The real world is where the monsters are.
Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.
MARY SHELLEY, Frankenstein
When talking about adaptations, a common thing one might hear is “That’s not how it happened in the book!” But surely there is more to adaptations than simply loyalty between film and book. One must delve deeper to understand the relationship between books and films when an adaptation is made. There is bound to be discussion (when examining adaptations) of what novels can do that film can’t and vice versa. Novels are verbal and use words to tell a story, while films are visual and rely on images to do the telling. But there is more to the balance between a book and its film adaptation. Once one fully comprehends the relationship between book, film, and adaptation, one can see that adaptations should be treated as a literary art form of their own. Adaptations are a category of their own and should be treated accordingly.
In order to discuss the relationship between book and film in adaptations and the reasons behind the controversy of that relation, it is important to first look at the history of adaptations in order to understand the background surrounding that industry. By doing so, one can see the way adaptations have evolved throughout the years and the manners in which the opinions regarding adaptations have changed and varied and even adapted to the current era. We will examine the ways in which adapting literature to film is viewed in our society and the reasons behind both praise and critical reception of adaptations.
Although adaptations from page to stage had been done by Shakespeare in the 1600’s, film adaptations took quite a long time to come about. It wasn’t until Georges Méliés began to see film as a means for personal expression that film was even thought of as literary. Méliés was the first to adapt a work of literature for the screen. In 1902, he adapted Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into the black-and-white, silent, science-fiction film A Trip to the Moon. Named one of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century by Village Voice, A Trip to the Moon was not only widely popular for its special effects and innovative animation, and for being the first known science-fiction film, but also because it did something else, too: it created a domino-effect. Méliés went on to produce many more adaptations over the next years such as Gulliver’s Travels (1902), Robinson Crusoe (1902), and “The Legend of Rip Van Winkle (1905). After him, many French and Italian filmmakers started making their own adaptations of classic books. Americans, of course, followed using novels, poems, plays and short stories.
Adaptations were greeted positively at first, with critics thinking them educational and innovative. Influential film artist D. W. Griffith: “Early movies were met with praise not only for their innovation, but for the promise they offered in educating their audiences.” Film critic Stephen Bush said in the 1911 The Moving Picture World, “An epic that has pleased and charmed many generations is most likely to stand the test of cinematographic reproduction… after all, the word “classic: has some meaning. The merits of a classic subject are nonetheless certain because known and appreciated by comparatively few men. It is the business of the moving picture to make them available to all. Jack London believed that motion pictures could break down the “barriers of poverty and environment” and provide “universal education”. Paramount magazine (1915) stated: “The greatest minds have delivered their messages through their book or play. The motion picture spreads it on the screen where all can read and understand- and enjoy”.
The popularity of adaptations continued to rise over the next years. So much so, that in 1939, nearly every film competing for an Academy Award was an adaptation; adaptations of such classics such as Of Mice and Men, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. Between 1927 (when the awards were created) and 1977, three fourths of awards for “Best Picture” went to adaptations. Some of the most popularly adapted authors included Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, and Sienkiewicz. Film adaptations remained popular in the following decades.
Nowadays, film adaptations aren’t strictly literary classics but rather span across a broad range of genres such as mysteries, thrillers, horror, and romance novels. Some of these more modern adaptations include Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, Carrie, The Godfather, and Pelican Brief. According to 1992 statistics, 85% of all Oscar-winning “Best Pictures” are adaptations. And it’s no wonder; there are countless film adaptations that virtually defined their ages and provided catch-phrases and concepts significant to the popular culture. Some of these include Slaughterhouse-Five, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, The World According to Garp, and Being There, among many others that addressed important and controversial contemporary issues.
Despite the growing popularity of adaptations, there are a lot of concerns and arguments against adaptations, and they’re not all for the same reasons. One such argument is that adaptations work against the uniqueness of film. Film is its own creative art form and using other works to adapt them to film stifles that creativity and prevents original work from being produced. This growing popularity of adaptations not only dissolves the barrier between literature and film, but it creates a stigma that film is there to serve as another medium for which to display literature, rather than existing as its own separate entity capable of narrative merit.
But the disdain against adaptations doesn’t seem to stem simply from the viewpoint that adaptations shouldn’t be made at all, but rather, that they shouldn’t be made into film. “It does seem to be more or less acceptable to adapt Romeo and Juliet into a respected high art form, like an opera or a ballet, but not to make it into a movie” (Hutcheon, 3). So the concern is not that adapting will reduce the quality of the original work, but that it is actually the form or medium it is being translated to that matter. In this case, a film is thought to lower the original, causing the general disdain for adapting works of literature-particularly classics-into film. Director Alain Resnais once claimed he would never shoot an adaptation because “the writer [had] completely expressed himself in the novel and wanting to make a film of it is a little like re-heating a meal.”
There are certain authors that actually enjoy adaptations of their work such as William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, who, although he liked aspects of the film, deliberately chose to stay uninvolved with the process. Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five, thought that Universal pictures created a “flawless translation” of his book, but said that ultimately, he doesn’t like the how “clankingly real” and “industrial” film is.
This is not always the case, however. Another argument against adaptations is that combining both mediums could only end up harming them both. Virginia Woolf (1926) in “The Movies and Reality” claimed that alliance between cinema and literature was “unnatural” and “disastrous” to both films; but the short end of the stick would ultimately be the original work since adaptations hurt the books that are being adapted. Hannah Arendt claimed that the problem with adaptations was that films used novels as material to appeal to the masses when it ran out of ideas of its own and that the real issue is that the “material…must be prepared and altered in order to become entertaining”. It is these alternations that are detrimental to the original work and the reasoning behind opposition to the practice of adapting classic literature to film.
Consider the case of J. D. Salinger’s story “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” was made into a 1949 film called My Foolish Heart. Except for a framing story, there is little resemblance between the film and the book. The story was transformed from an exposé of the suburban society into a sentimental love story with a happy ending. He was so traumatized by the experience that he decided never to get involved with adaptations again. My Foolish Heart remains, to this date, the only authorized adaptation of Salinger’s writings to film. And now the world will never see a film adaptation of Catcher in the Rye because of it. Then there is the case of Willa Cather, whose novel A Lost Lady was adapted very loosely into a film in 1934. The film did not live up to the novel’s reputation and is now generally regarded as nothing more than mediocre. As a result, Cather stated in her will that she would not release any rights to any of her literary works.
With this overwhelming amount of negative reception for adaptations, one has to wonder how they’re still alive and kicking in this day and age, full of cynical and hyper-critical audiences and critics. Hutcheon theorizes that the explanation behind this is that even though adaptations are thought of as inferior and secondary creations, they are familiar, and people derive pleasure from the familiar. “Part of this pleasure” Hutcheon explains, “comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise” (Hutcheon, 4).
People are innately attracted to the familiar, what they know won’t let them down is comforting. This is the reason directors and producers keep churning out adaptations, because they know they will sell. Adaptations inherently come with a pre-established fan base. If the original work has already gathered a following, then the possibilities of making money are greater than with an original script. There is, of course, a variety on the reasons behind this audience’s attendance. There are some that will attend an adaptation simply because they want to remember their original experience with the book fondly. There are also those who will want to uphold the standards of the original by scrutinizing every detail and comparing it by evaluating its faithfulness to its source. There will be the people that are so against adaptations that they just want to watch an adaptation crash and burn (which ironically, supports the adaptation with their presence regardless of their intent). And then there will always be those who have never even read the original work, but feel like they should have and will therefore use this adaptation as a means to stay “in the loop”. Whatever the case, there is no denying that adaptations sell. This gives some further insight into the phenomenon of the popularity of adaptations despite their reputation as lesser and inferior art.
Despite arguments such as Virginia Woolf’s, adaptations can actually end up being mutually beneficial for the original work and the film adapting it. Books helped by adaptations: reprinted books with a picture from the movie with the slogan “Now a major motion picture”. There are many instances of “forgotten” books or literature that has slipped through the cracks- whether it is old or new- that film adaptations actually bring back to life, so in a way, adaptations give those books an audience and got them noticed. By the same token, a film can benefit from not only the pre-established fan-base of a book, but also from using its name as a marketing strategy. Such is the case with films such as Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Emma.
Then there’s, of course, the relation of book to film in terms of how faithful the adaptation is to its original source. Many critics’ views are that faithfulness is not a matter for textual analysis but rather for work on the way adaptations are received; faithfulness matters if it matters to the viewer. Strictly following the original source to the letter only becomes an issue when the intended audience is expecting it or demanding it. This is especially important when dealing with iconic works such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or with works that already have a very large and faithful following like Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Lord of the Rings. There are also many critics and reviewers that put themselves in the role of the viewer who has not only read the book, but is expecting the film to be faithful to it. This is a mistake. Critics should not pretend to be the fan-base of the original work and in turn analyze (and criticize) an adaptation on the basis of its faithfulness to the original book. They should instead view the adaptation as an art form in and of itself and judge it accordingly, focusing instead on its literary and cinematographic merit apart from its “source”.
One thing adaptations should never do is pretend that they’re not adaptations. This is to say, that there are instances in which a film is not recognized as an adaptation because this is never acknowledged or perhaps the book is not well-known. Although this may be the case, adaptations should strive to be recognizable to anyone who is familiar with the original work, regardless of whether the adaptation is faithful to the source or not. As Catherine Grant stated: “The most important act that films and their discourses need to perform in order to communicate unequivocally their status as adaptations is to [make their audiences] recall the adapted work, or the cultural memory of it…there is no such thing as a ‘secret’ adaptation” (Grant, 57
Recall; this is an interesting notion that often goes unmentioned when discussing adaptations. But it’s actually what, ultimately, the audience, as both readers of the original work and film enthusiasts long for when watching a film adaptation. Author Christine Geraghty focuses less on the way books are adapted and the process involved, and more on the ways in which the film adaptations cause us as viewers to recall things by watching them. Her book Now a Major Motion Picture, delves into the mental and emotional aspects that adaptations have on the audience, specifically for those who have read the original work before watching the film adaptation. She claims that adaptations often carry emotional weight, and that “familiar stories and generic references fold into one another, one setting can be seen through another” (Geraghty, 11). However, this is not to say that film adaptations shouldn’t be treated as autonomous works in their own right.
Barbara Tepa Lupack, author of Take Two: Adapting the Contemporary American Novel to Film has a similar train of though. She claims that the reason adaptations have so much controversy and criticism surrounding them is because “when we assess an adaptation we are not really comparing book to film but rather interpretation to interpretation- the novels that we ourselves have recreated in our imaginations out of which we have constructed or own “movie” and the novel on which a filmmaker has worked on a parallel transformation” (Lupack, 10). So we’re really comparing our own experience of the book to the director’s experience of the book. The reason it is imperial to keep this in mind, is that once we put into perspective our own personal reasons for judging a film adaptation roughly it becomes clearer that there are some unreasonable expectations set for adaptations that are almost impossible to fulfill without leaving at least one malcontent critic. One is far better off enjoying the memories that adaptations stir-up from the original source, or letting oneself be transported to a new unknown word (if one is not familiar with the original work). And if an adaptation is regarded as an art form of its own, then this process becomes simpler and more enjoyable for all.
Whether one is for or against adaptations, disregarding them as lesser art is a mistake because we will ultimately be closing off on the opportunity to experience both cinema and literature in a different light, one that only adaptations can provide. “An adaptation is always, whatever else it may be, an interpretation. And if this is one way of understanding the nature of adaptation and the relationship of any given film to the book that inspired it, it’s also a way of understanding what may bring such a film into being in the first place: the chance to offer an analysis and appreciation of one work of art through another.” (Lupack, 61-62). It is important to give credit to both the adaptation as well as the original work; although it is true that an adaptation wouldn’t exist without the original work, an adaptation should be respected as its own work as well.
Hutcheon, Linda. A theory of adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Geraghty, Christine. Now a major motion picture: film adaptations of literature and drama. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008. Print.
Lupack, Barbara Tepa, ed.. Take two: adapting the contemporary American novel to film. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994. Print.
Grant, Catherine. “Recognizing Billy Budd in Beau Travail: Epistemology and Hermeneutics of Auterist ‘Free’ Adaptation” Screen 34, no.1 (Spring 2002):57.
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.