Are there any proven strategies in horror/scary/fierce creature design that character or movie designers reference?
Since you want proven strategies I'll not expose my own ideas on the topic, instead I'll present my interpretation of other's.
Also, I'm trying to help you to create horror by means of a monster, not a monster that causes horror.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is
fear of the unknown.
-- H.P Lovecraft
First off, horror will only be scary to the reader if you can archive suspension of disbelief. And in order to do so, you need to have internal self consistency - do not contradict yourself. And base your work on the knowledge and expectations of the audience. That is general narrative advice for all media and all genres.
You also want immersion. This will require to balance the pase of the narration and the presentation of details that evoke the imagination. The details of how to do this are beyond worldbuilding.
You also want relateable characters... again beyond worldbuilding.
Finally you want suspense. Understood as the tension between the current state of the narration - at the point on which the audience is at - and the upcoming inevitable unknown that lurks beyond.
You need a "monster".
Building a Monster
To create a monster for your setting, you first need to have an appreciation of what makes a monster a monster (and not an animal, or a mythical creature).
Any suggestion that characteristic X is more scary that characteristic Y missed the point. If we were able to create a tangible measure of how scary a monster is, all horror authors would try to use it to create more scary monsters... and thus all the characteristics of the monsters converge, but paradoxically that makes those monsters more common and well known, predictable, and thus less scary. Maybe that happened to zombies?
So, instead you need to know the full range of what a monster could be.
In the book The Philosophy of Horror Noel Carroll says (transcription);
that “I as-audience-member” am in an analogous emotional state to that
which fictional characters beset by monsters are described to be in,
then: I am currently art-horrified by some monster X, say Dracula,
if and only if 1) I am in some state of abnormal, physically felt
agitation (shuddering, tingling, screaming, etc.) which 2) has been
caused by a) the thought: that Dracula is a possible being; and by
the evaluative thoughts: that b) said Dracula has the property of
being physically (and perhaps morally and socially) threatening in the
ways portrayed in the fiction and that c) said Dracula has the
property of being impure, where 3) such thoughts are usually
accompanied by the desire to avoid the touch of things like Dracula.
Of course, “Dracula,” here, is merely a heuristic device. Any old monster
X can be plugged into the formula.
So, you want to have:
- The monster is a possible being. I would add that is better done if the the monster most exist in a believable setting and if its existence
cannot be disproved is not evidently fake.
- The monster is threatening.
- The monster is impure.
In the ulterior text are some clarification about impurity:
impurity clause in the definition is postulated as a result of noting the
regularity with which literary descriptions of the experiences of horror
undergone by fictional characters include reference to disgust, repugnance,
nausea, physical loathing, shuddering, revulsion, abhorrence, abomination,
and so on.
In her classic study
Purity and Danger,
Mary Douglas correlates reactions
of impurity with the transgression or violation of schemes of cultural
In her interpretation of the abominations of
example, she hypothesizes that the reason crawling things from the sea, like
lobsters, are regarded as impure is that crawling was a defining feature of
earthbound creatures, not of creatures of the sea. A lobster, in other words, is
a kind of category mistake and, hence, impure.
So basically, you want things that has properties that are not fit for their nature - as understood up to the point in which the unexpected is presented.
As discussed in an earlier section concerning the definition of horror,
many cases of impurity are generated by what, adapting Mary Douglas, I
called interstitiality and categorical contradictoriness. Impurity involves a
conflict between two or more standing cultural categories. Thus, it should
come as no surprise that many of the most basic structures for representing
horrific creatures are combinatoric in nature.
In the book, Noel Carroll goes on explaining various kinds of impurity - the followings are my interpretations:
Fusion: beings with two contradictory natures, both at once. Examples: creatures both living and dead, both flesh and machine, etc...
Fission: beings with a nature that is none nor the other, although they appear to be both.
- Temporal fission: beings that have a transformation, yet they may appear one thing or the other, they are never truly the thing the appear to be. Instead their nature is neither of those.
- Spatial fission: beings that have more than one presences the same time - they appear as various entities but they are one single monster.
Magnification: naturally threatening or disgusting creatures made bigger.
Massification: naturally threatening or disgusting creatures - en masse.
Horrific Metonymy: beings with no external - evident - monstrous features. It is said that they may appear charming and pose as normal - even if ever so slightly eccentric or off (uncanny valley). Their monstrous nature is intangible, their mind or their soul may not be normal, for example.
Hypothetically you can make any monster fit any of these categories. Although some monsters are not easy to put in one place. One reason for this is that monsters that inspire a franchise need to be developed or else the sense of unknown in lost.
On the nature of horror
The answer about the monster ended above. Continue reading for a discussion about what horror is, and how to archive it. Take this as guidance on the world, not the monster.
The following is from Supernatural Horror in Literature by H.P. Lovecraft.
Naturally we cannot expect all weird tales to conform absolutely to any theoretical model.
Creative minds are uneven, and the best of fabrics have their dull spots. Moreover, much of the
choicest weird work is unconscious; appearing in memorable fragments scattered through material
whose massed effect may be of a very different cast. Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the
final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation. We
may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or
one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic
fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches
which fulfil every condition of true supernatural horror-literature. Therefore we must judge a weird
tale not by the author's intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it
attains at its least mundane point. If the proper sensations are excited, such a "high spot" must be
admitted on its own merits as weird literature, no matter how prosaically it is later dragged down.
The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a
profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed
listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the
known universe's utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this
atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.
By explaining the monster that knowledge is added to the understanding of nature, a nature that allows such monster to exist. So, once understood it is not really impure anymore. This means that the author of horror who wishes to continue using the monster has to choose between not explaining the monster or having it evolve into something else. On contrast cosmic horror as Lovecraft describe it cannot be known, not because the author chooses to skip the explanation, nor because the characters didn't try to understand, but because they can't.
it should be noted that things that cannot be known are not strange to our world, Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, Turing's Halting problem and Gödel's incompleteness theorems should serve as examples - except they are not horror. In the Cthulhu the mythos attempts to understand often comes with insanity, this is not far-fetched if you take the live of Georg Cantor as a real life counterpart.
Note: I want to suggest Weird Realism: Lovecraft and philosophy by Graham Harman.
It can be argued that the setting on which horror exist cannot be our true reality - as in it there are no such impurities, and thus no such monsters (except perhaps singularities that challenge the theories of quantum and relativity, small and large). But the world of the narration cannot be evidently made up, otherwise it is seen as fantasy.
And the following is from The Epistemology of Horror by Susan Stewart (transcription).
Contrary to this distinction between ''true'' and ''made up'' stories, the horror story takes place in a peculiar place between the real and the fictive; hence its proper assignment to ''legend'' in oral form. Yet, while the horror story is placed in historical time and told as if it were believed to be true, it often makes these claims ironically, ''in frame only.'' We can see the horror story as an abomination of generic properties in several ways. First, it articulates a world that is neither true nor false, which thereby must be a metaphorical or fictive world. But at the same time, its metanarrative devices continually assert it to be ''true story.''
In the horror story the boundary between the real and fictive, the interpretation of experience by the audience and the characters, is continually drawn and effected. Both the story and its context of telling dissolve into a uniformity of effect. Hence the ''didn't really happen'' of the fiction is transformed into a ''really happened,'' a fear which is ''real,'' yet which has no actual reference.
It should be noted that how convincing the setting is, doesn't only lie on the narration or its description and depictions. But in the trust people have in of the medium. Perhaps the best example of a fictional story that manages to immerse people, is Orson Wells adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Which being fiction manages to convince that it is true, as thus it is real for those who did believe - and leave their houses and whatnot. Notice that it was an adaptation for radio, and that such convincing power was never reached by the original story in book form.
It can be argued that people don't really know the post-modern world, they know a model of it, that is presented to people by the media, the school, and the government. They learn the laws of physics, but when it comes to nuclear physics most of them never have the means to put them to test. This - even if cynical - can be exploited to present a world that appear to be the one in which we live, but yet it isn't. Also note that when dealing with solipsists who believes that world is fake, there is no way to convince them otherwise.
So do not measure your monster or your narration on how many people took as real. It is not a plausible objective to have. Yet it is what you are set to do, if you really want to scare the audience.
Also, from The Epistemology of Horror:
The audience rarely knows more than the victim of the story. This victimization of the reader is particularly clear in those scenes in the written horror story where the reader is presented with a letter to be read at the same moment, within the same temporality, as it is read by the character. Here the technique of the letter is even more effective than it is in horror movies, for usually in watching the film we are aware of the context of reading, aware that the shadow cast on the page belongs to the character. But on the page the shadow is our own: we have taken the victim's place.
The elements of the horror story appear to us within a darkened theater of signs; their referents remain concealed by the contingent steps of the narrative. Only through time is their significance unfolded. The listener is caught in an articulated range of false possibilities until he is redeemed by closure. Above all, then, the horror story may be seen as being about interpretation. The conventions of genre which lead us structured expectations with which to approach the fiction are undetermined; we do not know whether the tale is true experience narrative or ''merely'' a fiction, whether its time and space are to be placed in the past, the future, or even the possible.
One could say that the horror story is impure itself, between true and made up. Between truly scary and pretense. Even between categorized and wild.
This is not worldbuilding.
In the book Save the Cat Blake Snyder presents a list of categories for films by the structure of their narration.
One of them is...
Monster in the House - Of which Jaws, Tremors, Alien, The
Exorcist, Fatal Attraction, and Panic Room are examples.
It has two working parts: A monster. A house. And when you
add people into that house, desperate to kill the monster, you've
got a movie type so primal that it translates to everyone, everywhere.
Even films without supernatural elements, like Fatal
Attraction (starring Glenn Close as the "Monster"), fall into this
category. And it's clear from such movies as Arachnophobia, Lake
Placid, and Deep Blue Sea, if you don't know the rules of Monster
in the House - you fail.
The rules, to me, are simple. The "house" must be a confined
space: a beach town, a spaceship, a futuristic Disneyland with
dinosaurs, a family unit. There must be sin committed - usually
greed (monetary or carnal) - prompting the creation of a supernatural monster that comes like an avenging angel to kill those who
have committed that sin and spare those who realize what that sin
is. The rest is "run and hide." And putting a new twist on both the
monster, the monster's powers, and the way we say "Boo!" is the
job of the screenwriter who wants to add to the illustrious limb of
this family tree of movies.
We can see a bad example of this category in Arachnophobia, the
film starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman. Bad monster: a little
spider. Not much supernatural there. Not all that scary either you step on it and it dies. Also: No house! At any given moment,
the residents of Arachnophobia can say "Check please" and be on
the next Greyhound out of town.
So, the narration must have:
- A monster.
- A house or some sort of confined space that forces the characters into the monster - or a condition from which the characters can't escape.
- A sin of some sort committed by some of the characters.
- Even if not stated and not presented as such, the sinners has it coming after them. And it is the monster. If you want to tale a cautionary tale, here is where you plug it in.
I want to note that Snider doesn't always put monsters in houses, another of the types of narrations is...
Rites Of Passage - Every change-of-life story from 10 to Ordinary
People to Days of Wine and Roses makes this category.
Like Monster in the House, this genre also has two very simple working parts: a dude, meaning an average guy or gal just like ourselves.
And a problem: something that this average guy must dig deep inside
himself to conquer.
In rites of passage the "monster" is often metaphorical, yet it may be physical... although the story is not about the monster.
about the choices we've made, but the "monster" attacking us is
often unseen, vague, or one which we can't get a handle on simply
because we can't name it.
In essence, whether the take is comedic or dramatic, the monster
sneaks up on the beleaguered hero and the story is that hero's slow
realization of who and what that monster is. In the end, these tales
are about surrendering, the victory won by giving up to forces
stronger than ourselves. The end point is acceptance of our humanity and the moral of the story is always the same: That's Life!
You may also notice that on some of the classical (Universal's) monsters, the narrative is none of the above. Instead they tell the tale of the "monster" being in circumstances beyond its control - these are tales of powerful yet misunderstood creatures. This is not horror per se, this is akin to superhero genre.
I have quoted a few books, and all have relevant advice about the narrative that are not included in this answer. While it is absurd to create something 100% original (everything is a remix), it should be noted that blindly following these rules will lead you to a cliché tale full of tropes. I'll take a final quote from Snider here:
You can't tell me any idea that isn't like one, or dozens, found in
the movie canon. Trust me, your movie falls into a category. And
that category has rules that you need to know. Because to explode the cliches, to give us the same thing... only different, you have to
know what genre your movie is part of, and how to invent the twists
that avoid pat elements.