Monsters Don’t Make Monster Stories Scary… Everything Else Does

2015 Artwork Everything but the monster is scary article sketch

Although this is another article about writing monster-based horror fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about 1990s computer games for a while.

Trust me, there’s a good reason for this and I’m not just stealthily reviewing a really cool “Doom” WAD that I discovered recently. Honest.

Anyway, I recently realised something fairly important about monster-based horror stories when I was playing a fan-made episode for “Doom II” called ‘Temple Of The Lizard Men 3‘.

Although I might review “Temple Of The Lizard Men 3” properly sometime in the future, one of the startling things that I noticed was that it was actually scary. Yes, it was a genuinely scary game, where the monsters looked something like this:



So, if the monsters didn’t look very scary, then how did the game make them scary – and what can this teach us about storytelling?

The reason why the monsters in this game are so scary (despite looking cartoonishly unrealistic) is because of the situations you encounter them in.

Unlike in the original “Doom II” game, you are not an extremely well-armed space marine confidently fighting hordes of monsters in a variety of brightly-lit futuristic locations.

In “Temple Of The Lizard Men 3” you don’t always have quite enough ammunition to fight all of the monsters properly and you spend quite a lot of the earlier parts of the game tentatively walking through dark corridors where almost anything can pounce out at you from the shadows. This is, quite frankly, terrifying.

And, well, this made me think about monsters and horror fiction in general.

You see, monsters aren’t really that scary – because they don’t exist. You have precisely zero chance of ever running into a demon, a werewolf, a sea beast, a xenomorph or a zombie in real life.

It doesn’t matter how well you describe your monster or how grotesque it looks, it isn’t scary on it’s own.

Monsters in horror stories are nothing more than a plot device – they are nothing more than a source of danger for your characters. Your monster could easily be replaced by a ticking timebomb, an evil wizard or a deadly disease and it would still serve the same purpose.

But, just putting your characters in danger doesn’t necessarily make your story scary. After all, there are plenty of thriller, fantasy and science fiction stories that do precisely this without scaring their readers senseless. In fact, these kinds of stories make the danger thrilling or exciting rather than scary.

The only real difference between horror stories and other types of stories is how this danger to the characters is presented.

In non-horror stories, the characters are usually fairly evenly-matched against whatever threatens them. They have a lot of training, they’re well-armed and/or they have luck on their side.

In horror stories, the characters should not be evenly-matched against whatever monsters are threatening them. They probably won’t have the proper tools to fight the monsters effectively, they might not even know where the monsters are and they probably won’t even fully understand what the monsters are.

It’s like the difference between watching a fight between two muscular boxers and watching a fight between a rather feeble blindfolded guy and ten muscular boxers.

Watching one of these is thrilling, watching the other one will probably make you wince with anxious terror before the fight even begins.

In other words, a good monster story taps into your reader’s fear of vulnerability by making the characters seem vulnerable to the monster.

When your main character is walking through a dark corridor and hears an ominous howling sound in the distance, the creature that is making the howling noise isn’t what scares your readers. The thing that scares your readers is the fact that there might be something nearby that could attack your main character before he or she can even see it.

Being alone in the dark isn’t scary. Not being alone in the dark is scary.

Likewise, when your main character sees someone who has suffered a gruesome death at the hands of a monster, it isn’t the blood and guts (however well-described they may be) that scares your readers.

The thing that scares your readers is the fact that this fate could easily have happened to the main character instead, it’s the fact that no-one knows what could have done this to the other character and the fact that whatever did this could still be lurking nearby.

So, monsters aren’t scary on their own. But, everything that surrounds your monster is scary. So, focus on writing these things well and you might be able to trick your readers into thinking that your monster is also scary.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One comment on “Monsters Don’t Make Monster Stories Scary… Everything Else Does

  1. […] 2) Don’t write horror: Yes, zombies can be gross, disgusting or gruesome – but they usually aren’t really that scary. Even modern fast-moving zombies are no scarier than any other type of monster. And, as any fan of the horror genre will tell you – monsters aren’t inherently scary. […]

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