A Dash of Empathy and Humanity is the Key to Scary Monsters

Today, io9.com posted an interesting article about empathy and monsters. io9.com asked experts on neuroscience, psychology and horror fiction why we like to feel empathy or pity for monsters. It seems like a great topic to explore as Halloween approaches.

Heath Matheson, an experimental psychology PhD candidate at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, believes that

“We come to understand that [monsters] are agents with powerful motivations and will work towards them (often seeking revenge on careless teenagers)…[A] truly effective monster is one that we feel is goal-directed and able to achieve these goals.”

Matheson also noted that “Empathizing with both the monster and the victim might allow us to more fully be engrossed by the story.” This echoes a lot of advice given to writers. We are often told that you need to understand the motivations of your antagonist. No one sees themselves as a villain. For example, even a dictator believes he is going to war for the right reasons. Not only does this make your antagonist less of a straw man, but it also helps draw your readers into the story. Think about the Halloween remake. Mike Meyers was given a back story. Did understanding Meyers’s motivation make for a more engrossing movie? Or did you prefer the original version, with the silent, unstoppable killer?

Raymond A. Mar, an assistant professor of psychology at York University and director of the Mar Lab, said

“I think that the scariest monsters are those in which we are able to see an aspect of humanity present. Evil is scary enough, but the idea that humanity (and perhaps ourselves) are capable of such evil is even more terrifying. Understanding our own capacity to be or become a monster creates true existential fear.”

Allowing moviegoers or readers to experience that sympathy for evil within the safe environment of a book or theater can be an exciting prospect. But Mar warns, “The more we can relate and humanize a creature, hopefully the less scary it becomes.” So you want to find the write balance between humanity and monstrosity so that your character can still frighten audiences.

Think about monsters that find this balance. The io9 article mentions Frankenstein’s monster and King Kong. Recall the desire Frankenstein’s monster had for finding a mate, or the sweet moment with the little girl. But also recall that he was capable of terrible acts. That’s the balance. Now recall Lestat from Anne Rice’s vampire novels. In the beginning, Lestat was a bit of a mystery. Although Rice was able to show aspects of his fears, desires, and goals, he was definitely a monster, capable of great evil. He was both human and superhuman, and he was compelling. But as we learned more about Lestat in the later novels, that balance titled and our fear disappeared.

What do you think? How will you make your monsters a bit more human? Will you explain their motivations? Or do you prefer ruthless, killing machines?