I’m not sure where spoilers begin and end here, so a general warning: I’m discussing various monsters and what they do. Generally, these aren’t spoilers as the premise is often in trailers but to be on the safe side if you would rather watch A Quiet Place or Bird Box or almost any episode of Doctor Who written by Steven Moffat without any foreknowledge of what the monsters are like, then don’t go past the fold.
Bird Box is a scary movie on Netflix with Sandra Bullock and high powered cast (John Malkovich, Jackie Weaver). The promo-pictures and trailers hint at the basic premise: monsters that you cannot look at. Fans of Doctor Who will already be familiar with the Weeping Angels — monsters that you HAVE to look at to stay safe — and fans of apocalyptic movies will probably be thinking about this years A Quiet Place, which featured monsters that you had to be as quiet as possible to avoid.
I loved both Bird Box and A Quiet Place, partly because I’ve always loved Day of the Triffids. John Wyndham’s book and the differently plotted 1962 film of the same name, is a foundational text for the monster apocalypse and survival afterwards. It is arguably second only to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in scoping out the idea-space that has proven to be so fruitful for zombie films and other survival genres. I say Triffids is second to Legend mainly because Legend’s monsters and the variants on them in film versions have a clearer connection to stories which feature pandemics and/or re-adapted supernatural monsters (zombies most obviously, although Legend uses vampires).
Triffids has had its own multiple adaptations but the triffids themselves haven’t spread outwards in quite the same way as Richard Neville’s infected neighbours. The film 28 Days Later and the pilot episode of The Walking Dead both open with the central character discovering the apocalypse from their hospital room, in a direct call back to Triffids but the monsters (rage virus victims and virally reanimated dead) are more clearly descendants of Legend via Night of the Living Dead. However, what Triffids also brought to the genre party is the concept that other unafflicted survivors may be the greater danger to the protagonist survivors.
The triffids are also a bit less than what I’d call a concept monster (particularly in the book) but they clearly are co-stars. In the original Night of the Living Dead the reanimated dead are co-stars but the zombies in the zombie apocalypse since (or zombie vampires in Justin Cronin’s The Passage or in the SyFy series Van Helsing) are more of a supporting cast than co-stars.
By concept monster I mean a monster that has at least one easily communicated high level idea to them that directly impedes your survival by how you can (or rather shouldn’t) interact with them. While the triffids have lots of neat ideas, the basic idea (walking plants that can fatally sting you with a whip like appendage) isn’t that scary. The book has the murderous plants safely contained prior to a separate apocalyptic event (a meteor shower that possibly triggers satellite weapons, rendering most people blind). What the book does do is tie two things together for an apocalypse: a loss of a sense and predatory/uncanny monster.
The concept monster ties these things together into a more convenient package. The effect is like a children’s playground game: there is a simple rule and if you break it you get got. Doctor Who‘s Weeping Angels (who in the first iteration, you have to constantly watch to stay safe) and the Vashta Nerada (predatory shadows that you can avoid by avoiding shadows) are the clearest examples. Later Moffat creations like The Silence are similar but don’t quite fit the model — they have a core concept (you forget them) there isn’t a simple rule to keep you safe from them. Less obviously, I’d put the ‘grabbers’ from the film Tremors into the category of concept monster given that they are effectively “don’t put your feet on the ground or else” monsters and can easily translate into a game.
Of the classic monsters, vampires sit closest to the model of concept monster — you should be safe in the daylight (mileage may vary depending on the type of vampire) whereas zombies don’t (again lots of rules around zombies but mainly on how to kill them). For the triffids the closest aspect is quiet. The triffids are attracted to noise, as the survivors learn when they keep finding themselves surrounded by them. In the 1962 film, Howard Keel distracts triffids with an ice-cream van. Attracted by noise is a trait shared by many film zombies also, making nailing your windows shut potentially self-defeating.
In A Quiet Place, alien monsters with hyper-sensitive hearing and extraordinary speed have destroyed human civilisation. We don’t see the apocalypse but meet a family of survivors trying to cope in a world where any noise means death. The details of the premise pervade the movie. A children’s toy becomes an object of horrific tension, as we know any minute the youngest child of the family might flick a switch and activate the sound effects bringing sightless but certain death. That the monsters also can’t see is necessary to the premise: it’s not just that they can find you by sound but that they cannot find you by sight (or presumably smell). The concept of the concept monster is not diminished by limitations on the monster but enhanced. If the family could be seen as well as heard, they couldn’t survive at all but they also couldn’t take the risks they do to survive.
In Bird Box, the monsters are more complex and inexplicable. Told in two time-frames, the need for blindfolds is shown first as Sandra Bullock and the two children in her care set off on a desperate trip down a river. The river scenes are interspersed with scenes years earlier when humanity first encounters the monsters. The first signs are a wave of inexplicable suicides in Eastern Europe, which then start to manifest in the USA.
We never see the monsters except as shadows, or a disturbance of leaves or as a set of inconsistent drawings. It is the mere sight of the creatures which is fatal to most. One look and a person is overwhelmed with a desire to murder themselves. Inside is safe. Blindfolded is safe. As the film progresses more rules and elements are added (mentally ill people can look at the monsters but become their slaves rather than killing themselves) but the key concept is a thing that can’t be looked at. It’s a mythic injunction that evokes Orpheus unable to resist looking back at Eurydice or Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt.
The monsters have been called Lovecraftian because they are incomprehensible and induce madness. They carry with them echoes of horror injunctions: words that must not be spoken, names that can’t be said, books that mustn’t be read. However, aside from these in many ways the unseeable dreads are just triffids and the survivors have to cope in the same way as the survivors in Day of the Triffids.
Triffids, A Quiet Place and Bird Box also intersect with the representation of disability. Triffids does this poorly, treating any kind of blindness as an inevitable death sentence as the triffids track you down, sting you and then more mundanely have to hang around while you decompose. Blindless serves to level the playing field between humanity and the Triffids. Once most people lose their sight the Triffids can take over. Humanity is the Triffid’s concept monster.
At the end of Bird Box we discover that the sanctuary the protagonist is traveling to is a school for blind people. Why this school is secluded in a forest at the end of a river goes unexplained. It feels like it may have wandered in from a different century where people with disabilities have been sequestered away. Even so, the premise is that in a world where looking is dangerous, anybody with long experience without living without sight has a clear advantage. It’s notable that is presented as a twist — an ‘oh gosh but of course’ after the climax of the film.
A Quiet Place manages this intersection better. A key character is deaf and is played by a deaf actress (Millicent Simmonds). That the family know sign language because one of them is deaf is what has helped them survive. The advantage is simply one of experience — not being able to hear does not protect you from the monsters (it’s arguably a disadvantage as you can’t tell how noisy you are) but it allows you to arrange your life more quickly to the changed circumstance.
Bird Box also wanders clumsily into mental illness. The exact rules are not explained but we come to learn that not everybody kills themselves when they see the monsters. People with mental illness (what kind or to what extent goes unsaid – it’s just a generic ‘already crazy’ kind of idea) are still affected by the sight of the creatures but instead of killing themselves they become evangelists for the creatures. This is primarily a plot device so that characters can interact with opponents that can invade houses or play the role of the stranger-who-might-be-infected from zombie/pandemic stories.
On the whole, it is for the best that Bird Box doesn’t try to explain what its concept of madness is. There isn’t a way that it would end up with a nuanced or sympathetic view of mental illness that also has the mentally ill acting like the happy servants of demonic murder monsters. A more interesting take would have been that the survivors had survived because of their mental health issues — i.e. less than great mental health was at least partial immunity to the monsters (or perhaps anti-psychotic medication provided some protection, requiring survivors to mount desperate raids on pharmacies).
Where next for concept monsters? Touch, sight and hearing remain a rich territory. Smell probably would only work for comedy (unless its a post-apocalyptic film for dogs). Horror premises can be quite specific (e.g. don’t ever watch this specific video in Ring) but a proper concept monster should involve something that should make life difficult in general (such as the horror trope of avoiding haunted reflections).
In the meantime, I’ll continue watching them. Part of what fuels the zombie genre into so many forms is each film provokes in the viewer the question of how they would survive. Concept monsters do the same but take it beyond the kind of doomsday prepper answers that zombie films provoke. I’d spent Bird Box wondering if short-sighted people would be immune so long as the monsters were far enough away (I’m long-sighted, so I’d only be safe if they were within reading distance). In the meantime, I’ll start work on a film script where the monster gets you if you finish writing a paragraph without spelling errors.