What makes for an effective monster in a horror story? Noel Carroll in his dissertation, The Philosophy of Horror (Routledge, 1990), asserts that a proper monster must be both threatening and impure.
Broader scopes of fiction seek to induce fear in the reader. But Carroll states:
…[T]he character’s emotional reaction to the monstrous in horror stories is not merely a matter of fear…. Rather, threat is compounded with revulsion, nausea, and disgust. …[T]he tendency in horror novels and stories [is] to describe monsters in terms of and to associate them with filth, decay, deterioration, slime, and so on. … The monster is not only lethal, but also disgusting. (p. 22)
Is Your Monster Threatening?
The monster in horror fiction must be threatening—physically, psychologically, socially, morally, spiritually—or all of the above. It must be able to hurt your body, your mind, your relationships, your conscience, or your soul.
If you’re working on a story of your own, consider the following exercises, helpful in the planning stage.
Build Your Threatening Monster
Describe how your monster is threatening to your characters in one of more of the following ways:
Is Your Monster Impure?
The horror monster must also be impure. What do we consider impure? Anything that “violates the generally accepted schemes of cultural categorization.” We consider impure that which is categorically contradictory, such as:
- The categorically ambiguous: amphibians (they both swim and hop, can exist both in water and out of water)
- Incomplete representatives of their class: rotting things, things not fully formed, things with parts missing (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers)
- Formless things: dirt, blobs, fog
More Carroll categories of the categorically contradictory (what a horrific tongue twister!) include:
- Fusion: Disparate entities fused into one stable being. Example: The spider-like erector-set creature with the bald, one-eyed doll’s head in Toy Story.
- Fission: Disparate entities that change into and back from something horrible at different times (or a multiple figure being whose identities are opposite). Example: Werewolves and other shape-shifters. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- Magnification: Enlargement. Example: Giant people, giant sharks (Jaws), giant animals.
- Massification: Hordes. Unnaturally large numbers of something dangerous or relatively harmless. Example: Jellyfish in the movie Sphere. Birds. Rats. Locusts. Snakes. Spiders in Arachnophobia. Zombies. Vampires in I Am Legend.
- Metonymy: Something not revolting in itself associated with things that are. Example: The rats and wolves that attend Dracula.
Build Your Impure Monster
Describe how your monster is impure in one or more of the following ways:
- Categorically ambiguous
- An incomplete representation of its class
- Fusion (disparate entities fused into one stable being)
- Fission (disparate entities that change at different times, or a multiple figure being whose identities are opposite)
- Magnification (enlargement)
- Massification (hordes of something dangerous or relatively harmless)
- Metonymy (something not revolting in itself associated with things that are)
Fire Up the Tesla Coils!
To give life to your horrific monster, you must build it from the right parts. Your monster must be regarded as BOTH: 1) threatening, and 2) impure.
If it is only threatening, then the emotion is fear. If it is only impure, the emotion is disgust. But, if both, the emotion is horror! (p. 28)
We’ll talk more about the philosophy horror in future posts. You’ve been warned…
One reply on “Building Your Horrific Monster”
Thanks for the post. This was very clarifying for a tacit knowledge I’ve fumbled about with for years, and failed many times to explain to other writers.