What Makes a Movie Monster Terrifying?

Natalie Portman in 'Annihilation'Credit: Paramount Pictures
When it comes to the horror genre, rules are made to be broken. Here's how you can make a monster that resonates with the audience. 

From Kathryn Bigelow to James Cameron, many of the greatest working directors started their careers directing horror films. Fundamentals like building tension and using sound creatively all prove their worth in this genre.

Few directors have been as prolific and creative as Alex Garland, and his 2018 masterpiece Annihilation left us breathless at times. His iconic monster, the mutated bear, is the subject of my video essay below.

Check it out, then get some additional insight about this movie monster.

Using sound to terrify an audience is critical to creating the scariest movie monster. Garland's setting is an out-of-control mutating environment, and the mutated bear has eerie signs that it not only kills its victims, but it mutates with them. The cry of the bear is mutated with the cry of its last victim, creating a suspension of the fear of death forever. We can see details of these mutations in the set design, as well as the script. For instance, all of Annihilation's characters are seeking to change or transcend themselves.  

"Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too," Stephen King once said. "They live inside us, and sometimes, they win."

Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jeung theorized that horror films become particularly powerful when the monsters hint at our own darkness. That is, they become metaphors for what he called the Shadow Archetype. This is in direct contrast to what he called the Persona Archetype, or the parts of ourselves we choose to share with the world.

Visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst and Garland wanted the audience to empathize with the creature. By creating a monster that engenders empathy, film directors can transcend the film and cause the audience to grapple with fears they hold deep within themselves. 

'Annihilation'Credit: Paramount Pictures
The Annihilation monster asks us to grapple with the idea of our impending death.

We are unique amongst the creatures of the world in that we know death is coming for us. By suspending the cry of its victim forever, the bear takes the moment of our greatest fear (the unique knowledge that will die) and suspends that fear long enough for us to acknowledge it.

The horror genre can teach an audience about its deeper cultural stories—the modern story of death is terrifying. This is when filmmaking can become a powerful force in culture. When it reveals to us the larger stories we tell ourselves about life and death. 

Have any favorite monsters in horror? Tell us what you like about them in the comments below.      

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1 Comment

Not many good horror movies lately

June 1, 2021 at 5:18AM

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Pete Kane
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