Here Be Monsters: A Personal History of Fear

Recently, at the Edge-Lit convention, I attended an interesting panel on the role of monsters in genre fiction. It mainly focussed on the usual suspects, namely vampires and zombies, and how saturated the market (particularly self-publishing) has become with such fare. I enjoyed it, I’m a big fan of monsters (even the overused dead ones that just, won’t, die) and I’m really particularly interested in the way monsters are used, the function they serve within the narrative. Sometimes they’re just the bad thing with which a writer can threaten the characters, and that’s okay, I like those monsters, but sometimes they’re so much more than that and those ones tend to be the best ones. For me.

I’ve been meaning to blog about monsters for a while now. It would have tied in well with the competition I ran a while ago – what’s your favourite monster – and it could have served as a pretty decent plug for my collection (Probably Monsters, by the way, available now from ChiZine and other dark places). I return to the topic now because of that Edge-Lit panel and because during the Q & A at the end Stephen Volk asked what it was like to try to invent a ‘new’ monster, citing Giger’s Alien as a recent example. It’s a question I wished could have been explored at length because it’s something I think about often (unsurprisingly).

My feelings are that if ever I was going to create a ‘new’ monster I’d have to first look at the ones that really affected me personally. Not because I could then take bits from each Frankenstyle – it doesn’t work that way – but because by examining each I might come to identify why it scared me. Only then would I be able to think of different ways (maybe!) in which to represent that fear and thus make my new monster…

This is just a personal list, though. It’s not a ‘top five best monsters ever’ list or anything (though do feel free to add your own to the comments below). I won’t be going all secondary-reading on it either, you might be glad to know, quoting from various texts and getting heavy with the analysis. It’s just a bit of light-hearted bloggage, my thoughts on the very special monsters that scared, and in some cases still scare, the hell out of me.

The chances of anything coming from Mars…

My introduction to horror, my first experience of being scared and liking it, occurred when I was around five or six, and it came courtesy of Jeff Wayne’s version of The War of the Worlds. I was in the bath at the time, my mother playing the double album (vinyl) in the next room, and, oh man. Terrifying doesn’t cover it. I didn’t fully understand the narrative, but I was pulled along by Richard Burton’s powerful voice and the evocative music – that heartbeat, those drilling sounds, the alien cry of ullaaa – to such an extent that I genuinely feared seeing a Martian at the small bathroom window (and for better or worse, it would have been all distorted by that special bobbled glass). I was disturbed by that horrid image of a “huge rounded bulk, larger than a bear” as it “rose up slowly, glistening like wet leather” while “its lipless mouth quivered and slathered and snake-like tentacles writhed as the clumsy body heaved and pulsated”. I was terrified by the “fighting machines, picking up men and bashing them against trees”. I was completely and utterly traumatised by the idea that aliens would come and end, well, everything.

Something else I did understand was that this was something utterly and quite literally alien. Human beings, and more precisely adults, did not know what the hell was going on. “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one” says the astronomer, “but still they come.” And to my mind that either meant adults could be wrong, which was very frightening, or it meant bad shit happens however safe you might think you are. The fact that the adults were scared is probably what scared me most, though, with glorious artwork accompanying the album to show people fleeing in terror. The disbelief in that line, “They wiped us out,” was clear enough, even if I couldn’t understand the magnitude of “hundreds, maybe thousands, dead”. Older now, I can appreciate how H.G. Wells used a Martian invasion to reflect the many human ones. I can see a fear of colonisation. You can even see the Martians as a type of cosmic vampire considering how they use our blood, a wonderful way to represent exploitation (and maybe, considering how the story ends, even the fears of miscegenation?). For me, though, it was simply the fear of my world order being blasted away by heat rays to a soundtrack of exultant Martians crying Ulla!.

So thanks mum. Sincerely. I still love that album.

Smile, you son of a bitch!

Another fear that grew out of my childhood experience is a fear of the sea. This is due, in part, to living in Australia as a child and being told that the nice man in the tower on the beach was on the lookout for sharks. It might not have been true, the guy might have been a lifeguard or something, but the idea that there might be a creature out in the sea that would eat me, the idea that swimming was a kind of deadly lottery (there might be a shark, there might not, it might be hungry, it might not, the guy in the tower might see it, etc), well, that terrified me. I never swam in the sea as a kid. It’s probably no surprise, then, that the next monster to make a lasting impression on me was the great white shark from Jaws.

The shark’s giant proportions were perfectly representative of the fear I had already attributed to such animals but think about how often you don’t see the shark… scary, huh? That first night swimmer, the fishermen on the jetty, the poor boy on his inflatable – none of them saw what was coming for them. The sea concealed it. There are other fears in the film, such as our inability to control all of the world we live in, for example, and there are economic concerns as well (even more so in the book where the shark is a parallel for a town-troubling loan shark – get it?). I’ve even read a psycho-sexual analysis of the film in which the shark is somehow both a phallic symbol and vagina dentata. But for me it was the fear of being eaten alive. A primitive fear, a universal fear, and a fear I still have to this day. However far we advance, however developed our intellect, there will always be something savage higher on the food chain. And you won’t always see it coming.

Fee, fie, foe, fum

For the next ‘monster’ that had a massive impact on me, thanks go to that man I mentioned earlier, Mr Stephen Volk. I’m not alone with this one, either – loads of people were deeply affected by the phenomenon that was Ghostwatch. People complained, that’s how good it was. Scary? Yes, just a bit. Well, more than a bit, to be honest. I can’t even blame my age because I wasn’t that young, about sixteen, I think. Presented as a seemingly live television broadcast investigating a haunted house, the programme gave us Pipes, a particularly malevolent ghost that managed to fool and/or terrify most of an entire nation (just as Orson Welles did in the late 30s with his radio version of The War of the Worlds, funnily enough). It was precisely the apparent reality of Ghostwatch that scared me. Sarah Greene (my childhood crush) was on site to report, her husband Mike Smith was in the studio phone room, hell, it even had Michael Parkinson hosting and how can you not trust Parky? There was just enough cynicism at the beginning, too, courtesy of Craig Charles, to make it all the more convincing so that by the time the studio is being torn apart by supernatural forces you’re fully immersed in the fiction-as-fact aspect of this mockumentary. At least, I was. I had the same sense of order being broken down as I had with The War of the Worlds, only with the Martians I still knew it was a record playing whereas, oh my God, Ghostwatch was fucking real.

(It wasn’t.)

And for me, personally, the fear did not end when the programme did. That night, in bed, I couldn’t sleep for staring into the shadows in the corners of the room and the darkness at the end of my bed. Pipes had taken all of the ghost stories I knew and condensed them into something that could be real. So imagine how scared I was when one of my walls started thump-thump-thumping, just like in Ghostwatch! I mean, holy shit, it was really really real.

It wasn’t.

My sister, in her bedroom next door, had also been psychologically scarred frightened by the programme and, convinced that Pipes was in her room, was throwing her toys at him. And those toys struck the wall, my wall, thump-thump-thump! I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep until the sun came up.

It’s funny, but I’m friends with Stephen Volk now and though I’ve been meaning to tell him that story for ages I’ve only just admitted to it. So cheers, Stephen, you scared the hell out of me (and my sister) and influenced my love for the genre. I sincerely appreciate that. (And thanks go to you as well, sis. The only time you scared me more was when you put that knife in the toaster when the bread got stuck.)

…Three, four, better lock your door…

For a smooth segue into my next landmark monster/fear, other sleepless nights can be attributed to Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. One of my first 18 certificate films, this moved quickly from titillating my interest with swearing, nudity, and sex, to becoming something very disturbing. I revisited the film and its sequels not so long ago and found that almost all of any impact it once had was now lost but at the time I was scared all right. I mean, we all dream, and you can’t control them, and most of us have experienced that feeling of powerlessness that comes with dreaming – running slowly, punches that don’t connect with any force, even paralysis – so throw in a bad guy like Freddy “with knives for finger nails”, and make him a paedophile driven by vengeance and sadism, and you’ve got quite a monster. I remember thinking there was a lot of blood in that first film, and it may have been one of the first horror films I saw that suggested so much pain, especially with that first death. Clive Barker did it as well with Hellraiser, but there was something strangely appealing about the pain in that film, whereas Freddy did not offer the same pleasure.

So, powerlessness and pain: those are part of my monster-fear genetic make up.

Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility

And finally, the last monster to have truly scared me… it’s Giger’s Alien creature. Which brings us back full circle as it was one of the monsters Stephen Volk cited as being a new monster in that Edge-Lit Q&A, something more than just a vampire or zombie or one of their other bump-in-the-night buddies. It scared the hell out of me. It still scares the hell out of me. I used to play an Xbox game called Alien vs Predator and though I completed it as both the Alien and the Predator characters I just could not do it as a marine. Not because it was difficult but because I was fucking terrified. Of a game. To be fair, I do tend to fully immerse myself in the atmosphere when I play, and I’ve quite an imagination, but the hissing sound they make and their speed and dexterity, scuttling on limbs designed to pull you apart, that retractable snapping mouth…

And lets not be coy, this is a monster that frightens because it represents, as well, a fear of rape. I don’t just mean that penetrative phallic mouth, that retractable penis with teeth, but consider as well the face-hugger monster, forcing its seed into your body, seed that will grow and then burst out of your body. It’s a full violation of the body, in fact, a horrific rape and birth and death, and it’s one of the reasons I’ll always class Alien as a horror film rather than science fiction. It’s body horror, it’s psychological horror, it’s even a haunted house horror of sorts, only with a spaceship instead of a building. The science fiction is just setting, really, a place where the horror can happen. As the tag line says: In space, no one can hear you scream.

The monster mash

So there you go. The five monsters that scared (and scarred?) me most. There seems to be quite a lot of crossover as to what it is about each that scares me. For example, Giger’s Alien brings the same terror and sense of ‘other’ as the Martians from The War of the Worlds (it even “glistens like wet leather”, and not in a good way) while like the shark from Jaws it’s a formidable, perfectly evolved, killing thing. Any sexual fear it represents mirrors some of the anxiety provided by Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (and maybe even the great white shark, depending how far you’re willing to go with a Freudian analysis). Each is somehow more powerful than us, a physical danger to us, and is either mindless of our destruction or actively seeks it out. Like Pipes from Ghostwatch, each seems to breaks the laws of nature as we know them. So the monstrous, to me, is very much supernatural. Beyond nature, or beyond our understanding of it anyway. Even the scariest people are the ones whose nature we just can’t seem to understand. “How could s/he do such a thing?” we ask.

And as Parky demonstrates from the studio as the show draws to a close, nowhere is safe from monsters, whatever or whoever they might be.

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4 Responses to Here Be Monsters: A Personal History of Fear

  1. For me it was Twilight Zone in the dark, The Legend of Hell House on prescription drugs, and seeing something I never quite understood what was in the dark…But the shock turned out not to be the “thing”…no, the shock was LOVING the horror….So now I write it trying to scare myself. Sometimes it works. The rest of the time I read you…

    • Ray Cluley says:

      Oh yes, The Twilight Zone. I remember a thing on the wing that scared me at 20,000 feet, and a girl with no mouth who made nightmares real (at least, I think I remember her…) 🙂

  2. Pingback: 5 Must Read Horror Articles 10 August 2015 » This Is Horror

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