If you’re a writer, you could learn a thing or two from the Doctor Who creators about how to create effective monsters/villains. And if you're a reader or a fan, you might enjoy understanding exactly why your skin crawls when you see certain Doctor Who monsters.
I became a Doctor Who fan in 2013, when I discovered the new BBC series, starring Chris Eccleston, then David Tennant, Matt Smith, and now Peter Capaldi. At first, the monsters/villains did not creep me out one bit. The Daleks, in their knobby metal cylinders, were almost cute. The Slitheen were simply weird. Even the cybermen, despite the fear factor inherent in their “upgrading” of humanity, were not visually frightening to me.
(Okay, the gas mask “Are you my mummy?” freaks did scare me in the first season. But they’re not recurring villains, and, as it turns out, they’re not even villains at all.)
Once we got into the later seasons, I met some monsters that scared the wits out of me.
#3: The Vashta Nerada
Count the shadows. If you discover that you have two shadows, beware. You are about to encounter a Vashta Nerada—for the first and last time.
We first encounter the Vashta Nerada in Season 4 (2008), Episode 9, “Silence in the Library” in an adventure which is continued in the following episode entitled “Forest of the Dead.” In addition to a fascinating plotline and the important first appearance of spunky curly-haired River Song, the episode includes our introduction to the Vashta Nerada, a race that literally hides in the shadows.
Your only clue that the Vashta Nerada are near is the presence of one more shadow than the present company allows for. However, once one of the shadowy monsters overtakes you and destroys you, your dwindling consciousness continues to repeat your last few thoughts, usually something along the lines of “Hey! Who turned out the lights?” Your animated skeleton then proceeds to follow the living around, repeating those ominous last words, as the Vashta Nerada hunts the survivors. You’d think that the scene would be a little humorous, but for some reason, it’s not. At least, it wasn’t to me.
So why do the Vashta Nerada scare us when other monsters do not? I think it is because we can overcome our horror of physical horror much quicker than we can dispense with the horror of something which is given no visual physicality at all. In short, we fear what we can’t see.
For example, when I watched the alien flick Signs, starring Mel Gibson, the alien was creepy up until the time when it is revealed to be another bug-eyed, big-headed, long-limbed gray man. At that point, my reaction was: “Oh. Another standard alien.” In a culture awash with many images, the physical appearance of some monsters just don’t excite fear in us anymore.
When a monster’s horror is left to our imagination, we often supply it with all the terrifying quality of our worst nightmares, making it more scary than it would have been, had the creators of the monster tried to give it a face.
#2: The Silence
These monsters first appear in Season 6 (2011), and are present for the entire season. They are definitely deformed and horrifying in appearance: skeletal creatures with large, bony heads, sunken eyes, and no mouths at all. But I could definitely get past their appearance, as I did with the Ood, if it weren’t for what the Silence do to people. Although the Silence are not physically powerful and rarely resort to violence, they are difficult to fight because you forget about them as soon as you look away from them. Despite the fact that the world is full of Silence, you cannot remember any encounters with them, and therefore, you don’t know of their existence.
One of the creepiest episodes in the season is introduced by the appearance of the main characters (the Doctor, Rory, and Amy), their skin covered in black tally marks. Soon we learn that they mark themselves each time they see a Silent, in order to bring to memory what they would otherwise forget. The sheer number of tally marks on their arms and legs and face and hands is terrifying. Just how many Silence are there, why do they keep encountering them, and how do they fight an enemy they can’t remember?
The question above is the reason why the Silence are so scary. Their physical deformities may be dismissible, but their effect upon their viewers is panic-inducing. The unanswerable questions that surround them imbue their characters with as much horror as the unseeable villains. True, they are visible, but they are not knowable, and the unknowable enemy retains psychological power over his foe.
#1: The Weeping Angels
The weeping angels first appear in Season 3, Episode 10, entitled “Blink,” and continue to appear in later seasons. At first glance, they seem harmless, though stone angels in cemeteries or the overgrown gardens of vacant Victorian mansions are already a little creepy due to their environment. After all, death and abandonment are two universal fears. However, the angels become even creepier when their true nature is known.
Imagine that you are standing in just such a cemetery or garden, and you notice a weeping angel, its stone hands covering its face. You continue doing what you are doing, but when you next look up, the angel is closer. Did it move? Perhaps you inadvertently wandered nearer. After looking away for a moment, you find that the angel is definitely nearer, and you’re starting to doubt yourself. Why would a stone angel chase you? Nearby, you notice a strange message painted on a wall: Don’t blink. Blink, and you’re dead.
The reality is, if you blink, and the angel catches you, you’re not technically dead. You’re just displaced in time, because the Weeping Angels feed off of such time displacement. They are the ultimate predator, because whenever anyone looks at them (even when they look at each other), they turn to stone. Since you can’t kill stone, they are safe. And you, so long as you don’t blink, remain safe as well. But the moment you close your eyes, even for a second…
Even though the weeping angels don’t outright kill you, they are freaky simply because they pit your human weakness against their own strength. Humans have to blink. We blink even when we’re not aware of it. Even a Timelord has to blink sometime. So how can we fight creatures that move lightning fast and can’t be killed, who wield the power to send us years into the past with no way to return home, and who render all our knowledge and physical strength useless because of an instinct we can’t stop ourselves from exhibiting?
Worse, it’s a battle in which each human is inevitably alone. Sure, your friend can keep an eye on the angels while you blink, and you can do likewise for him, but what if the lights go out? What if you both accidentally blink at the same time? What if you get tired of staring and begin to fall asleep? It is the solitude of the battle that makes the angels so creepy.
So why do they creep us out so much?
The short answer: Because they are unseen, they are unknowable, and they isolate you, or pit your own instincts against you. So when you create a new villain, don’t just go for the cliché snake eyes and spear-tipped tail and hissing voice. Look for something that touches at the core of a deeply-rooted human fear.