Not Monsters

Twilight.

I’m just gonna let you ruminate for a minute on what that book means to you.

Go on, take your time, I’m in no hurry.

Have you got it fixed in your mind? Good. Now this isn’t a post about Twilight. In fact when I was composing my thoughts for this post in my head Twilight didn’t enter the picture until very late in the game. But once it did enter the picture, everything else seemed to fall into place.

Because Twilight is a book about vampires. The book didn’t invent vampires. It didn’t even invent the vampire romance. But what it did do (in my mind) was place the final nail in the coffin of true vampire horror.

You might think that I’m writing this as an indictment, but in reality this was inevitable from the beginning. Let’s look at that beginning, shall we?

I know you’re going back in your mind to Dracula (or perhaps if you are particularly well read, to Varny the Vampire) but you need to go back further. You need to go back to the time before vampires entered fiction. You need to go back to the time when they lived in the minds of men, passed on from mouth to mouth as folklore, whispered from the lips of mothers as a warning against unruly children. “If you’re not good, the vampires will get you.”

In the beginning vampires were monsters. Mindless, brutish, forest-dwelling monsters.

Then came the books. The notion of vampires passed from folklore into fiction. But in the passage something changed. The vampires were still evil, still frightening, but now they had become just a little more human. No longer were they forest dwelling brutes, bloated like rotted corpses and bereft of all but an animal intelligence. Now they were suave and sophisticated. Now they could walk the streets with their prey. They could pass for human until it the moment it was too late for their victims.

And from a certain point of view that change made them all the more terrible. After all, what is more terrifying that the monster who looks just like you? But it was the first nail in the coffin, the first step down the slippery slope that would end in stunning, sparkling, and above all safe Edward Cullen.

But like I said, this isn’t a post about Twilight. This is a post about monsters.

Because monsters have a problem. Monsters are cool.

I mean think about it, what little kid doesn’t like monsters? Dinosaurs, dragons, C’thulu? Show him those things, and he’ll say “Awesome!” and start wailing on them with his G.I. Joes.

Zombies? Ditto. Don’t even get me started on our cultural obsession with zombies. We’re not afraid of them. We’re fascinated.

And that’s the problem. Because in theory monsters are supposed to be scary. You’re supposed lie awake at night, afraid to go to sleep lest they show up in your nightmares. But instead we idolize them, we put them on a pedestal. Technically they’re still the bad guys, but really that just makes them all the more interesting.

But as someone who’s interested in fear in fiction, in making people uncomfortable with what they’re reading, I’ve noticed something interesting. Generally the most genuinely frightening parts of a story happen before the monsters ever show up.

Take for example, the horror film The Descent. In this movie a group of female spelunkers explore a remote cave and encounter human-like cave creatures who have become sightless because…I don’t know, they’ve lived down there for generations and they’ve evolved past the need for light? I mean, granted the movie shows that they kill stuff outside the cave for food and you’d think eyes would be an advantage there even if they hunt at night. Especially if they hunt at night. Nocturnal animals have amazing eyesight. Whatever.

Anyway, there’s some great scenes where these blind monsters are searching for the protagonists, and they’re walking right next to where they’re hiding, but they can’t see them (you’d think they could smell them or hear them breathing or something; I mean really, if you’re going to evolve away from using your eyes you could at least compensate through your other senses. But like I said, whatever.) These scenes are interesting, but in my mind they’re not really scary. They don’t reach into my stomach and twist my guts into knots with fear. Sure they might be good for a few jump scares, but that’s not really the same.

But there are truly frightening moments in The Descent. There’s the moment when one of the women is trapped in a claustrophobic tunnel with the cave shuddering and shaking, threatening to crush her under a thousand tons of earth and stone. There’s the scene where one of the spelunkers has to cross a yawning chasm using ancient equipment that starts to fail halfway through the traverse. These moments work because we can relate to them. We can empathize with the terror of claustrophobia, or with the fear of falling a very very long way down. These are examples of what I’ve started to refer to as the “not monsters” moments of movies, and personally I think there is far more to learn from their common earthy kind of terror than will ever be found in the pursuit of the supernatural slasher or the growl of the green skinned mutant.

In Richard Matheson’s book The Shrinking Man which chronicles the life of a man who is (you’ll never guess) shrinking, the most powerful moments are not the battles between insect-sized man and monstrous spider, but rather they come when the eponymous shrinking man is midway through the process, trying to cope with the fact that his wife has begun to think of him as a child and his young daughter has lost all respect for him.

In Stephen King’s It the single most unnerving moment of the book (for me) had nothing to do with the supernatural clown/spider and everything to do with a simple-minded bully who locks puppies in an old refrigerator until they die of asphyxiation.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. We are human, and the terror we know the best is human in origin.

Most people I know don’t drive to work or go out with their families thinking, “I hope I don’t get bitten by a zombie today.” But they do think, “How am I going to pay my bills?” “What if my wife doesn’t really love me?” “A hundred years after I’m dead, will it matter that I lived?”

That isn’t to say there’s not a place for the monster in our stories. But if we truly want to gnaw at our readers, we must keep in mind that the ultimate terror is not in the fantastic but the mundane; it is in the known more than the unknown. The monster when used correctly is not a thing unto itself. It is a vehicle for something darker, something deeper. It is merely a shadow cast by the true terror that lies latent in the hearts of every one of us.

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One response to “Not Monsters

  1. Great thoughts, thanks for posting them.

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