Monsters represent that which is unnatural, that which is aberrant and abhorrent. As such, they may symbolize conditions, situations, ideas, or other realities that a society--or humanity as a whole--finds repulsive. Not only do monsters have souls, as it were--the realities that they symbolize--but they also have bodies--the physical forms that writers give them.
John Keats wrote, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter. . . .”
Many writers and critics agree that the same principle is true of monsters. That which we do not see is often much more terrifying than that which we do see. What we don’t see, we must imagine, and our imaginations are much abler to frighten us than things we see. We may defend ourselves from something visible or at least know which way to flee from it. It’s impossible to protect ourselves or to escape from something we cannot see. Moreover, we want to know our enemy. We believe, rightly or wrongly, that being able to confront our foe may help us to discover its weakness. It’s possible, for example, that the Cyclops had limited peripheral vision; therefore, he might be blindsided. If we can see the werewolf, we can shoot it with a silver bullet. Zombies may be frightening, unseen, but when, seen, we realize how slowly they shamble, and we have hope that we may defeat them. Not seeing that which threatens us makes it, in our minds, more frightening.
Alfred Hitchcock coined the term “bomb theory” to explain how suspense differs from shock or “surprise.” In an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock explained his view:
Something similar is true with respect to monsters. When we hear them, but don’t see them; when we hear of them, but don’t see them; when we view the carnage they leave behind them, but don’t see them, suspense builds. The monster becomes increasingly horrible. We build them up in our minds until they are horrible beyond words, horrible beyond depiction. That’s why, often, when we do see the monster, it’s usually disappointing. Remember when, toward the end of It, Stephen King finally lets his protagonists come face to face with the terrible shape shifter that has terrified them (and us) for hundreds of pages, and we learn that its true form resembles nothing more sinister than a gigantic spider? Talk about a letdown! The scene very nearly destroys the whole novel. We imagined nightmarish visions; we are given a spider. (The same is true of the monstrous Shelob, the gigantic spider in The Lord of the Rings.)
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene [emphasis added]. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.
The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
It’s better not to show, than to reveal, the monster at the heart of the story. Nevertheless, it’s usually shown at some point near the end of the story, in words in the novel and in images in the movie. Again, usually, it disappoints.
However, there are a few occasions during which the monster, even revealed, manages to terrify--and to delight. An example is the alien in Alien. Based upon paintings by H. R. Giger, who is himself a master of the macabre, the extraterrestrial antagonist that destroys Lt. Ripley’s crew is a truly terrifying specimen of the monstrous. It behooves us to ask ourselves why.
The answer is fairly straightforward. Giger’s monster terrifies because it is alien. It’s unlike anything we’ve encountered, but, at the same time, it suggests many things we do know, all of which are unsettling. It’s part insect, sort of, and part crustacean, kind of, and something mechanical, maybe, with a little worm, or dragon, thrown in, it seems. It may even be part machine. It’s also--dare we say it?--somewhat humanoid. It’s a synthesis of incongruous combinations that cross categories, which, if you’ve read the post on “The Horror of the Incongruous,” you’ll recognize as horrible in itself. It’s also horribly detailed. Giger shows us its every horrifying feature: sharp teeth, elongated dragon’s head, banded ribs, armor-like crustacean exoskeleton, a second mouth inside the primary mouth, an armor-penetrating tongue, fused phalanges, acidic blood and saliva. It’s a walking weapons platform, a total arsenal, and, lizard-like, it can run along walls or ceilings as easily as along floors, and it likes to ambush unsuspecting victims by attacking them from behind. Temperature extremes don’t bother it, and it can survive in a vacuum. Its exoskeletons fully contains its body heat, so it can’t be picked up by heat sensors. In short, this monster is an all-in-one package of terror that's virtually undefeatable. It's the monster-version of the Swiss army knife, the shape shifter given one polymorphous form.
The monster's life cycle is horrifying, too, as it represents a parody of human conception, pregnancy, and gestation. The species’ queen lays an egg that produces a parasitic facehugger. The facehugger attacks a victim, attaching itself to his or her face, and, introducing a tubular proboscis into the victim’s esophagus, implants an alien embryo within the recipient’s chest. Whether the host is male or female doesn’t matter; after accepting some of its host’s characteristic features--bipedalism, for example--the parasitic embryo emerges, ripping its way through its host’s abdomen in a parody of the birth process. The whole conception-pregnancy-gestation process makes women interchangeable with men as mothers, suggests that human reproduction is a parasitic process, and makes birth an act of violence. Understandably, feminists have detected a good deal of misogyny and sexism in the Alien monster. For this reason, as well as those of its alien appearance and abilities, the monster is both fascinating and truly monstrous.
What makes the Alien monster so monstrous? Let’s recap:
- It’s alien from anything we’ve seen before.
- It’s an incongruous synthesis of various creatures, unsettling in themselves.
- It’s shown in great detail.
- Its abilities, like its appearance, is an incongruous synthesis of various other creatures’ capabilities.
- Its life cycle parodies human reproduction processes.