Terrifying

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,

Lee

This entry was posted in Blog, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

6 Comments

  1. Revereche
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I’d say vengeance-fueled monsters are another good category – many of the antagonists in Poe’s works and traditional Japanese horror stories were driven by revenge. The guilt and hopelessness of knowing what you brought upon yourself cannot be avoided . . .

    Of course, I generally get a different thrill from horror than fear, so.

  2. Posted August 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always thought of monsters as the subset of a larger category: the uncanny. Monsters in cinema and literature tend to be metaphors to just represent some aspect of the uncanny. I completely agree that it’s the unknown that makes them horrific, but I also think that monsters have to stay culturally relevant, because a lot of what they represent is our collective vision of the uncanny. I think psychopathic killers were probably pretty frightening in an era when people were just starting to lock their doors at night. Today however, I think our culture is much more aware of the psychopathic killer’s psychology, so collectively we have less fear of what we understand—which is exactly what you’re saying. It’s interesting to see how literature and cinema plays on our fears of the unknown or in some cases “the other”. During the cold war the Soviets were caricaturized as collectivist drones, so many of the most frightening movies of the fifties and sixties are stories of alien invaders coming to steal away our individuality and replace it with some type of hive mind controlled by godless creatures from space. The nineties brought us movies that basically played on the fear that your very complicated interconnected world is even more complicated and frightening than you can imagine. The Matrix is typically categorized as dystopian science fiction, but it’s pretty much a summation of many horror movies—we create our own demise. So I think the fearful monsters are those that are most relevant to our culture, which means that monsters are a way for us to face the changes that are happening in our culture and sort of safely rebel against them without being called out as a Conservative fear monger. When there are political issues that involve the border, suddenly there a few more summer hits about “alien invasion”. Now we can all see these movies and completely miss the metaphor, but can someone really say, oh, it’s just a coincidence? I think not. I’m a parent, so monsters that prey on children seem the most frightening to me now at this point in my life, especially if they are capable of making paternal characters helpless or oblivious to the child’s plight. That’s feeding directly on my fear of the unknown. I can’t know and control my child’s safety 24/7 and only a crazy person would try. But make a movie about monsters sneaking into my child’s bedroom and threatening her, and suddenly that crazy part of me that does want to protect her 24/7 is awakened and fed a little more paranoia. Personally, I think if you want to make a really good monster, you need to take a long hard look at our culture and try to determine its collective fears. Right now I think lot of Americans fear we’re in a state of decline and that we’re somehow losing some revised past. Give me a set of monsters who feed off these fears and I have a new horror to confront people with. See, I think that the unknown is what scares us, but it can’t be completely unknown. What makes it uncanny is the fact that we do recognize part of it, but we don’t fully know it and understand it. Here’s a pretty good example; imagine if you will a regular circus clown. Just happy Mr. Clown with the red nose and big curly green hair, but he turns around and where his back should be there’s an enormous mouth. The mouth doesn’t even need to have sharp teeth to be uncanny and a little creepy. We all recognize a clown and we all recognize a normal human mouth, but these two things together are enough to make a monster we will likely fear, because our brain wants some sort of explanation for this strange combination. I think this is another reason why I don’t find CGI werewolves [or just about any other CGI monster] that have been overdesigned very scary. I would find a wolf with human eyes, far more frightening than anything I’ve seen on a recent werewolf movie. Just give me a wolf that is as realistic as possible, and give it human eyeballs. Those will weird me out way more than some giant wolf monster with razor-sharp teeth. Anyway, I think I’ve gotten off track here, but maybe you get the point. Monsters have to be culturally relevant and have to be built on what we collectively fear to really scare anyone.

  3. Mon Star
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    @ALeeMartinez

    This blog post was very thought provoking. Great insight. I don’t know what to do with it.

    I think you are right. We basically have two types of monsters, very limiting. I’m not Avant Garde enough to come up with a solution (Well, perhaps a comical solution). Yet, your post almost seems like a challenge. Create an “unknowable” monster who remains unknowable. Or create a new monster who is neither single-minded or unknowable. My first thought, George W. Bush. A person who unknowingly does monstrous things.

    A person with the worst type of critical thinking skills, and lack of understanding for humanity, would be a sort of monster. Such a monster would be difficult to write. How could you convince the audience that the monster had no intentions of acting monstrously, for one? For two, it would be difficult to come up with the type of scenarios that makes this type of monster a monster. And if anyone did write such a character their mentality for ever more. Dear author, what bowels of hell did you sink to to write such an evil character? Then again, I believe such a monster is unknowingly in all of us. So, of course, we would give the author an award for being so dark and deep.

  4. Rippley
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    @Shawn Scarber,

    I’m sold. Your take on the uncanny category seems to hit the nail right on the head. But instead of a clown with a giant mouth back, Mon Star seems to have what I would called a monster.

  5. Will
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Great post, ALM. And by Shawn S as well.
    The homicidal robot is ubiquitous in video fiction, if not in print as well. The reason for their hostility is rarely explained. Is it that exposition makes for boring scenes? An extension of the subconscious fear that a machine will malfunction in a way that hurts us? Or that robots are a proxy for the next generation pushing us aside as it comes into it’s own?

  6. Amber
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I am a horror fan, I like to watch it, read it, and am aspiring to write it well – I’m my worst critic. Anyhow, my view is the only thing that is actually scary is helplessness. In all forms, and often that is found in the very essence of not knowing what will hurt you or others. Which I think you point out very well in this blog entry.

    Many times fear is done badly. The highly commercial success stories in horror, like Freddy and Jason, are bland after a time because we need a hero. The very fact that there is going to be a hero in a sequel just like the first one takes away the helplessness of it. The audience knows how to kill the monster and how to get to safety. We just wait for our hero to do it in a more interesting way then the last one.

    But what would happen if the monster is as frightened as our hero? Whatever he/she /it is will react with as many unexpected rash choices as our hero will. Both monster and hero reacting with cruelty and the instinct to survive (or continue if already dead). This is something that has been done on film, but rarely fills the box office. In books and short stories, the horror that I think are the best reads, usually have this quality throughout.

    In example there is a big difference in a vampire that is having a brunch and dressed in fine clothes compared to a recently turned vampire that is starving and alone until he stumbles through a forest to a couple of teenagers making out. And one of the teenagers happens to be his son. The audience knows how the vampire can be killed, but do we really want that? Yes we do, but we aren’t going to feel good about it. So instead of our hero (the teenager) killing a mindless monster he has to confront the murderer within himself.

    This is why Frankenstein is a classic, and why to this day is still scary for many people.

    Horror isn’t about the monster we see, understand, or know about. It’s about the monster in ourselves and so there is no hero, only monsters that we are forever helpless to.

    Kind of a downer really, but horror doesn’t do happy endings. Someone has to get hurt without ever coming back.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  • шкафы-купе киев
  • шкафы-купе киев
  • копирайтинг
  • SEO копирайтинг
  • копирайтер
  • копирайтеры
  • рерайт
  • рекламная кампания
  • обслуживание сайта
  • биржи статей
  • пресс-релизы
  • статьи для сайта
  • новости для сайта
  • коммерческое предложение
  • продающий текст
  • слоган
  • нейминг
  • Website Design & Wordpress Template by A.J. Roberts