1. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Can Horror Have Sympathetic Monsters?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Killer300, Dec 4, 2013.

    I've brought this up before, sort of, but that was in a different context, and wasn't quite as specific as this.

    But okay, here's my question. Is it possible to have a horror story genuinely be scary without the villain being undeniably evil? Or does anything to make the villain sympathetic get rid of the sense of terror?
    I bring this up after reading some of Hell House, by Richard Matheson, which is hailed as one of the best haunted house novels ever written from what I understand, and earlier, reading the original Frankenstein.

    The latter I've ranted about before, as I find the creature to be a more moral protagonist than the MC, among others. Thinking back though... how is the creature even supposed to be scary to the reader? He only attacks people because was pushed way further than any normal person would be able to tolerate, and doesn't even usually attack humans when pushed earlier in the story. Why would he be terrifying? Because he looks like such?
    I bring all this up because I see the problems of having a sympathetic character as someone the reader is supposed to be scared of. Sympathy usually means knowing a bit about them, and/or them not seeming threatening to you, per say. However, Frankenstein, bizarrely, also suffers from the problem slasher films would have literally hundreds of years later: One doesn't care if the victims live, and may actually be rooting for the antagonist to kill them.

    As a direct contrast, Hell House had, from what I've read, a pretty clear cut evil villain, what with who the house was previously owned by and all. To be fair, there might be a sympathetic spirit, but judging by how the book reads, and things I've heard about it, this seems to be more likely the house just screwing with them.

    Now, the latter I won't comment on the scariness or lack there of, but rather, it causes me to wonder: Could Hellhouse have worked if the house had sympathetic reasons for wanting to harm the protagonists, or even a sympathetic background leading to the present? Those who have read the full story, please comment on this, and point out to me if I have glaring errors, hopefully without spoilers, on any of this.


    But again, can an antagonist be scary while being sympathetic in the present and/or in the past? My criteria are that the monster, slasher or what have you, have reasons that can be sympathized with for killing, or what have you, the protagonist, but still remains genuinely scary.

    I bring all this up because its both something I want to try, but don't really have any examples I can think of to look at, other than perhaps why something failed.
     
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  2. Okon
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    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Goodness. Not an easy undertaking, by any means. I know that reveals at the end of scary stories tend to explain the scary party's motives, and at that point they can be sympathized with to some extent. But if you present a strong, relatable motive mid way through the story, it'll be hard to keep the fright factor up.

    Personally, not knowing what the scary thing is thinking puts me on the edge of my seat. Those animal hedges in The Shining (yikes!), the girl in The Ring (AAAHH), eyes moving in paintings *shudders*, the bathroom beast in that first Silent Hill movie, or swingsets swinging on their own (eek!).

    We naturally fear the unknown, as it appeals to our own distinct imaginations.

    Edited to mention: There was also that scary two-part Doctor Who episode set in WW2 era London: "Are you my mommy?" Terrifying, again, because we didn't know what was beneath those gas masks, and the 'monsters' didn't show any signs of reasonable intelligence.
     
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  3. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Hmm. Well, reveals do work. However, I'd argue there needs to be hints at the possibility of such, even if not common, for that to work.
     
  4. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think it's possible to have a sympathetic monster in a horror story. It just depends on what you want to do.

    In one of my and KaTrian's novels we have all kinds of different mythological monsters, demons etc. and some of them are evil and do evil deeds, but if they are important characters, we usually show more of them than just the caricature-evil side.
    Kind of like showing the reasons behind Hitler's actions, how he believed he was doing the right thing, doing good etc. In a way, that makes him even creepier because it shows just how fucked up he was in the head.

    You just need to figure out what kind of a villain you want to portray, what effect do you want him / her to have on the reader, and then go for it. Villains, even if they aren't human, don't need to be one-dimensional stereotypes but them being multi-dimensional, having (even logical) motivations and being scary / creepy aren't mutually exclusive even if the execution can be tricky.

    I think it would be easier to show that the villain was sympathetic in the past, but is plain evil in the present than making him / her both, sympathetic (to a degree) and evil at the same time.
     
  5. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    Frankenstein's Monster?
     
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  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    of course it can... e.g., the prime example noted above by erebh...
     
  7. Thomas Kitchen
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    Thomas Kitchen Proofreader in the Making Contributor

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    I agree this worked for the time. Now, though, I wouldn't class it under 'Horror'.
     
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  8. Patra Felino
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    Patra Felino Active Member

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    It may be closer to science fiction than horror, but Brundlefly in The Fly was an example of a character that the audience sympathised with, at least for parts of the film.
     
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  9. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    This, and additionally, the issue is that Adam(name of the creature in the original novel), is... well, the real victim of the story. He wasn't scary because it didn't seem like anyone who didn't provoke him to a ridiculous extent should be harmed.
     
  10. Fitzroy Zeph
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    Fitzroy Zeph Contributing Member Contributor

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    The big gorilla, King Kong, had a sweet side to him.
     
  11. BrandonrockstheAM
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    BrandonrockstheAM Active Member

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    I've read a few online stories in which the story is narrated by the protagonist. One such story has a girl going off of the ectasy she feels when she is in control of someone, and the suspense she feels before killing them, and it presents a number of normal people whom she kills for for the pleasure she feels from killing. Another example is A Telltale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, but then again, the main character can be said to be a psychopath, but you sympathize with him... I think. Another example is "The Lottery," the short story by Shirley Jackson, in which the town is pushed to kill someone because it's tradition.

    Also, an interesting thought I just had was that if it was told in the right way, The Hunger Games could be told as a horror story. If it was 3rd person, and had good character development, and the right tone, then it could possibly be viewed as a bunch of likable people with motives for living, forced to kill each other, and you don't want any of them to die... then again, I think that might be viewed as more thriller. Thinking about it, that might have actually been a good way to tell the story...
     
  12. Okon
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    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

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    What about Christine by Stephen King? I haven't seen the movie, but the book is a good example of what you're talking about, especially the end.

    Also: Cujo. He is originally an innocent dog before his mind gets warped.
    Mr. Gray in Dreamcatcher is scary, too, and you get a good look at his thoughts;).
     
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2013
  13. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    I have seen the movie, and while I haven't read the book, eh? The car never seems to be sympathetic, and from what I've read, there really isn't a reason given for the car's actions in the book that could be sympathetic. Perhaps the boy being possessed by it is supposed to be?

    From what I've read of Cujo... yeah, there's one.
     
  14. Okon
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    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I hope I'm not giving away too much, but yes and no;). There is an aspect to the history of the car, too...

    I really wish I could have cited some other authors. Maybe I just need to read more books...
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Have you ever watched the original Wolf Man movies with Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot? Talbot as a tragic character who did everything he could to rid himself of his affliction, and was even willing to die rather than enduring one more lycanthropic transformation.

    Star Trek isn't exactly horror, but two of the original series stories come immediately to mind with monsters who were the last of their species, and only trying to survive: the salt creature in The Man Trap, and the Horta in The Devil in the Dark.
     
  16. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Oh? Okay, that sounds interesting, and hopefully unlike Frankenstein, won't unintentionally slasher syndrome.:)

    As for the Star Trek ones... interesting point indeed. A creature just trying to live applies to a fair amount, all things considered.
     
  17. hippocampus
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    hippocampus Active Member

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    I think the monster in Dean Koontz's Watchers was a very scary - and in the end, sypmathetic - monster.
     
  18. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    I always saw The Elephant Man as horror, and what struck me was that the monster was society, and John Merrick, grossly disfigured though he was, was more human than any of them.
     
  19. Albirich
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    Albirich Active Member

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    I think if I ever were to write a horror novel I would have a sympathizable "monster"

    A very bad example could be that these teens were in this old house (so bad) and perhaps they found different paintings of this monsters wife and perhaps children, perhaps some sort of diary and what not, eventually figuring out that all his family was killed by nazis (so original) blablabla and he survived acid or whatever and become deformed and evil because he could not understand the immorality of man. Then perhaps he lives a solitary life and when nosy kids come to mess with his house n shit he punishes them for what other men did to his family.

    or

    Perhaps a ghost or whatever, that loves to play piano, and plays the lullaby he used to hymn to his children as he lay them abed. Or whatever.

    or

    Perhaps a man with a sickness that turns him into a monster, like, from a regular man to a...lets say lycan. Due to this he has to feed on brainless blonde teens to avoid transformation.

    Best examples ever. (Please don't judge my off the bat shitty examples)

    Well yeah, everything is possible and you are everything, dig through your emotional self or whatever, or just wait for the perfect idea to pop up like a wasp in your face
     
  20. DrWhozit
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    DrWhozit Banned

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    Of course this is a movie, but "First Man in Space" had that sort of scenario. Another was Outer Limits "The Architects of Fear." Maybe even "Robocop."
     
  21. Mckk
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    I am reminded of a Doctor Who episode - it was a Christmas special and was actually really good. Cheesy but in a really good, heart-warming way. Anyway, it's not "horror" but there were these aliens who were actually pretty scary. What happened was, the children and Doctor Who entered a Christmas forest - it was Doctor Who's surprise. But unknown to him, the forest has been occupied by an alien life form. These aliens are trees. They move when you're not looking and freeze when you turn around. Eventually Doctor Who and the children get to a building, in which is a wooden statue. As soon as they turned their backs, the statue showed signs of life.

    It was actually really creepy. It's not "horror" - it wasn't scary like that. But it was definitely creepy. And in the end it was revealed that all these trees want is to leave the planet, because the humans were gonna rain acid on the forest and kill all the trees. They needed someone's "strength" to transport their spirits elsewhere, and that's where the humans come in. I actually really loved the little riddle they put in there. It was done really well.

    Anyway, the trees were definitely sympathetic.

    Or in Naussica's Valley of the Wind, a Japanese classic - it's a family movie, so not horror. But in it there're some pretty scary insects, whom the people are terrified of:

    Here's the main insect that's actually important to the plot

    And here's another because it looks damn freaky!

    And the insects are definitely sympathetic. As the movie goes on, they prove themselves to be more "human" than the humans. This theme is also in another Japanese classic by the same director, Laputa.

    I know it's not horror, but it's just the examples I can think of - of the sympathetic monster who, at least initially, strikes fear into the heart of the audience.
     
  22. DeathandGrim
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    DeathandGrim Contributing Member

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    The less we see or understand, to more we fear.

    Common human instinct.

    However that doesn't mean that if we do understand something's motive that it is any less terrifying. For instance if you understood why I'm coming after you with a shotgun because you slept with my woman, I doubt you'd have any less fear nor will those watching.
     
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  23. novemberjuliet
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    novemberjuliet Member

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    I think if you can create a character who does horrible things and is seemingly evil and can then get the the reader to agree with or at least understand, despite the apparent horrible nature of its actions, why they do it to a degree that they themselves question their own judgement, then that can get into a reader's head.
     
  24. Amai
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    Well, I think the best (or at least the easiest) way to have people be sympathetic but still scared is to have the antagonist doing horrible things due to degrading sanity.

    In my opinion at least it's easier because if it's some messed up trauma and you can see the pain in him then it's hard to blame him. You could even get the reader to like him if you want to go that far with it.

    But at the same time you're like "shit what's he gonna do next?".

    So like if the first thing that you showed was a snippet of intense trauma he/she suffered (like if it's a ghost then it'd most likely be their death).

    And then go to the protagonist and focus more on that part. If you were feeling really up to it you could introduce the antagonist, have the misty "who is it" part of it AND the POV of the actual murderer.

    So you'd be able to see both sides but having an unpredictable antagonist you could still possibly have the readers on the edge of the seat. That'd be a bold move.

    But really the point of all this was yeah, I do think you can make a sympathetic horror antagonist
     
  25. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    A sympathetic monster is definitely possible. The "monster" could have perfectly good and compelling reasons for doing what it is doing, but to its victims it is still a monster.

    An example that comes to mind, although not really a monster or a horror story, is one the "Bolo" short stories "A Relic of War". A Bolo is a huge self-aware fighting machine with a personality of its own. In the the story an old damaged Bolo is made into a sort of war monument cum tourist attraction. It can still talk to some extent, and the locals treat it like the village idiot. Then one day something happens to wake it up. It causes enormous damage in an attempt to follow its last known orders in a war that ended ages ago.

    From the point of view of the villagers, it is a monster. Yet to the Bolo, it was only doing its duty.
     

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