Episode 199: Closet Monsters

On September 10, 2022, Rex was out and Dr. Thaddeus Jones, filmmaker and screenwriter joined Kasie in the studio to talk about monsters. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Monsters in the Closet


  • Filmmaker and screenwriter Dr. Thaddeus Jones
  • SCWA’s Annual Conference and Virtual Conference are open for registration
  • Monsters – on the outside
  • Monsters – on the inside
Photo by imustbedead on Pexels.com

Segment 1

I was intrigued by a segment on a podcast called The TED Interview with sitcom writers Michael Schur (he wrote the U.S. version of The Office, Parks & Rec, and The Good Place). In the episode, Schur dissects Breaking Bad by saying the Walter White character was one who did an exceptional job hiding his inner monster. Until he no longer had to.

Add that to the fact Rex is out sick and we have in the studio horror film writer and director, Thaddeus Jones, and I decided we should talk today about monsters.

Also, I saw the first two Twilight films in the theater last night with my kid (who’d never seen them) and we were caught on a specific exchange:

Edward says, “I’m a killer, Bella, I’ve killed people before.”

Bella replies, “I don’t care.”

Ummm… why don’t you care? Hello?

So, today let’s take apart monsters, real and imagined and talk about their role in stories be they in print or on screen. Welcome to the program.

Let’s start with the factors that make monsters compelling in a story:

  • Get the blood pumping – there’s adrenaline in monsters: what will they do? How do we defeat them? Can we defeat them? Will they give chase? Will they be violent?
  • Make the protagonist work for it – every monster has a vulnerability, but the heroine has to figure out what it is and that work is compelling.
  • Exploit characters’ stupidity – every protagonist has a dumbstreak, monsters won’t let you get by with making dumb choices, the protagonist will fail. That’s compelling.
  • Monsters scare everyone in the film – even the bravest hero (looking at you, Buffy) doubts their ability against a progressively-evil monster. That’s compelling.

This blog suggests our fascination with monsters is akin to picking at a scab. It hurts, we know it hurts, but it’s just too compelling to not keep picking.

Segment 2

So, is writing monsters different than reading/watching them? Do we have different motivations for creating monster stories than we do for enjoying someone else’s created monsters?

This blog suggests monsters are evidence of human cognition and evolution. Monster stories are old (Gilgamesh old. Sphinx of Giza old.) and yet they persist. What is it about them that keeps us coming back?

We have an innate human function to categorize things into threats and non-threats and our evolution relies upon this accurate categorization. Monsters challenge those categories. Here are some examples:

  • Lizards don’t fly, we can step over them. Except, dragons.
  • Dead people can’t walk. Except zombies.
  • Handsome lovers make us feel good. Except when they bite us (I see you, vampire).
  • Beautiful women will love and adore us. Except when they’re sirens and drown us.
  • Dogs are man’s best friends. Except when they’re rabid. Or wolves. Or have three heads.

So, yeah, monsters let us take the comfortable thing and flip it inside out or upside down and make you afraid of something that had before been just fine:

  • A doll (Chucky)
  • A clown (Pennywise)
  • A cornfield
  • Sleeping

Some more sophisticated monsters test our everyday vulnerabilities with things like data collection (and abuse), alien abductions, and domestic violence.

Segment 3

So let’s talk about the everyday monsters. The ones that aren’t fantasy (like vampires) but are even scarier because of how realistic they are. Some villains or “real” monsters include:

  • Crime lords / gangsters
  • Murderers / serial killers
  • Predators
  • Bullies
  • Dirty cops, politicians, or other authority figures

What is it that makes these “real” monsters possible?

To return to the Walter White example, are we compelled to watch someone who has been suppressing their inner monster (successfully) come unraveled?

What are some breaking points for people that might unleash their hidden monster?

  • In Monster, it’s a final, humiliating sexual assault that tips the prostitute Aileen into a serial killer.
  • In The Crow, it’s the brutal murder of the man and his betrothed.
  • Death of a spouse or lover
  • Death of a child
  • Loss of a treasure or business
  • Natural disaster
  • Betrayal
  • Corruption
  • Being put in mortal danger.

Segment 4

So how do you do it? How do you create a monster?

This blog offers this advice:

  • Physical characteristics are not just for show – they should all have a purpose either defense, offense, or repulsion or attraction
  • Psychological traits should play on our fears – what are people afraid of and how can your monsters exploit those fears?
  • Targets – monsters have a preferred prey, so what is your monster’s preferred prey? And, for that matter, what sets the monster off? What triggers it?
  • Weaknesses – what makes it vulnerable? How can it be defeated?
  • Provide some background – all monsters need an origin story; remember that the monster doesn’t know it’s a monster, it thinks it’s the hero
  • Leave room for the imagination – not every detail needs to be described, let the reader fill in the blanks and add their own fears to it
  • Give the monster a name – something to identify it, something we can call it
  • Make the monster hard to kill – the harder they are to defeat, the scarier they become.

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