I’m not a horror writer. I do use elements of the horror genre now and then, but though I write about monsters, they are rarely “monstrous”. More often, they’re characters who happen to be monsters.
While I’m not a big horror fan, I do believe though that monsters that are genuinely scary usually come in two types: The Single-Minded and The Unknowable.
The Single-Minded monster is straightforward. It exists for one simple purpose and lives to only fulfill that purpose. It doesn’t generally care if you, specifically, live or die. It just wants to do what it does and if you get in the way, you’re screwed.
The Blob is the best and most terrifying example. It isn’t intelligent. It doesn’t scheme. It just stalks and eats. And the more it eats, the bigger it gets. It carries no particular malice toward individuals. They’re only food. And unchecked, it would eat everything in the world. The Blob is a known quantity. It might not be very mysterious, but it doesn’t need to be. Because even knowing what it is and what it wants doesn’t give you much of an advantage when dealing with it. Other than to run away from the damn thing and hope someone, somewhere, manages to stop it.
Jason Vorheese is another example. He lives to kill. He has no other purpose. And while he’s appeared in so many films, it’s hard to take him seriously as a monster at this point, it doesn’t change the fact that he is one. And that he’s a pretty darned effective one at that, considering he is just as difficult to kill as the Blob. Maybe more difficult. Jason certainly has more movies.
Whenever animals attack, they tend to fall into this category. Whether it’s rabid dogs or crazed bears, birds or giant rabbits, they tend to be remarkably simple in their motivations. And that single purpose is what makes them so scary. Because if all the birds in the world just decided to attack us, it’d be pretty ugly.
The second monster type is The Unknowable monster. The unknowable monster is trickier than the single-minded beast because the unknowable remains largely unfathomable. It’s a much harder monster to create and it’s a virtually impossible monster to sustain. The more often the unknowable monster appears, the less unknowable it is. And the more we know about it, the more concrete its motivations and methods, the less terrifying it becomes.
Freddy Krueger started as an unknowable. He was something that came in your dreams and killed you when you slept. You couldn’t really fight him, and why he chose you was a mystery. But then the film explains that he’s the ghost of a serial killer and he’s coming back for revenge. It takes something away from him then. Instead of being an indefinable thing come to slay you in your sleep, he’s an evil ghost out for vengeance. While he’s still scary, he isn’t the same.
As the movies progressed, as Freddy became less of a nightmarish force and more of a serial killer with a gimmick, he became correspondingly less frightening. By the time Freddy Vs. Jason rolled around, Freddy was more of an evil genius in ghost form than anything else. Jason, though, remained a simple-minded killing machine who exists only to kill. It’s true that he loses some of his teeth when we see him as a frightened little boy under it all, but considering that in the real world, he is still a monster who slaughters everything he comes across, he’s still fairly direct.
Cthulhu and most of the H.P. Lovecraft mythos suffers from this affect. Does anyone really fear Cthulhu anymore? While he once represented the inevitable doom hanging over our heads, he’s instead become something of a mascot for fear, rather than an agent of it. The more written about Cthulhu and his gang, the less terrible they are. Oh, sure, they’d kill us all in a heartbeat, but they still seem to have motivations that make sense.
Cthulhu is just the janitor for much more powerful forces. He’s just a workin’ stiff with tentacles. He’s the concept of abstract horror put in solid form and then made into stuffed animals.
In watching the trailer for the new Paranormal Activity 3, I couldn’t help but be struck by how unscary the monster is at this point. The first film was all about a monster that we never saw, that might have been a demon, might have been something else, that was lurking invisibly in the house. What it wanted was never clear. Why it existed at all was never mentioned. And where it came from . . . hell, it could’ve been outer space for all we knew. What made Paranormal Activity frightening was NOT knowing these things.
I get that Hollywood can’t let go of a moneymaking idea, but I don’t see why horror fans find this stuff frightening. Because, aside from a few shock scares, the monster has lost its most terrifying quality, its unknown nature.
This is what made Cloverfield interesting. There’s a giant monster attacking the city, and because we view it from the perspective of just random citizens, we never learn much about it. Just that it’s big and frightening and it’ll kill you by stepping on you and not even notice. And those little things that drop off of it, what are they? Is this an invasion? Is it just a big misunderstanding? Is the monster just as confused as we are?
Actually, all those questions have answers. That was part of the marketing for the film. If you looked, you could find the answers. But why would a horror fan want them? Why would I want to know more when, by knowing more, I rob myself of the mystery that makes the monster scary in the first place?
Maybe it’s because, even when we embrace our fears, we are always striving to defeat them. We like to be terrified, but only on our own terms. And we also can’t resist seeking answers. We are terribly uncomfortable with the unknown. The Blob might want to eat us, but at least we can comprehend that. And Cthulhu might rise out of the depths to destroy civilization, but it’s some small comfort to understand why he’s doing it. And if you give us a movie about a giant monster rampaging through New York, we can’t resist asking “why?” and seeking out those answers.
The horror of the unknown so terrifies us that we can’t allow it. Not even in our fiction. We need to know, and I think that’s where H.P. Lovecraft was wrong. We aren’t frightened by answers, even answers that aren’t especially comforting. We’re terrified by the prospect of not getting answers, of living without ever knowing.
That’s why the prequel will remain appealing. Not because they ever really give us good answers. They don’t. But they give us answers, regardless, and answers are what we seek. And even monsters aren’t allowed to get away without supplying those answers.
The one horror we will always reject is uncertainty, and that isn’t just why our monsters tend to lose their teeth. It’s why we tend to reject the abstract, why we become beholden to flawed philosophies of all types, and why we are so easy to lie to. Because we’ll take any answer, no matter how silly, over no answer.
The most horrific concept isn’t found in blobs from outer space, slashers, or torture flicks. It’s found in three little words:
I don’t know.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,