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November 26, 2007 7:48 PM   Subscribe

What monsters are still scary? When described with words only?

When I read books, the monsters all seem pretty mild. A man with fangs is not scary, and we've seen slimy slugs on TV hundreds of times. These written descriptions of monsters no longer scare because we've actually seen depictions of them on TV and no longer use our imaginations.

What monsters can be described that are actually still scary?
posted by markovich to Pets & Animals (45 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
those monsters no longer scare you because you're old enough to realize they don't exist. the only scary monsters left are the ones that walk on two legs and look like us, because we realize they do exist.
posted by bruce at 7:50 PM on November 26, 2007

The monsters that are the scariest are the ones that are never completely described.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 7:54 PM on November 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Clowns. Goddamned evil clowns.
posted by brain_drain at 7:54 PM on November 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

As cheesy as they sometimes come off, Lovecraft's monsters can still be creepy.
posted by pupdog at 7:56 PM on November 26, 2007

I honestly think that any can still be scary. It entirely depends on how the writer describes it. A man with fangs? Yep, described like that, not so scary. But use the right words, describe it in the right way, and it will be enough to give you goosebumps.

Additionally, you need to be willing to suspend disbelief when you're reading. Really allow yourself to believe in the descriptions you're reading. Visualize them. See them for yourself. Allow your mind to take what you're given and turn it into something else completely. That's when things will be scary again.
posted by plaingurl at 8:01 PM on November 26, 2007

Ever read Revelations? No, seriously. Some incredibly scary descriptions of beasts even if you're not a christian.
posted by Ugh at 8:07 PM on November 26, 2007

I agree with pupdog (great name, BTW). Lovecraft's monsters are the only ones that can still scare me as an adult, because he tends to go the route of "it's so scary that I couldn't even describe it!". Just describing something scary looking doesn't seem to work once you know that that thing couldn't possibly exist in the real world.
posted by fishmasta at 8:08 PM on November 26, 2007

I think the only "monsters" that still scare me as an adult are the ones who look normal but have evil in their hearts and minds.
posted by amyms at 8:12 PM on November 26, 2007

George Bush.

No, I'm not entirely kidding. Banal bad guys who grease the wheels for the decline and fall of every good thing in Western civilization scare me. You find them everywhere, from dumb cops who think tasers are more convenient than actual engagement to corporate accountants that look for advantages in global warming. They are scary because, unlike Dracula or the Creature From The Black Lagoon, they don't go away when you close the book or the movie ends. They're with you every day, forever.
posted by SPrintF at 8:14 PM on November 26, 2007

True monsters are mild. The monstrosity lies in the banality, the realization that it might look like you and act like you but it ain't human or at least, it doesn't have humanity. Sociopath, alien, mutation, same diff. Oh yes, 2nding George Bush and Cheney. When we get the blinders off with the next election and really know how far into the ground this administration has driven us and that we will be paying it off for the rest of our lives, the stench and the horror will start to settle in.
posted by 45moore45 at 8:25 PM on November 26, 2007

The point here, as I see it, is that no literal concrete description is going to be scary to a majority of people, because phobias and life experiences are so disparate. You can't scare today's people that way. Think about it--there is nothing to fear from printed words in a book or digital code on a DVD. You have to trick the reader/viewer into scaring themselves.

Fear isn't based by number of legs, or amount of hair, or length of claws, or by the gallon of blood. It's based on what we believe (rationally or irrationally) will harm us. The key here is that the viewers have all seen the horror movies and so we default to computer-generated can't-happen stuff in our mind's eye. And so really, the idea is that a monster you can visualize 100% from the description will not be scary to a majority of people (obviously people have phobias so you can scare some people with some things.) The human mind, you see, is incredibly good at scaring itself.

If you can create a window for a person's inner fears to assert themselves as an aspect of your monster, you can generate fear. Can, but obviously atmosphere on the viewer's end is also very important. (Think--"Don't read this alone!" or "Don't read this in the dark!" are common sayings for a reason.)

The key is putting forward some concrete situational, mood, or subjective details, even a few descriptors, but letting the end-user's mind's eye fill in the gaps. [The best example I have, off the top of my head, is in "Signs" by Shyamalan before you see the aliens. Or "The Mist" (haven't seen it, but the trailers definitely display the point--the monsters or whatever are in the mist, killing people, but you can't see the monsters themselves.)]
posted by Phyltre at 8:27 PM on November 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

I found the vampires in Stephen King's Jerusalem's Lot and 'Salem's Lot to be pretty scary. The reanimated little boy in Pet Semetary was also creepy. The acid-spitting spiders in the movie the Mist were also scary.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:28 PM on November 26, 2007

Shelob from The Two Towers

"She served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness."

Never ceases to make me shudder.
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 8:38 PM on November 26, 2007

I agree with bruce that believability becomes a much bigger issue as you get older. When you're 6 years old, it seems perfectly reasonable to be afraid of some sort of creature hiding in your closet. As an adult the implausibility of the thought makes it laughable.

I also think that modern news and science have made the idea of inhuman monsters less believable, even for adults. In less advanced communities, folklore creatures take a stronger hold in the imagination because their world has not been dissected and categorized by generations of scientists.

There's also the influence of television and movies, which help to desensitize us from the normal effect that "monstrous" images might have. They can also amplify our fears as well though, as was the case with Jaws when it made an entire generation of people afraid of shark attacks.

Human monsters seem to be much scarier than any made-up creature in today's society, though. The scariest movies of the 30s and 40s starred monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula, but the scariest movies since the 1970s have generally starred a human villain. Just look at The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs, Halloween, even all the way back to Psycho.

As far as writing goes, your best bet for scary made-up monsters might be HP Lovecraft, as others have mentioned. Lovecraft created believability by crafting a vivid atmosphere and layers of mystery for his stories. More modern writers such as Stephen King have also written stories about monsters that most people find scary. As with anything else, a scary monster story needs to be well written enough to convince you to feel any sort of emotion about it.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:42 PM on November 26, 2007

Any monster I can feel sorry for is not scary. So something very cruel, with no need to be so, is absolutely terrifying. Think of a kid that grew up wanting nothing, loving family etc. etc. and tortures a kitten. Scary?
posted by Yavsy at 8:45 PM on November 26, 2007

Not too long ago I read the two published Books of the Art by Clive Barker (would you hurry up and finish with the third one, already! *shakes fist*). There are some disgustingly creepy and so very interesting sons of bitches over there. The Jaff, for starters, what a character... Then there's Kissoon, ick ick ick (might get you to repeatedly wash your hands if you're the OCD type). And poor royally fucked-up Death Boy, something like a wandering Chernobyl of the supernatural, too stupid and self-obsessed to know better as he keeps going on over your unnoticed carcass. Plus, Barker gets points for the Iad, a pretty interesting update on Lovecraft's nasty alien gods, bonus full scale invasion scene added.
posted by Iosephus at 8:52 PM on November 26, 2007


Children are learning how to socialize; monsters who are sociopaths (care not for anyone else) were the scariest. Didn't you hear stories about people who were either really ugly or had a deformity (or some other extreme) but turned out to be perfectly nice people?

As an adult, you expect to be able to reason with people. People with authority who happen to be sociopoths are still many people's nightmares.
posted by porpoise at 9:12 PM on November 26, 2007

To me the inexplicable, or unexpected can be scary.

A man with fangs? Sure, that's not scary, but put him across from me on the bus when I'm reading and have him grin at me when I glance up - the sudden realization that this thing across from me isn't human, that our "rules" don't apply to it, that everything I knew about humans, my environment, what is real or not has just gone out the window - now that is scary.

Nthing the idea of sociopaths as monsters - again this comes back around to the idea of expectations. We think we know what other people think and feel and that universality of the human condition allows to be comfortable interacting with each other. Now put something in the mix that looks like a human, talks like a human, but isn't a human and that's creepy.
posted by wfrgms at 9:53 PM on November 26, 2007

What monsters are still scary? When described with words only?

You're searching for monsters that are scary enough to be frightening when described only with words.

That's backwards. Monsters are nothing: it's the words that are scary. Words are where monsters come from.
posted by lemuria at 10:39 PM on November 26, 2007

Go read this comment. I'll wait.


There's something about the inexplicable appearance of the overly calm stranger in an inappropriate context, who knows you're aware of them, maybe even inviting your gaze, intent on carrying out... something. It's that sociopath idea, I think. Someone perfectly normal appearing, but to whom none of the rules apply.
posted by maryh at 10:42 PM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

To this day, I occasionally have nightmares about aliens. I don't recall what they actually look like in my dreams; perhaps I have never seen one. What terrifies me about them is their ruthlessness, lack of mercy, and the inevitability of them finding and destroying me. Which goes back to the idea of sociopaths as monsters, I think. (I have also had pleasant dreams about hanging out with friendly aliens.) Like a lot of things, it can be best summed up in a poem from Calvin and Hobbes:

A hatch opened up
And the aliens said,
"We're sorry to learn
That soon you'll be dead,
But though you may find
This slightly macabre,
We prefer your extinction
To the loss of our job."

posted by Metroid Baby at 10:48 PM on November 26, 2007

Seconding Shelob. I shudder when I read that passage.
posted by Pallas Athena at 11:22 PM on November 26, 2007

Do the Weeping Angels count?
posted by katillathehun at 11:43 PM on November 26, 2007

POTENTIAL SPOILER: mouse over link for additional text

Read the letters from Johnny Truant's mom to her son in Danielewski's House of Leaves.



Real people. Sociopaths, as mentioned above. Psychopaths. Serial Killers. Those people that, regardless of intention, were party to mass slaughter. Dictators.

I'm thinking of those that took part in small as well as large systematized killings. Massacres.

When I was younger, and now, still, "monsters" weren't characters like Freddy Kruger or Dracula (though Tepes is probably in my list, or Countess Bathory).

They were the ones that really did do bad stuff. The "monsters" that were real. The stuff you read about in the paper or on the Front Page of MeFi, accounts of a group of children and parents that held a child hostage and tortured them to death. That's real horror, and reading those accounts absolutely TERRIFIES me.

My own psyche, when I think of what---as a human being just like you--I might be capable of. That's pretty frightening, too.
posted by exlotuseater at 11:57 PM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

ok, the spoiler didn't show up; must've erased it when formatting. I'll try here. (here ain't really a link, couldn't get it to work any other way. We could really use a spoiler tag/ markup.
posted by exlotuseater at 12:22 AM on November 27, 2007

The unknown is what makes monsters scary. The thing you can't see fully but can imagine, or the thing you don't know very well, is always scarier than what you know and understand. Your imagination is usually more scary than reality. Good writers exploit that fully-- they give you glimpses and play out the suspense. Shelob doesn't scare me anymore. I'm still afraid for Frodo and Sam, but it's not the same thing.

I am re-reading LOTR now and the Ringwraiths are still very scary. There's always a large element of suspense and suggestion to them-- you never know a lot about them in the narrative itself. Just enough to know that if Frodo puts on the Ring or bolts out of hiding at any point when they're nearby, horrible things will happen to him. How horrible? Well, you get suggestions here and there. Enough to feed your imagination.

Also showing just how scary the monster is through a powerful person who is terrified of it goes a long, long way. Every powerful character is terrified of the Ringwraiths and refuses to say much about them at first-- that adds to the scariness bit by bit. Gildor won't talk about them since Gandalf hasn't. Aragorn is more open but leaves a lot of things unsaid. Same thing with the Balrog. I mean, Gandalf is afraid of it. Gandalf hasn't met his match until this point. Legolas is visibly shaken. Which means the hobbits are toast. No detailed description of that thing could more clearly convey the danger. The Balrog is a scary monster because Gandalf is afraid of it. Run, little hobbit dudes. Run.
posted by Tehanu at 1:25 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Do the Weeping Angels count?

Hell yes. They are a perfect example of something that is not at all scary in itself made scary by good writing.
posted by kindall at 1:36 AM on November 27, 2007

Based on category you put this question in, I'm assuming you're excluding human "monsters" like sociopaths and traitors, etc.

I think that vectors of diseases (viruses, bacteria) are still scary. They're largely unseen, threatening in a relatable way, unpredictable, and produce gruesome effects.
posted by ignignokt at 1:52 AM on November 27, 2007

It seems to me that written monsters are either scary because either their descriptions are gruesome looking(shelob), or it's because you imagine what they'll do to you(psychopaths and shelob).

It's most likely that if a book is scary, it's because it's something you read in your childhood when perhaps your imagination was able to run riot. After all the descriptions in here, my mind goes back to Roald Dalh books that managed to convey some real terror when I was reading them. Whether it was during "the witching hour", that time when your parents have gone to sleep, you're still awake reading "the BFG", and you've just discovered that this is the time that giants come to take children....!....or you're reading "the witches", and the incredible things that they'll do to you if you ever fall for them. Not just killed, but trapped in a painting, with your parents seeking solace in the fact that they can still see you taking different positions in the painting.

I think Roald Dahl really took the time to think of amazingly horrible things that could happen to you, and the monsters were just the characters who implemented those horrible things.
posted by galactain at 3:19 AM on November 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ghosts? Supernatural stuff? Not sure if these count as 'monsters' as such.
posted by wackybrit at 4:36 AM on November 27, 2007

posted by bitteroldman at 5:57 AM on November 27, 2007

Bow down to Cthulhu
posted by arungoodboy at 6:10 AM on November 27, 2007

posted by kirkaracha at 6:45 AM on November 27, 2007

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:12 AM on November 27, 2007

I have said on The Blue before that sharks scare me more than anything else in this life. The reason for this is that they are a creature that is utterly competent in an environment that I am almost completely helpless in. They can see sharp definition in a medium that allows me only blurry, shadowy shapes. They are graceful and lithe in a medium that allows me only the rudiments of movement. They are swift where I am sluggish. They have senses I can only attempt to understand (electroperception) but can never experience, and have weaponry that I am absolutely vulnerable to and incapable of defending myself from. My strongest defence against them is to not be where they are. Should I find myself there, which I frequently do, I am at the mercy of their unpredictable whim. I am alive and whole because of their blithe indifference, but should one of them suddenly change their disposition toward me, I probably wouldn't even see them coming before they did whatever they wished with me.

You'd think I'd stay out of the water, feeling as I do about sharks, but I'm drawn to the ocean by something deep inside me. It's as alien and beautiful a place as I can imagine, and something about the way it takes away my anthropological advantage over everything around me thrills me to the core.

I think there might be something useful to you in this example. 1) Conditions that eliminate the protagonist's advantage (or seem to), 2) an antagonist that doesn't seem to need to try very hard to disturb the antagonist (i.e, physical or environmental advantage), 3) the antagonist not knowing the location or disposition of the antagonist, 4) slim chance of escape should the antagonist choose to attack. I don't know if this helps, but I thought I'd chime in about it anyway, if only to have a chance to wax horrified about sharks. Who scare me. A lot.
posted by Pecinpah at 7:15 AM on November 27, 2007

Nthing Lovecraft. You empathize with the characters in his stories as they are perceiving the monsters; the horrors are unspeakable, and you have only their reactions to go by. You therefore use your imagination to fill in the blanks, and it's a deeper, more visceral horror than you'd experience were you given all the gory details.

King is good too, but he's heavily influenced by Lovecraft.
posted by Koko at 7:40 AM on November 27, 2007

The Smiling Man. A North American monster. He will appear right outside a second or third story window, looking in, smiling. Turn away, and he'll be gone.
posted by Hollow at 8:13 AM on November 27, 2007

Not sure if it's a monster really, but "The Lonely One" - the man from the Ravine in Bradbury's stories is pretty chilling, but mostly because of Bradbury's style and use of words to describe something scary.

The Ravine appears in a few of his stories, The short, The Whole Town's Sleeping shows one side of it (the link has the whole short story) and the same story from a different perspective appears in his book Dandelion Wine.
posted by clanger at 10:13 AM on November 27, 2007

A bit late but...

I think a good way to get what you might be looking for is the Uncanny Valley. However, this requires a bit of literary dexterity. See, King refers to this a lot, with "even though the man seemed perfectly normal, there was something about him that was a little strange". I love him, but he says stuff like that all the time. Why not just get on the telegraph and type out "The guy is a monster, people are scared of him, you should be, too"

Let me show you something.

"Hey Markovitch, I saw a guy that seemed normal but there was something about him that was a little strange" Are you scared? Nope. Why not? Because you're just hearing about me. Most writing is going to be like that. The reader will be hearing about somebody else. That's not, usually, scary. What you need to do is make them experience something.

Try describing your monster in a flat tone. No disgust. No adjectives-upon-adjectives. Make them read the line describing it before they realize what it is. Don't give them a line listing of the monster's attributes, make them see it. Make them see it in their head. There's no trumpets blowing when something is threatening you, don't put them in.

Make it have some quality of threat that is real. We have an enormous tolerance for imaginary things, but our worldview is very, very constrained. Just the simple addition of a quiet man in our house is creepy/terrifying because we identify that person as an invader who wishes to do us harm. Many of us have implicit memories of people who want to harm us, even if it's just playground antics. A shark is terrifying when it's trying to eat us but most of us haven't been threatened with ingestion and we don't have the implicit memories of it. Maybe ramp it up. Make the monster invasive, then aggressive, then hungry?

I'd love to read whatever you turn out with btw.
posted by Brainy at 1:09 PM on November 27, 2007

M.R. James' (discussed here before) stories are populated by some genuinely unsettling monsters. Like Lovecraft he knows what to leave to your imagination.

The largely unseen creature in Fitz-James' O'Brien's "What Was It?" has also stuck with me (B.D. Wong's creepy, deadpan reading reading of it should be rerun on NPR every Halloween).
posted by ryanshepard at 1:37 PM on November 27, 2007

Correct link for James' "What Was It?"
posted by ryanshepard at 1:40 PM on November 27, 2007

Ebola and/or scary-not-actually-real-flesh-eating-disease.
posted by pompomtom at 3:30 PM on November 27, 2007

ah, necrotizing fasciitis. Bad News.
posted by exlotuseater at 3:45 PM on November 27, 2007

Jesus, Hollow, that's always been a nightmare of mine.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 8:18 PM on November 27, 2007

i think stephen king wrote some badass monsters in
crouch end (where he borrowed liberally from lovecraft), and desperation, where the monster is a demon called Tak.
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:33 PM on November 27, 2007

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