Just How Scary Are Movie Monsters?

Back in August, Den of Geek posted an article asking whether CG movie monsters are frightening or not. The question arose when writer Simon Brew realized how little fear the alien creatures of ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ and ‘Super 8’ generated in him. Now, with the new remake/prequel of ‘The Thing’ opening tomorrow and Halloween just around the corner, I’ll take that question one step further: Have movie monsters in general ever been frightening?

Brew claims that the closest he’s ever come to being frightened by a CG monster were the dinosaurs of ‘Jurassic Park’. Where he doesn’t make the following connection, I will: The dinosaurs of ‘Jurassic Park’ are frightening because they’re based on real “monsters” that actually used to roam the Earth. The monsters of ‘Super 8’ and ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ are purely fictional, and require more suspension of disbelief to emotionally commit to the movies they appear in. If the science of ‘Jurassic Park’ were plausible, then there is absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t see a theme park with real dinosaurs. ‘Jurassic Park’ requires you to suspend your disbelief for the science, not the monsters. Every other monster movie with fictitious beasts requires the opposite.

I believe that movie monsters have rarely ever been frightening. They’re closest to frightening when they’re unseen. The best way to market a new monster movie is to not reveal the creature’s look. Think back to ‘Cloverfield‘ or ‘Super 8’. Neither monster was revealed in trailers or TV spots. With ‘Cloverfield’, you had to sit through more than half the movie to finally get a quick look at its body. ‘Super 8’ dragged along even further, waiting until the climax to give you the goods.

In both cases, the monsters themselves were less frightening when finally unveiled. Less is more. Not seeing something is far more frightening than actually seeing it. ‘Super 8’ and ‘Cloverfield’ were more terrifying before the destructive monsters were shown in full. Leaving it to the audience’s imagination is always the best route.

Sometimes, seeing the monster completely ruins the film. I know many people who hated ‘Signs‘ mainly due to the last-minute alien reveal. After seeing the unoriginal-looking alien, all interest was lost and the perfect intensity that the film built up prior to that moment was rendered worthless.

Likewise, the Smoke Monster from ‘Lost’ lost its intense presence once we saw fully saw it in Season Two (not to mention how much less threatening it became when it was explained in Season Six). The monsters in ‘The Mist‘ lost their terror once revealed as well.

Nothing fictional (CG or not) will ever carry as much impact as an exaggerated version of something based in our reality. Whether it be the dinosaurs of ‘Jurassic Park’ or the “Infected” zombies of ‘28 Days Later‘, reality is more frightening than make-believe. This is why evil characters will always be much more terrifying than movie monsters. It’s easier to believe that there’s an Anton Chigurh out there killing people with a pneumatic cattle gun than a fleet of aliens in tripods that zap people into dust. It’s easier to believe in a flesh-eating genius cannibal than a decked-out, tech-savvy cloaked predator. And it’s easier to believe in a smiley-faced agent of chaos dressed in a tailor-made clown purple suit than a district of ostracized extraterrestrials with ‘Halo’-like weaponry. For this reason, no science fiction monsters will ever be as terrifying as the real life ones walking around today.

You want to be truly terrified? Watch the news.


  1. Jane Morgan

    Watching ‘Aliens,’ in a dark basement, at the age of ten, gave me night terrors.

    Standing in front of the Tsavo Man-Eaters, in the Field Museum of Natural History, on a middle school trip, was fucking unsettling. Seeing the blacks of their eyes, face to face, two feet away. And knowing that evil is real. Watching ‘The Ghost And The Darkness,’ years later, creeped me out.

    And the ‘Cloverfield’ creature design was insane. Hollywood should make a movie like ‘Aliens,’ paying Neville Page to design an entire alien world.

  2. Brian H

    Horror stories can rely on the reader’s imagination, and horror games can rely on the tension created by the direct interactivity with the player. The visuals, the acting, the writing- all theoretical strengths of films- rarely make and appearance in horror movies.

    In the “Shining” the topiary monsters that chase/attack the Torrences work well in the book and would work well in a video game. Any kind of monster that advances on you only look away is great for a video game. In Kubrich’s Shining, pretty much anything like the topiary monsters is cut.

    The first Alien, Carpenter’s the The Thing, that monster that Dan Akroyd turned into in the Twilight Zone movie- these things were cisually scary but really they were part of movies where tension was effectively established.

    In the Mouth of Madness(15 years old) is one of the few modern horror movies worth re-watching. Other than that, there are the Blair witch handicam movies, the Saw movies, and the scream movies. No good monsters(or movies) to be found in those categories. Cloverfield isn’t a horror movie. Danny Boyle did great with 28 Days Later, but stumbled with Sunshine.

    The visual artists who worked on Alien used anything they could (liked spoiled milk) to make their visuals convincing. Nowadays with we have to manage with a cg snake in True Grit.

    Grendel and his mother (Beowulf 2007) are probably some of the better monsters of late. Of course that is partly because the movie doesn’t stop the moment they step on screen to either introduce a cg or rubber creature.

    I’ve been watching a friend play Dark Souls and the designs of the bosses are both varied and excellent. If production were starting on a film with a monster today, I would say look at Dark Souls- both the creatures and how they are revealed to the player.

  3. Having been a horror movie fanatic since I was very young, movies don’t often get a reaction out of me anymore (aside from laughter and saying “awesome!”) That said some I remember being scary/unsettling include the pre-bastardized Alien, Candyman, IT, The Thing and everything in Hellraiser.

  4. The thing in 2011’s The Thing looks somewhat silly, but there is one scene where its full-bodied presence on screen is horribly upsetting in the best possible way.

    Other than that, I’d say Peter Jackson is the only person to make CGI creatures scary with Shelob in Return of the King and the bug pit in King Kong. Both those sequences make me utterly giddy.

  5. The alien in Alien scared a lot of people.

    When I was 8 or so, my family took a trip to Disneyworld in Orlando, Fla. In the MGM studios portion of the park, there is a boat-type ride that travels through several different mechanized movie settings including, I think, The Wizard of Oz and some John Wayne flick. I was sitting in the back of the boat with my mom, and once we entered the Alien portion of the ride my mom had noticeably tensed up. There is no alien present in the ride, only steaming pipes, strobe lights, and a woman plastered against the wall begging for death. Some condensation from one of the fake steam pipes above fell on my mom’s arm and she spasmed and screamed extremely loudly. Everyone in the boat ahead of us turned around and my sister and I were laughing uproariously.

    Seeing Alien many times since, I still find the original to be unnerving. There is nothing analogous to it on Earth, and that’s what makes it so plausible and terrifying. If there were aliens, they might be as strange and different as what the audience sees here.

    Plus, getting mouth-raped by a gooey, tentacled spider would be rather unpleasant.

  6. I would say the reason movie monsters don’t really frighten people is their ubiquitiness. There’s been so many of them the last half century that in general they’re too familiar. Not to mention the eighties made them too jokey, so what was once frightening, Freddy Krueger, became silly. And that desenstized us to monsters as a concept.

    But we shouldn’t be frightened OF the monsters anyway. We should be frightened FOR the people it stalks. Populate your movie with good characters we genuninely don’t want to see devoured, then we’ll be frightened of the outcome; but we won’t be terrified of the design of the creature populating the shadows based on design alone.

    • Well said, Chad. However, I would have to say that in a case like Super 8, I was very invested in the characters, yet when the monster was finally unveiled in full, it was so cheesy and generic and lame that it took me right out of the movie and killed all of the suspense. My concern for the characters evaporated, and I was reminded that I was just watching a movie.

      • Drew

        You must not have understood ‘Super 8’ at all. Super 8 is not a horror film. It’s not a film about characters on the run from a movie monster. It never intended for the audience to fear for the main characters (adolescents) or be concerned about them. That’s simply not what the film was about.

        The “monster/alien” theme in Super 8 was completely a subplot. When the monster was revealed, it was only done so to allow the audience to understand that it was peaceful and misunderstood. You say that your concern for the characters completely evaporated at that point, and it absolutely should have. If you had any concern about the main characters before the main reveal, it definitely should have been wiped away, post reveal. That was the entire intent of the reveal.

        The primary storyline was about the characters interactions, learning about each other, and forging relationships, in the midst of chaotic circumstances and a tramautic event taking place in their home town. It wasn’t about characters being stalked by a movie monster.

        You weren’t supposed to fear or be concerned for the characters before the reveal of the monster, and you certainly weren’t supposed to feel that way after the reveal of it.

        • I think perhaps you are the one misreading Super 8. If Abrams didn’t want the audience to be afraid of the monster, he shouldn’t have had it run around town eating and ripping people apart.

          In the final reveal, we’re supposed to understand that the monster was misunderstood and just wanted to go home, yes. But it was still nevertheless dangerous, like a bear that had been prodded too many times. The characters were still supposed to be in danger. Until the monster mind-melded with the main character, there was every possibility that it was going to tear up the whole lot of them into tiny little shreds. Hell, it picked him up in the first place because it intended to chew his head off. It killed the sheriff not 30 seconds earlier.

          That monster was obviously SUPPOSED to be scary. But it wasn’t, because the design and the CGI were extremely cheesy instead. The scene went from suspenseful to laughable in an instant. (Cloverfield has the same problem.)

          I really liked all the Goonies kid-adventure stuff in Super 8, but pretty much all of the monster stuff was terrible.

          • Drew

            Did you even read my post? I never once said that the monster wasn’t supposed to be scary. I said that it wasn’t a movie about the central characters being stalked by a monster, and that it wasn’t a typical “characters on the run from movie monster” film.

            You said that your concern for the central characters evaporated once the monster had been revealed. It should have. That was the sole intent of the reveal. After watching the some of the events that you describe in your follow up post, the reveal is intended to make us understand that the monster is actually not a threat, and was only doing those things out of fear and anger.

            Nothing that you say in this reply changes your original statements, or contradicts anything that I said in my original reply to you.

            You said that you were invested in the characters prior to the big reveal, and not invested in them afterwards. This is enough to convince me that you didn’t understand the film at all. Your investment in the primary characters never should have had anything to do with the monster. If you understood the film, and what it was trying to accomplish, your investment in the characters wouldn’t have been influenced by the monster at all.

          • Drew, on the one hand, you agree that the monster is supposed to be scary. On the other hand, you say that we’re not supposed to feel that the kids are ever in danger. These seem to be contradictory thoughts.

            I’m talking about the moments immediately after the monster’s reveal, when it’s scurrying around the caves killing people and backs the kids into the corner. Of course you’re supposed to fear that it’s going to kill them. But the scene is undercut by the cheesiness of the CG monster.

            It’s not until after that point, when the monster mind-melds with the main kid and puts him down, that what you’re talking about comes into play.

            Unfortunately, I still have to disagree with you that the movie isn’t “a typical characters on the run from movie monster film.” Because, fundamentally, that’s exactly what it is.

          • Drew

            Unfortunately, I still have to disagree with you that the movie isn’t “a typical characters on the run from movie monster film.” Because, fundamentally, that’s exactly what it is.

            No, it’s not. At all. You didn’t understand it. You don’t get the film, and hence, you can’t understand our conversation about it.

            There’s really nothing else that can be said. Perhaps you’ll watch the film again one day, and grasp the true concept of it.

          • I got the film just fine. I fear you’re reading more into it than actually exists in the text.

            In any case, I don’t see you disagreeing with me that the CG monster itself was laughably cheesy.

  7. Javier Aleman

    The aliens from the beginning of Night of the Creeps freaked me out when I was little. ill admit that the creatures from Don’t be Afraid of the Dark did get to me because of stories I have heard from relatives in Mexico.

  8. Most adults dont get scared by movie monsters anymore, your imagination about that stuff doesnt work like it used to when you were a kid, to me thats really what this is all about, you talk to anyone and usually they are going back to when they were kids and this particular movie freaked them out or they were scared of something when they were 8 or 10 or something like that. I never hear people much today saying they watched something now and were freaked out or scared by it unless they have an actual history of being freaked out by a particular theme.

    My one friend pretty much refuses to watch Exorcism movies, his mother had a close friend that supposedly possessed and his growing up knowing that and hearing the stories from his mom have put this fear in him about movies like that, i cant get him to watch any of them from the Exorcist to The Rite, he just wont do it, another friend of mine watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose with me one night and after we were done with it he told me he never wants to see that again and refuses to watch it to this day, he was freaked out walking out to his car late that night when he left 🙂

    Otherwise I usually see some friends wives that dont watch horror movies at all still getting freaked out by stuff like the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it makes sense because they probably never even saw the original and hate watching movies like that in general because it gives them nightmares, we are all different and we all have things that freak us out more than others, clowns, spiders, people standing and vibrating (my wife hates that kind of stuff), or even someone like Michael Myers just standing in the background and the person in the movie doesnt know he is there.

    Myself I was freaked out after The Blair Witch, perfect example of less is more, I know a lot of people thought this movie was stupid, but I had a hard time falling asleep that night, I got really absorbed in that movie, didnt help that my friends played a prank on a few of us and purposely stalled the car out on the way home on a road that was surrounded by woods, I wouldnt get out of the car LOL, now the movie doesnt bother me at all, but when it came out it certainly did

    CGI monsters dont do anything for me, I’ve grown up on the FX of old, KNB, Rob Bottin and so many others that proved real FX make a difference, I’m tired of CG Blood or a freaking CG snake in a movie that shouldnt have one ounce of CG in it, Hollywood just doesnt get it anymore IMO

  9. Dimwit

    Sorry Josh but I have to side with Drew on Super 8. My biggest beef with the monster/alien was the fact that it was so monstrous. It doesn’t look like anything that should be building spaceships and exploring. Too much overkill.

    One of the things to look at is the 4 versions of The Body Snatchers. The fx was better in each succeding version but the movies themselves were less interesting. Nobody could beat Kevin McCarthy though Donald Sutherland gave it a good try.

    As for Hollywood “not getting it” the big problem is the “film magic” that happens. During production it’s all just fx. Weird, unconvincing even at the best of times and definitely much nicer if you can do it in a machine. Somehow, there is an alchemy that happens and what is laughable in real life can translate to terror once in the can. Artists transform it into magic and it’s wonderful. With CGI, it can work but it’s rare and worse, it’s mostly post prod, so that bad or ineffective designs are already too late to go back and fix. That’s why good houses like Weta have too much work.

  10. EM

    Above there have already been a lot of good comments “dissecting” movie monsters.

    When people discuss the scariness level of monsters, they frequently focus on how scary-looking the monsters are. But like beauty, scariness is in the eye of the beholder. I might be frightened by spiders, but not everybody is.

    Fear is often predicated on the unknown. As mentioned above, ubiquity of monster images undermines the terror factor.

    But it’s not just familiarity with an image. I’ve seen spiders and images of spiders many times, but they still give me the wiggums. The frightening unknown is the future: will the spider bite me? will it hurt? will the bite poison me? will I die?

    Reasonable adults realize that movie monsters are not going to hurt them. The giant spiders of Tarantula or Eight Legged Freaks are not a credible threat. On the other hand, the arachnids of Kingdom of the Spiders or Arachnophobia are a lot more real, and therefore a lot more chilling. I’ve seen Arachnophobia only once, but I’ve thought of it many times in the context of toilet bowls. On the other hand, I have no concern that Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster is going to get me, even though I used to worry about that when I was a child—usually at night when traveling the dark hallway to and from my bedroom.

    But even if some monster is never going to pop out of the darkness and do me harm, it’s possible someone—or something—will. It’s a real-life behavior. And the behavior of movie monsters can make or break their scariness far more than mere appearance can.

    I think James Arness looks fairly imposing as the title creature in The Thing From Another World. If an alien race looking like that really did land on Earth, I probably would experience fear. But I’d like to think that, if the aliens’ behavior turned out to be kindly and civilized, I would overcome my prejudice. But if they behaved the way the James Arness does, of course I would be frightened. In that movie, there’s a scene at a door which still makes me jump—but it’s the behavior, not the mere physiognomy and physique, that does the trick.

    In that film’s first remake, John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing, the monster is a shape-changer and takes on many forms far more grotesque than James Arness’ creature. And its behavior is also monstrous, even if it strains credulity. But much of the fear comes from the seemingly harmless forms it takes on. In real life, I’m not generally concerned that another human being will transform into a hideous monster—but they might nonetheless reveal themselves to be killing machines or other threats. And that realistic behavioral threat is part of what makes The Thing a classic and still terrifying film.