Create a Horror Icon In Six Steps

I’ve been doing this thing lately where I’ll put my headphones in and then never turn music on. I have definitely done this a couple times to prevent people talking to me or to eavesdrop when they thought I couldn’t hear them, but it’s starting to happen more often and I’m not sure why. If I forget or if I just want to turn the volume down on the world for a little bit.

Anyway, that’s not what you came here for. You came to figure out how to make your own iconic monster/maniac. Despite my underwhelming “success”, I believe most things can be broken down into a series of steps or formulas and after reading countless books and watching more terrible films than I would like to admit, I think I’ve discovered that the creatures going bump in the night are no different.

I’m going to be honest and say that this really is just a list of guidelines with a handful of examples and suggestions. Sort of a step-by-step on the things you need to determine, but I won’t build one here (in case I want to use it in the future), in the same way that I wouldn’t write half a book and show it as an example of how to write books.

So, if you still trust me anyway,  start with:

1. Determine the genre of story you’re trying to tell and from there, you’ll get the framework for your villain.

Do you want a slasher/serial killer film (Halloween’s Michael Meyers, Friday the 13th’s Pamela Voorhees, Silence of the Lamb’s Hannibal Lecter, Scream’s Ghostface, Saw’s Jigsaw and assorted psychopathic successors, Psycho’s Norman Bates, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface), a supernatural threat (Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees, Hellraiser’s Pinhead, Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, Leprechaun’s Leprechaun which I’m only including here because it’s a guilty pleasure of mine [interestingly enough, Jason Voorhees was the former in his first appearance, where as Michael Myers eventually became the latter until his most recent two iterations]), a science-fiction alien threat (Alien’s xenomorph, Predator’s…uh, Predator. They’re called the Yautja in other sources, but screw it, they’re Predators), or a science-fiction technological threat (Terminator’s T-800, T-1000 and more). Hell, you’ve even got straight monster movies, like Gremlins and Trolls. Which direction do you want to go? Once you’ve decided:

2.  Determine what appearance will make them stand out. Horrible burn marks, a fedora and striped shirt (Krueger). Tall, broad, with a jumpsuit and filthy William Shatner mask (Myers). Tall, broad, with torn clothes, deformed flesh and a hockey mask (Voorhees). A carapace and a backwords black penis head (the xenomorph, which I do enjoy, but Giger’s love for mixing the grotesque with the sexual was no secret [RIP]. A shiny metal skeleton with red eyes, slowly revealed as flesh was ripped away (the T-800). Everything about the Predator.

This sounds like an easy step, but it isn’t necessarily. Without the proper atmosphere and build-up, most designs can come off as cheesy. However, you can stay similar to something else while still exuding the same menace. The major differences in Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees aren’t necessarily in their visual distinction. They set themselves apart from other monsters/maniacs, sure, but on the surface they look incredibly similar. I’ll come back to this.

Once you figure out your genre, you can start really settling into how your villain will look. Is it an alien? What physiology is necessary for it to survive? Does it have spines? Wings? Frills? Is your android massive? Metal and flesh bonded together, more cyborg than artificial intelligence? What kind of scars are they bearing or accoutrements are they wearing? What quirks (like Lecter’s penchant for not blinking) do they have?

Have you got the image in your head, the details worked out? The menacing visage that will strike terror in their hapless victims? That’s good. Because these are monsters and monsters need something to kill with.

3. Determine their weapon(s) of choice.

Jason Voorhees kills people with any number of things, but his signature weapon is a machete. Michael has a butcher knife. Freddy has his finger knives. The xenomorph has claws, a razor sharp tail blade, a second mouth and freaking acid blood. The Predator has an assortment of weapons, including his infamous shoulder cannon and a constricting net.

The weapons don’t need to be fancy or elegant but they do need to be fitting. Jason and Michael are unrelenting killers. Their weapons are simple and brutal, just like they are. The Predator is a hunter, and his weapons are meant to take down prey. Freddy has a flair for the dramatic and nothing says unnecessary like a glove with blades for fingers. Find something that fits your creature/killer and sets it apart from the rest. This is their signature method of murder. It is every bit as defining as their look.

To recap, at this point you have your setting, and a good idea of your icon’s appeaeance and methodology. Your avatar, but avatars are empty, waiting to be used by something with more substance. You’ve got to flesh this mother out.

4. Know their origin.

Know them. You know them. You don’t need to show the origin, necessarily (I’m looking at you, Hannibal Rising), but you need to know know what makes your killer tick, where your alien came from, why your murderous android is programmed to eradicate humanity. You need to know all these details because now you can work in quirks or fears or snippets of conversation or details that reveal some of it, just enough to add another dimension to them and keep the audience intrigued.

Now you’ve got your design, complete with signature weapon and distinctive look. You’ve got your motivation (psychopathy, instinct, thrill, revenge, programming). Now you need to craft a story that cements this icon in the minds of your audiences.

5. Make likeable victims.

You might recognize this as a variation of rule number one of Jered’s 3 1/2 Magic Rules For Writing. If not, the idea behind it is to craft characters believable enough that you root for or revile them. In most stories, this leads to complex and relatable protagonists and villains whose ends you’re eagerly anticipating.

When you apply this rule to horror, though, it has an added benefit of suspense. Horror as a genre is about terror and disaster and bad things happening. You go into a horror film expecting people to die. But when your victims are charming and sweet and funny, when they’re best friends and in relationships and have dreams and goals…when you care about the characters, suddenly any eagerness you have to see the icon dispatch these hapless victims is mixed with dread. You know that character is going to die, but you don’t know when or how and you start hoping there’s a way they can get out of it somehow. Maybe by the grace of god, even maimed, just let them live. But they don’t, and it’s horrible.

Feel free to sprinkle in an asshole or two, though, so when they bite it, there’s some catharsis.

You want your icon to be dreadful, relentless, monstrous. The more you invest yourself in the people unfortunate enough to be in the icon’s path, the more their deaths bother you, the more tension there is in every moment, and the more fearsome the villain becomes.

And finally, 6. Know when to switch it up, start fresh or quit.

Most people think the Saw films got terrible (and they’re not entirely wrong), but I believe a large chunk of that is because they felt it had worn out its welcome. For seven years there was a new Saw film with no promised end in sight. The 7th and final Saw film actually brought it full circle and tied it up neatly. Taken as a whole, it wasn’t a bad saga and having the third and fourth film occur simultaneously was a pretty clever idea to have square in the middle there.

But then you have franchises that have run themselves into the ground. There were seven Halloween films (not counting Halloween 3, which was both garbage and completely unrelated), ten Friday the 13th films, seven Nightmare on Elm Street films, and a Freddy vs Jason cross-over movie before those franchises basically started fresh.

Most of those started off strong and ended up dropping a bucket in a dry well and hoping they could pass off air as water. If your immediate reaction is to take a franchise that didn’t start in space and put it in space, maybe stop.

Don’t be the Leprechaun series that not went from Las Vegas to space and then, as if that wasn’t enough, sought to top themselves by spending TWO DIFFERENT MOVIES in “da hood”.

If the character has enough gravitas, you can reinvent yourself when your run has started growing cold. I felt Friday the 13th and Halloween’s remakes were both done well, as was Nightmare on Elm Street’s reboot (remakes, reboots and sequels will be expounded upon in a separate entry) but there’s another option as well, if stopping while you’re ahead and refreshing the origin aren’t up your alley.

Go a different direction. Alien, Aliens and Alien 3 was an excellent trilogy, starting with Ellen Ripley struggling to survive the unknown threat and culminating in her sacrificing herself to kill the queen inside her. And then they ruined it with unnecessary cloning and awful storytelling just because it wouldn’t be an Alien movie without Ripley.

Bullshit. Ripley’s story was done, wrapped up satisfactorily with an epic sacrifice of a heroine who grew from panicked but resourceful survivalist to hardened bug-killer. But the xenomorphs are aliens in a wide universe filled with planets and moons and ships. Give some other person or group their own tale of survival.

The concept behind Saw is both brilliant and grotesque: traps devised to test someone’s endurance and resolve, lest they or someone they love die. Jigsaw and his cronies may have run their story to its conclusion, but someone else could take a similar method, or be inspired by it. (The Collector and The Collection are actually pretty similar to this set-up but still maintain their own thing).

The Predator films are actually a solid example of how to do it. Predator, Predator 2 and Predators were all unique stories with the same kind of monster while only maintaining small ties to each other.

The point is to keep it fresh. If by doing so, it means wrapping it up after three or four solid films, do it. Don’t make a joke out of your icon.

If it means taking it back to the start and breathing new life into it and doing different things with the original story, then do it. Make an older or dated icon feel fresh and frightening again.

And if it means stretching your creative muscles and building a new legacy around a static iconic villain, do that, and treat your audiences to new stories and new heroes.

You’ve got your setting, your design,  your killing apparatuses, your background and character compulsion, the victims you’re terrified for, and a method for how to keep that horror icon fresh for your audiences.

A lot of work, to be sure, but boiled down to six digestible steps. So get to work on scaring people again.

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5 thoughts on “Create a Horror Icon In Six Steps

  1. Good post. I’m completely with you on knowing your character’s origin, but not necessarily sharing it. I thought The Strangers was an underrated horror flick, in part because the audience never really knows why the psychos are doing what they’re doing. They’re relentless, silent and terrifying, and it doesn’t get ruined by pointless flashbacks or expository dialogue that drum the reasons for their madness into our brains.

    • The Strangers disturbed the hell out of me precisely because of rules 4 and 5. The Descent is another one that worked really well, by having each character fully fleshed out and unique (via personality, fears and life situation) and having a slow build to the monsters.

      • The Descent also made it difficult to see the monsters, even after you get that first glimpse. You’re right, terrific job of building the tension.

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