I don’t know if it’s just me, but I like rooting for the monster. For the most part anyway. If you think about it, most monsters are only doing what their nature tells them to do. How can we hate Frankenstein’s Monster when he didn’t know what is right and wrong? What about the Mummy? Does the undead pharaoh really have a choice if an ancient curse is dictating who he must kill? Speaking of the undead, how can anyone hate zombies?
“My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I’m pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible.” – George A. Romero.
Of course, there are villains like Freddy Kreuger and the Sanderson Witches that are evil because they want to murder children. They made the choice to go after kids. Interestingly enough, those villains are human (Freddy isn’t any longer, but I’m still counting him as one in this scenario), which is something I’ll talk about a little later.
Every protagonist in a story needs an equally great antagonist. The purpose of the antagonist is to challenge the hero of the story after all. If the Avengers defeated Thanos early on, then it would’ve been very boring and formulaic. By defeating the antagonist, the hero learns something about himself/herself.
In a horror/thriller story, it’s a bit different. Villains aren’t as black and white as they are in comic books and mysteries. Take the show and comic book The Walking Dead for example. Zombies are the monsters in that world, but they aren’t’ the true antagonist. In fact, if you look at the Zombie genre as a whole, most story lines don’t have them as the antagonist. In Night of the Living Dead (1968) the conflict is between Ben and Mr. Cooper. In Zombieland (2009) the conflict isn’t an external one, it’s the conflict inside each character. Columbus fights with his system of rules, Wichita combats her struggle with commitment, and Tallahassee wrestles with the loss of his son. Oh, and his never-ending hunger for Twinkies.
Going back to The Walking Dead, the conflict is never between the zombies and Rick’s gang. For them, the walkers/biters/monsters/roamers/rotters/lamebrains/lurkers (geez dudes, pick a nickname and stick with it) are just part of the territory they have to travel through. Imagine Indiana potholes with teeth. The real antagonists are the Governor, Negan, and anyone else stupid enough to try and mess with Rick.
And here’s where the real monster is revealed.
“Adversity introduces us to ourselves.” – Max Brooks, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre.
Zombies are great monsters. They resemble your loved ones; they carry disease and never stop in their pursuit for food. As of the time of writing this, there are 7,797,728,540 people on the planet (according to census.gov). If a zombie outbreak happens, then most of those people would be zombies and more would be food. A small percentage of those that remain would be survivors.
Once the survivors managed to fortify themselves, do you know what the first question would be?
“Who’s in charge?”
At that point, all hope is lost because inevitably there will be arguments. Bob thinks he can run the compound better than Stan. Stan decides to eliminate Bob in order to solidify his power. While he’s doing that, Marsha is planning a coup.
You might be reading this and saying, “but Jim, nobody would argue like that if there was a real public health emergency threating the world.”
I’ll counter by telling you that people were getting into fist fights over the last package of toilet paper in 2020. Checkmate, my dude.
Humans are the perfect monster. They’re unpredictable, they kill for fun, they take what they want, and they invented social media. Perfect storm. Seriously though, humans (in stories) are the perfect monster. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, and other supernatural monsters are always bound by laws. Vampires can’t enter direct sunlight (except those fake Twilight ones). Werewolves can be killed with silver. Ghosts typically only haunt the place they die, and demons can be exorcised.
Humans (in stories) have no rules and you can’t make them do something against their will. Try making them stay in their homes for 14 consecutive days. It ain’t easy, just ask the government.
Appearances can be deceiving, another thing that makes humans the perfect monster. Zombies have decaying flesh, Frankenstein’s Monster is stitched together, and werewolves are big furry animals. Humans look normal. Heck, they can be charming and nice to you. Just look at Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (2000). He’s a nice, clean-cut businessman when you’re looking at him. When you’re not looking at him, he’s a crazy psycho with a fire axe. In a real-world application, look no further than serial killer Ted Bundy.
If you’re looking for a scary monster to rival your hero, I’d suggest a monster of the human variety.
Categories: Mastering the Craft