What Makes a Monster Scary

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Big teeth, big claws, and big glowing eyes should work, right?

Meh.

Simply mashing together hyper-predatory traits isn’t scary. It’s just cool. A monster that can devour me in one bite may be threatening, sure, but it’s not frightening. I can’t appreciate something huge and threatening unless I’m actually standing in its shadow – anything short of a VR experience or a life-size prop will not have the desired impact on the viewer. It’s the element of fear, of representing something more than just an animal, is the difference between simple creature design and monster design.

Monsters are far more frightening when they are lost echoes of humanity, emotionless aliens, or worst of all, suffering wretches that seem to be in just as much pain as they cause.

I believe that “final boss” monsters should represent the core “evil” in your story – whether that’s society, government, nature, human greed, or any other abstract concept.

A lot of what makes something creepy is a sense of ambiguity and confusion. A truly scary monster will make someone feel uncomfortable, hesitant, and render them gaping like a confused fish, unsure if they should run. Will it hurt me? What does it want?

Blank or Fixed Expression

Expressionless, always-smiling, faceless, or masked beings are terrifying because we can’t read their emotions. Humans rely on the facial expressions of others to understand their thoughts, intentions, and whether or not they are a danger to us. Without a changeable expression, beings fall into the “uncanny valley” where we cannot tell if something is obviously a threat or not.

Narrow or Dilated Pupils

Your pupils dilate (get bigger) when you’re scared or highly stressed. Studies have suggested that psychopaths, people who lack the ability to feel empathy, actually don’t physically respond to emotions, and so their pupils stay shrunken at all times – even when someone is screaming in distress at them. Hugely dilated pupils will read as a being that is very excited to meat you, while shrunken pupils will read as a being that has absolutely no emotional reaction to you.

Human Teeth

Big sharp fangs are threatening, but human teeth are confusing and upsetting. For one, they create a reference back to humanity in an otherwise inhuman creature, which raises questions – was it once human? Does it try to look like a human to blend in? Another is that it confuses the viewer about what it eats – teeth tell us about a creature’s diet, so why would something possibly dangerous and predatory need flat, herbivore teeth?

Helpless, Sick, Pathetic, or Wounded

Nothing is more alarming and confusing than a creature that looks like it wants help. Worse still is a creature that is obviously injured or damaged but is still coming for you, even if that means slowly dragging itself towards you. What kind of being doesn’t feel pain, or care for its own physical safety? Is it just that hell-bent on coming after you, or does its physical body simply not matter?

Impossible or Counter-Productive Anatomy

Thin, delicate, spindly limbs, disproportionately tiny heads, useless dangling feet – when a creature’s physical body doesn’t make any evolutionary sense, we question how it came to be. Vestigial body parts leave us confused, asking what they’re for. When a creature’s body doesn’t seem to fit our world, our reality, it makes us question what reality it IS suited for. Adding a sense of alienation will always help your creature feel more vague, threatening, and impenetrable.

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What are some of the scariest monsters you’ve ever seen?

Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to scary monster visuals: https://www.pinterest.com/monsterbrainsoup/scary-monsters/ 

Also check out this awesome and relevant VSauce video: