Don’t Show the Monster by Janis Susan May

A couple of lifetimes ago I was working on a cheap horror film. One day I was standing with an old gaffer while we watched this poor actor being glued into an enormous rubber monster suit. The old gaffer shook his head sadly and muttered they shouldn’t be doing that, since it wasn’t scary enough.

Well, it looked pretty scary to me, even half done, and I said so, but the old gaffer just shook his head again. “It’s a monster. But once people see it, they can start rationalizing it away. It’s too big to live, it’s extinct, nothing like that ever lived. If you want to really scare people, you have to do it with what scares them the most, and since that’s different for all people, you can’t show anything. Let them scare themselves with what’s in their own mind, that’s the ticket. Don’t ever show the monster.”

The more I thought about it, the more right his words became. I remembered an old black and white movie on late night TV many years ago. I came into the middle of the movie while channel surfing and didn’t even know the title, but before the next commercial I was just about ready to crawl inside the TV remote like a snail into a shell.

There was this bunch of people trapped in a deserted hotel by a blizzard or an avalanche or some such and one by one they were being killed. Before each killing there was just a shadow, or a wisp of fog coming under a doorway, then hysterical screams and slurping sounds. Finally the last beleaguered survivors were trapped in a room with one door and the monster was outside… and they showed it. Mistake! A mishmash made of a big balloon and some inflatable tentacles and a couple of glowing lights… bah! I turned off the TV and went to bed without even watching the end of the movie.

So how does this translate to your writing? I believe it’s far more frightening to describe what the creature does rather than describe the creature itself. A sound in the darkness that might be the scrape of a shoe. The slow progress of a knife across a table, unaided by any visible agency. The distinct feeling of fingers grasping your arm when you are undeniably alone.

The flip side to that is to describe the thing that you know causes the problems, but is apparently inert. In my new horror novella LURE OF THE MUMMY (Carina Press, release date 29 August, incidentally the first horror story ever published by Carina or its parent company Harlequin) the center of the trouble – an ancient votive cat mummy sacred to Sekhmet – is right there onstage, visible and obvious from the first page.

But it never moves. It never does anything… that we see. At the scenes of the crimes, however, there are shreds of ancient linen and wisps of desiccated cat hair. Then, when the protagonist examines the mummy, there is a glimpse of something, a spark, an intelligence in the empty socket of dried bone where the cat’s eye was thousands of years ago.

Excuse me while I turn on some more lights.

Whether it moves or not, though, eventually you will have to give, however vaguely, some form to your creature. But should you say, “It was six feet tall and shaped like a fat man. There were two long arms with extensions like fingers, a bullet-shaped head with red-rimmed eyes and an evil gap-toothed grin.” Okay, are you describing your monster or your cousin Clyde? Such a description sounds like a human man, however unattractive, and not a something.

How much more frightening would be, “It was bigger than she had expected, vaguely anthropomorphic, and seemed to absorb all the light in the room. Somehow she knew it was looking at her as part of it reached out with the grace of fog in a breeze, only what seized her arm was all too solid.” That inconcreteness allows the reader to create the monster in his mind, constructing it out of his worst fears, not yours.

Or… what if there is no visible monster? “There was evil around her; things were changing, moving, altering in ways she could not stop. There was a sensation of cold and wet and a slurping sound that might be something slithering, but she forgot even that when the reality she had always known began to change.” Again, a description of what is being done, not of what is doing it. Remember the old advertising rule – Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle. In other words, write the emotion, not the facts.

Now I will be the first to admit that the above examples are simplistic; you can do better. I do hope, though that they have given a good argument for not showing the monster. To scare people from the inside out, build a framework and let them fill in the blanks with their own fears. Our own monsters are always the scariest.

Janis Susan MayPatterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson.

Formerly an actress and singer, a talent agent and Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, Janis Susan has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups. She founded and was the original editor of The Newsletter of the North Texas Chapter of the American Research Center in Egypt, which for the nine years of her reign was the international organization’s only monthly publication. Long interested in Egyptology, she was one of the founders of the North Texas chapter and was the closing speaker for the ARCE International Conference in Boston in 2005.

Janis Susan married for the first time when most of her contemporaries were becoming grandmothers. Her husband, a handsome Naval Reserve Captain several years younger than she, even proposed in a moonlit garden in Egypt. Janis Susan and her husband live in Texas with three rescued furbabies – two neurotic cats and a terribly spoiled little dog.

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16 responses to “Don’t Show the Monster by Janis Susan May

  1. What a tremendously spot-on assessment. Hitchcockian, even!!! I wish you many may sales. RR smythe

  2. Christine Clemetson

    That was such an awesome post! I love the premise..”don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” Congrats on your release with Carina Press!
    Christine

  3. Janis,

    I can’t say how much I loved this post! It reminds me of two of my favorite nail biters, The Village and Lady in the Water. I can’t wait to read Lure of the Mummy!

  4. Great post, sometimes we writers fall too much in love with our words and forget to tempt our reader’s imagination.
    Remember “The Forbidden Planet?” You never saw the creature, just the steps to the space ship bending under it’s weight. And there was a remake of a monster in an Arctic research station – in the original movie you didn’t see the monster, only the fright on the actor’s face until the very end when you saw a vague shape die in an electricity trap. The remake showed a monster – I remember the first one vividly!
    Andre Norton described her monsters with a minimum of words and my imagination run wild – no one can scare us the way we can scare ourselves – THANKS

  5. Great post. A good example where show don’t tell, should be don’t show too much, and don’t tell. : )

    You might think your examples were simplistic, but I’m going to lock the doors now. ; )

  6. Great post, Susan! It is very Hitchcockian. I remember seeing a documentary somewhere of the making of Psycho and how Hitchcock believed, like your old gaffer said, the unknown way scarier. They looked specifically at the shower scene and how you never see the killer or Janet Lee get stabbed. You see the knife raised, hear Janet scream, see the blood going down the drain and Hitchcock’s belief was that stringing these particular scenes together made a bigger impact then is you’d actually seen the murder on screen.

    Great info here! Congrats on your release!

  7. You are so, right, Janis!

  8. Thanks to all of you for writing – you have made a lonely writer’s day much, much brighter – and yes, I have the lights on!

    I wish I could claim authorship of ‘don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle’ but I can’t. Some motivational speaker from the 50s came up with it, but I’ve used it for years. Some of the best advice I ever got. As for Forbidden Planet, I saw it with my folks when it first came out in the theatres. I was just a little kid, but still I didn’t sleep well for days afterward. I still get weird about things we can’t see…

    Thank you for the comparisons to Hitchcock! You all could have paid me no higher compliment! I have worshipped at the feet of the master for years and years.

    Now I must go back to revisions on my new chiller, Timeless Innocents. That’s why the lights are on and the doors locked, and I – who am normally a nocturnal creature – turn off the computer at sunset!

    Will check back in a little while, and thanks again for writing!

  9. Great post, sometimes we writers fall too much in love with our words and forget to tempt our reader’s imagination.
    Remember “The Forbidden Planet?” You never saw the creature, just the steps to the space ship bending under it’s weight. And there was a remake of a monster in an Arctic research station – in the original movie you didn’t see the monster, only the fright on the actor’s face until the very end when you saw a vague shape die in an electricity trap. The remake showed a monster – I remember the first one vividly!
    Andre Norton described her monsters with a minimum of words and my imagination run wild – no one can scare us the way we can scare ourselves – THANKS

    +1

  10. Great post, and so true. The monster we don’t know is scarier than the monster we do know. Hence why I couldn’t sleep reading The Exorcist many years ago!
    Suspense is a lost art in horror movies these days.
    Cheers, Kelly

  11. Kelly, I agree about the movies – with all the CG stuff the makers just get carried away and show everything. Interesting, but not scary. Only what we fear scares us. Thanks for writing –

  12. Janis, great topic and advice!

    I prefer reading King’s books to seeing the movies based on them (although I do watch them) because his writing is so entertaining.

    I think some good examples of build up are the well-planned reveals in Night Shyamalan’s ‘Sixth Sense’ and ‘Signs’. The setups to the actual reveals of the monsters (dead people, aliens) were so well done that the people in the theaters were about ready to crawl out of their skins. An actor merely walking past the doorway, in simple corpse makeup, caused the loudest screams I’ve ever heard. Lol. Same with the cg alien on the video tape. The setup was excellent.

    Looking forward to reading your book! -Kara

  13. Great post. I’m intrigued by the re-emergence of horror, and I think you’ve got it spot on. One of the scariest movies for me was The Mothman Prophecies, because you really have no idea what’s going on until the end.

    And, to add to things, as Steven King says: “There’s nothing scarier than a closed door”.

  14. What a great post Janis! Thank you. I think you may have inspired me to try my hand at erotic horror sometime soon. My family loves to torture me with scary movies because I react so intensely.

  15. Pingback: Riter’s Bloque: Weekly Writing Tips « Shanna Germain

  16. Great post! The best scary movies and books never resort to showing the monster.

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