I sense a pattern here.

The history of classic movie monsters seem to progress from creatures who are recognizably human to creatures that seem to be at least part human to creatures that are demonstrably not (I suppose it’s not a coincidence that Mr. Ridley Scott’s movie was called Alien).  Then it rebounds again as creatures like Jason and Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger come along.  And little Sadako of course.

As part of a project I’m working on, I’m thinking about classic monsters and why they work, why they are scary.  Is it lack of human form, as in Alien?  Or perversion of recognizable form, as in The Thing?  Lack of humanity seems to be a constant, but what exactly freaks us out about the physical form of these creatures?  Is it teeth, is it tentacles, is it claws, is it their eyes, or lack of them?

Tell me, if you will, what was the first, or latest, physical manifestation of horror that completely freaked you out, and what was it about it that did it?
hit counter html code


63 Responses to “Monsters”
  1. eronanke says:

    Zombies. ZOMBIES.
    28 Days later- still the scariest thing EVER.

    • Todd says:

      For me, the interesting thing about zombies, or at least the zombies in the Dead movies, is that they are not, in and of themselves, evil. They’re mindless, shambling eating machines, stupid but implacable, but they’re not evil. They’re less of a monster and more like a weather condition, you know, “don’t go outside because it’s zombie-ing out there today.” The tension and anxiety in those movies, and I think in 28 Days Later too, comes from the way the living characters relate to one another in this situation of extreme pressure. The presence of imminent death tends to reinforce all the worst aspects of human behavior. I remember thinking at one point of Dawn of the Dead that things wouldn’t be so bad in this new world if everyone would just stop yelling at each other for a few minutes.

      • eronanke says:

        You are correct- but then, does not Alien fit into that category? Aliens only reproduced, and their reproduction was only offensive because they were parasitic; they only killed humans to be hosts… Frankenstein, fine- Dracula, fine… But aliens don’t think or care either… (Excepting, of course, the momma Aliens, which seemingly has more intelligence and foresight than her progeny.)

        • Todd says:

          Ah, but the Alien has stealth and morphing powers and all kinds of wily, unpredictable behavior. It has intelligence and skill. Zombies stagger around in broad daylight and, in the Romero pictures anyway, don’t even speed up when you start shooting at them. It’s their implacability that’s so terrifying.

          • eronanke says:

            Ok, ok, I concede. 🙂
            The drippy bits of both Alien and Zombies are pretty creepy, tho.

            • Todd says:

              But do you prefer fast zombies to slow?

              I can’t decide. I very much enjoyed 28 and the Dawn remake, but something about the “motivated zombies” doesn’t ring true to me. There’s something creepier about a menace that just kind of staggers around until it runs into something to eat as opposed to something strong and directed that will charge down a hallways and grapple with you until it gets what it wants.

              • eronanke says:

                28 Days Later – did this have ‘motivated’ zombies? I don’t feel it did- it scared me MUCH more because of the viral aspect, because, not only could you *become* a zombie, you could do so before anyone else notices!
                Dawn of the Dead/Land of the Dead (remakes) – I had much more of a problem with the later, giving the gas-station attendent agency and foresight as a zombie was a little… frustrating. And then to have a natural hierarchy arise amongst the zombies? Madness.

                Aliens, however, always act like ants/wasps – they act in congress as animals do, in decision making as well as strategy. I could *understand* how they operated, which is why they were always less scary to me. Zombies are not even scavengers, not even wild dogs… Zombies just devour without thought of hunger or need… just out of insanity or madness. Therefore they scare me more.

  2. ayrn says:

    Captain Howdy from the Exorcist. It’s really all about how it jumps out at you, I suppose…but every time I see that picture, it does things to me on a very deep level.

    Have you looked up The Uncanny Valley for this?

    • Todd says:

      The Uncanny Valley is something that greatly interests me, but not necessarily for this project. It’s entirely possible that one day my children will adore The Polar Express, but it gives me the willies whenever I see it playing at the video store. On the other hand, a creature like E.T. is as ugly and inhuman as all get-out but we have no trouble extending to it the greatest feelings of sympathy, love and compassion. And then there are characters like Ash in Alien, who appear to be completely human but are not. The fact that something is almost human seems to be what repulses us. I guess the children in Village of the Damned or the pod-people in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers would fall into this category.

  3. ghostgecko says:

    Part of that is just a function of technology. Something like the alien couldn’t be built before transistors were invented, there just wasn’t a good enough system to articulate the mask. Critters like the wolfman were had to do convincingly before latex prosthetics – compare him to the beast people from Island of Lost Souls just a few years before.
    Have you read David Skal’s “The Monster Show”? It’s a little too freudian for my taste but otherwise it’s a good examination of why certain monsters were popular at specific cultural points. For example, after stuff like the Pill and test tube babies, you got movies about monstrous reproduction like It’s Alive or the “male pregnancy” of Alien’s chestburster.
    Personally, I think monstrousness is pretty simply explained by evolutionary psychology. Fear of predators (fangs, claws, staring eyes), repulsion by slimy, rotting textures (might carry disease), fear of strangers (can’t trust folks who aren’t members of the tribe) and so on. I could go on forever about this, but I’ll spare you.
    As for the first thing that scared me, it was a Japanese knockoff of the Blob, a scene in which the cherry Jell-o blob pulled a girl behind a couch and devoured her. I was afraid of the gap between the couch and the wall for years because IT COULD BE DOWN THERE! WAITING FOR ME! Even though I knew better. Funny thing, as much as I love horror movies I don’t watch them to be scared. I haven’t been scared by a movie since I was 10 (the rotting cab driver in Ghostbusters freaked me out).

    • Todd says:

      You’re probably right, the evolution of movie monsters probably has more to do with the development of film technology and less with the bounds of human imagination. When a unique idea for a monster came along at the right time, as with The Blob, Hollywood had no trouble going with it.

      I also agree that there is probably an “age” of horror movies, just as there is an age for pop music. You fondly remember the monsters that scared you when you were a child, but the scariest movie in the world becomes little more than an exercise in style as you get older. For me, John Carpenter’s The Thing was the last movie for a long time that totally freaked me out, up until Ringu, which was handed to me (as a blank, unlabeled VHS cassette) by a studio executive who only suggested, in ominous tones, that I had to watch it.

      • ghostgecko says:

        There’s also the idea that if something is totally alien, we wouldn’t even be able to comprehend the threat. For example, flesh-eating bacteria is scary and disgusting. It’s gross to think about our flesh being turned into a macerated lump of pus right before our eyes, and you’d give someone with obvious disease symptoms a wide berth to avoid contamination. But looking at an actual bacterium thru a microscope isn’t even slighty scary, because we haven’t evolved the ability to recognize it as dangerous.

        • Todd says:

          That’s all true, but I found the first two acts of Outbreak terrifying anyway, right up to the point where we realize that Dustin Hoffman has to drop everything in order to hop in a helicopter and go find a monkey.

          • ghostgecko says:

            I’ll still argue the virus itself isn’t what’s scary, only the effect. Whereas if you add enough pointy fangs and dripping saliva that jumps out from the shadows and roars BOO! it triggers all prey animal instincts and you get a scare.
            I find the “disease effects” trigger pretty effective, but more of a gross out that a scare, like in the Fly (which someone else mentioned) when he’s peeling his fingernails off. It doesn’t scare me, but it makes me squirm. The zombie mom drooling pus and blood into her bowl of custard in Dead Alive/Brain Dead was a squirmer, too.
            Personally, what would really bother me in a horror movie is not a bunch of CGI but a horrible situation in which the hero absolutely cannot escape or correct and then DOESN’T at the end. It’s fairly rare for this to happen. O
            ne of the many reasons 28 Days Later didn’t work for me was the ending, where sure, some parts of civilization were destroyed by humanity in general and the hero in his love interest were just fine. Aw, how cute. Boooooring and conventional. Same with any disaster movie where as long as the person we’ve been following and identifying with resolves his partiular plot arc.
            The ending of the first Night of the Living Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing are kind of what I’m talking about. As wild as Rob Bottin’s monsters were, and they were amazingly disturbing and excellent, it’s kind of hard to actually be scared by something that patently isn’t real. However, the two guys slowly freezing to death and neither knowing if one is a monster, or both, or neither, stayed with me for much longer.

  4. sanspoof says:

    Well, arguably, the Alien alien is still, form-wise, a distorted human. He’s bipedal, and has a human skull integrated into his head. Really it’s just that he has enough humanoid elements to recontextualize them into something awful.

    Personally I’m scared of aquatic monsters. The limited visibility, the hampered movement of humans in the water; the alien (optimized for another environment) shapes and their potential speed.

    • Todd says:

      One of the wonderful things about Jaws is that it manages to be terrifying in broad daylight. The feeling is “as long as you stay out of the water, you’ll be fine.”

  5. I don’t have time to explain it… I don’t even think I have an explanation.

    The one that always freaks me out is the Blueberry Girl from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Sure, laugh. But that is one scaaaary movie when you think about it.

  6. craigjclark says:

    One of the few movie “monsters” that freaked me out when I was a kid was the gnarled tree in Poltergeist that crashes through the window and grabs the son out of his bed. That freaked me out to the point that I had to leave the room. I couldn’t watch the rest of that movie for years. The idea that a freaking tree could reach out with its branches and try to kill you was too much for my ten-year-old mind to comprehend.

    As I’ve grown older and become a lot more sophisticated about this sort of thing, I’d have to say the scariest movie monster is the werewolf because most of the time they look just like us. Sure, when the full moon comes out, they sprout fur, claws and razor-sharp teeth, but you could work alongside one for years and never know.

    • Todd says:

      It’s funny you bring up the tree in Poltergeist, because that was one of the few places in that movie where I thought they cheated. Of all the things that poltergeists are capable of doing, a kid-eating tree is clearly not on the list.

      That doesn’t stop it from being scary.

  7. greyaenigma says:

    I was working on a much longer comment, but it was approaching midnight, the radio was playing creepy music, and my research was scaring me. I can finish and post if you’re interested.

    Specifically, I was looking up info on Sadako/Samara. The original Ringu didn’t do much for me for a lot of the movie because I couldn’t understand what was going on, but Jesus, that last scene…

    Similarly, The Grudge freaked me out. It weird, because it didn’t do much for me as a movie — there doesn’t seem to be a story arc other than “people find house, people suffer, people die”. That being said, the sheer inevitability of the horror did freak me the hell out. There’s no hiding under the covers to get away from this one. There’s no escape. At all.

    • Todd says:

      I can finish and post if you’re interested.

      Mais oui.

      As mentioned earlier, Ringu completely freaked the shit out of me. It scared me so much that when I described it to friends of mine the next night at dinner, it freaked them out as well.

      I found that the foreign quality of the movie worked to its advantage for my viewing experience. I was in an unfamiliar place, trying to get my bearings, just like the protagonist. I couldn’t tell if I was looking at an expensive, big-budget production or a scuzzy cheapie. So when that last scene came along I was taken completely off-guard.

      So what do they do for the American remake? They drop hints about the last scene all the way through the movie and give the whole production a lovely, lush texture to show off its budget.

      • greyaenigma says:

        I think I was over thinking Ringu. The names looked Korean, so while I thought it was Japanese, I was trying to place whether it was maybe also Korean in some way…

        Hmm, I don’t remember hints about the last scene. I do remember the completely random addition of the horses. WTF? Overall, I thought it was decently done for an American remake. I read that after the producers saw the final scene of Ringu, they rushed out and grabbed the rights within hours.

        • Todd says:

          The two instances I can think of off the top of my head: in the American remake, in the very first scene they indicate that water has come out of the TV set, and that theme is developed as the movie goes on. Then in Act II there’s a long scene where they show that a fly in the picture can come to life and fly off the screen. All to “prepare” us for the last scene, which actually made it less scary for me. They were trying to show that this last scene doesn’t just come out of nowhere, it’s actually carefully laid out.

          I liked the staging of the “horse gone crazy” scene on the ferry, but I have no idea what it had to do with the mystery of Samara. The whole second act seems to have been re-thought, making it more gothic and baroque, presumably to bring “production values” to the piece.

          • greyaenigma says:

            OK, I remember those bits. The fly mostly struck me as “well, we have a big CGI budget, what can we do?” I do actually remember them given some explanation with the horses — there was some massive horse die off earlier in the timeline — it’s just that I have no idea why they added that. And I did like the atmospherics of the horse, it just seemed lifted from another movie.

            Another couple of movies that freaked me out recently, though both atmospherics and (completely opposite sorts of) inescapability: Silent Hill and The Eye.

      • craigjclark says:

        I didn’t see the American remake in theaters because I wanted to see the original first. Of course, Ringu and The Ring came out on DVD at the same time, so I rented Ringu first, was mermerized by its utter simplicity, made a mental note to track down Hideo Nakata’s other films (Chaos was good, but I was most impressed with Dark Water) and never even bothered with the remake.

        I also gave Ringu 2 and The Ring 2 a pass — despite the fact that both were directed by Nakata. I don’t want the purity of the original to be muddled in any way.

        • Todd says:

          Your wisdom gives you strength. I found both Ringu 2 and The Ring 2 scareless and ridiculous.

          There is, however, the matter of Spiral, which is a movie based on the novel of the sequel to Ring, which I have not seen.

          • greyaenigma says:

            Not to be confused with Uzumaki (“Black Spiral”, I think) which is not directly related to Ringu, but got under my skin.

            • craigjclark says:

              I still kick myself for passing on the opportunity to see Uzumaki at a local repertory screening. It was early in the J-horror thing and I didn’t know enough about it to take a chance on it.

              • greyaenigma says:

                I can’t remember what inspired me to see it in the theater. Probably the preview (or just the write-up) looked intriguing. Of course, I’d already seen Kwaidan and Angel Dust by then — not to mention Matango, so I was already intrigued by Japanese horror.

                • craigjclark says:

                  I didn’t see Kwaidan or Matango until years later. Of course, by that time my interest in Asian cinema in general had blossomed tremendously.

                  • greyaenigma says:

                    I’ve got a copy of Kwaidan (fun activity — try watching that back to back with Conan) but I only Matango ages ago — I was probably twelve or so. It still had a huge impact.

  8. occlupanid says:

    Alien. that was the kicker. A movie so scary i had to get up the nerve to read the ocmic adaption before ever seeing the film. An action figure so terrifying we had to keep it in closet. then the closet down the hall, (which was scarier) then simply gave it away(!)to another kid who could deal. A combination of insectoid determination and lanky humanoid form, it represented for me Pure Fear. It haunted my dreams, and everyplace i couldn’t see under the bed. I loved it, and still do.

    Sure totally non-human entities are featured in films from time to time, and while they might be popular for a moment, they don’t last. The closer to the uncanny valley a monster gets, the more scary it can be, because our connection is so much stronger. Alien, deprived of its human-ness, wouldn’t have been nearly as terrifying to me, just another mean space-animal.

    (hi, btw! friended you courtesty of yetra.. lovely journal-writing!)

    • Todd says:

      Thank you for your kind words.

      I went with a friend to see Alien in its opening weekend (we were teenagers) and we were appropriately freaked out. The difference with our screening was that during the penultimate reel (that is, where Ripley is racing through the spaceship to get out before it blows up) the sound inexplicably cut out. There were howls of protest and indignation from the audience at first, but as we came to realize that this condition was going to last for at least ten minutes (and there’s no dialogue in that reel anyway) we all started creating our own sound effects: hissing steam, clanking machinery, gasping, panting Sigourney, meowing cat. It was a great way for the audience to release the anxiety that had been building up throughout the movie and then made the shuttle-scene that much more compelling.

  9. toliverchap says:

    I think in keeping it simple the real fear comes from the unknown. That they lack humanity or human qualities makes them something that is an “other” always a fearful thing. But in a visual and literal sense the Alien monster is most frightful when you see it only in glimpses woven into the shadows of the Gigeresque designs. I mean once the monster is out of the shadows and in the light its goals can be reduced down and made sensible and then the monster is only scary in a primal way the same way a great white shark (Jaws used the literal unknown of the water perfectly to amplify terror) or Cougar is in real life. Or in the case of a slasher picture a serial killer. I found the cave dwelling Golum-like humanoids in The Descent to be quite scary. This was mainly due to the environment where they lived, hidden in the dark and claustrophoic underground. In the end once, the monsters of that movie are shown more they become less scary but the darkness holds as a way to maintain fear to be sure.

    • Todd says:

      Darkness and noise and design were definitely put to good use in Alien, but another innovation of the monster is its tendency to change forms when you’re not looking. You could never predict what it might do.

      A friend of mine reported that he found The Descent to be utterly terrifying, right up to the moment when the creatures showed up. He thought that a movie about spelunkers trapped in a cave was infinitely more scary than a movie about spelunkers trapped in a cave with monsters. And in a way I can see his point.

      • toliverchap says:

        Yeah I agree the monsters weren’t scary it was more that there was something there that could get you, aside from the general anxiety of being trapped in a cave.

  10. Anonymous says:

    The Thing

    The remake of “The Thing” by John Carpenter, at the first instances of what was to come, the scenes where the “thing” would reanimate and morph in strange ways, trying to adapt and learn the patterns, like the dog’s head that sprouts legs and walks and so on. It was disturbing at the level of dread in a way I think cinema is still able, and with a good balance of special effects manageable at that time without overdoing it. Plus no one was interested, or going to learn how to “understand it” like in “Alien”, and in that way it carried on some more direct symbolic-psychological manifestation line from the first movie incarnation, rather than being about “different worlds”.


  11. ndgmtlcd says:

    Not sure, but I think that the first was the creature in “The Thing from Another World” (1951). I was scared out of my wits even before they actually showed any part of the creature on screen. So it wasn’t about what it looked like, but how the film makers built up tension, using image and story. Same thing for the creature in “Forbidden Planet”.

    Once, I tried looking at the 1982 remake (“The Thing”) by John Carpenter and was bored stiff. Never made it to the end of the film.

    On the other hand, you can have a completely grotesque, repulsive creature, a total perversion of human and insect and fish forms and think “nice guy” if the director wanted that, and knew what he was doing. By coincidence I was watching a great little science fiction film by Joe Dante this weekend, “Explorers” (1985). Just take a look at Wak, and Wak’s father.

  12. mr_noy says:

    Like many folks, it was probably Alien for me. I think that’s a generational thing more than anything else. I was too young to see it in the theaters but I remember seeing it when it first came out on cable. It didn’t help that me and some cousins watched it late at night, in the dark, long after we were supposed to have been in our bed. Actually, the reveal of Ash freaked me out more than the Alien itself.

    I just saw The Thing From Another World for the first time this weekend as well as rewatching the Carpenter remake. I know this sounds like sacrilege to some, but I still think the Carpenter version has the edge and it has little to do with the advance in special effects. In the Hawks/Nyby version The Thing is recognizably The Other. In the remake, the creature is even more hideous, but what makes it so terrifying is the fact that it can change shape and you never know if the guy sitting next to you is a monster or not…until it’s too late.

    I think that’s why I prefer the remake and why Ash creeped me out more than the Alien; the minute you see James Arness in his “intelligent carrot” suit or see the Geiger Alien you know it’s a threat. I’m more scared by the threats you aren’t even aware of; like your co-worker who turns out to be an alien in disguise or a milk-spurting android.

    • Todd says:

      The notable thing about the Alien, for me, was that when the movie came out the creature seemed unspeakably horrible to the point of obscenity. Then, within a couple of years, “alien”-style designs started showing up in cartoons and cereal commercials, and now the design is so well-known that it’s just another monster.

      I walked into a video store with my 3-year-old son one day and they had a life-size Alien fighting a life-size Predator as part of a display. My son thought the creature was noteworthy but not particularly scary in and of itself (it was, of course, stationary and in the middle of a brightly-lit video store).

      The dialogue went something like this:

      SAM: What’s that?
      DAD: That’s a monster from a movie called Alien.
      SAM: Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
      DAD: He is a bad guy. He’s a very bad guy.
      SAM: What does he do?
      DAD: He sneaks up on you, grabs your head and eats your brain. Which is very bad indeed.

      Sam weighed this information for a moment and moved on. He was more interested in the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which was playing on the monitors that day.

      • mr_noy says:

        You’re absolutely right about the look of the Alien being “horrible to the point of obscenity” especially when viewed within the sexually charged context of Geiger’s artwork.

        When I was a child there would have been absolutely no doubt whatsoever that what you were staring at was pure unadulterated evil; everything about the creature, it’s breeding habits and it’s physical design, suggested pain, violation and death.

        But I suppose it was inevitable. Even vampires, witches, and the like are rendered into adorable costumes and dolls for children, Godzilla and the Terminator became good guys and the Alien is seen as just another action figure no scarier than a game of Ring Around The Rosies.

        It makes you wonder what the new paradigm of fear will be once today’s teens tire of little girls with bad hair.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Is “The Fly” a monster?

    I would as well add the remake of “The Fly”, which obviously reveals I am looking more to the 80s cinema. I think it’s because of that periods combination of certain cinema directors reinvigorating the horror genre, plus the cinema-tech standards of that moment, in terms of “monster” special effects were moving up a significant notch. One could be surprised still by the effect of transformation, which is everything in certain monster scenarios.

    There was a love story that gave the character’s transformation to monster over the course of the narrative first a sympathetic feeling, until he turned to power-mad crazy stalker and goes after his love interest to fuse them as “one” – so obviously a a couples-movie. Even at the end there is a mixed feeling, as only at his insistence, Geena Davis has to fire the shotgun directly on him as his mad folly becomes apparent. So I don’t know how much of a monster movie it is – no sequel possible – but it qualifies in some way still.


    • Todd says:

      Re: Is “The Fly” a monster?

      The Fly is definitely a horror film, but I would stop short of calling it a monster movie. If anything it’s a love story.

    • craigjclark says:

      Re: Is “The Fly” a monster?

      “No sequel possible” — and yet they managed to make one that was so busy trying to up the ick factor that it forgot to give us characters we could care about. Only John Getz’s cameo makes the film worth seeing — and even then he still has some cheesy lines to say. (“He bugged me.”)

  14. dougo says:

    I think I was inoculated against traditional “beastie” monsters by Jim Henson (Grover, Herry, Sweetums) and later Chuck Jones (Gossamer, instant martians). Oh, and Maurice Sendak.

    So the first thing that really terrified me was the body snatcher pods (from the ’70s version—I haven’t seen the others).

    Did you ever play the ’80s video game Boulderdash? The amoeba always freaked me out, something about its Blob-like inexorable growth combined with its random-tones burbling noise.

    Eraserhead’s baby.

    These writhing barnacles.

    Giant centipedes.

    Most Aphex Twin videos.

    • Todd says:

      The 1978 Invasion is still my #1 on my wife’s “scariest movies” list. It was shot in her neighborhood in San Francisco and there were a couple of people she knew who seemed to be pod-people anyway. It was all a little too real for her.

      Meanwhile, centipedes freak her out to the point where even seeing a picture of a stylized one on, say, a samurai banner in Throne of Blood is enough to make her leave the room.

  15. noskilz says:

    Could it be something in the attitude?

    Setting aside the technological costuming limitations that tends to force monsters played by actors to be sort of human-like, it seems that a many old movie monsters also had human characterists that the audience could empathize with – or at least maybe recognize something of themselves in, although the critter generally isn’t going about satisfying whatever those points of commonality might be in a desireable way. People can appreciate the wolfman’s dillema, they can see where the mummy is coming from, or why, more recently, Sadako might be a little pissed – monsters as a sort of mirror that shows a reflection the viewer doesn’t care to see(or maybe I’m just explaining the idea really badly or not at all) – a “mr bad example” you can empathize with and who sort of creeps you out?

    I also think presenting a credible threat and a sense of inevitability about that threat might also be a factor. The alien in Alien seems to fall solidly in this area – I mean aside from possibly deciding there’s nothing personal about it’s omnicidal mania, there’s not really any common ground between it and people.In the case of The Ring, it looks like no matter where you are, she’ll crawl out of that screen, and there are a lot of TV’s in the world.

    One can’t omit a really nice character design of course – the gill-man has never had a decent movie(and there have been 3), but he keeps turning up in posters, videogames, monster discussions,etc… Sadako has a neat look, but it was the bizarre way she moved that caught my attention and underlined that there was really something very wrong(in the anomolous sense) with that character.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Could it be something in the attitude?

      Your comments remind me that both “monster” and “demonstration” have their roots in the word “monstrum,” which means “divine portent” or “warning.” And indeed, most of these creatures are warnings of some sort or another. Warnings against unchecked scientific ambition, warnings against the dangers of the unknown, warnings against greed or desire or societal decay. In this way, horror is often the most conservative of genres, always saying that we’re going too far, that our desires must be curbed or else terrible things will happen to us.