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SILBER LININGS: Shut up and show me the monster

Greg pushes back against the conventional wisdom that great horror stories don't "show the monster."

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The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.

“Don’t show the monster.” That’s what conventional wisdom surrounding horror stories tells us. Most of the time, it’s a wise guideline for storytellers to follow. After all, a great horror story needs to build suspense and tease the audience with tantalizing glimpses of terrifying entities, using restraint to allow us our imaginations to conjure threats that may be even more terrifying than what can be shown on screen or described on the page. But lately, I’ve been reconsidering the value of “showing the monster.” Holding out on an audience isn’t always the right move.

I got these thoughts in my head as I watched the 2010 Australian horror film The Reef with my friend Avery Kaplan, the features editor at The Beat who also happens to be editing my column this week. Avery chose The Reef on a bit of a whim. Neither of us knew much about it going in, but it had an 80% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the promise of sharks terrorizing vacationers seemed like good summer fun, so we gave it a whirl.

I don’t know if the critics who gave The Reef positive reviews were drinking too much Foster’s or what, but it’s not a good movie. The characters are paper-thin with virtually indistinguishable personalities, there’s little in the way of theme or social commentary or anything else a movie might “say,” and most egregiously of all, it’s boooooring. The opening credits claim that The Reef is “based on a true story,” but would it have killed them to jazz it up a little?

Besides shoddy writing in general, much of that boredom is derived from the way writer/director Andrew Traucki attempts to tease the shark action much in the same way that Jaws famously offered only scant glimpses of its iconic great white, but the payoff in The Reef simply isn’t worth it. The sharks themselves, despite apparently coming from real footage, don’t look particularly impressive, nor are the kills scary or exciting. Granted, part of the issue is that while Jaws gave audiences its first iconic shark attack in its masterfully constructed first scene, The Reef doesn’t even give us a glimpse of any threatening sea creatures until more than halfway through the film. By that point, as Avery put it, we were “fully rooting for the shark.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: If you thought catching yet another Sea Bass was annoying in Animal Crossing, just wait until the appearance of one forms the backbone of The Reef‘s first and only memorable jump scare! —AJK]

It goes without saying that Steven Spielberg‘s original 1975 blockbuster set an impossible standard for future shark movies to live up to. But one of the many reasons Jaws has stood the test of time is because for as much as it takes its time to build tension, the release of said tension is spectacular. Jaws‘ animatronic shark known affectionately as “Bruce” may have given the film a notoriously troubled production, forcing Spielberg and company to get less shark footage as hoped (although most audiences would probably agree that was a blessing in disguise), but I defy anyone to watch Jaws and not be terrified by the creature’s onscreen reveal. Spielberg himself might disagree with me, but what little we see of the shark – Jaws’ proverbial “monster” – works.

But again, Jaws is more often held up as an effective example of “don’t show the monster,” so let’s talk about a different horror classic that fully commits to “showing the monster:” John Carpenter‘s The Thing from 1982.

In the 2019 documentary In Search of Darkness, a 4-hour year-by-year documentary about 1980’s horror cinema (there’s even a sequel if the first one isn’t exhaustive enough for you), Carpenter explained why “showing the monster” was a unique creative challenge. The Thing cost $15 million, which would be a big budget for a horror film even by today’s standards before you adjust for inflation (by contrast, Jordan Peele‘s Get Out is one of the best horror films of the 21st century, and it’s not cheap-looking, but it only cost $4.5 million in 2017 money). Carpenter invested a great deal of that money into some of the most impressively grotesque special effects the genre has ever seen, explaining that if he was going to “show the monster,” the monster better be scarier than anything you can possibly imagine.

It’s a lofty creative challenge, but it’s met by special effects makeup legend Rob Bottin and his team. I have a pretty active imagination, plus I have anxiety, which basically means I’m so good at imagining scary things that I literally have a mental disorder for which I take prescription medications every day to prevent me from scaring myself to death. And I’m telling you that even I couldn’t imagine anything as terrifying as the surgery scene from The Thing.

Obviously, Bottin, Carpenter, and Spielberg are wildly creative, but for all their imagination they couldn’t have Shown The Monster as effectively as they did in The Thing or Jaws without a few millions to go around (Jaws‘ $9 million budget was also quite large for 1975). And that brings us, as this column so often does, to comics. Because as long as you have the budget to pay an artist, the only limit to the horrifying imagery you can find in a comic is the creators’ imaginations.

I don’t know about you, but when I think “scary comics,” I think about some of the horrifying imagery drawn by artists like Stephen R. Bissette, John Totleben, Alfredo Alcala, and Rick Veitch throughout the 1980’s Saga of the Swamp Thing run written by a young Alan Moore. That book isn’t scary all the time; sometimes it reads more like a sci-fi comic, a superhero comic, or even a romance comic. But man, when that team wanted it to be a horror comic, they deliver some of the most chilling stuff you’ll ever read. And that’s largely because they aren’t shy about Showing the Monster head on. It’s not a particularly gory comic, but the surreal grotesquery of the creatures Swamp Thing comes into contact with, combined with Moore’s haunting prose, means you’re risking a few nightmares throughout your reading of Saga of the Swamp Thing.

A page from Swamp Thing #48. Words by Alan Moore, pencils and inks by Totleben, colors by Tatjana Wood, letters by John Costanza.

Take Swamp Thing #48 for example. The sequence in which an apocalyptic cult transforms a woman into a bird as part of their unholy ritual may be the single scariest moment I’ve ever read in a comic. The imagery is unflinchingly disturbing, but there’s also something about the way the comics medium relies on the liminal space between panels that allows readers to subconsciously fill in the gaps with even more frightening ideas. That wouldn’t be possible, though, if artist Totleben and company weren’t willing to push the boundaries of putting downright upsetting imagery right on the page.

None of this is to say that “don’t show the monster” isn’t still good advice for horror storytellers to follow. After all, part of the reason why horror is such a viable genre for filmmakers with limited budgets is because of all the potential for scaring the pants out of an audience with a subtle, clever teases. Besides, the rich history of prose horror technically doesn’t “show” anything, even as horror writers from Edgar Allen Poe to Shirley Jackson to Stephen King make use of chillingly vivid descriptions.

But like just about any conventional wisdom about writing and storytelling, the “rule” that you Don’t Show the Monster is meant to be broken.

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