The Horror genre more or less requires some kind of monster to build the tension and set the movie into motion. There has to be violence, there has to be suspense, and there almost always have to be a monster which creates the violence and tension. The audience desperately awaits that “monster moment,” in which we finally get what we’ve been craving for the duration of the film. A complete, full-body shot of the film’s antagonist. For the sake of simplicity during this post, I’ll be referring to
Sure, recent film has had its fair share of monsters. Annabelle the doll, or the Babadook, or… uh, I don’t know, Ouija boards? Trolls? Tires? Turkeys? Okay, I suppose I’m being hard on the horror genre because it gets so excessively saturated with crappy monsters, but for everyone of these weaker monsters there’s a Nosferatu or a Jaws or a Predator. Or a Xenomorph.
Having a monster as the villain can build tension beautifully. Think of the sci-fi/horror classic Alien. We don’t see what the monster looks like until the very end, so finally seeing what it looks like is the climax of the film. Up until that point, audiences (who haven’t seen what a xenomorph looks like somewhere else) have little idea what the alien would likely have difficulty imagining what exactly the monster would look like, so that when they finally see it, they’ve been dying to know what it looks like. They are both relieved to finally see it and terrified to behold it. The longer a horror film waits to show us the monster in its entirety, the more we are held in suspense. All horror movies should handle monsters the way Alien handled its monster.
But the greatest horror villains will always be people. Look at this Halloween; will there be more people dressed as zombies, vampires, ghosts, or more people dressed as scary clowns (redundant, I know), Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or whoever scares them? In an earlier post about various monsters in Doctor Who, I explained how the genius of certain horror-style monsters in that they are made to occupy mundane spaces in our everyday life, such as statues or shadows, and how that is what makes them so scary. So what then, is the implication when people are the monsters?
***Spoiler alerts for Psycho, The Shining, Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, Jessica Jones, and The Walking Dead***
During Psycho, it is revealed that Norman is the
mother monster nearing the end, but only during his/his mother’s monologue during incarceration do we finally see him/his mother for the monster that he/she/they truly are.
Or, at the end of The Shining; a whole bunch of supernatural things are going on, ghosts are flying around left and right, and yet the greatest threat to Wendy and her son Danny is Nicholson’s Jack Torrance. Jack’s monster moment is, of course, the iconic shot of him poking his face through the hole in the door, “Here’s Johnny!”
The same goes for characters in films like Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. Technically, these are thrillers, and not horror, but that’s arbitrary. Does horror just mean a movie that instills fear in us? Are you gonna tell me that John Doe from Se7en is less scary than the fuckin’ Ouija board? (I should stop criticizing Ouija, apparently its recent sequel is pretty good.) Sure, Silence of the Lambs does not perfectly follow the monster formula, but Se7en has an amazing traditional monster moment when John Doe turns himself into the police. He’s covered in blood and goes from screaming the word “Detective!” to mildly saying “you’re looking for me.” And if this were a traditional monster/slasher film, that would be his monster moment. But no, his true monster moment comes later on. First we have to sit through him explaining why he has based his kills off of the seven deadly sins, and then finally he presents us with the sins of envy and wrath. His full monstrosity is fully realized when he tells Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills “I took a souvenir… her pretty head.” (And arguably, when Mills takes his revenge on John Doe, he becomes wrath, and, in a way, becomes a monster, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
If John Doe were a literal monster, then the initial reveal would simply emphasize how grotesque he was, and the reveal that he killed Mills’ wife would simply be additional gore. But, since he is a figurative monster, the first reveal only shows us a fraction of how crazy he is, with the later reveal showing us the complete depth of his insanity.
It’s hard to pick one specific monster moment in Silence of the Lambs since that film has two antagonistic characters. I’m inclined to suggest that it is when Lecter is wheeled out in front of everyone (in the iconic shot below) and asks the mother of the missing woman horrifying questions. But, given all we hear about Lecter’s cannibalistic tendencies early in the film, the more apparent monster moment is towards the end, when Lecter escapes and resumes his cannibal habits.
Here’s another one, how about Jessica Jones? He’s definitely a monster, and has a monster moment in the second episode of Jessica Jones, in which he invites himself into a family apartment for dinner and tells them that he’ll be their guest for dinner and forces the children into a closet. But we don’t see quite how mad he is until later in the season, when he buys Jessica’s childhood home and makes her live in it with him.
But, if I had to pick one show to succinctly describe the phenomena I’m talking about, it would be The Walking Dead, which mind you, I don’t even watch. For a show with wonderful monster effects and hordes of zombies, it says a great deal that some of the shows’ most notable antagonists are a community of cannibals and a baseball enthusiast named Negan. It seems that the walkers are really just a secondary problem and the main struggle seems to be other people.
The scariest part of having a human as a monster is this: traditional monster horror reaches its climax when you finally see the monster; but when a person is the monster, the story approaches its climax when we get to know them for what they truly are. The horror comes from seeing just how deep the madness goes. The fear of most other horror monsters comes from their appearance, how grotesque they are. With humans, though they might not be grotesque, their monstrosity is still there, and all the more shocking.
So yeah. Happy Halloween!