The "Don't Show The Monster" Rule: Ambiguity, Terror and Dislocation In Weird Horror
Keep It Hidden!
A highly important rule in horror, in particular Lovecraftian/Weird horror is the rule of not showing the monster. Although this is perhaps a bit of a mislabeling, what we are looking for in this style of horror fiction is not necessarily the omission of the monster or monsters, but the tasteful showing of said creature, paired with a respect for suspense throughout the story.
Allow me to unpack this a bit further.
Horror, especially in film mediums hinges on the understanding and following of this rule often times. The reason why some horrors work while others don’t is due to this factor of ambiguity. The ones that do work work because the story plays with and cause us to question things that we know to be true. A successful horror story needs to combine some element of fear of the unknown.
The audience should be left questioning if what they have just experienced or observed the characters experiencing, is even real, or just inside their heads. This ambiguity creates a level of realism in us as an audience, because if we can’t tell whether the ghosts or demons or whatever other creatures populating the story are external or nothing but our imagination, then it begs the question whether or not that even matters, whether or not a monster is any less of a monster if it exists solely inside our heads.
When it comes down to it, monsters, ghosts, ghouls and creatures are symbolic. They are internal parts of the human condition, reflected on foggy glass back at us in all their bloodthirsty and shameful glories.
The Master of Horror, Stephen King has described horror as the following:
“(there are) three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs. It’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around. It’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…” (King, n.d.)
The problem all too common with film and TV horror is that writers, directors and producers tend to focus more on the gross-out and the horror than they do the terror. Now, gross-outs and horrors are great! There’s nothing wrong with them, but they collapse without the undercurrent of terror to keep them fresh and interesting. Terror is the life blood of horror. Without it, all your gore and your giant spiders become fake blood and plastic puppets. Terror is about creating an atmosphere through ambiguity and fear of the unknown, an atmosphere so volatile that it animates your puppets and allows your blood to splatter hot and fresh, stinking of iron.
In the 2007 movie Zodiac there is a brilliant example of terror. In one scene, the Zodiac killer ties up two victims by the bank of a river, and then we are shown him stabbing them repeatedly in the back with a knife. This scene has both the gross-out and the horror, exhibited through the action of stabbing these poor people, and the monster of the killer himself, but what truly makes this scene scary is when we as the audience stop to ponder how somebody could actually do something like that to a person. This question is terror. The realization that a person can get to a point where they are capable of such disgusting actions is terrifying because we are all people, we have all at one time or other wanted to (if only in our imagination) break free from societal restrictions, perhaps even in a violent way. The terror of this scene is realizing not only that a person is capable of these atrocities, but that you are a person as well, and wondering, could you be pushed to be capable of that in the right circumstances?
Terror is by its very definition ambiguous. It is irrational and unfair, not respecting people or our societal rules. It comes for all of us, it creeps down our hallways in the dead of night and accosts us with the sudden realization that we really are all alone, that nobody is coming to save us, that there is no God and all is disastrous.
And now we come to that all important rule: Don’t show the monster. Returning to Stephen King, in his important work, Danse Macabre he writes about what often occurs when creatives ignore the rule:
“The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,’ the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a HUNDRED feet tall.” (King, 1981)
And therein lies the rub, the true importance of ambiguity is all about leading the audience up to that door, building suspense and tension with every step towards it they take, and once they arrive at that old creaking thing, the creatives job is to cause a gust of wind to blow it open. And in that instance, as you stare out into the gloom, you think you see something big and hulking, full of tendrils and fangs and clicking mandibles, moving in the shadows. The trees rustle and all of a sudden that thing is gone. Your heart is beating fast in your throat, a cold sweat runs down your back, and you are compelled by your own god-forsaken curiosity, to follow the creature towards another door in the distance, behind which, something even more hideous resides.
I said at the beginning of this essay that not showing the monster is about respecting suspense and tastefully showing the monster. Ridley Scott’s Alien is a great example of this, where the creatives have recognized that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. The Xenomorph definitely has a good amount of screen time, but it is relegated to the shadows, where it becomes the unknown, and thus an element of terror infuses it.
The same can be seen with Netflix’s Stranger Things, the Demogorgon is depicted often throughout the series, but only ever in the dark (minus the final confrontation in the last episode, which is definitely the monster’s weakest moment in the entire series).
One of the best ways to build terror in the audience, outside of simply hiding your monsters in the dark is all to do with the world building of your story. The Demogorgon in Stranger Things derives from the Dungeons and Dragons game, and the vague awareness of this fact and the connections made between it and the upside down of the playing board adds more ambiguous horror to the lore behind the creature.
Creating a strong backstory for your monsters, and then only revealing small chunks of the backstory, gives rise to a feeling of encountering the foreign and unknown, such is the case with HBO’s True Detective and its peppering of the story with references to Robert M. Chamber’s The King In Yellow among other aspects of cosmic horror, or the video game Bloodborne’s minimalist way of unpacking its Cthulhu inspired lore.
Having in this way, a kind of story bible, a history of horrors, allows the creative to build a foreign and weird environment. One in which an audience member will feel dislocated, disorientated within.
Author and expert in Weird Fiction, Jeff VanderMeer writes:
“Usually the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the unusual that they become obsessed with the weird. Whether It exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss, they may decide to unsee what they say, but still they saw it.” (VanderMeer, 2012)
Having a backstory and knowing how to reveal it with respect to suspense and creating an atmosphere of terror, is key to a good horror.
William J Hugel writes in his essay Developing Weirdness Through Cartographic Destabilization in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation:
“More often than not the effect is one in which the reader must orient themselves against those weird spaces as they attempt to navigate their way through the tale, in effect attempting to map the weird. However the weird seems to always reject this attempt at finding a sense of place during the reading. Characters are continuously presented with new monstrosities and their sense of reality is consistently challenged. Rarely do these characters find their own sense of place within the weird, but if they do they come across as changed or uncanny. This all comes together to only further destabilize a reader’s cognitive map of the literature.” (Hugel, 2015)
It is important therefore in my own, or your own creative horror works to remember this rule of ambiguity, of “not showing the monster”. If you follow it well, you can take an audience member or a reader into a country of the strange and make them feel things that are both intriguing and uncomfortable.
Monsters are volatile creatures, they cannot be beaten down and controlled by shining a light on them, not if you want them to still have a long-lasting appeal afterwards. Monsters need to be treated with respect, they need to be in a sense worshiped with awe, with fear and trembling. Keep this in mind when you’re next writing or watching a horror film. I guarantee I have ruined much of Hollywood films for you now.
Hugel, W. J. (2015). Developing weirdness through cartographic destabilization in Jeff VanderMeer's annihilation. Retrieved from www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1032/developing-weirdness-through-cartographic-destabilization-in-jeff-vandermeers-annihilation
King, S. (n.d.). Quote by Stephen King: “The 3 types of terror”. Retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/84666-the-3-types-of-terror-the-gross-out-the-sight-of
King, S. (1981). Danse macabre. New York, NY: Everest House
VanderMeer, J. (2012, May 6). The weird: An introduction. The full text of the introduction to the weird compendium. Retrieved from http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/05/the-weird-an-introduction/