Horrifying Monsters, Intelligent vs. Swarm – preferences?

I’m using “horrifying” in a specific fashion here, because in my mind the two main types of monsters invoke different kinds of horror.

A horde of zombies is nipping at your heels, if one of the lurching horrors chomps down you’re doomed to a horrifying death? To me, that invokes fear.

One Siberian tiger, or a pack of velociraptors, is deliberately picking your party off, one at a time, despite the fact that humans are lousy prey animals, just because they can? That invokes terror.

I think both have their place in scaring the hero – and reader – silly. And they can both be good antagonists, depending on the book. P.M. Griffin’s Star Commandos series has plenty of non-intelligent swarm monsters to make your skin crawl; the heroes facing off with the ravagers in the first book is more than enough monster for any soul. (They also have to deal with some slimy bad guys, but next to the ravager swarm – not so much a problem.)

Still, for a fantasy adventure setting, I think I prefer a few intelligent monsters breathing down the main characters’ necks. In part it might be due to the tools available to heroes. If your wizard can cast fireball, a swarm of army ants is crispy critters. But if you’re up against a dragon, or even a magically enhanced tiger? Those creatures figure out pretty darn quick that the guys in funny robes with wands are dangerous, and change their tactics accordingly. Meaning they’ll wait and strike your archmage down in the water closet.

(No, seriously, tigers have done this to hunters in RL. They think.)

Intelligent monsters mean your hero can’t just win by main force. They have to be smarter than the monster. Not to mention a bit lucky.

So… I think I prefer antagonists that let the heroes show off what they’re made of – brains as well as brawn. Granted, you can do that with swarms, too. It’s just that they don’t change their tactics very fast, so the hero doesn’t get to show escalating levels of improvisation and thinking fast as easily.

For swarm, the ravagers still are among my favorite, partly because they did have a hive mind. For intelligent – the original Predator movie is still Very cool.

Preferences? Thoughts? Favorite monsters – swarm or intelligent?

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30 thoughts on “Horrifying Monsters, Intelligent vs. Swarm – preferences?

  1. I think I like them both, for the different types of fear and the different types of obstacles and/or conflict it can represent . . .

    Swarm monsters can be aspect of nature and how it can kill you. It’s not personal, it’s just you were in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and/ or lacked the necessary knowledge or equipment to survive the encounter.

    Or you survive the swarm but are now hurt and thus less able to fight off another swarm, or a different type of monster, or survive the just plain nature around you.

    Swarms are also scary because they can be seemingly endless. The mage might be able to fire-ball them but the mage has to be able to keep fire-balling them until they leave him alone or he kills them all. And with some swarming monsters, he’s going to run out of mana before they run out of numbers.

    The intelligent monster can also bring fear because if it’s smart enough, theoretically it can be reasoned with but so often they aren’t interested in that. Humans aren’t used dealing with other very intelligent species in an equitable manner, let alone ones that are sentient that view human beings as lesser.

    Or you have to deal with that the intelligent monster might have a good reason for hunting you. Like humans have been infringing on its territory so much that it’s running out of stuff and space to eat. Or you are a threat to their offspring. For it’s POV, the humans are the monsters.

    And is it a really monster when it just an animal doing what it is supposed to do? Being hunted by a tiger is undoubtedly terrifying but the tiger is just being a tiger. A large, very intelligent predator dealing something that could be prey (sometimes) in the absence of other prey and/or a threat to its territory, ability to hunt and its offspring. Predators often kill other predators that compete with them for the same food, especially when food is already limited.

    Let’s not forget that prey animals, swarms / herd or individual, can be just as dangerous in their own fashion as predators. The deadliest animal in Africa, after all, is the hippo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ouch, yes, hippos are scary. One of the Three Deadly Beasts to the ancient Egyptians; the other two being the lion and the crocodile. The difference being a lion or crocodile probably won’t bother you if it’s not hungry. Probably. A hippo? Especially a male? Will stalk underwater just to mess you up.

      Thanks for the thoughts! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d have to say that the intelligent monsters scare the Sh!t out of me more than the swarms. Alien, and Predator are just two examples. Both involve cunning creatures whom the heroes have to outwit because they sure as hell can’t overpower them.

    Hitchcock’s “The Birds” which involved swarming animals was scary but not terrifying for me. Yeah, those birds did some serious damage, but people still lived at the end even if they were traumatized. With one of the black Aliens? You had to be damn good or damn lucky to live (Ripley was both). And after watching a midnight movie of both of them? I knew birds weren’t going to come out of my dryer in the basement. That Alien though? I was poised to run. Just in case.

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  3. This might sound a little crazy but any kind of mutated Swan or variant wild goose would scare me silly. My area has both and because people only see how pretty they are we’ve had our share of attacks. There is nothing that will ruin your day faster than huge ticked off water fowl.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve dealt with geese, and I once ran into a nesting swan, so believe me that doesn’t sound crazy at all. I figured if a bird thought it could take me, I’d rather back down and exit the area than find out the hard way.

      Then I did a bit of research on swans and was glad I did. They’ve been known to break someone’s arm with a wing-blow!

      …*G* Maybe you should use that as a NaNo monster?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hmm, I will admit that the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” I read back when I was thirteen left a heck of an impression. Intelligent turns it into a battle of wits which I’ve always found fascinating and it also opens the way for you to trick the monster, which is always satisfying. It also turns the conflict so much more personal when it’s intelligent.

    When it’s a swarm well it might be difficult, but it too easily falls into just one of many things you have to deal with. ie. so you survived the swarm now you have to survive the hike through the jungle or the amputation etc. On the other hand there’s nothing quite like that “Oh S–t” moment in a movie where the swarm of nano-thingies the bad guy’s controlling comes after the hero.

    What can I say. I’m still more familiar with human or humanoid antagonists than straight up monsters. *shrugs*

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That was an impressive story, yes. Particularly the way the author ended it without showing exactly what happened to the evil huntsman. Meep.

      *Thoughtful nod* Combine a swarm with intelligent direction – yes, that definitely ups the creepy level.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Of coruse then you have the second type of swarm. Where the individual gribbles might not be that bright but there is a force or intelligence guiding them.

    So you think you’re just dealing with mindless animals/monsters and all of a sudden their behavior changes…..

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      1. >OTOH, a controller implies a weak point – target that, and the swarm should go back to predictable!>

        Or it mallets the Berserk Button of ‘Just screw it, level -everything-‘. That swarming-eateverythinginsight before? Yeah…that was Easy Mode.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I also think that going for a swarm with a controlling intelligence makes it the scariest. Prominent examples include the Tyranids from WH40K, the Zerg of Starcraft fame and the Vord from Codex Alera as well as the new creepy crawlies from the Cinder Spires both from Jim Butcher (seeing how much he seems to like the trope, there probably will be some in the Dresden Files at some point). The more the natural/uncontrolled behaviour tends to still go for ripping out your guts the scarier they are.

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  6. Honestly I’m split 50/50 on this.
    An intelligent monster can problem solve and steal your safety away – things that saved you before won’t work again.
    Conversely, swarming enemies create a siege like situation, or a never ending attempt to flee, that can be just as terrifying.

    For me, the best are the ones that either ’employ’ both (a lead villian with hordes to command and a handful of intelligent individuals) or something that can become both (graboids/shriekers off the top of my head)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think swarms are more terrifying for the amount of despair they can inflict. The swarms I am thinking of are the ones where the individual members of the swarm die in droves assaulting positions but that doesn’t matter and eventually they will just break through. That kind of swarm no amount of quick thinking will help you and you just have to resign yourself to your inevitable death. Though that could be the fact I fancy myself a thinker and not being able to outthink a problem terrifies me.

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  8. Both are indeed very scary, if different kinds, but my point of interest here is mostly with the ‘hivemind’ part. The problem with the Hivemind, especialy as it is oft written in fiction, is that of the animals we know that seem to behave in such a collective manner none of them have an actual Center of Control analogous to something like a nervous system (no ‘brain bugs’ so to speak, or ‘queen’ who controls everything). And when it comes to a ‘kill the queen to wreck everything’ scenario, if you did that to something like bees, you would not actually destroy a colony’s ability to coordinate, just its ability to breed. And even that doesn’t really slow them down, they often have young, spare breeders tucked away in case something happens to the current one. So no earth-shattering loss for them there.

    I can’t help wonder if this odd dependence on queens-as-controllers in fiction may be a human bias based on our own physiology: our central nervous system, seemingly in control of all, if ever damaged or compromised, may very well lead to complete system failure ( or death). So it becomes hard to imagine something that looks as complex and well-organized as the efforts of a hive could not actually have a control center, like a brain , that we can hit and ‘kill’ as we would hit somebody on the head to kill or damage severely. But natural hives have a kind of Diffuse Intelligence, not centralized or controlled from a single point. So the imagined ‘weakness’ of the destroyable ‘brain’ simply doesn’t exist in real-life hives.

    We may simply lack the ability to imagine a true Diffuse Consciousness as they would really be because our own is so centralized , and so has this ‘weakpoint’ in the form of our brains (that squishy, frail, mostly-water, very vulnerable if useful organ).

    Imagine if you would, a hive-species made up of things that can survive fine individually, but in cooperation can become so smart , efficient, communicative and adaptive that no matter what you throw at it, no matter how many ‘queens’ you kill, will still keep coming and breeding and learning. Imagine the moment of shock and horror that might come at the thought that, no, there is no center to hit that ends all, the is no brain to squish to end the threat, there is only a common drive that makes them all do lots of different things that all have the same ultimate goal: survival. Imagine if such a Thing just kept on coming like roaches, frightfully hard to kill and by all accounts unaffected by any number or individuals you kill. A truly relentless adversary, one you just can ever put a dent into no matter what you do, and the terror at the thought that even a single survivor can start all over again, and will never stop. There is no ‘nuke the nest’ option that will work because there are to many of them to count. There is no single nest, there are hundreds of them.

    Your best option may very well be to try to work around them or avoid them entirely because to engage them in any way is to teach them about you, your movements, your habits, tactics and abilities. Because even ants teach each other things. Pathways to food or new territory are learned, knowing what to avoid or attack is learned, what to touch or not is learned. There may very well be specialized castes in a hive, but if push comes to shove , everything will fight to survive no matter how bad it is at fighting. Because to do otherwise is to simply lay down and die.

    And if life has taught us anything, it is that living things simply. Don’t. Want. To. Die.

    That I think, is the true ‘horror’ of a swarm or hive scenario at it’s most realistic : you can never get them all. And they will never stop coming….

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I suspect the “queen as controller” has less to do with limits of human imagination than with plot. People like to know when things are Really Over.

      True, many colonial species have immature queens, or workers that can lay eggs in a crisis. That just means you have to be persistent. Humans are really good at persistent!

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  9. Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert K Ressler & Tom Shachtman.

    Scariest reading on the concept of psycology and monsters I’ve ever done.

    Also, why are you stuck on beasts as monsters? Humanoid monsters can be swarms as well as intelligent, and you’re forgetting just how dangerous humanoid non-intelligent monsters can be.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Honestly, for me it’s the intelligent ones, swarm monsters don’t really work for me(I’m more likely to roll my eyes and groan at any zombie apocalypse shows/movies, I find most of the time to make it work, they give characters idiot balls the size of Texas!) Honestly, I think the only swarm monsters that really got a fear reaction like that were in Pitch Black.

    Intelligent monsters on the other hand, especially ones that might be smarter then you, that’s scary. Add in being stronger or otherwise better equipped then a normal person to cause mayhem, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a story that can push to the limits. (Okay, I make a special exception for Lovecraftian stuff, but most of his monsters that are still scary are very personal. Shadow over Innsmouth’s ending still has bite to it.)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Well… I’m not actually very good at horror, I don’t enjoy being scared and my startle reflex is a mite bit overdeveloped, which can make things difficult. So take my opinion with a grain of salt.

    For me the best monsters have always been not about swarm or intelligence, they’ve been about two things both monsters can do in different ways: being trapped and being faced with overwhelming power.

    Being trapped isn’t just about being bound or locked in a room. It’s about the removal of avenues of escape, about there being nowhere to rest and nowhere to run to finally get away. It’s scary because it’s about removal of your (as reader or as hero) capabalities and options.

    This is especially terrifying against the second type of scary monster for me: the overwhelming. Something that’s so big, so strong, so unkillable that stopping to fight it might not even slow it down? Where all your options Except running are utterly ineffective and pointless? Those are terrifying.

    In both cases the source of the problem – of the fear really – is about powerlessness. It leaves you in a situation where what you do does not matter and eventually succumbing to whatever the monster is stalking you for is inevitable. Where all your resistance can only buy time and it’s only temporary at best.

    Of course, my favorite thing about these monsters is when they’re defeated. When the heroes refuse to back down or give up and despair and through sheer stubborness and damned grit find victory in the end and spit in the eye of the overwhelming force. But that’s me, and that’s cause I’m bad at horror.

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  12. Intelligent Monsters and Monster Swarms provide different challenges to survivors.
    I think a mix between the two makes the best monsters.
    Alien Isolation is a good example where the monster treat started out as an Intelligent Monsters and then later turns into a Swarm treat later on when the colony is found.
    A good example of a mix of the two is the thing from The Thing (1982) it is an Intelligent monster but no one knows how many there are.
    Monster Swarms makes the damage you do inflect basically meaningless.
    You want to cure the zombie infection one bullet at a time? You are only attracting the horde to your location.
    In Aliens no one thought that their kills had made any impact on the xenomorph treat.
    another thing that Swarms have going for them is that they can be anywhere an intelligent monster can only be at place at a time.
    Intelligent Monsters basically escalates in difficulty.
    They are not going to fall for the same tricks twice, obstacles will not stop them for long.
    You can only distract the intelligent monsters once by throwing a rock at a car to set off a car alert.
    Killing an Intelligent monster is harder than shooting them in the head while they are walking up to you.

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  13. Small group of intelligent hunters beats swarm of mindless monsters for me. But then, I tend to favor mind and skill over power, so that’s not surprising.

    Liked by 1 person

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