What Makes a Movie Monster Scary?

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The first movie monster that made an impression on me as a child was King Kong as he rampaged through New York, picked up a guy, and ate him. (At least, that’s how I remembered it for many years. Actually, he puts the guy in his mouth, bites down in close-up, but then spits him out. ) Kong was cool, and scary, and by that point, his weirdly jittery stop-motion gestures, newfangled in their day but outdated by the time I got to them, added a whole other level of creepiness to his actions.

But what really stuck out wasn’t just Kong’s terrifying rampage through the city. It was the fact that the filmmakers eventually asked you to care for the lonely and lovesick giant ape, right before he was finally shot by airplanes atop the Empire State Building and plummeted to earth. That whipsawing effect, between revulsion and tenderness, wasn’t exactly subtle. Even my 5-year-old brain could grasp it. Kong was scary, and sad. And somehow the scariness made the sadness sadder, and the sadness made the scariness scarier.

The question of what makes a movie monster frightening is an old one, and each era has its own range of answers, the same way that each has its own defining horror films. Attitudes change, ideas change, technology changes. Even the idea of what constitutes a monster, a nebulous concept to begin with, changes. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong in 2005, Kong had basically become the good guy, and the film not so much a horror fantasy as a sprawling, touching period epic with state-of-the-art special effects. Cinema’s other popular behemoth, Godzilla, similarly went, over the course of its cinematic life, from being a fire-breathing lizard terrorizing the people of Japan — a metaphor for nuclear devastation — to something of an anti-hero, a ruthless defender of humanity against a whole host of other invading kaijus. Once upon a time, vampires were considered the ultimate movie monsters — and with appearances in silents like Dracula’s Death in 1921 and Nosferatu in 1922, they were among the first to be regularly portrayed onscreen — but nowadays they’re seen mostly as romantic figures. Meanwhile, one wonders if that oft-attempted remake of the Creature From the Black Lagoon will still happen, now that Guillermo del Toro transformed the creature (or at least one very much like it) into an object of desire in The Shape of Water.

Nevertheless, monster movies have attempted a series of comebacks in recent years, with mixed results. After the failure of Universal’s Mummy reboot, the studio scrapped its “Dark Universe” plan to create a whole new series featuring such iconic figures as Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both Kong and Godzilla have been rebooted as part of Warner Bros.’ attempt to create a “MonsterVerse” franchise, with 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island leading the way, each film leaning on the beasts’ roles as defenders of humanity against other, more ruthless creatures. The Pacific Rim efforts never quite caught fire, but their kaiju invaders were at least vividly realized, with tentacles and claws and multilayered beaks, each creature a new Lovecraftian vision.

But were any of them scary? As technology has improved, our monsters have gotten more ornate and grotesque — but less genuinely terrifying. One might even argue that as CGI has made these creatures more common, it has also taken many of them out of the realm of horror — as if, somehow, the less that’s left to the imagination, the less afraid we are of them.

That’s not to say that we can’t still feel wonder. The marvelous dinosaurs of the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World series often inspire awe, but once we see them in full, they rarely generate actual terror, and the films, despite having some genuinely suspenseful moments, are more kid-friendly adventures than anything else. The Marvel, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings movies are filled with beings who might have once prompted shrieks, but are now often the good guys — and even the monsters they do fight aren’t particularly scary. (Well, except for that giant fucking spider in The Return of the King; that thing messed me up for weeks.) Meanwhile, del Toro, a man who knows a thing or two about monsters, created his most elaborate and vividly designed creatures for Pan’s Labyrinth, which is a coming-of-age fable where the bad guys are not supernatural beings from the beyond but Spanish fascists.

Maybe that’s why many of the horror films (and sequels) that have been successful in our young century so far — such as The Conjuring, Insidious, Get Out, and now Halloween, not to mention the various entries in the “torture porn” craze of the 2000s — mostly tend to focus on the evils that we ourselves are capable of when possessed by demons, or ghosts, or simply our own capacity for cruelty. Who needs monsters, in other words, when we’ve got people?

Still, there’s something uniquely bone-chilling about a good monster. Of all the notable contenders of the past 40 years, few can come close to the sheer terror inspired by the Xenomorph of the first Alien film. There, Ridley Scott, taking a page from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws just several years earlier, famously showed the creature only in bits and pieces — a slashing inner jaw here, a spearing tail there — waiting until the end to reveal the beast in all its nightmare-inducing glory, and even then only briefly. That uncertainty is one of the things that makes the alien so frightening: We can’t quite get a proper fix on it. And the hybrid quality of H.R. Giger’s design, mixing the organic with the reticulated, the oozy with the sleek, disturbs us even further, because we can’t grasp where such a thing might have come from.

In James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens, however, the Xenomorphs are all over the place — slithering and uncoiling out of walls, rising out of floor grates, crawling through ventilation shafts, and dropping from ceilings. And yet we still see relatively little of them. Even as he turns Scott’s haunted-house movie in outer space into an all-out action extravaganza, Cameron adheres to his predecessor’s ethos of showing the monsters only in bits and pieces, fragmenting them visually and allowing them to maintain their frightening allure. Once again, it’s not until the end of the film, with our final, full shots of the giant Alien Queen, do we get a long hard look at one of these extraterrestrial fiends.

In some senses, the journey of the Alien movies through the post-CGI filmmaking landscape says something about how revealing too much of a monster can undermine its very monstrosity. Subsequent entries have overexposed the aliens and essentially turned them into a joke. So much so that when Ridley Scott himself tried to reclaim the franchise with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, he treated the classic Xenomorphs as afterthoughts and opted instead to focus on the many (perhaps too many) philosophical questions the earlier films had provoked.

Classics like Alien (and Jaws and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and any number of other similar efforts) suggest that movie monsters get scarier the less we see of them. Among films of somewhat more recent vintage, Cloverfield and The Mist have also taken this idea to heart. (Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether It has even shown us its true monster yet.) There can be exceptions, of course. Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods very consciously gives us a monster overload in its third act, as seemingly every horror nemesis you could possibly think of shows up and lays bloody waste to the human characters; the results manage to be both hilarious and quite frightening. In a somewhat more somber vein, Mama does not skimp on showing us its terrifying title specter, a maternal ghost that looks like a Modigliani and a Munch had a secret demon love-child; the film practically bludgeons us with jump scares, and somehow they all work.

So, what distinguishes a monster movie that works from one that doesn’t? Perhaps it’s worth looking at the one type of monster that has not only endured but thrived of late, even as it’s also been thoroughly overexposed. While modern-day effects have made horned, winged, goo-soaked, fire-breathing freaks more and more credible, it’s somehow that honest, anonymous day laborer of the horror genre, the humble zombie, who has become ubiquitous.

Maybe it’s because zombies, at least in their more modern iterations, are also harbingers of our own doom, symptoms of an apocalyptic disease. Zombie movies such as World War Z and 28 Days Later and various entries in the Resident Evil series (and even such tongue-in-cheek efforts as Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland) manage to scare us because they also represent the imminent death of humanity. What’s left to the imagination in that case is not so much what the monsters look like, but what their presence portends. There is a gnawing sadness to the zombie movie — yes, even some of the funny ones — that’s hard to shake.

So, again we come to this notion of sadness. It’s interesting to note how many of the classic monsters came with a dose of pathos. The Mummy was a man looking to reclaim the lover who was stolen from him. The Phantom of the Opera was just a scarred, lonely romantic driven mad by trauma and betrayal. Frankenstein’s monster, the saddest of them all, just wanted a friend in a world he had never asked to be a part of — and the closer he got to people, the more dangerous he became. And in all of movie monster history, is there a more depressing and chilling climax than the finale of The Bride of Frankenstein, when the Bride, finally brought to life, takes a look at her supposed betrothed and screams in terror? Far from tempering the horror, this added layer of melancholy somehow added to it.

Today’s movie monsters — at least, the memorable ones — manage to tap into a similar gloom, one now rooted more in our loneliness than theirs. Cabin in the Woods, for all its cheekiness, basically closes with the end of the world; in fact, it turns Armageddon into a sight gag. Mama ends on a more personal apocalypse, as Mama claims one of the two young girls it raised from infancy, suggesting that it will make a better mother to the child than the film’s human protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain. The Alien movies, too, are suffused in a kind of overwhelming despair, as they portray a largely post-human universe, where people are repeatedly deemed to be “expendable” nuisances, with their meddlesome rules, compassion, and fear.

Or consider Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, which somehow brings all these elements together. There, the title monster is chillingly realized through a variety of methods. Sometimes he’s a stop-motion figure, or a paper cutout. Sometimes he’s composited into an old George Méliès film. Sometimes he’s a brief reflection, or a looming shadow. Sometimes he’s (literally) an empty suit. Even after all that, the Babadook, with a design inspired in part by Lon Chaney’s top-hatted vampire in London After Midnight, is shown remarkably little, leaving us with the task of imagining him in all his terrifying grandeur.

But the Babadook is also a symbol, an echo of the rage and frustration the protagonist experiences as a beleaguered single mother entertaining dark thoughts about her child. “The movie, under the surface, is essentially an epic struggle within the mind of a single human being,” wrote David Edelstein. The monster is an analogue of the hero’s perceived failure as a parent and person; it grows in the darkness of her grief and self-doubt, threatening to consume both mother and child. Here, then, is a film that channels the old and the new, with both the human and the demon trapped in an eternal clutch of solitude and madness.

Horror ultimately works not on revulsion but on a kind of helplessness on the part of the viewer — a feeling that we, along with the characters, are being pulled toward an inexorable and terrible fate. And key to that effect is a sense that our fate will be not just a painful or menacing one, but also a profoundly sad one. Those old creature features often found that sadness in the monsters themselves; today’s vintage finds it within us. In the end, the ubiquity of the modern monster suggests a notion that once was unacceptable: that perhaps these rough beasts deserve this world more than we do.

What Makes a Movie Monster Scary?