Modern Horror

  1. Carroll (2003) and King (2010) discuss how the “monster” is really a defining feature of a horror story. Using references, explain in your own words how a monster in horror differentiates from monsters in other popular genres.


King (2010) states that all horror is allegorical to some degree, whether it is the creator’s intent or not. Horror monsters have a role distinct from other monsters in that they act as a vehicle for the fears and anxieties explored in the story, becoming their main symbol within the text. These most often reflect the creators’ personal demons or the troubles of the time it was made in, e.g. Grady (2017) points out that haunted houses became a popular subject around the time of economic crises in the 1970s when homes were becoming expensive to own, and similar comments can be made today about recent horror films which attempt to use social media and the internet to play off of real life concerns such as Unfriended (2014) or Like.Share.Follow (2017) – although these films have been so blatant in their approach that these come off more as marketing gimmicks than symbolism or themes. Horror reflects the time period it is made in more directly than most genres due to its largely allegorical nature (and cycles in popularity because of this), and monsters often become inextricably linked with the period they were made in.

Carroll (2003) defines these monsters not through purely physical characteristics but also through the psychological impact they have, inspiring revulsion and terror. This is communicated to the audience primarily through the reactions of the characters towards them who “regard them not only with fear but with loathing,” (Carroll, p. 23). Many creatures who would qualify as horror monsters in one story are simply part of the backdrop in another. For example in myths or fantasy, while monsters such as dragons or ogres may be considered impressive and are feared, they are not regarded with the same disgust a horror monster such as Dracula is treated. Other texts may even see these monsters as creatures to be admired or regarded with awe. I would argue these are not completely exclusive emotions as audiences’ fascination with monsters such as Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger that have long outshone their victims proves. However, within the context of the story the reader/audience realizes that their reaction is supposed to mirror the characters. If monsters are recognized as part of the norm they cannot violate it, and cannot seem impure by the standards set by the text. Monsters from different texts can be physically similar or even identical, but they are not horror monsters unless the characters and text recognize them as such.

This is why the Gill-man from the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is the villain of his own film, but when his design is mostly reused in The Shape of Water (2017) (albeit with a much more human face) for the Amphibian Man he is a source of wonder and a sympathetic victim. In The Creature from the Black Lagoon the Gill-man is arguably only defending his territory in the wild from human aggressors, but he is seen by the humans as an antagonistic force which inspires revulsion and terror. In contrast the Amphibian Man is displaced from his homeland and tortured by the American government, completely at the mercy of humans. In addition, his othered status connects him to the protagonists of the film (a mute woman, a gay man and a black woman living in 1960s America).

To add to my point of fear and awe not being mutually exclusive, the director of The Shape of Water (2017), Guillermo del Toro said of the Gill-man, “The creature was the most beautiful design I’d ever seen… I saw him swimming under [actress] Julie Adams, and I loved that creature was in love with her, and I felt an almost existential desire for them to end up together.” Del Toro’s interpretation of the film was likely far from the intent of the original creators, but he was able to take what was largely the same creature and change the genre completely. I would argue The Shape of Water is closer to a dark romantic fairy tale that uses horror iconography rather than a horror film in itself, at least in the traditional sense. Even when the Amphibian Man kills one of the protagonist’s cats he is easily forgiven and his inhuman reaction is excused rather than condemned. I would say to an unrealistically quick degree, but it appears to me that the film does not intend for this to create doubt or fear.

All this stems from the fact that readers/viewers are given expectations by the texts they consume and expect the story to obey by it’s own internal logic. If a creature is accepted by the characters then the audience is more likely to simply suspend disbelief that an inhuman creature is not something to be disgusted with. If they are reviled then the reader/viewer is given license to recoil in disgust – although, like del Toro, this is not a guaranteed reaction. Horror monsters are predicated on establishing their impurity within the context of the story. 


Reference List

Carroll, N. (2003). The philosophy of horror : Or, paradoxes of the heart. Retrieved from

Hendrix, G. (2017). Paperbacks from hell: The twisted history of ‘70s and ‘80s horror fiction. Retrieved from

King, S. (2010). Danse macabre. Retrieved from

Kit, Boris. (2017). How Guillermo del Toro ‘black lagoon’ fantasy inspired ‘shape of water’. Retrieved from


Dominic McAlpine

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