Monsters: Why Real Beats FX Every Time

Award-winning horror and science fiction author Alan Dean Foster has a new e-book out today called Predators I Have Known. To celebrate its release, he offers four reasons why real-life predators are always scarier than CGI stuff.

1) The less seen, the better: While H.P. Lovecraft was perfectly capable of describing his nameless creatures from other dimensions, the most frightening of his gibbering eldritch horrors were just that: beings so horrific that they invariably drove mad those unfortunate enough to cast eyes upon them. Terrors are often far more frightening for what is not seen than what is seen or described. Think how long it is before we see the whole shark in Jaws. Nothing beats a gradual build-up with an unseen, or barely glimpsed threat.

Walking at night in the Amazon rainforest, with only a tiny flashlight, well away from camp, you can barely see the sky. Your imagination fills in the blank places between the trees far more effectively and ominously than the sight of a jaguar lounging by the riverside.

2) Sounds, and the description thereof, can convey a feeling of horror without describing in detail the creature from which they issue. English is wonderfully versatile for creating horror through evocative noises. With one word, "skritching" brings up a whole atmosphere all by itself. I've already used Lovecraft's "gibbering". "Moaning" is always a good standby. Put just those three together, something that arrives "gibbering, moaning, and skritching on the floor" and you've got a whole horror tale right there without employing so much as single visual.

Again, the jungle: every unidentifiable sound is pregnant with potential threat. You look, but you don't see. That's the horror of the unseen but the clearly heard. One time in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador I stood twenty feet off trail as a trio of local Indian girls came by. I heard them coming, watched them pass me. Standing stock still and dressed in proper beige jungle attire, they never saw me. When I said, politely, "hello", they screamed and jumped right off the ground. And this was in their land.
Noises. Never underestimate their capacity to frighten.

3) Movement. Too many fictitious monsters move like familiar creatures, usually the person or animal on which they are based. Unexpected movement can add an element of terror that visual and aural description cannot. Speed especially can be frightening; the thought that no matter what we do we cannot outrun or outrace our pursuer. Think of the scene in Jurassic Park where the Tyrannosaur is chasing and closing on the jeep. It's the "We can't get away!" fear that we often experience in our dreams.

Nor does the fear of being unable to escape always involve a chase. In an incident I describe in Predators, I had the opportunity in Namibia to observe, close up (very close up), two male lions devouring a haunch of antelope. Made more impressive by the fact that it took place at night, the two big cats sat on either side of the prey, gnawing away quietly. Then, without warning, they suddenly stopped moving. Teeth, jaws, paws, great maned heads: all stayed stock still for a long, long moment. And then...the cats exploded with a pair of threatening roars that shook everyone who was watching...and who had relaxed. It only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to chill the onlookers' blood. It was the feline equivalent of the thing that jumps out at you from the darkness.

Nor need something move quickly to convey terrifying portent. Think of the scene in ALIEN where the creature slowly descends into view behind an unsuspecting member of the crew.

4) Size really doesn't matter. One of the most horrifying movie scenes I remember from my childhood comes from a decidely non-genre film, THE AFRICAN QUEEN. As Humphrey Bogart emerges from swamp water, we see black things attached to his back. But he doesn't see them until Katherine Hepburn points them out, and then his disgust and fear are rapidly conv eyed. We see the threat before he does. No lions, no raging grizzlies, no sharks...just small black shapes. All the horror and terror comes from his reaction to them.

Humans, who eat everything, have a visceral fear of something that feeds on us. Leeches are all the more frightening for their primal indifference. Faceless, limbless, they just suck blood and reproduce. I've made the acquaintance of leeches in Papua New Guinea and Borneo. Removing them, or watching them drop off when sated, is unpleasant. They don't react...they just feed. Their silence somehow makes them more incomprehensible than tiger or bear, and the horror more alien.

Want more? Pick up a copy of Predators I Have Known via Amazon.