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25 October 2010 @ 07:39 am
How to Make a Monster  

As Halloween approaches the Inkies have gathered around a feeble, flickering light in the gloom... (okay computer monitors) to discuss, what else? Monsters! From the goat-eating trolls of the Grimm Brothers to the Dementors of J.K. Rowling most of our favorite fantasy stories feature a monster of some kind. Why? Psychologists might speculate that monsters serve to embody our inner fears- ones that a heroic character can defeat for us, while others see the monster as a cautionary tale-an exaggerated display of our own moral deficits. Or maybe monsters just serve to give a vicarious adrenaline rush to our otherwise ordinary lives. Safe, scary fun.

Over the years monsters have been changing. One might argue that the vampires and werewolves of many recent urban fantasies don't even qualify as card-carrying monsters anymore- because they're so often the love interest of the main character. But that's probably another discussion!

What makes a memorable monster? I'm not sure if there's a formula, but I sure know when I meet one. That crawly feeling down the back of my neck gives 'em away every time. When I first read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein the creature that scared me the most was Gollum. Everything about slimy Gollum freaked me out: the hissing, sibilant voice in the dark, the scrawny but monstrously strong grip. Did I mention slimy?

What about you? What features give a monster a spot in your nightmare line-up? And who or what is your all-time favorite monster?
Please let us know in the comments!

And here you can read about what scares the Inkies:

Anna Staniszewski: Interesting question. I just read THE SHADOWS by Jacqueline West and thought its villain was a particularly creepy monster. What's funny is that we never really got to see him; he was mostly an ominous, off-screen presence in the story. When the main character finally had to face him, it was in total darkness. She could feel him nearby, occasionally something cold would brush past her, but she couldn't actually see him. I think that's what made him such an effective monster because we had to imagine the details on our own.

Kate Coombs: Speaking of LOTR, dragons can be pretty terrifying--Smaug came to my mind before all the other monsters I've read about. I can't decide which is scarier, monsters made of tentacles and ooze, or monsters that are dry and reptilian or spider-like. J.K. Rowling does a good job with monsters in the Harry Potter books--the giant spider, the basilisk, the funny/scary boggarts, or those horrible Dementors, for example. I think the scariness of monsters has a lot to do with pacing: if you build suspense, like in a Hitchcock movie, your monster
will be more scary than if you have it just appear all at once, dripping goop. And most things are far more horrible in the dark!

Ellen Booraem: For me, monsters are scariest if they can sneak up on you. Godzilla never frightened me. On the other hand, to this day I can't watch a vampire movie. I even had trouble with Buffy sometimes! And the smaller the scarier, especially if it's something you'd normally think of as benign, like an evil doll or baby. Gah!

In recent books, the dementors are about the most terrifying monsters I can remember, partly because there's the real-life analogy with depression. A monster that has elements of "us" --or, worse, once WAS us, like a vampire or zombie or Nazgul--that really gets me where I live. If it can think like me, plot out my next move, sneak up behind me or jump out from a tree--it has me at "boo!"

OK, so much for walking the dog in the woods tonight. 

Anne Nesbet: I like Ellen's categories here: sneaky monsters, monsters that scare us 
by destroying our soul (Dementors, or their ancestors the Ringwraiths --
depression being way scarier than claws!), and 
zombies-that-once-were-people. ugh!

 Jeff VanderMeer's mysterious underground fungal beings are pretty scary,
being combos of many of those categories: sneaky & mysterious, able to
 appear where you'd think they couldn't, and able to infect their victims 
with funguses that kind of eat them up alive. ugh! 

But those aren't monsters for children.


Nancy Holder: There was a horror boom in the 80's featuring what I used to call 
"deadly puppet" books. Evil dolls, puppets...they scared the 
(Charles) Dickens out of me--vampires will always scare me. And 
ghosts rank very high on my terror-ometer. I just wrote a guest blog 
post about ghost cams. Put me in a dark room and creak a floorboard 
and I'm a quivering mass of imagination.

Ellen Booraem: Yikes, I forgot all about ghosts. Again, the sneaky and "used to be us" factor. AND some part of my DNA thinks they're real, no matter what the gray matter tells me. I'll be quivering right alongside you, Nancy.

And you know, even if they're not hostile they're still scary. Opens up the notion of there being a huge wide universe out there, full of unknowns.

Dawn Metcalf: Gosh, there are so many creepy monsters! The monsters that look like us (androids, robots, vampires, werewolves), the monsters who can think (vampires tops the list for me), the monsters that come out of things that are familiar yet not-quite-real (dolls, mannequins, shapeshifters, wolf in grandma's clothing), the monsters who can't think any longer (Frankenstein's monster in a rage, werewolves at full-howl), the monsters that come out from creepy places (monsters under the bed, monsters in the closet, monsters in the dark, monsters under water, monsters in the fog, monsters in the swamp) which tie-into monsters we can't yet see...

I think the monsters beyond the firelight are the ones that creep me out the most; the ones that whisper at being there but you can't catch them with your eye. Only hear them...sense them...knowing that they're out there sensing you better than you sense them. That sort of wild-imagination-freak-out is what made BLAIR WITCH such a sensation or the Night's Bridge in NEVERWHERE so creepy or the troll beneath the bridge from the Billy Goat's Gruff or the invisible monsters that can pounce out of the shadows.


Laura Williams McCaffrey: I guess the monsters I prefer aren't strictly monsters: they're people who appear just like anyone else, yet they behave in monstrous ways. Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter in The Golden Compass are the best examples of this kind of monster I can think of. They're both willing to sacrifice the lives and/or souls of children on their quests for knowledge.

As I write this, I realize I've been reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and loving it -- It's another great example of a story that includes a character's passionate, flawed, tragic quest for knowledge despite any cost.

Angie Frazier: For me, the best monsters have always been the kind that can walk undetected among humans. Vampires and werewolves, for example. The creep-factor just feels higher when monsters aren't so easy to spot. Another example would be Cujo...he crosses over from being a beloved family dog to a feared monster of sorts. That throws in the emotional twist as well with the question of can someone actually love a monster? Then again, in Cindy's Silver Phoenix, one of her monsters was a massive compilation of human body parts...which was pretty freaky!!

Maurissa Guibord: I am wondering if anyone in the group has gone through the process, in their writing, of "creating" a monster? In my own writing I've noticed that I tend toward the monstrous animals (dragons, krakens) that are not particularly sentient or "of us". The more human a monster is to me- the scarier. Maybe that's why I haven't written any of those yet!
Someone mentioned Buffy- and I think that one of the scariest "monsters" on that show, for me, was the human guy who shot Tara...

Lisa Gail Green: I think that's a really interesting question. I hadn't responded mostly because I keep thinking of monsters that aren't completely monsters, which is something I realize now I tend to use in my own writing. So I suppose that means mainly monsters of the human-like variety. I see that it is the humans in my own writing that can be the most monstrous sometimes. 

Ellen Booraem: So where did you start, Nancy? Did you start with the creature's function in 
the story, some specific task you needed to give Buffy or Angel? Or did you 
just go for the scariest possible creature?

Nancy Holder: It was a combination of all those factors. Sometimes the monster "stood in" for a fear. IN CHILD OF THE HUNT, the Erl King and the Great Hunt swooped down and took kids; the story was about homeless kids and runaways. In THE BOOK OF FOURS, they were four entities that each went after one of the four slayers in the story (I was actually inspired by the old Star Trek episode where Lee Merriwether would reach out her hand and say, "I am for Sulu" or "I am for Kirk" and then kill the person she/it was after.) But sometimes you just wanted a good old-fashioned scary demon guy...especially a vampire.
Zoe Marriottredzolah on October 25th, 2010 12:43 pm (UTC)
The scariest monster of all, for me, is a monster with a human-ish face. Specifically if that face is young and should be innocent but isn't. Like the child vampires in Ultraviolet. Or the twinned children in Village of the Damned. Or, worst of all, Sadako/Samara from The Ring. Need I say more? Brrrr.
mguibordmguibord on October 25th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
Ugh- yes- I forgot about the evil child!! So much worse as monsters too because our natural instincts are to love and nurture them.
Nisha Amanda WardNisha Amanda Ward on October 25th, 2010 01:25 pm (UTC)
For me, monsters that aren't necessarily monsters. Disembodied spirits for one and then there are fairies. Sometimes fairies just creep me out. Melissa Marr's dark court in her Wicked Lovely books prove my point.
mguibordmguibord on October 25th, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Monsters
That's a very good point. With some things you just don't know what to expect. I never thought of ghosts or fairies as being particularly scary- but maybe I've read about too many gentle ones. Though the homicidal faeries in Maggie Steifvater's Lament were pretty creepy!
anonymeetanonymeet on October 25th, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC)
Maurissa: I agree with you - mosters of the human variety are incredibly scary. We do the worst things to each other. The scariest monsters I see are not in horror or fantasy novels, but in news reports.

But I would LOVE to hear your insight on making up monsters. It's hard to create creatures that are scary without being silly or campy. How do you do it?
mguibordmguibord on October 25th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
Haha- I wish I had more insight- but I have given this some thought.
I think to create a truly scary monster- I would have to begin with the elements that scare me: Darkness- or a hidden quality.
And the scariest of monsters are not scary because of what they are (slimy, ugly, toothy) but of what they *do*.
A really scary monster (for me) does the unforgiveable- the heart-breakingly real.Things that can't be undone.

Okay. I just thought of one. A monster that sneaks inside you at night, inhabiting your body and making you do awful things. And it would be called- gah- I don't know yet but it's already freaking me out.
anonymeetanonymeet on October 25th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC)
Acutally - that was great insight! I like the idea that monsters are scary because of what they *do.* They gives me something to think about. Maybe I'm focusing too much on the external and not enough on the action - on how monsters look instead of how they behave - so they gross out readers rather than frighten them.
ebooraem on October 25th, 2010 03:21 pm (UTC)
Yup, that would be about as scary as they come, Maurissa. Something that makes you lose yourself, or be unsure what you're becoming. I just saw an updated theater production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and there's a moment when Jekyll realizes that Hyde is doing unspeakable things that he can't remember. Very creepy.

Reading through this discussion, though, I think I'd have to award the prize to the monster that you never see, or that you dont' see until late. Definitely a case where anticipation is worse than the realization.
mguibordmguibord on October 25th, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
You're right- our imagination makes the most terrible monsters of all.
Terri-Lynne DeFinobogwitch64 on October 25th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
You know who does really great monsters?? Cherie Priest. The first thing I ever read of hers was Fathom. I kept thinking, "now THESE are real monsters!!" Fabulous.
mguibordmguibord on October 25th, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC)
Ooh -I'll have to check that one :)
A Deserving Porcupine: voldemortrockinlibrarian on October 25th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
I've always found things that can possess you to be the scariest sorts of monsters. I suppose that also applies to things that can mess with your brain in any other way, like Dementors (definitely the scariest monsters of recent books I can think of). It seems like you have more hope of fighting back against external monsters than internal ones.

I do think NOT seeing the monster is usually scarier than seeing it, too.
mguibordmguibord on October 25th, 2010 10:14 pm (UTC)
Messing with your brain- yes. That speaks to a very basic fear of mine as well-a real life one- Dementia to me, would be the most cruel and terrifying of diseases.
And- if a monster is inside of you- how can you fight it?
Verry scarrrry.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on October 26th, 2010 01:00 am (UTC)
So much food for thought here! This isn't very deep, but the scariest monsters for me? Insect-like monsters. Because I find insects pretty scary even in real life.
mguibordmguibord on October 26th, 2010 09:40 pm (UTC)
That's interesting- now insects don't bother me that much. But snakes! A snaky monster would have me running pretty fast...
(Deleted comment)
mguibordmguibord on October 26th, 2010 07:44 pm (UTC)
Haha- okay I immediately know I do *not* want to see that video (such a wimp) My poor heart just doesn't know from cgi...
And I agree about the beautiful becoming vile as something that really gets to me as well- speaking of Buffy- seeing the transformation of these gorgeous people into their vampire forms- was always fascinating and creepy.
Likewise- The Picture of Dorian Gray was a really effective tale for me- the beautiful young man in real life and in the picture we see the gruesome monster he really was...
msangelia on October 27th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
Clowns and masks scare me. I can't see the real human face behind the paint or the mask.
mguibordmguibord on October 27th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
Ugh- clowns yes, very creepy! I wonder who was the first person to come up with the evil/killer clown idea? They have a lot to answer for, lol!