Monsters are stupid and make-believe, they’re not even scary!
Horror is just monsters, gore, and slashers – cheap thrills, not art.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard this…well, you know the saying.
Horror fans are in the minority among genre entertainment (movies, tv, books, etc.). Many times “real” artists and critics don’t take horror seriously, viewing it as sensational schlock. And horror creators? We’re an even smaller set of fans, but we’re also a team of individuals who are incredibly supportive and enthusiastic. And even though the community is small and tight-knit, I can assure you it is one of the most welcoming to newcomers. We may work with terrifying monsters or themes, crafting or innovating on everyone’s favorite nightmares, but I promise you’ll never meet a nicer group of people.
So, why are we drawn to such darkness?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I wrote a blog on this topic already concerning my own love of dark fiction. It’s just always been appealing, from my youngest age when I was exposed to dark fairy tales and later on to some amazing movies and books. The ’80s, the era of my childhood, was a Golden Age of horror and dark fantasy. I’ve read countless books since I was in grade school, the creepier the better. I still love and watch Labyrinth, Legend, The Dark Crystal, Poltergeist, The Lost Boys, Twilight Zone: The Movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and so many more. I dove into this genre headfirst, loving the gloomy settings, the damaged or maligned characters overcoming impossible odds, and thrilling at every imaginative and terrifying monster whether human or other.
What is the appeal of these monsters?
Long before my birth, hell even as far back as Beowulf, artists created fantastical monsters that defied all logic. Shocking creatures, many from ancient folklore, filled our nightmares – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, various werewolves, aliens, demons, and even mutated animals and insects. These were the beasts that slinked in the shadows, representations of all of the dangers in the world waiting to eventually claim us. Some were scarier than others, but over the years the fears of those initial incarnations faded.
The sixties and seventies saw a new type of monster, even more horrifying than the others – Humans. Our friends, family, and neighbors who appeared harmless on the outside, but beneath that familiar surface lurked a dangerous maniac. Ghosts and zombies were also popular, still scary but also a twist on the same theme for they are the remnants of dead humans. All relatable, to an extent, but worse because it generated the fear that someone we know and trust might turn on us for any reason.
Monsters all, whether human or Other, star in some of horror’s finest offerings. Everyone has their go-to favorites for thrills and chills, but our choices may vary depending on mood or what’s going on in our lives at the moment. This is especially true of horror fans, although I would argue most of us appreciate the value in all monsters. Personally, I’m a huge fan of supernatural horror but I still enjoy a well-made slasher or sci-fi/cosmic horror.
Even among our most-loved sub-categories in horror, there are versions of our favorites that aren’t as scary. Why? If you like vampires, wouldn’t one do as well as any other? Not always.
One of the reasons I love horror so much is that it’s always tuned-in to contemporary issues and fears. And this is most often exemplified in the choice of the make-believe monster or human villain who adapt to modern times. I laugh when people complain about media oversaturation with vampires, werewolves, or zombies. When will they move on to something else?, those critics complain. Umm, try never. Because each generation adds its own twist to the standard story.
The classics hold for a reason, even though every incarnation has its own fans and detractors. For example, I was never scared of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (although his performance was excellent). And surely generations of Twilight fans aren’t losing sleep over gorgeous sparkly vampires who whisper promises of true love (but heartbreak and rejection sure do suck, pun intended!). But if one placed Nosferatu in any setting, I would still be scared. I dare you not to get creeped out wondering if those bulbous eyes and needle-like teeth and claws aren’t right behind you in the dark. The silent film, Nosferatu, makes my skin crawl even though it came out before my grandmother was born. The same creature is found in Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, which was hugely influential during my youth. And because of the Nosferatu version of the vampire, they will always be one of my favorite monsters no matter what other versions come out.
The monsters of horror and dark fantasy will always be relevant because they are archetypes. And each new iteration is a metaphor reflecting contemporary issues. Sometimes the classic monster fits, and sometimes that same monster is featured with a few new upgrades which fans love even more. But the core themes are the same:
- Vampires are unholy ghouls that drink human blood, seethe with infection, and threaten the sanctity of our mortal bodies and immortal souls. They also represent a tantalizing see-saw between life and death. Is living forever worth giving up one’s soul, feeding off the blood of others? Isn’t death cleaner, more natural, even if it means losing those we love?
- Werewolves are mindless beasts savaging anything in their path, once human but now out of control madmen. The werewolf is not always a bad person, but when the animal comes out then all bets are off because no one is safe. How horrifying when our personal wishes and best intentions mean nothing in the all-consuming force of Nature’s most bestial instincts.
- Zombies are the walking dead, always hungry and chasing fresh brains, wearing the faces of our friends and neighbors. They appear like those we know and love, but the humanity and thought is gone. There is no reasoning with a zombie because they are empty eating machines, killing for an urge but not for nourishment because they’re already dead. What good is the food anyway, ugh?
- Serial Killers/Slashers stalk their own kind, callously tearing apart their fellow humans for the most inexplicable reasons – monsters inside, but outside they appear like any of us. Look at real life serial killers, where people claim they had no idea because the person was so nice and friendly. It notches up the terror in a world where we already mistrust others because of the horrors in the news. Do we ever really know anyone?
- And in the unexplored expanse of space, what alien creatures lurk in those cold depths waiting for their chance to imprison or annihilate us all just because they can? We always believed humans were the top of the heap, in charge and powerful. But in an infinitely large universe, who’s to say what else is out there capable of wiping us off the map without breaking a sweat?
We live in a world where fear lurks around every corner. Assault, theft, mass shootings, invasion, loss of basic needs, illness and death – you name it. We struggle with mental illness, lack of self-worth, or the emptiness of isolation. Some people just push forward with blinders on until they break, destroying themselves and maybe taking others with them. Some people try to get help with medicine and therapy, or they lean on friends and family for strength. And then again, some people force themselves to analyze and face their fears no matter how scary. It might be because of a direct confrontation with their problems, or they’re draw to the safe metaphors offered in horror media.
I’m not saying we can solve all the world’s problems by watching Dracula, or Night of the Living Dead, The Howling, or The Thing. But for myself and some other horror fans, we get a thrill out of seeing our nightmares come to life whether on screen or in a book. It’s make-believe, yes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned and avenues of critical thinking to explore. And in all those screams, laughs, or flashes of nightmares, our subconscious is always working and processing. Plans are made, fighting tips are assessed, and general information is stored in our bottomless databanks. Our real problems and fears wear the faces of these monsters, like rubber Halloween masks, but our subconscious isn’t fooled. It knows danger lurks in the world, and our deepest self teaches us using images and symbols from the collective unconscious that we can understand and relate to.
Be scared of the real monsters, but don’t hide from the fictional ones. They’re here to help you, teaching by example, even if you’re terrified and have to hide behind your hands. Peek between your fingers, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and know your enemy. That way if you’re ever in a tough situation facing something unimaginable in the real world, your brain just might know what orders to give so you can find a safe way out. Don’t be scared, be the hero from the story, unlock your inner warrior. Don’t let the monster win…it’s all just make-believe, right?