Pacing, design and lore are all important ingredients, with the human element taking precedence over all of it. It’s no easy feat creating monsters – Frankenstein himself displays just how difficult it can be – but there are common trends to guide one along the path. Get your claws and scales ready, then center them on that festering, beating heart.
I wish I could say I saw Alien on the big screen in 1979, and experienced the glory of Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger’s chest-bursting, face-hugging terrors before they became property of pop culture and parody. Alas, Alien was years before my time. The film was nearly thirty years old before I borrowed the DVD from a friend and watched it alone in a small, dark room. Mistake.
What my tiny, flickering television experience lacked in silver screen quality, it made up for in atmosphere, intense claustrophobia, and the eerie sense of being isolated in the universe. Space is already a terrifying, incomprehensible void to me; adding Alien’s Xenomorph only made me check my locks thrice and start looking up how to make homemade napalm… at least for fiction’s sake.
I watched the film countless times, breaking down the movie down into its basest parts, trying to understand why it succeeded to frighten audiences so thoroughly with its modest budget, low performance expectations, and a fairly lukewarm critical reception. Nowadays, the film is widely considered a classic.
Here’s what Alien taught me about writing horror.
Wait to Show Your (Entire) Hand: This rule applies to horror writers of any ilk: Once the audience manages to get a good look at the scare, it depreciates rapidly and forces the writer to fight a losing battle of diminishing returns. In Alien, Scott is careful to never let his audiences see the entire Xenomorph until the end—we see glimpses of the creature as a newborn, a hand here, a mouth there, but little else until the final showdown in the escape capsule. By that point, the reveal of the Xenomorph is not only necessary, but an integral part of the climax… and the scare.
I tend to think of this as the “new car principle” in horror—once you drive your shiny new monster off the lot, its value drops substantially and cannot be recouped.
The “Strange Form” Principle: A large part of Alien’s lasting appeal is Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s timeless, biomechanical design for the Xenomorph. I won’t spend much time delving into the symbolism of the creature—I’d like to keep this conversation family-friendly—except to point out that the word xenomorph is from the Greek words xeno, meaning “stranger or foreigner,” and morph, meaning “form.” Though the Xenomorph is alien, a “strange form,” its design still has humanoid elements: Bipedal, it walks upright on two feet and possesses two arms, shoulders, and a head (albeit an elongated one). Also note the lack of eyes, which makes the creature appear soulless, thus rendering the audience incapable of feeling empathy for the alien.
The inclusion of humanoid elements on a “strange form” creates a nice cognitive dissonance, too—there are limbs we recognize, organized in a shape that seems to insist upon intelligence, rationality even… but instead, the form embodies a chaotic savagery that shocks and terrifies the audience.
Lastly, to achieve a lasting psychological scare, writers can follow Geiger’s model and make their monsters embody both tangible and intangible fears. In Alien’s case, the tangible fear the Xenomorph presents is a gruesome, painful death; but it also represents the psychological horrors of rape. How so? For those of you who haven’t noticed the film’s symbolism, I’m just going to point to the Pilot Jockey. And the facehugger. And the shape of the chestburster. And the… well, you get the point.
Horror is Flexible: Ridley Scott famously called Alien “the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space.” True to his pronouncement, the film shares most of its plot characteristics with the standard slasher, particularly in terms of “the Final Girl” trope. In fact, Scott says Ellen Ripley’s last stand in the starship Nostromo was influenced by Laurie Strode’s end battle with Michael Myers in Halloween (1978).
Simply defined, genre is often determined by the specific events that constitute a story’s plot; though the setting, roles characters assume, themes, and cultural values come into play as well. The great advantage horror storytellers have is the ability to step into a speculative world of their choosing and still tell a horror story. Horror meshes well with science fiction, fantasy (particularly urban fantasy), magical realism, steampunk, time-travel, contemporary fiction, crime novels… the list goes on. However, stories may only include horror elements as opposed to being defined specifically as horror projects.
Bet on Setting: An element Alien is renowned for is the gritty interior of the starship Nostromo. It gave audiences a dissonant view of space travel, located in a galaxy far, far away from the Empire’s bright, white hallways and pristine Stormtrooper armor. Alien tore preconceived notions of space travel apart, promptly filling the void with exposed metal, rustling chains, rusted pipes, stuttering lights, and an occasional shock of pure silence.
Alien’s deep space setting has the added bonus of being a completely inhospitable battleground. Settings in horror novels work double-duty, not only providing a backdrop for the action, but being an active obstacle that keeps the protagonists from escaping, surviving, being rescued, or otherwise achieving their goals.
When All Else Fails, Save the Cat: One of my favorite Ripley moments comes toward the end, when she’s living the dream as the Final Girl and banging down a corridor with a gun in one hand, a cat carrier in the other. It’s a horribly awkward way to try and escape the nightmare, and every time I watch the film, I always find myself chuckling because if I were in Ripley’s shoes, I realize I would be doing the exact same thing.
Creating an effective scare isn’t wholly dependent on the creation of a terrifying monster. Paradoxically, I have argued in the past that a storyteller can make any sort of creature frightening, so long as it presents a clear mortal, spiritual, emotional, or psychological threat; and the protagonist engages the audience’s empathy.
In Alien’s case, our empathy and regard for Ripley increases a thousand-fold when she chooses to save Jones the cat, a creature essentially incapable of saving itself from the Xenomorph or evacuating itself during the ship’s self-destruct sequence. Jones’ presence heightens the dramatic tension—we follow Ripley as she searches through the ship, calling for Jones under her breath, all the while trying to avoid the alien creature hunting her through the ship’s corridors.
Don’t kill the cat. Or the dog, for that matter—we’re horror writers here, not monsters.