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.