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Embodiment of Horror: How To Write a Monster Story

Christina Crampe

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Have you felt something drawing you to the dark side of literature? Do you see stories in the shadows that keep you company when you wake in the dark at night? If so, then you might be ready to embark on the journey of writing your own monster story. Don't be frightened of the work that lies ahead of you; there are endless opportunities to stitch together your own unique, terrifying monster that will both delight and intrigue your readers.

It can be easy to categorize anything scary or fear-inducing as a monster, but not every fictional creature can be classified as a horror monster. Let's define monster horror and consider the parameters for a creature to be considered a horror monster.

Monster horror definition

Monsters can be found within several horror subgenres, including:

What do monsters from all of these subgenres have in common? Horror monsters are characterized by their strange or grotesque appearances, signifying them as "the other" and something to be feared. These plots are typically centered around the protagonist's efforts to defeat or escape from these dangerous creatures whose purpose centers around creating chaos and danger. Fear of the unknown and the perversion of the mundane are common themes throughout monster horror stories.

Making a horror monster

white eyeless creature with sharp teeth
Horror monsters can be traditional supernatural figures we are familiar with or creations of your own mind. Image by 3D motion.

If you think writing a good monster horror is a walk in the park, you've got it wrong. Writing cheesy and cliché monster horror can be easy, but if you want your monster to stand out from the existing pool of creatures, then you're going to need to take on a unique perspective. Here are three main factors that define a horror monster:

  • Strange or grotesque appearance: We're often afraid of the unknown or the unfamiliar. This includes physical features we are not accustomed to seeing, especially if they suggest some kind of mutation or potential danger. For example, a rotting face, such as you would see on a zombie, would cause revulsion and discomfort, making us fearful of interacting with the creature.
  • Dangerous: If a monster is not dangerous, then there's no real, rational reason to be afraid of it. If it's not going to cause us harm, then we can simply avoid it and move on. A true horror monster needs to act as a threat against us.
  • Part of a horror narrative: If the monster is not written into a horror narrative, then it does not count as a horror monster. Take Sesame Street for example. Oscar the Grouch or The Count are monster-like creatures, particularly the vampire, but they don't exist as horror monsters. They are playful characters meant to educate the youth. So, although The Count is a vampire, he does not count as a horror monster.

Although these are the three main components in creating a horror monster, these are not the only things you want to include in your writing. Here are some other necessities to keep in mind as you develop a good horror monster:

  • Motive: Motive is possibly the most important thing to consider as you write your monster. Maybe your monster is a killing machine, ripping apart their victims limb by limb (yikes, am I right?). Or maybe your monster hunts their human prey under the cover of night, feasting on their flesh (gross). But why? Why is your monster feeding on humans? Is it because they have no other food resources and are desperate for survival? Why is your monster ripping apart humans? Are they trying to protect their environments from human trespassers? Treat your monster as a character in your story, because they are. This means giving them motivations just as you would for any other character in your story.
  • Strengths: What are your monster's strengths? Are they extremely strong with multiple limbs that allow them to multitask in their pursuit to kill a human? Are they like chameleons, able to camouflage themselves into their environments, so they can hide from their prey and perform a successful sneak attack? Does your monster have supernatural abilities beyond the scope of human understanding? Even more interesting, is your monster intelligent? We're so used to reading monsters as these strong beings that use their bodies to inflict fear and pain. Consider making your monster smart. Although your monster may appear unthreatening, it could possibly become the most powerful monster ever if it adheres to human logic.
  • Weaknesses: Even though your monster is the ultimate villain for your hero to defeat, your hero is going to repeatedly fail. In fact, your protagonist(s) may endure pain and suffering at the hands of your monster before it is defeated. So, how does the protagonist defeat the monster if it's so strong? Every single monster has one (or a few) major weakness. Consider the werewolf. What kills a werewolf? A silver bullet. What defeats a vampire? Holy water, a wooden stake, or sunlight. It may take time and trial and error, but your protagonist will eventually discover your monster's one weakness they can exploit to triumph over the monster in the end. Make sure you keep this weakness hidden until you approach the end of your story.
  • Unpredictability: If your characters and readers know everything there is to know about your monster, then there's very little point in writing a monster horror story. Part of the fear comes from the unpredictability of the monster. Can the monster be exposed to sunlight, or are they allergic to it like vampires? Can your monster camouflage themselves to hide from your protagonist? We shouldn't know what your monsters can and cannot do for the majority of your story. This way we'll be left on the edge of our seats. A twist on this unpredictability trope is to make the mundane unpredictable or to pervert the mundane. This goes beyond your monster character and can include environments and inanimate objects. We're used to the dark being scary, but what if you make the light frightening? Cell phones are normal devices that almost everyone uses, but some people get frightened or wary when their phones start listening to them. Play up on these fears and make the non-scary, scary.
  • Make the monster symbolic: What's scarier than a man-eating monster or being buried alive? Realizing that the thing you've been afraid of all along exists in reality. In fact, you may already be a victim to it. Perhaps your monster is never satiated and that's why its constantly killing humans and feasting on them. This can symbolize greed and society's ever-increasing need for more. If your monster represents a larger theme from the real world, it might be even scarier than if it were just a simple scare because it makes readers question their own ideas and livelihoods.
  • Maximize fear: This is one you probably already know, but maximizing fear by using peoples' fears against them is one of the best ways to incite fear in your readers. It becomes a very psychological process of getting into the minds of your readers and exploiting their own personal fears. Using these fears in the appearance of your monster or in the setting in which they're found will add dimension to your monster horror story. Here are some of the most popular fears:
    • Spiders
    • Heights
    • Enclosed spaces
    • Isolation

Of course, there are plenty of other phobias for you to use in your writing. Do some research and find one that fits your story.

Now that you know what defines a horror monster, let's examine the nine most popular horror subgenres that include monsters. These are sure to keep you and your readers awake at night.

Body horror

monster with a skull-like head stands in the woods
Body horror monsters are characterized by body disfigurements. Image by Obsidian Fantasy.

The body horror subgenre is characterized by the grotesque and disfigured appearance of the monster(s) in the story. Popular sources of disfigurement are diseases, mutations, and scientific experimentation. The terror in these stories comes from the thought of your body betraying you, causing you to lose any sense of agency. The most recognizable figure in body horror is the zombie with its rotting flesh. Here are some components of successful body horror:

  • Evoke intense emotional reactions: As opposed to other subgenres of monster horror that seek to scare readers with violence, body horror is frightening because it is gross and disturbing. It evokes feelings like paranoia, disgust, and anxiety.
  • Perversion of the mundane: The main reason why body horror is so anxiety-inducing is because it perverts the mundane. Mutated faces and bodies make us turn our faces away in fear. We fear what we don't know, and this fear becomes multiplied when it applies to the human body, something that everyone relies on to survive.
  • Invasive: Body horror is, by nature, invasive. This may mean a pest or disease has invaded your body and caused your body to mutate. For example, one trope in these stories is a woman being impregnated by a horrifying host. The lack of control over your own body is what makes body horror so horrifying.

Extreme horror

bloody figure reaches for something
Extreme horror showcases brutal, bloody violence. Image by Obsidian Fantasy.

Extreme horror is characterized by its lack of limitations. These stories will showcase extremely graphic and horrifying acts of violence. The terror comes from knowing, in detail, exactly what is happening between the monster and the protagonist(s). There is particularly a lot of blood and gore. For example, Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th is a serial killer who brutally murders camp counselors. Saw is also considered to be an example of extreme horror. Here are a couple common tropes found in extreme horror:

  • Sexual violence, abuse, torture: This subgenre is not for the weak of heart. These are pretty self-explanatory, but they will be graphically depicted in extreme horror stories.
  • Emotional consequences: Because of the sensitive and oftentimes triggering content found in extreme horror, readers will have very emotional reactions. The plot will examine the emotional consequences of horrifying acts of violence and make the readers consider emotional trauma.


a vampire-like figure stands before candles, teeth bared
Gothic horror stories can feature monsters that reside in the shadows of mansions. Image by Obsidian Fantasy.

Gothic horror is most commonly associated with the classic setting of the sprawling, old-fashioned manor with a vampire hiding in its depths (hey, Dracula!) Much of the terror in these stories comes from developing a mysterious atmosphere full of dark, long-forgotten secrets, madness, and quiet hauntings. Many gothic horror stories are allegories for psychological themes or the fall of the aristocracy.

How to Write Gothic Horror That Will Forever Haunt Your Readers

Here are some of the most important factors to consider as you write gothic horror:

  • Establish rules: You should set up rules for your antagonist. They should not be entirely separate from human understanding. Instead, these characters should have moral beliefs surrounding who they are and what they do, so the protagonist can seek out tangible ways to attain knowledge and understanding and to understand the antagonists' purpose.
  • Setting: Gothic horror is known for its settings, particularly the sprawling horror castle or the mansion full of secrets (we'll get to secrets in a moment). This is because using small settings allows you to isolate the horror, making your characters and readers feel more claustrophobic. Treat your setting like a distinct character, because it is. You can use literary devices to bring your setting to life. Some of the best ones to include in your gothic horror are metaphors, imagery, foreshadowing, allegory, and personification.
  • Secrets and mystery: Leaving your characters (and readers) in the dark about certain settings and secondary characters will enhance the horror in your story. Think about using those literary devices we mentioned to build a sense of mystery and suspense in your horror story. However, be sure to provide answers to your readers' questions by the end of the story. The horror is meant to eventually be understood.


frowning dead pharaoh
Historical horror stories take inspiration from historical events or time periods and add their own horrifying twist on them. Image by Obsidian Fantasy.

Historical horror stories can use settings and events from an already dark period of time from the past, such as the Donner Party, and make it even more horrifying by juxtaposing real historical figures with monsters and new characters. The protagonist usually gives a first-hand account of what actually happened during that event, according to their perspective. These stories can also take inspiration from any time period, such as 536 AD, and use it as a backdrop for a horrifying tale. Consider how many books and films have been written in historic Egypt with the mummy as the main horror monster.

  • Accurate language and voice: We know you want to focus on the intricacies of the plot for your historical horror story, but part of that story is the historical aspect. If your story is set during WWII, your characters aren't going to be up-to-date with current slang and terminology. They also won't be aware of modern discoveries or technologies that did not exist during that time period.
  • Pervert the history: If you're writing during a specific historical time period, such as ancient Egypt, take something already creepy from that time period and make it terrifying. For example, ancient Egypt is known for its mummies. Mummification was a popular and normal practice, yet many writers turned mummies into monsters by making them come to life and terrorize the living. This practice can also be applied to specific historical events.


creature with taloned feet, wings, and tentacles
Cthulhu is one of the most famous Lovecraftian monsters. Image by Obsidian Fantasy.

Also known as cosmic horror, these stories feature Lovecraftian god-like monsters that exist beyond our reality and comprehension and have little to no regard for human existence. Human beings are insignificant creatures in the face of the larger universe. The protagonists' insatiable curiosity of the secrets of the forbidden cosmic knowledge is essential for these stories and results in the horrific realization that such knowledge is beyond their human-constrained capabilities. They are left with little to no answers, and any answers they do receive are tainted by the bleakness depicted through these monsters.

Existential Terror: Writing Lovecraftian and Cosmic Horror
  • Setting: You should take mundane settings, depicted as decrepit, poor, and bleak (gee, we wonder why!) and introduce entities that are capable of breaking them. Doing this will make both your characters and your reader uneasy because they are aware there is something lurking beyond the mundane, but they are unknowing.
  • Unreliable narrator: Since most Lovecraftian stories are told after the discovery of a cosmic horror, the the unreliable narrator relies on fleeting images and moments of their encounters, making them unreliable. These protagonists are also faced with insanity or death because their curiosity drags them in over their head and their lack of agency leaves them helpless and lost amongst a cosmic horror.
  • Make everything horrifying: Drawing on Lovecraft's fear of well, lots of things, you should make the mundane scary. Suddenly, the water bottle you've been carrying around and drinking out of is looking suspicious. Practicing this method will add unease to your narrative.
  • The ending: Cosmic horrors should not wrap up neatly. The genre is about asking questions and receiving answers which are partial, dangerous, impossible, or create more questions or any combination of those.


a monster that is half female human and half metal
Man-made monsters are unlike traditional monsters because they are typically the results of human experiments. Image by Obsidian Fantasy.

Man-made horror stories feature man-made monsters (the proof is in the pudding!). This monster horror subgenre veers away from supernatural creatures and plots. Instead, these stories tend to explore the limitations of human curiosity and ability, making us question our own selfishness and humanity in the face of progress. One of the most popular examples of this subgenre is Mary Shelley's cautionary tale Frankenstein, a book that helped introduce the mad scientist trope. However, these stories do not have to include this trope and can include hazards like pollution, disease, or genetic mutation.

  • Curiosity: Your protagonists should be driven by their curiosity for knowledge. This knowledge should seem dangerous and unattainable, but your protagonist refuses to give up on their pursuit of it. They can't have it, but they want it anyways.
  • Unintended consequences: Since your protagonist wants to uncover seemingly unattainable knowledge, they may go to great lengths to do this, including performing dangerous experiments such as raising the dead (hey, Frankenstein!) This leads to unintended, often harmful, consequences for all parties involved.
  • Theme of humanity: Man-made horror stories present the fear of human nature and our capabilities. We are selfish creatures who crave knowledge but cower in the face of consequences. We do not like to see the humanity in the monster because then we would have to recognize our own flaws.


a cyclops holding a mallet stands in front of a mountain range
Mythic horror monsters are taken directly from ancient myths, or they are inspired by these figures. Image by Obsidian Fantasy.

Mythic horror stories feature gods, goddesses, and other popular figures and settings from Greek and Norse mythology, folklore, or legends. Mythic horror seeks to emphasize the more terrifying and disturbing aspects of myths, using well-known stories and figures (such as Medusa) to create different, more terrifying tales with additional layers.

  • Alter a pre-existing story: Mythic horror is one of the more straightforward monster horror subgenres. There are plenty of horrifying mythic creatures that already exist, so you have lots of potential. Your goal is to change the original narrative of the mythic story to make it more horrifying.


a red demon with chains, horns, and glowing eyes glaring
Popular occult monsters include demons, ant-christ figures, and the undead. Image by Obsidian Fantasy.

The occult horror subgenre is most commonly associated with witchcraft, but it is not limited to this practice. These stories incorporate an exploration of non-conventional religions that are typically associated with dark practices and demonic energy. As such, the protagonist, sometimes a witch or human looking to experiment, should end up entangled in dark magic, curses, and the occasional undead or demon summoning (fun!).

  • Protagonist: Choosing your protagonist will greatly impact the plot of your story. An occult story about a witch will be much different than an occult story about a religious dissenter. Your protagonist should be someone with some kind of magical ability or the desire to break away from the norm. The irrational becomes rational, for your protagonist.
  • Enforcing and breaking rules: Speaking of breaking away from the norm, your story should have set rules. If you're writing a story about a witch, make sure there are limitations to her power. Part of the horror in these stories is the protagonist's desire to break the rules and the consequences that result from this disobedience.

Science horror

an alien-like creature with spikes along her spine
Science horror stories feature science and technology and combine elements of horror, such as the presence of aliens, to prey on human anxiety. Image by Obsidian Fantasy.

The science horror subgenre combines elements of science fiction and horror. Much of the science in these horror stories comes from medical research and experimentation in the name of progress. This is not to be confused with man-made horror. Although there are similarities between the two monster horror subgenres, not all man-made horror is also science horror and vice versa. For example, Frankenstein is a man-made monster, but the story is not science horror. Likewise, alien monsters are not man-made monsters, but they are science horror monsters because aliens exist in the sci-fi realm.

  • Realistic fears: Successful science horror incorporates real fears and anxieties we have regarding things like technological advances, scientific research, and other life. Many of us have imagined about a future in which we lose control of our technical accomplishments as they turn against us. So, when these fears are realized, it resonates better with the audience, making it a truly frightful horror story. The same can be said for our fear of aliens from outer space and the possibility of being invaded by another species.
  • Suspense: Suspense is a key feature to science horror. Your characters and readers' anxiety builds as they realize that the things they're familiar with are capable of creating dangerous consequences for mankind or that their mundane world is not so normal, after all.

Monster madness

We know we've just thrown a lot of material at you. You may be scratching your head, wondering if a vampire or demon would be a better fit for your story. Don't worry! You have plenty of material to work with, and you can even try experimenting with mixing monsters. Don't be afraid to embrace the monster madness!

Header photo by plus69.

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