In Search of Demons

(Warning: May contain spoilers.)

What do you think of when you hear the word “monster”?

Chances are the first thing that comes to mind are creatures like vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s creation, ghosts, Godzilla, or some otherworldly beast. Dictionary.com gives a long list of definitions like “a legendary animal combining features of animal and human form or having the forms of various animals in combination,” or “any animal or human grotesquely deviating from the normal shape, behavior or character.” All the characters listed above fit into one or more of these.

But what makes a monster scary? Some of the most chilling books ever written include The Exorcist, Hell House, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s easy to understand the fear factor here. Demons floating a young girl in mid-air above her bed or a beast who not only sucks out all its victims’ blood but turns some of them into monsters themselves. A house that corrupts and destroys all that enter it is clearly a place most people would avoid.

The dictionary also defines a more insidious form of monster: “a person who excites horror by wickedness, cruelty, etc.” In most cases, even though these types take human form, it’s difficult to mistake them for anything other than what they are, especially when they come together in groups to promote racism, misogyny or greed as if these are normal human default settings. There are a number of prescient dystopian tales that look at the villains behind such social ills and that explore how humans mistreat one another. Online writers argue that these are as scary as any version of Frankenstein, and list stories like We, Lord of the Flies, and The Handmaid’s Tale as examples.

There are other types of villain in this category, creepier ones that sometimes get under your skin. Take the criminal psychopath or sociopath. Not all those who meet the criteria for psychopathy or sociopathy are dangerous. Many live what most people would call “normal” lives, but some go off-track to great extreme. No one knows for sure why some veer off the straight and narrow. Most medical and scientific experts agree that psychopaths feel no empathy for others, but while certain behaviors and “aberrant” functioning of the brain have been identified among so-called psychopaths, the exact reasons for any given patient’s psychopathy remain in dispute. Numerous studies have failed to determine beyond a doubt whether it is brain anatomy, genetics or environmental, so the debate continues. This alone makes psychopaths scary in the role of story or movie villain, since it’s often difficult to predict what they will do, how far they will go. According to Science News, some of the most realistic psychopathic bad-asses in fiction include Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men and Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Sociopaths share many of the same characteristics of psychopaths. However, researchers believe that while psychopaths are born, sociopaths are made. Whereas psychopaths tend to be very methodical, steady, and careful, sociopaths lean toward more erratic, impulsive behavior. A great deal of study has been done on these two categories of patient, so there is a lot of information to be had online. According to PsychCentral, The Joker in The Dark Knight or Alex Delarge in A Clockwork Orange would exemplify such a character.

Let’s look deeper at why these last two antagonist archetypes sometimes creep us out so badly. It’s said that the first step in conquering fear is to name it. In a book or movie about werewolves, race riots or corporate manipulation of society gone wild (wait, that’s fiction?), both the reader/viewer and the characters know up front where the evil is coming from; the story’s tension comes in the protagonist’s struggle to overcome that darkness. What if the origin of horror in the book/film is unknown, disguised in form and function either to the reader or to the protagonist or both?

In my opinion, these surprise villains beat other monsters hands-down in that they seem so normal and often hold positions of authority, leadership, honor. We trust them. Even like them. They come in the form of the character who seems, at first, to be a white hat—a policeman, a doctor, a priest, a teacher. While potential victims would never look away from Dracula or a rabid racist, these characters are more frightening because they are the guys to whom you would confidently turn your back, never expecting the knife they wield. When the evil is finally revealed, both protagonist and reader are left breathless with an awful sense of betrayal in addition to other inflicted harm or destruction. The wound is psychological, emotional as well as physical. Healing, we understand, takes much, much longer.

Even when they are not human, these monsters can look like us. Examples are legion, since this is a somewhat “trope-ish,” yet successful villain concept. Mike Raines in Mary Burton’s The Seventh Victim. Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Alderman Sebastian Blood in the Netflix series “Green Arrow.” Mr. Morden in Babylon Five. Sir Patrick Morgan in Wonder Woman. Officer Austin in Terminator 2. Senator Palpatine in several of the Star Wars sagas. Professor Quirrel in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

We like to be frightened, to feel our hearts race, our blood pump. Me? I sometimes watch monster movies with my hands over my face. For weeks after I watched The Grudge, I couldn’t walk down our dark hallway without the hair on the back of my neck standing at attention. But the books—those I like. Stephen King was one of my favorite authors when I was growing up. I don’t read them so much anymore, but many other people do. Still, if I’m going to spend the time to read a good horror or suspense thriller, I want it to scare the bejeebers outta me. I have to say the seems-nice-but-will-cut-you-as-soon-as-look-at-you bad guy does this best of all.