Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Unknown vs Fear

One of the interesting points we discussed in class was the role of the unknown in making monsters terrifying. It seemed to be something of a consensus that the element of unknown in a monster was what made it more terrifying, and that the more known it became the less compelling it would be. I would like to push back against this theory. I think it is precisely knowing more about the monsters that makes them terrifying, although as with all things after a point too much knowledge makes them less compelling.

A monster that you literally know nothing about cannot be scary. For instance, consider the case of Shelob before we actually begin to encounter her. If Gollum were to have said to the hobbits, “there is something that lives in the tunnel,” and only that, it might be something of an ominous warning. However, if that is the extent of our knowledge of Shelob, she is not a particularly compelling monster. It takes further information about the nature of Shelob, shedding aside more of the unknown, to make her frightening. If Gollum instead said, “there is a giant man-eating spider that lives in the tunnel, one of the descendants of Ungoliant (who destroyed the Trees of Valinor and was too powerful for even Melkor to contend with), and if you enter the tunnel you will probably be caught in a web, stabbed with her venomous stinger, rolled up in silk, and have the juices sucked out of you,” well that becomes a pretty terrifying monster indeed. In fact, learning more about her is precisely what makes her compelling. The more known she becomes, the more frightening.

This can be applied to any number of monsters in addition to Shelob. Without knowledge of what the Nazgul are, the hobbits (and thus the reader) do not know any more than that they are creepy guys on horses who don’t show their faces and are trying to track down Frodo. It’s only after discovering their true nature (that they were once kings of men corrupted by the rings Sauron gave them and now are wraiths, neither living nor dead, bound to his will, and they carry weapons that have the ability to turn people into wraiths like themselves which makes it impossible to oppose Sauron’s will) that we fully come to understand their power and truly begin to fear them. This is well highlighted when, in the film adaptation (I know, I know, I’m sorry, he doesn’t say it this straightforwardly in the books), Aragorn says to Frodo at the Prancing Pony that he is “not nearly frightened enough, I know what hunts you.” Taking the Nazgul out of the unknown and finding out what they really are is what takes them from the creepy guys on horses that we experience in the beginning and makes them into the force of terror that we see throughout the rest of the book.

Of course, this is not to say that total and complete knowledge of everything to do with a monster is what would make it the most compelling. There comes a point in which becoming more known makes the monster less frightening. This happens when you transition from learning about the nature of the monster and its power to learning about its weaknesses. Going back to the case of Shelob, were Gollum to discuss the existence of an enormous man-eating spider in the tunnel, that would make her scarier than simply saying, “There is something in the tunnel”. However, if Gollum were to say, “Go into the tunnel, and Shelob will be lurking in the third passage on the left. Pull out the Phial of Galadriel and this will blind her. When she charges you with her stinger, take two quick steps to the right, drop and roll three feet, and stab up with the sword and you’ll be able to dispatch her easily,” then obviously that would make her less compelling of a monster because we are presented with an exact blueprint of how to defeat her. This renders her effectively harmless, because she is no longer a large scary monster, but is simply a predictable entity that we know exactly how to defeat.

Ultimately, I do think that the unknown is an effective tool in introducing a monster. Setting up the monster at first without us knowing exactly what it is can add to an air of mysteriousness and pure terror about it. However, leaving it at that, without us ever finding out anything more about the nature of it, we cannot ever know whether it is simply creepy or if it is something that should inspire true fear. An example of this is setting up Shelob. Starting totally unknown and working towards becoming known effectively sets up Shelob’s introduction. The hobbits start by encountering a stench and hearing a gurgling hiss, and after pulling out the Phial they see the clusters of many eyes. This is a very scary intro, however if that were the extent of it, Shelob would not be nearly as scary as she is. It takes finding out fully that Shelob is an enormous spider that is trying to eat them in order for her to become a compelling monster. Bringing her from the unknown into the known is what establishes her place as something to fear.



  1. Interesting that there seems to exist a certain amount of knowledge at which fear of a monster is maximized. This maximization calls to mind, at least for me, the psychological phenomenon called the "uncanny valley." When shown digital renderings of monsters, people do not experience much fear. However, as the series of pictures progresses, humanoid features are progressively added. The participants become increasingly disturbed until their reports of fear reach a maximum, from where creepiness declines as the pictures become more and more human.

    I like your explanation better than the four possible explanations presented on Wednesday for the fear of dragons (1. social feuds/tyranny symbols, 2. natural disasters, 3. vices/passions, or 4. ancient predators). Dragons have superhuman mental qualities evocative of the serpent in Eden. They operate with complex motives and strategies often beyond our understanding, with an ability to manipulate mentally -- in class we mentioned in particular Glaurong, the Deceiver. Yet, at the same time, human qualities keep the dragon grounded deep in the uncanny valley. Simple avarice, speech, and the experience of deep, vulnerable sleep are primal features that dragons share with humans. Would this make dragons slightly less unknown so as to be more fear-inspiring to us? And how deep into the uncanny valley might the cases of orcs, Ring Wraiths, goblins, Gollum, or even Grendel--all corrupted humans--be seated?

    Wikipedia has an interesting visual plot of the uncanny valley:

    (blog comment #3)

  2. I agree, too little information about a monster leaves us unsure about how scared to be, but a good deal of the horror in monster movies hinges on the opening scenes in which the monster is not fully seen, only hinted at. Our imaginations are very good at conjuring monsters out of (almost) nothing (the evolutionary option being, "Overestimate and live vs. underestimate and die"). So I am not sure where to draw the line. RLFB

  3. I think what you're showing is that fear in Tolkien is essentially derivative: Morgoth is the ultimate source of fear. Through some chain of linkages, our fear of any monster is ultimately derived from this ultimate underlying terror and darkness. What makes a monster scary is understanding this chain of linkages, i.e., knowing its context. "Creepy guys on horses who don’t show their faces" isn't so unnerving, I agree. But what you call their "true nature" is actually their mythical/historical *context* -- once we understand that they are servants of Sauron, servant of Morgoth, we see them as extensions of the will of Morgoth; we fear that if we encounter them, then the shadow of his thought will lie upon us, to our doom. Even dragons -- though they have their own allegiances, wills, and purposes now -- were originally creations of Morgoth. Perhaps we fear that by coming into contact with such monsters, we ourselves will become stained by the evil creations of Morgoth, that indeed we might be pierced with a Nazgul-blade and turned into servants of evil? I'm afraid I've travelled a ways from your ideas, but in a sense this implies that "fear of evil" is fear of losing our own autonomy and individuality, and becoming one of the masses of unthinking, obedient propagators of Morgoth's malevolent will.

  4. It seems to me that one of the greatest powers of written works is their ability to play on our imagination. It of course would depend on the person, but it seems to me at least that our imaginations can come up with things much more terrible and frightening than detailed descriptions can. The unknown is horrifying because our imagination play upon our own personal fears and experiences, shaping a monster that terrifies us on a much more personal level. Each detail the author give making the monster less unknown must be thought about in great detail because there is certainly a fine line between promoting a greater sense of imaginable horror in the reader and squashing that imagination with specific details which in no way can be more terrible than that which the reader’ mind can come up with themselves. This personal relationship each reader forms with the monster is a unique experience that the author should not be getting in the way of, but rather promoting and driving. I really like the image of the uncanny valley in attempting to demonstrate the maximal amount of knowledge needed for the maximum amount of fear. I really do think that the unknown is a very crucial part of the equation that cannot be dismissed. It is part of human nature to be afraid of the dark and things that we cannot fully see or understand, and the unknown nature of monsters plays upon this to create a truly terrifying experience.

  5. I agree with John in his argument that, "The unknown is horrifying because our imagination play upon our own personal fears and experiences, shaping a monster that terrifies us on a much more personal level." I don't necessarily think that having details about a monster's appearance, lineage, and power would have made them more frightening. Whereas having any sort of idea of the danger you are facing gives you time to prepare mentally and physically for the ordeal of facing a monster, having a "vague" idea of what a monster is allows us to project our worst fears onto them. I'm reminded of the idea of Dementors in Harry Potter: a monster that takes the shape of the worst fear of whoever it encounters. This seems much more terrifying to me than a monster that I have more information about because my life experiences are involved in perpetuating the fear. We aren't always in touch with what we fear the most, and the idea that something sinister and unknown is waiting around the corner, ready to exploit our deepest subconscious fears is infinitely more terrifying to me than, for example, running across a monster that I have time to consider how to fight.