I love horror, and I love monsters. There is something fascinating about the human mind turning abstract fears into a physical creature. When done well, they cause us to feel repulsed, frightened, or nervous. Video games have led to a plethora of monsters given they are a easy way to have combat or intense gameplay. From creepy clowns to the nefarious Necromorphs. Exploring what makes a great scary monster design covers both evolutionary psychology and sociology. Creatures are often used to bypass the need to empathise with what you are fighting in game. But what I want to look at is those that are made to scare us.
Animals and Keeping it Real
At their base level, creature designs regularly take inspiration from the real world. This maintains the suspension of disbelief. Mother Nature is pretty good at designing scary monsters and so comes with some great ideas. Many monsters are a combination of different real-life animals. This may sound unimaginative compared to creating something from scratch. However it is a crucial element in the design that helps us find a monster realistic. For example, the Pouncer from Gears of War 4 combines a dog’s physique, a crustaceans carapace and a scorpions tail. It’s why designers have to have an idea of anatomy and the construction of the body, and how you might blend those elements together.
Furthermore, it helps to have an idea of how the environment would impact the creature’s evolution. Not to be difficult but shouldn’t a mermaid’s arms be webbed? Or a Centaurs human body be further back on the horse body? Of course, this applies to creatures with more industrial/mechanical aspects as well. For example, Pyramid Head’s famous helmet is clumsy and seems awkward to hold up, which works visually as we would expect a massive metal helmet to be unwieldy.
Jerad Marantz, concept artist for Gears of War 4, describes the process as “the combination of familiar elements…You’d think you could do almost anything, but if you do, the creature isn’t relatable.” Animals are typically the go to, but designers also use plants and fungi to great effect, such as the petal-like head of the Demogorgon from Stranger Things, which fingers crossed will one day return to Dead by Daylight.
Manipulating Humanoid Forms
Animals are a great start point, but let’s not forget the scariest monster of all, humans (generic, I know). This depends on what the designers are going for of course. More bestial designs are great for tapping into our innate fear of predators. Human monsters though, can be even more sickening. Until Dawn strategically exaggerates human anatomy for the Wendigo, such as unnaturally tight skin and long limbs. A corrupted human body can scare us, not just because it might kill us, but because we might become it. Much like the uncanny valley effect, we can relate to the creature. However, we will be unnerved by what is unnatural in the design.
Humanoid designs lend themselves well to psychological and body horror, as that element of humanity makes it more uncomfortable. Think of the number of famous monsters that are essentially human but twisted; Vampires, Zombies, Werewolves, Sirens, Goblins, Trolls, the list goes on and on. In part this is because we assume intelligence, and thus malice, on the part of the monster, which is scary. Even more horrifying is the fear of becoming the monster, and thus the loss of your, or another persons, mind and soul. Mixing human and inhuman elements is a great way to make a scary monster design.
Fear and Symbolism
The Silent Hill franchise, especially the artist Masahiro Ito, has been a master at this. The monsters are based upon the psychology of the protagonist. Masahiro Ito describes his designs as metaphorical. I personally find this to be what distinguishes great monster design from the good and average. The Lying Figure of Silent Hill 2 is representative of a patient in agony. Specifically Mary Sunderland, the wife of the protagonist James. Furthermore, it spits acid which is evocative of both illness and the harsh words she said to her husband. Silent Hill monsters are dripping in symbolism, often with details that are easily missed like the body bag like zippers on the face of the Lying Figure.
The Raw Shocks (a play on the famous Rorschach test) of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories adapt based on what the player focuses on. They can become diseased, abstract, atrophied, or feminine based on your focus on alcohol, your daughter, trivial things and sex respectively. This adds another meta level to the design as it responds to the player, rather than just the character.
Incorporating elements of the themes or important symbolic details into a creature design embeds it further into the story. It can be a great way to tell a narrative in a less obvious way. Furthermore, it allows the artist to connect the design to the current social moment in ways that can acutely tap into our fears.
The Eyes of a Creature
The eyes are one of the most critical elements in monster design. If you want to be pretentious, eyes are the window to the soul. If you want to be more grounded, eyes help us to understand and/or empathise with something. They help us gauge intentions and attention. Big round child-like eyes make us feel protective. It’s part of the reason we like baby animals. Small eyes can seem untrustworthy and predatory. The total absence of eyes makes it utterly inhuman and alien to us. The infamous Xenomorph is a great example of this. It may have humanoid features, but the lack of eyes makes it seem cold and emotionless.
One of the best uses of eyes in a creature design is arguably in Starship Troopers. We get one close up of one bug’s eyes just before it is killed. The rest of the design is utterly different to us (taking inspiration from arachnids) but that one image of its eye communicates its fear. This enables us for the first time to see the creatures as sentient, feeling beings.
Designing Scary Monster Teeth
Much like with eyes, there is something primal to our attitudes towards teeth. Scary monster design will almost always do something with the teeth. Long sharp canines are a classic, playing on our fear of predators. The use of teeth can be more complicated as well, implying a twisted and painful nature to it, with ill-fitting teeth in the mouth such as with the Wendigo of Until Dawn.
If the monster is going to attack with its mouth, teeth will be large and threatening. But if you don’t want to go the route of bite attacks you can use them to suggest an element of humanity, or for the primal fear of bared teeth by pulling back the lips to expose the gums which is uncomfortable to look at. Look at the development of the Nemesis through Resident Evil 3. The head and teeth stay humanoid whilst the body becomes more bestial, then almost plant like.
The Exaggeration, or Removal of the Mouth/Jaw
The mouth and jaw are another hot spot for creature design. Mouths, just like eyes and teeth, are parts of the body we are reliant on. We see them all the time and have strong ideas as to what they should look like. Playing with that is a strong way to unnerve the audience. The absence or exaggeration of a mouth can be gross to look at, but also suggestive of deeper aspects such as being silenced or hurt in some way.
A distended and broken jaw like the Grunts from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is a fantastic image of the twisted and tortured victims of Brennenburg Castle, made horrifying when they whimper in pain. Another great example of the use of mouths, and teeth for that matter, is the Gaping Dragon of Demon Souls. It’s body itself is a giant mouth, which is a great story telling aspect of the design as it demonstrates physically the monsters great and unending hunger. This huge mouth on the body also allows the design to shift from recognisable to bizarre by opening its jaw. You can also go the route of the Xenomorph again, with the proboscis tongue mouth being deliberately suggestive of sexual violence.
Just like with symbolism, a designers awareness of cultural trends and fears can be incorporated into the design to create a truly iconic and terrifying monster. Many horror monster designs make use of genital imagery to create fear. Again, look at the overall design of the Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation, or the Alien movies, and it is clearly phallic. This can be linked to societal attitudes. Religion has often been sexually repressive, leading to overt sexuality (especially homoerotic aspects) to often be considered taboo and threatening. Thus it is jarring when genital imagery is used in a horror setting. Of course, sexualised violence has long been a fear, but compare modern use of this imagery to historical settings, such as the Roman depiction of Fascinus and phallic imagery in general, which was depicted more positively.
This can cover any number of cultural attitudes. Creating a creature that scares us has been a part of human society for millennia. Vampires can be representative of several fears, but a famous one is the political interpretation, of the parasitic and powerful lord preying on the vulnerable peasantry. Another example is the subversion of childhood innocence, such as in the Exorcist or the Pack, which are infected children, in Dead Space 2 & 3. Childhood is often associated with joy and purity, and thus is something to be protected. Horror designers will often flip that on its head to create a sense of uneasiness or fear. Playing with, and subverting, cultural attitudes is a great element to add to a monster to make a truly unsettling design.
Behaviour and Movement
Unpredictability is a classic way of creating something that instils fear. As the famous Lovecraft quote goes, ‘the oldest and strongest kind of fear, is fear of the unknown’. This can be hard to implement in gaming, as monsters must be coded to act according to certain parameters which can be learned by the player. It’s nigh on impossible to create something truly unpredictable, but some designers find ways to give an effective impression of this.
Frictional Games’ Soma has a strong example in Terry Akers. Incidentally Mr Akers was voted to be Frictional Games best monster. His behaviour is a major part of this. The physical monster design is great, but nothing we haven’t seen before. The monster is blind and slow. This is until Terry detects the player via sound, at which point he moves incredibly fast. This can be as small a noise as turning on/off the flashlight. He also has a ‘hiding state’ wherein he will stalk the player from a distance. This is until you make a mistake, after which he sprints after you. These features combine to make a great monster design, as you will constantly be on edge.
Movement should mesh with the physical design of the monster. A bloated or diseased monster should move slowly and awkwardly. A more bestial design could chase or stalk from the shadows. Keeping the movement fitting to the design is a key element as it makes a monster grounded enough for us to understand why we fear it. However, as with our friend Terry, subverting our expectations at the right moment can be incredibly effective.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all aspects of monster design, but covers some of the major aspects you will see hit on often. One of my favourite recent creature designs is Raatma from V/H/S/94. It has distinct humanoid features that are stretched and blended with rat like elements. This make it something bizarre and otherworldly, whilst being comprehendible.
Specifics will vary depending on what the designer hopes to achieve. A huge amount of effort goes into designing scary monsters and creatures that can often be taken for granted. Taking something real and recognisable, then twisting and blending it is the core. Keep an eye out for the details that are changed or adapted from the base animal or human. Often these will be facial features but can include limbs and bodies.