|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #95:
The Elements of Good ScaryTelling, Part Two: Monstrous Archetypes
November 7, 2002 - I've always found it ironic that election day follows so closely upon the heels of Halowe'en in the United States. On the one day many people engage in the ritual of putting on false faces, pretending to be something that they are not, and trying to convince people to give them stuff; and on the other, children trick or treat for candy.
False faces and things that are different than us are at the heart of most horror, and that's what I want to talk about this week, in the second of my articles on horror storytelling.
I want to talk about monsters.
Before I get there, once more a few references: the 2002 WorldCon Horror Panel was again a source this time around, though a minor one. Most of my discussion of horror archetypes actually comes from the excellent Danse Macabre, written by Stephen King before he was quite as famous as he is now.
Here There Be Monsters
Most horror is about monsters. Looking back at what I wrote last week in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #94, The Elements of Good ScaryTelling, Part One: Haunting Themes, you could say that monsters are the tools of subtext.
That is, you have a subtext that you want to portray (for example, the horrors of adolescence), and so you make them concrete in a physical, living monster of some type (Carrie). Some monsters are human beings who have a scary, uncontrollable side, like Carrie; as we'll see in a bit, that's actually one of the common archetypes. Other monsters are totally and truly monstrous, be they H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu or Ridley Scott's Alien. But almost always, there's a monster in any horror recipe.
Just take a look through Stephen King's decades of work, and you can find example after example: Carrie, Christine, and Cujo in their self-titled books; vampires in Salem's Lot; a haunted hotel in The Shining; Flagg in The Stand; a group of interchangeable evil entities in It, Desperation, and The Regulators; and many more.
Even pop horror culture recognizes the need for monsters, as shown in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where every season there's been a "Big Bad" who encapsulates the danger, and perhaps even the subtext, of each season of the show. The Master, Spike, the Mayor, Adam, Glory, Warren... all monsters, each in their own way.
It's an easy formula an easy way to create both feelings of horror in the face of evil and feelings of powerlessness in the face of power. It's an easy way to marry subtext and text in a well known and accepted way.
Thus, if you create your own horror story, book, comic, or computer game, you'll probably need to do some thinking about what monsters will populate your own creative work.
Here There Be Archetypes Too
Fortunately for you the whole idea of monsters in horror fiction has already been analyzed quite a lot. Stephen King, in his pivotal work on horror fiction, Danse Macabre, even broke horror monsters down into three standard archetypes: The Thing Without a Name; the Vampire; and the Werewolf. He also alludes to a fourth without actually discussing it: The Ghost.
Overall, these archetypes seem to cover a pretty wide swath of horror, and so I've decided to use them as my basis for a discussion of monstrous archetypes this week. I don't entirely agree with a few of King's classifications, so I've juggled a couple of categories about just a bit. I've also generalized, to free these monstrous categories up from the specific connotations that go with specific instances of these archetypes. Having freed them up thus, we'll see that several famous monster types actually fit into a number of different archetypes just as our vampires did last week.
I've also alluded back to last week's article, and the important place of monsters as the lynchpin of text and subtext, by labelling each monstrous archetype with some of the most important themes which tend to be related to it.
The Thing That Should Not Be. Frankenstein. The most basic archetype of horror is the monster that kills without remorse or pity. In some cases this is a mindless beast, like the infamous Them. In others, the monster might be quite intelligent and erudite, as the original Frankenstein was... which can make the horror of his amoral nature that much more monstrous.
Often this archetype goes hand-in-hand with our definition of evil. Most movies about the Devil would fit into this archetype, including The Stand and The Omen. Likewise, some stories about serial killers can fit this mold.
The Thing That Should Not Be does not try to hide its nature; perhaps it can not.
Subtypes: Cruel intelligences; demons and devils; evil incarnate; mindless destroyers.
Themes & Subtext: Here there be monsters; lack of control; the world is a dangerous place; death; some things are unstoppable; evil is totally alien to us; the world is a cruel place.
The Thing That Devours Us. The Vampire. Some things do not wish to simply murder us, but rather to prey upon us instead. We provide some sort of substance to them, and in this way we are no more than cattle.
Vampires are the most obvious form of this archetype, with their need for our blood, as seen in Interview with the Vampire and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Likewise the incubi and succubi of Medieval myths preyed upon our sexuality. Zombies, meanwhile, need to eat our brains or flesh; for example, see Night of the Living Dead. Many films portray this archetype with a "natural" predator. Here we find Jaws and The Birds.
Finally, there are those parasites which grow within us and finally devour us from the inside. Alien was one of the first widespread uses of this variant, and one that still shocks movie watchers to this day. Outbreak and similar dramas could be seen as extensions of this archetype. More subtly, a parasite can invade our brains, bodies, and souls, be he Freddy Krueger, a body snatcher, or a demon that must be exorcized.
Subtypes: Animal predators; body snatchers; parasites; possessing demons; succubi; vampires; viruses; zombies.
Themes & Subtext: We are but animals; we are food; we are nothing in the schema of the universe; horror lies within.
The Thing With Two Faces. The Werewolf. Perhaps the best use of the "werewolf" archetype is Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the tale of a mild-mannered scientist who turns into a brutish hulk. And, it shows that the archetype of The Thing With Two Faces is about more than just guys who get a little shaggy when we happen to see the sunward side of the moon.
In the cases of both the actual werewolf and Dr. Jekyll we see monsters that hide their antisocial nature behind a social facade. But, when that facade is cast aside, they become evil forces, as black as the night. There is usually a physical change when this mental change occurs, but that is more a way to emphasize the mental transformation than an actual requirement.
Besides the more mythological horrors, we find many killers who hide themselves in society and put on a good face within this category. There are the serial killers, be they Jeffrey Dahlmer or Norman Bates. Or even those evil holders of power who kill from afar, with a word, be they politicians, tyrants, or mob bosses. If The Sopranos were horror, then Tony would be The Thing With Two Faces.
Subtypes: Dictators; serial killers; transmorgifiers; werewolves.
Themes & Subtext: loyalty & disloyalty; trust; we can not believe what we see; evil wears a kind face; power corrupts.
The Thing That Would Not Die. The Ghost. Finally we come to those things which will not die which are unnatural because they have somehow eluded the power of death. Many monsters found within our past archetypes would also fit into this one. For example, The Thing That Would Not Die commonly goes hand-in-hand with The Thing That Devours Us, for the subtext of death can be made that much stronger if that which did not die kills us to live.
However there is also a category of monster which fits squarely into this archetype alone: the ghost. Whether it be an avenging banshee or an unhappy spirit who has not finished its works upon the Earth, The Thing That Would Not Die has for some reason not moved on to other planes, instead remaining upon ours to bring sorrow or death.
Many slasher movies, from Friday The Thirteenth to Halloween fit into this category because the monster is something which is stabbed, shot, drowned, dropped down mine shafts, chainsawed, shot (again), and torn to pieces by dogs, yet still keeps coming back for more (until the public grows bored of sequels).
Subtypes: Banshees; ghosts; liches; slashers; spectres; That Which Can Not be Killed; That Which Demands Revenge; That Which Seeks Death; wraiths.
Themes & Subtext: Somes wrongs can never be righted; death; some things are unstoppable; rebirth & redemption; lack of control.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So, you've now got a bunch of archetypes. What does that mean for the creative horror piece you're working on?
I'd suggest you use these archetypes as a guide, not a straight jacket. Once you've thought about your subtext (see last week), and thought about what monsters could marry that subtext (see this week), take a look through the archetypes, and see where your monster fits in.
Hopefully doing so will help you see what else has been done with the monstrous archetype and thus show you what other messages you might be able to bring to the forefront of your work, and how you might look at your own subtext from different directions.
But don't worry too much about that until, at least, your first burst of creative energy has waned, and you're ready to go, hacking and slashing, into the the revisionary part of your creative process.
And that's it for this week and for now that's it for my discussion of horror. There's much more to be said, I'm certain, and maybe I'll return here as our progress on Lovecraft Country continues here at Skotos.
In the meantime I'll see you in 7.
If the werewolves, vampires, and politicians don't get me.