Everybody loves a good monster movie. It’s thrilling to watch an abominable creature stalk and hunt unsuspecting people. It’s exciting to watch the unsuspecting people run and hide and eventually figure out a way to defeat the monster. And sometimes it’s even more fun when the monster isn’t defeated (at least you know you’ll get a sequel).
I’ve talked a little bit about how, in addition to entertaining us, horror mirrors our fears through various horror tropes and stock characters. It’s my hypothesis that certain horror villains and boogeymen represent specific human fears. While vampires, werewolves, and zombies could also be considered monsters, the important distinction those creatures used to be human and often retain a bit of their humanity. Monsters like the xenomorph in Alien or the shark from Jaws are beasts; they are scary because of their inhuman nature. We humans may think we’re the masters of our domain and that the natural world is ours for the taking, but it’s all an illusion. We know that deep down. Monsters represent a world that has broken free of human control.
It’s very telling that most monster movies go one of two ways. One outcome is that the monster is eventually defeated because humans found a way to outsmart the monster. Order is restored. Authority wins. The other outcome is that the monster is not defeated, and the people unlucky enough to encounter it pay with their lives. The limit of human authority is set in stone, and these stories serve as warnings not to step over the line.
The following films are excellent examples of these deep seated anxieties, ranging from otherworldly forces to natural forces tempted by our own hubris. These films are insightful and provocative. They demonstrate that we must be mindful of our place in the natural order. If we fall out of line, we sometimes have the power to set things right again.
“When a young woman is killed by a shark while skinny-dipping near the New England tourist town of Amity Island, police chief Martin Brody wants to close the beaches, but mayor Larry Vaughn overrules him, fearing that the loss of tourist revenue will cripple the town. Ichthyologist Matt Hooper and grizzled ship captain Quint offer to help Brody capture the killer beast, and the trio engage in an epic battle of man vs. nature.”
Yeah, Jaws is a pretty good example of man vs. nature. It was an audacious movie at the time, trampling over the audience’s sense of propriety and safety by bringing the inherent danger of nature to an American holy space—summer vacation. As a person who has only ever lived in a post-Jaws world, it seems odd to me that people wouldn’t consider the beach and the ocean as harmful. They are excellent vacation destinations, for sure, but they are part of the wilderness. They need to be respected.
Contemporary audiences were shocked that a movie would dare show such gruesome violence in what should have been a family-friendly place. They were appalled when Steven Spielberg sacrificed a child character on the altar of movie monsters that aren’t f*cking around. Whether or not it intended to, Jaws was able to capitalize on the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the Watergate scandal. Jaws brought all those feelings front and center.
The movie depicts authority figures as ineffective and arrogant. Take Mayor Vaughn, who is more concerned with making money from summer tourism than fully investigating the shark threat. The incompetence of the town’s officials lead directly to several deaths, and a full-on panic results. Not only has nature unleashed a nasty surprise in the form of the shark, but Jaws pointed out that the real threat was human error. Through their ignorance, the officials lost ground to the shark.
But Jaws has a happy ending. In the end, the same human stubbornness that led to inaction defeated the shark. Coupled with human ingenuity, that stubbornness prevailed, and jaws sees man reclaim his throne as Earth’s supreme apex predator.
“In deep space, the crew of the commercial starship Nostromo is awakened from their cryo-sleep capsules halfway through their journey home to investigate a distress call from an alien vessel. The terror begins when the crew encounters a nest of eggs inside the alien ship. An organism from inside an egg leaps out and attaches itself to one of the crew, causing him to fall into a coma.”
This is one of my favorite horror movies ever, and in my mind is the perfect example of a monster horror movie. When Alien starts off, we are introduced to the Nostromo and her crew of seasoned officers who have been working deep space commercial missions for some time. Everything has gone well so far because, at this point in the future, space travel is no hardship. But the crew has underestimated the dangers of space travel. Once they encounter the xenomorph, they are completely unprepared to protect themselves or fight off the creature. It’s predatory like a human being, but stronger and far more ruthless. It’s biology and natural defenses make it almost impossible to defend against and the way it stalks and hunts is the stuff of nightmares.
Worse still, the crew finds out that their very own employer has ordered the crew’s android member to capture the xenomorph, alive. It’s a stunning example of greed and arrogance. The decision not only harms the crew but endangers human civilization should the xenomorph be brought back.
Alien is a stark, exciting, terrifying example of how we have not and never will conquer the universe. No matter how much progress we make, human beings will never be the unquestionable rulers of creation. We may be smart. We may be formidable. We may be scary in our own right, but who knows what lurks in the darkness of the places we have not dared explore?
The Thing (1982)
“In remote Antarctica, a group of American research scientists are disturbed at their base camp by a helicopter shooting at a sled dog. When they take in the dog, it brutally attacks both human beings and canines in the camp and they discover that the beast can assume the shape of its victims. A resourceful helicopter pilot and the camp doctor lead the camp crew in a desperate, gory battle against the vicious creature before it picks them all off, one by one.”
This movie is a classic, even if was famously panned upon its release. The Thing combines the horror of a shapeshifting monster with the suspense of a whodunit mystery, and all of our lives are richer for it.
I can’t imagine many locales better than Antarctica to set a tale about an unknown monster stalking men. And the frozen wasteland serves to add another natural obstacle to contend with. Risk being eaten by an alien or freeze to death—your call. In keeping with the theme of aliens being devastatingly cunning and near-impossible to beat (which says a lot about our anxieties towards the unexplored universe) the monster in The Thing proves to be a formidable foe. It can shape shift into hideous nightmare fuel. It knows enough about human psychology to effectively mimic members of the base team and turn them against each other.
And those aren’t the only considerations because the men at the base soon realize that they aren’t the only ones in danger. If the monster ever made it to civilization, it be impossible to stop.
My favorite thing about this movie is how it uses the monster to explore the distrust human beings have for one another. It’s bad enough for a monster to be so terrifying that everyone is game, but it’s a whole new level of terrible for a monster to exploit preexisting tensions. This is the monster’s greatest weapon and humanity’s greatest weakness. As The Thing demonstrates, our tendency towards self-destructive paranoia is a blessing and a curse, one that threatens to upend the tenuous grasp we have over the unknown.
The Descent (2005)
“A year after a severe emotional trauma, Sarah goes to North Carolina to spend some time exploring caves with her friends; after descending underground, the women find strange cave paintings and evidence of an earlier expedition, then learn they are not alone: Underground predators inhabit the crevasses, and they have a taste for human flesh.”
This movie is my nightmare. Like, dear sweet little baby Jesus, take me now. The claustrophobia, the darkness, the bottomless pits, the monsters, the despair of knowing you’ll die underground? Hell. No.
The Descent speaks to man’s crushing inadequacy in the face of nature. These girls, all competent and experienced thrill-seekers, are in way over their heads. Due to the hubris of their leader, they venture into a part of the earth man could never survive in. Shit gets real. And desperate. And bloody.
The genius of The Descent is that the monsters don’t even show up until halfway through the movie. Up until that point, the movie is still a nail-biting, cringe-inducing survival horror movie. It’s almost cruel how the movie was already terrifying (and bleak as hell) before the monsters show up to add insult to injury.
Ultimately, what makes this movie so effective as an exploration of human fears is that the women’s only crime was daring to explore uncharted territory. Literally. We admire people who test their boundaries and explore the unknown. That’s usually something we hold up as a virtue in our society. Not in The Descent. Their skills and resourcefulness will not save them. It’s actually what got them into trouble. It doesn’t matter the depths of brutal human violence and desperation to which they sink, especially considering that the movie’s vague ending makes you wonder if it was all for nothing.
The Mist (2007)
“After a powerful storm damages their Maine home, David Drayton and his young son head into town to gather food and supplies. Soon afterward, a thick fog rolls in and engulfs the town, trapping the Draytons and others in the grocery store. Terror mounts as deadly creatures reveal themselves outside, but that may be nothing compared to the threat within, where a zealot calls for a sacrifice.”
Now, you should know that I’m not recommending this movie based on good it is. Because it’s actually an incredibly uneven film in terms of quality. Some scenes are laughably bad with cheesy dialogue and contrived characters. The film’s terrible CGI isn’t doing it any favors either. However, when The Mist is good, it’s goddamned insightful.
The real reason I’m recommending The Mist is because of Mrs. Carmody, a literal bible-thumping zealot, played to perfection by Marcia Gay Harden. Once the monsters of The Mist make their abhorrent presence known and start picking off people in increasingly horrifying ways, Mrs. Carmody wastes no time spouting off bible verses and preaching about the End of Days. Within mere hours she builds a congregation of obedient, desperate, and frightened followers. When she needs to, Mrs. Carmody whips them into a frenzy with tales of man’s arrogance going against the will of God.
So it is not surprising at all that when the truth comes out, and it turns out that man really is responsible for unleashing those Lovecraftian nightmare beasts into our world, that Mrs. Carmody seizes power.
With their belief systems shattered by a monster they cannot hope to fight or defend against, these people dedicate themselves to the one person who gave them a shred of fire-and-brimstone hope. Her toxic preaching latched onto their terror, fed the growing hysteria, and Reduced those small town folk to a primitive, illogical state. The mob scenes are truly excellent in The Mist. One scene in particular is a fascinating and deeply disturbing look into the collective hysteria that the monsters have inspired in their prey. By the movie’s end, we learn that the hysteria touched everyone, even if they weren’t aware of it.
The Babadook (2014)
“A troubled widow discovers that her son is telling the truth about a monster that entered their home through the pages of a children’s book.”
I know this movie was divisive to say the least, and it’s very much a psychological horror movie, but hear me out. I believe The Babadook was one of the best horror movies in recent years, and that is due to the completely horrifying monster at the center of the film. It’s the kind of monster that really does live under your bed and hides in the closet, only it’s more terrifying than you could ever imagine. With its impressive creature design, ominous sing-song pop-up book from Hell, and a razor-sharp cunning, Mister Babadook is as frightening a monster villain as they come.
In The Babadook, the we meet Amelia, a mother struggling to holder herself together. Her husband died in a nasty car wreck and Amelia gave birth to their son right after, going through the trauma of losing a spouse and the trauma of childbirth back to back. Despite her obvious depression and the stress of being a single mother, Amelia is trying desperately to be the adult and support both her and her son. It is obvious, however, that Amelia is slowly losing her grasp. But those around her don’t do much. They just leave Amelia and Sam to their own devises, half-heartedly offering help and judging her inability to live up to an unattainable ideal of motherhood.
This ideal is dangerous and unnatural. It isolates women and puts them in harm’s way. And in the film, Amelia’s unresolved grief from her husband’s death, her son’s behavioral problems, and lack of any outsider’s compassion exposes her and her son to Mister Babadook’s murderous plans.
This is what happens when illness and depression are left to simmer, unattended. A problem never goes away when ignored. Amelia has unwittingly fed the monster by refusing to ask for help, instead holding onto her grief and anger. Those are powerful forces, and human beings are not always strong enough to control them, which is how Mister Babadook becomes more and more powerful. Thankfully, monsters like Mister Babadook can be defeated. Those soul-crushing emotions and mental illness can be brought under control. You must confront them head on.
It Follows (2014)
“After carefree teenager Jay sleeps with her new boyfriend, Hugh, for the first time, she learns that she is the latest recipient of a fatal curse that is passed from victim to victim via sexual intercourse. Death, Jay learns, will creep inexorably toward her as either a friend or a stranger. Jay’s friends don’t believe her seemingly paranoid ravings, until they too begin to see the phantom assassins and band together to help her flee or defend herself.”
If Follows features one of the most existentially disturbing movie monsters I’ve experienced. What other monster perfectly encapsulates so many human fears? For one, there’s the realization that our youthful notion of invulnerability was wrong. There’s the fear of inevitable death. And there’s a moral dilemma about cursing other people. The monster of It Follows forces its victims into a terrible choice—they can give the curse to another person and risk that person being killed, or they can give in and let the monster catch them, which all but ensures that the monster will kill the person who cursed them. Either way, it’s only a matter of time before it finds its victims. It’s the moral dilemma of being alive, of being capable of reproducing.
As a late-20s adult, this movie struck a chord with me. I am aging. I can’t party like I used to because my hangovers are god-awful. I have to watch what I eat because my office job doesn’t afford me much exercise. I have to be careful of how I lift heavy objects. I have to be mindful of how much sun I get. I am not dying, not yet, but Death is slowly and surely heading straight for me. So I do what everyone does and hydrate and eat right and lift with proper form and shell out hundreds of dollars on beauty products. All for what? So I can live long enough for…what? Kids? And subject them to this? Through this lens, it doesn’t matter. As in It Follows, it’s only a matter of time for me.
It Follows breaks from the traditional monster horror movie formula because the monster is not defeated. Jay and her friends never figure out how to kill it or what weaknesses to exploit, if it has any at all. And because of this, the monster symbolizes not only death but a devastating loss of innocence. Youth will protect them against many things for a short while, but it can never protect them from the monster. Their choices are made and they carry the curse.