know your monsters! 14 terrors, and what they mean

It’s Halloween, so let’s talk monsters, a staple of horror films and fiction.  As a kid, I spent many a Saturday morning in front of the TV, slurping down cereal and watching such cerebral fare as Rodan, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (the latter of which, despite the goofy title, creeped 7-year old me right out). 

I got older, but I never outgrew my enjoyment of horror movies and monsters: they just got scarier.  You can imagine how tickled I was to go to college and read honest-to-goodness, highbrow “Literature” with monsters, and to study scholarly texts on them. 


And what did I learn?  That there can be more–much more–to monsters than just them jumping out of the dark for a cheap scare.  Used properly, monsters can mean something, communicating dark fears to the viewers and readers, and allowing them to safely grapple with those fears.

Come along, and I think you’ll see what I mean.


In Danse Macabre, his excellent dissertation on the horror genre, Stephen King identified four archetypal monsters: the Vampire, the Ghost, the Werewolf, and the Thing Without a Name.  I expand on those major archetypes, like so.

(Warning: some of these clips are REALLY intense)

The Alien is horrifying different from anything found in Nature, and evokes one’s fear of that which one cannot understand.  The “Alien” is often from another planet or dimension, but can be something unknown from this world.  H.P. Lovecraft extensively mined this archetype for most of his writings.

Examples: Lovecraft’s Cthulhu; the Xenomorph from Alien and its sequels; the shapeshifting nightmare from John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing.

The Beast is a real-life animal inimical to humankind, evoking one’s fear of Nature as a hostile force.  The Beast is physically superior (faster, stronger, better senses), and cannot be reasoned with.  Its defeat is often dependent on humans outwitting it.  Tales of the Beast are probably the oldest horror stories; modern writers have often mutated, genetically enhanced, or otherwise modified the Beast to make it more fearsome to today’s audiences.

Examples: The great white shark from Jaws; the mutant bear from Prophecy; the wolves pursuing Liam Neeson in The Grey.

The Chimera is a horrific fusion of two or more animals. or–even worse–an animal and a human.  The Chimera takes its name from Greek mythology, but fears of Nature gone horribly wrong, either through happenstance, terrible accidents, or human meddling in things one is not meant to, persist to this day (consider recent scientific experiments combining animal and human DNA).

Examples: The Island of Dr. Moreau (novel and movies); “Brundlefly” from the 1986 film The Fly; the hybrid Dren from Splice.

The Crazy Man encompasses a wide range of psychopathic killers, mad scientists, evil clowns, and other unbalanced human characters.  The (quite rational) fear of the Crazy Man derives from his (or her) malevolent motivation, coupled with terrifyingly unpredictable behavior.

Examples: Michael Myers from Halloween, Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street, Jigsaw from the Saw series, etc.; Pennywise the Dancing Clown from IT (novel, TV movie, and recent films)*; the mad scientist who becomes The Invisible Man and the insane doctor from The Human Centipede.

*Yes, Pennywise is more than just a clown, but it’s as a clown that it appears most of the time to its victims.

The Demon evokes one’s fears of baleful supernatural entities that either break into this world, or take over people within them.  As you might expect, these stories almost always have a heavy religious (usually Roman Catholic) element, where even if the existence of God and Satan are questioned at the beginning, there are no doubts at the end.

Examples: Rosemary’s BabyThe Exorcist; The Nun from The Conjuring series.

The Dragon is the embodiment of an elemental force of Nature, against which humankind struggles to prevail.  The Dragon’s form need not be limited to the winged, fire-breathing fairy tale monster, for its evokes the same sort of dread that people feel when confronted with hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.

Examples: Godzilla; the unnamed monster from Cloverfield; Drogon and his siblings from Game of Thrones.

The Evil Toy/Tyke exploits the deep and common fear all parents have of childhood innocence being corrupted, that despite all they do for them, their child will turn out “wrong.”  Even worse is the idea that the child never possessed any innocence, that they were born “bad.”  This archetype is frequently mixed with others (you did watch that clip from Splice, didn’t you?), such as The Crazy Man, The Demon, The Freak, or The Thing.

Examples:  “Chucky” from the film series of the same name; the Zuni warrior from the 1975 Trilogy of Terror TV movie; “Annabelle” from The Conjuring seriesChildren of the Corn short story and film.

The Freak evokes one’s fears of disfigurement from birth defects or gruesome injuries.  The extremely old, or those afflicted with an appearance-altering affliction (such as leprosy) can fall into this category.  Often, the Freak is a sympathetic character–unless the writer combines this archetype with another, such as The Crazy Man.

Examples: Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Phantom of the Opera (and Phantom of the Paradise); Freaks; The Hills Have Eyes (2006 version).

The Ghost can also be sympathetic (Patrick Swayze in Ghost), or helpful (A Christmas Carol), or even comedic (Ghostbusters), but in horror stories, it evokes the fear of the dead remaining to torment the living, after failing (or refusing) to move on to the afterworld.

Examples: The “guests” and “staff” at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining; the 1982 film Poltergeist; The Woman in Black. 

The Thing may appear human at first glance, but a closer look will reveal that it is not quite, a distressing phenomenon now called The Uncanny Valley.  Often created by scientists or doctors who really ought to know better, the Thing is sometimes portrayed as a sympathetic character, but less frequently than the Freak.  The Thing can be combined with other archetypes from this list.

Examples: Frankenstein’s monster in the various books and films; The Thing From Another World (who appears more human than alien in this 1951 film); The Brood.

The Vampire almost always embodies the fear of unrestrained sexual passion, either  that of a stranger, or of one’s self.  The best vampire stories play upon the dread that one will be sexually violated by another–and enjoy it.  Lesser attempts (Twilight) downplay the Vampire’s gruesome aspects, and play up otherwise desirable qualities like immortality and superhuman abilities.

Examples: Count Dracula in numerous adaptations; Interview With the Vampire; The Lost Boys. 

The Werewolf archetype, as King points out in Danse Macabre, need not confine itself to being a fellow who turns into an animal by the light of the full moon (although, this is often the case).  The Werewolf is the dangerous, violent alter ego of a character who struggles (often unsuccessfully) to control it: think of Marvel Comic’s sympathetic anti-hero, The Hulk.  The Werewolf, then, evokes the fear of losing control of one’s self.

Examples: Mr. Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, and ensuing films; the tortured Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man (1941 movie); An American Werewolf in London.

The Witch possesses unearthly power, evoking fear of a woman unrestrained by traditional patriarchy and social norms.  If she retains her youth and beauty, she is double threatening to men, able to seduce them, beguile them, and then use her magic to destroy them.  If she is old and haggard, she’s frequently portrayed as a terrifying anti-mother intent on murdering, even devouring children (“Hansel and Gretel”).

Examples: The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz; The Blair Witch Project; Hela from Thor: Ragnarok; Melisandre from Game of Thrones (technically a “priestess,” but come on….).

The Zombie has evolved from its origin in Haitian folklore as a reanimated slave; to a staggering but ghoulish cannibal in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead; to a mindless member of a fast-moving, ferocious horde that brings about (or immediately follows) the end of the world.  In their latest depiction, zombies evoke the fear of society turning on one, bent on their destruction.  It’s no accident that the popularity of zombie stories, particularly on TV and in movies, has risen with the advent of social media.

Examples: 28 Days Later; I Am Legend (2007 version); The Walking Dead   

If you’re looking for more monsters, I’ve included a lot–The Alien, the Crazy Man, the Freak, and the Witch, to name a few–in my latest novel, This Wasted Land.  You can get it in print or Kindle here.

3dIf you’re read the book, have you checked out the TWL Playlist?


Kenton Kilgore writes killer SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young.  In his latest novel, This Wasted Land, high-school senior Alyx Williams learns that witches are real when one attacks her and her boyfriend Sam, dragging him off to a nightmare world where Alyx must go to get him back.  

Kenton is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of the end of the world as seen, heard–and smelled–by a dog.  He also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, like Little House on the Prairie…with dragons!  With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.  Kenton also published Hand-Selling Books to help authors better their sales.   

Follow Kenton on Facebook for frequent posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction.  You can also catch him on Instagram.

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