I’m no horror writer; I just wanted to throw that out there. Recently, however, I’ve done some thinking about what makes a monster truly terrifying.
It all started when my sister asked me for help on a project she was working on. I’m not going to disclose what it was, but let’s just say that she wanted the main antagonists of her story to be instinct and desire-driven creatures who infected others by touch. They also had hollow eyes, which made me think zombie immediately.
Because that’s what they were—off brand zombies who touched you instead of biting you.
Now, there were many issues with this idea, but the first thing I brought up was that there had to be another villain. Her monsters couldn’t think, which made it hard to feel anything about them but fear. Monsters like hers were more suited to be forces of nature, constantly hounding the main characters and throwing chaos into stand-offs. I mean, Abby’s main characters literally escape into civilization by the end of the prologue. Civilization means people, and people mean antagonists with goals readers can relate to.
Another thing I mentioned was that her monsters simply weren’t scary enough. There are a ton of zombie stories, and people know the gist by now. What made zombies scary before were how human yet inhuman they were—and their slow but inevitable method of infection, of course.
Now, having appeared in so many works of everything that their concept no longer seems alien or strange, they lack the mystery new horror creatures possess.
So how did we make them more scary? Well, first we had to give Abby’s creatures a weakness. Weaknesses are important because they allow the main character a chance to kill, foil, or evade a monster through their use of wit and knowledge about the adversary. They also allow you, the writer, to gift your creation with more strengths. A ghost isn’t scary if you can punch it and it dies. By imbuing the ghost with the ability to turn incorporeal, however, you can solve that problem by making it invulnerable to conventional attacks. You can also tie weaknesses to strengths. Let’s say that the ghost can only hurt you when its corporeal, and transitioning between its two states requires energy and time. Maybe the thing is invisible as well, but animals can see it regardless of its state. This allows you to craft a tension-filled story where your main character evades a ghost with the help of their pet dog and ingenuity. By the end of your tale, the ghost may be so tired that it is unable to transition between states, so when it uses all its power to become corporeal in a last-ditch attempt to kill the protagonist, our main character tricks it and locks it in a room, leaving it unable to escape. As you can see from my example, weaknesses don’t even have to be a weak point or weapon that allows your character to destroy your monster. It may even be better for your monster to be unkillable, as that cements the idea of them being a force of nature. They are inevitable, but they can also be stalled.
In the end, Abby and I decided to make her creature more of a sleeping agent than a horde of monsters. We capitalized on the infection aspect of zombies, allowing the disease to lie dormant until the infected feel a particularly strong emotion, which changes them according to that emotion.
I won’t go into specifics, but our new version is scarier simply because of the suspense that characters have the opportunity to feel after an encounter with Abby’s creatures. Were they touched during the struggle? Are they now one of the infected? No one will know until they actually turn . . . or not. But if they don’t, that fear will always be there until the day they die.