Back in the 1970s-80s, quite a few popular splatterpunk novels in the UK followed a similar formula – take an ordinary animal that some people were afraid of, enlarge it slightly, make it more ferocious and then see what happens.
James Herbert was first with his “Rats” trilogy, followed by Guy N. Smith and his “Crabs” novels (the footnote at the end of “The Origin Of The Crabs” still makes me laugh even ten years after I read it) and then there were Shaun Hutson’s two “Slugs” novels.
Giant evil animals were apparently all the rage in the seventies and eighties.
Although they were fun to read, only one of these many novels genuinely scared me and that was “Domain” – the final novel in James Herebert’s “Rats” trilogy. There are virtually no giant rats in it at all. They literally appear in only a couple of scenes, if I remember rightly.
Most of “Domain” is actually an extremely bleak tale about the survivors of a Soviet nuclear attack on the UK and most of the story takes place in the claustrophobic depths of the London underground. In fact, the creepiest chapter of the novel (a very memorable chapter about a man and a cat trapped in a fallout shelter) was apparently removed when the novel was published in America.
It’s a disturbing novel, but there are very few monsters in it.
Monsters have also, of course, been a part of horror movies for decades. Very few horror movies featuring monsters are scary – most old monster movies (and some new ones) aren’t scary due to the laughable special effects or because they rely on a fantastical monster as their main source of horror.
Monsters, in and of themselves, aren’t scary. If the main source of horror in your story is a monster, a werewolf, a vampire, a ghost or a horde of zombies – your story won’t be scary.
Why? Because monsters don’t exist. They rarely tap into anyone’s actual fears. Yes, monsters might look dramatic or be easy to write, but you shouldn’t rely on fantastical creatures alone to scare your readers.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t include monsters, vampires, zombies etc… in your story. After all, what would the horror genre be without these things? No, these things are a valuable part of the horror genre. But, to be cynical, they’re little more than window dressing. Something you can add to your story for dramatic value and/or because it looks cool. At most, monsters can be symbolic. But they aren’t scary.
So, if monsters aren’t scary, then how do you write a scary story that includes monsters? Simple. You make sure that the main source of horror in your story comes from the situation, the characters, the themes of your story, suspense and/or the plot of your story rather than from the monsters.
To use an example from another article I wrote, a good zombie story isn’t scary because of the zombies. It’s scary because of the breakdown in society that the zombie apocalypse causes. It’s scary because, even if the main characters survive, then they will never be able to lead normal lives again. It’s scary because the suvivors could, at any time, become infected by the zombie virus.
A good zombie story is scary because the suvivors might recognise some of the people who have been turned into zombies. It’s scary because it reminds us that, eventually, death comes for us all. It’s scary because of the other survivors who have used the zombie apocalypse as an excuse to be as evil as they want to be etc…
There are lots of disturbing and scary things in a good zombie story, but the zombies aren’t one of them.
Going back to my earlier point about symbolism, a good monster is usually only scary because it symbolises something else which is genuinely scary. A ghost symbolises death, misery and vengeance. A werewolf symbolises a body which it’s owner cannot control, it symbolises the fact that – for all our progress- humans are still essentially animals.
To use an example from sci-fi, the borg in “Star Trek” aren’t creepy because they look like Hellraiser-esque cyborgs. They’re scary because they symbolise absolute conformity and a total loss of individuality.
So, if you’re adding a monster to your story, then be clear about what it symbolises and see if you can find subtle ways to make that symbolism obvious to your readers (eg: via how your characters, and the monsters, react to things).
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂