We’ve seen a lot of strange and frightening content through the history of gaming. As we all know, monsters can take quite a few shapes and forms. They can also deal with very specific fears and feelings. The hardest thing for a list like this is the fact that fear is subjective. There are personal fears. Even the universal fears like the loss of identity, control, or family can have very personal expressions. This means that some monsters might not resonate the same way with other people.
Now that we’ve gotten the personal aspect out of the way, there is also a ton of material to draw from. Aside from the traditional examples like zombies, ghosts, vampires or creatures out of real-world mythology and folklore, there are creatures and monsters specific to individual games as well. Now, let’s dive into the monsters that scare us all year round!
The Wendigo – Until Dawn
In Until Dawn, one of the truest antagonists comes from Cree folklore. The wendigo, even if it hadn’t been used for this game, is terrifying to begin with. The basic idea of how a Wendigo came about is simple. Those who harmed the land or the creatures on it in Cree land would become cursed with misfortune. If that misfortune led to cannibalism for the sake of survival, the curse would take a darker turn, mutating their physical form, twisting their mind, and giving an insatiable taste for human flesh. There are various historic instances where this came from, and the mountain that the game is set on is based around one of the instances.
In the game itself, the Wendigo that spends the most time directly haunting the group is tied to the tragic prank-gone-wrong that acts as the prologue. Hannah flees the cabin after a mean-spirited prank and Beth chases after her. The Makkapitew, one of the most powerful Wendigo, starts hunting them. While the Stranger able to kill the hunting Wendigo, it’s too late to save the girls from falling off the cliff. Beth died, but Hannah survived with a broken leg. After enough time, she eats Beth’s corpse succumbing to the Wendigo, slowly losing her mind, identity, and human form.
Pyramidhead – Silent Hill 2
There are a lot of reasons this one is scary. It’s relentless and constantly watching. Until you’ve played Silent Hill 2 quite a few times, the times that he would show up were at least unsettling, even if he was just standing there. Watching and waiting. He’d also relentless pursue you and repeatedly killed Maria. Even just the intro scene to the monster was all kinds of weird, with Pyramidhead essentially raping two other monsters.
The creature was manifestation of James’s guilt and his desire for punishment. Coupled with that, the modeled executioner’s helmet with a bloody, grimy slaughterhouse apron is an iconic picture of things to come.
Mr. X – Resident Evil 2
While talking Mr. X or Nemesis, it’s a close fight for which is more frightening. They’re both relentless. They’re brutal. Walls aren’t necessarily major obstacles for either. However, there’s one thing that makes Mr. X comes out ahead in scare factor. It just looks more human than Nemesis does, which increases the uncanny valley aspect and creep factor, especially in the Resident Evil 2 remake.
Aside from the uncanny valley aspect, this is a mixture of the creep factor of Frankenstein’s monster and the unbridled corporate greed that breed sci-fi creations like Skynet. One thing that also helped create the creep factor for Mr. X was the clothing. The trench coat and fedora made the monster look like a film noir mafia hitman.
Scissorman – Clock Tower Series
This demonic serial killer is in part inspired by the demonic serial killer from the horror film The Burning. Just change the garden shears to giant scissors. His relentless pursuit and almost child-like glee before killing is terrifying. However, there are two other major issues that increase the scare factor.
The first is the fact that even though you can defeat the Scissorman, there are multiple Scissorman killers in the series surrounding a demon and a cult, there is no way to truly end the wrath of the Scissorman. It’s not unlike the curse of the Wendigo that Hannah suffers in Until Dawn or the body-jumping Azazel from Fallen or the supernatural entity haunting Jay in It Follows. The second is the fact that while you can circumvent the entire story by just getting in the car and leaving, that actually leads to the worst ending that matches urban legend. After all, someone, specifically the killer, is hiding in the back seat.
The Flood – Halo Franchise
As a corrupted alien dust, there are a lot of different things that make this terrifying. One is the fact that it isn’t limited by size or shape. If it can be infected, it will be infected. Much like the Brethren Moon from Dead Space, the growth of infected biomass does end up causing a critical mass that creates a Gravemind, which makes the Flood more dangerous than it already was. Much like zombies, the infection rate is something that is exponential if not checked immediately. And like the Borg, they are a hivemind that also acquires the memories and knowledge of those it infects. Coupled with that, once the Flood have reached such a point that a Gravemind can be created, it can even hack and subvert technology, including AI. It’s insatiable and knows no bounds.
Reapers – Mass Effect Trilogy
These weird alien techno-horrors are scary on a couple of ways. Through the indoctrination theory, they’re able to drive people into working toward Reaper interest before they’ve even been converted or physically changed. They come in every couple of millennia to either wipe out or indoctrinate any sufficiently advanced species.
Over the trilogy, there are some notable indoctrination victims including Saren and the Elusive Man. The Protheans that weren’t either preserved by their technology or killed by the Reapers were changed into the Collectors. Aside from that, one of the scariest bosses tied to the Reapers was actually the Human-Reaper crossbuild that you end up fighting at the end of Mass Effect 2.
Crawler – Dead Space Trilogy
This one showed there really wasn’t anything sacred in the Dead Space series. Corrupting the shape of an infant, it was incredibly manipulative. The general instinct of animal life, including humanity, is to try to take care of the young and vulnerable. It cried. It crawled, albeit it more like a caterpillar than a human baby, but still. It made you feel bad for it as though it were an abandoned child, until you got close enough. Then it would fulfill its purpose by exploding, which only increased the biomass and infectable dead flesh that would lead to bigger monsters and, eventually, the Brethren Moons. All you could say with this piece of body horror was “that’s all kinds of wrong.”
Xenomorph – Alien Isolation
The Xenomorph holds a great deal of weight, both in film since 1979 and in video games. Alien: Isolation did something incredible with the way that it built up the story and the eventual emergence of the Xenomorph though. Much like in the original Alien, you never really knew when it would be revealed. And when it was revealed, it was a huge shock. So, why exactly is it scary, aside from the expertly craft A.I. in Alien: Isolation?
Well, there’s aspects of the Lovecraftian uncanny. There are aspects of it that are familiar, but also the form itself is a corruption everything that we know of as life. There’s a weird mixture of the biological and mechanical. There’s the corruption of the life cycle, as impregnation is forced (rape) and carrying the xenomorph to term results in the host’s death. It doesn’t need air to survive. The acid blood puts pressurized and oxygen-dependent areas at risk. It’s also agile and flexible enough to be able to fit in/through things like vents, which can lead to attacks that might come from any direction. Need I go further into detail?
Werewolf – Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines
Yeah. We’ve seen the World of Darkness pop up in a lot in the recent months, but let’s face it. This enemy is awesome and terrifying. Part of the reason is the fact that even the weakest lupine in VtM is stronger than most Vampires. Regardless of how well-spec’d you are in the game, this beast when it comes on the scene can kill you in a hit or two. If you don’t run, you’re dead. You can’t even kill the werewolf after you without crushing it in the Griffith Park Observatory’s doors. Canonically, Nines Rodriguez, a Brujah leader, has killed a werewolf. It’s rumored that he tore a werewolf’s head off, but it’s more likely that he used a lucky grenade to blow a werewolf’s head off. You are nowhere as experienced or as well-equipped as Nines.
Amygdala – Bloodborne
There are two versions of the Amygdala, but generally these creatures are frightening for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that they only be visible at a certain level of insight. Meaning, they were always there working behind the scenes. You just didn’t know it until you acquired enough forbidden knowledge. While the form is different, this kind of mechanic is straight out of the Cthulhu Mythos and could be attributed to any number of Great Old Ones.
The other reason they’re frightening is just their general form. Aside from being gigantic and malformed, their heads have a rather familiar shape if you’re familiar with the different regions of the brain. Namely, its head is shaped like the region of the brain that it is named after. And if you know anything about the way the brain works, the amygdala is the portion of the brain in charge of memory, decision-making, and emotional responses, including the fear response. Meaning, yes. Some of the biggest monsters that are invisible until you’ve gained enough insight are modeled after the portion of your brain that dictates your fear response.