The Scariest, Creepiest, and Most Frightening Animals in Fiction
Justin C. Key Finds the Best (or Worst?) in Horror
Beasts and monsters are a staple in both written and cinematic horror. They transcend the confines of our boring realities and offer something new, foreign, and unique. But there’s something special about horror rooted in real life and real animals – the horror that taps into the rich elements already cooked up by mother nature. This frightening potential makes us wary of what could be transpiring right in our own backyards. And our imaginations do the rest.
These creatures of the macabre frightened, entertained, and inspired me. I tapped into my own arachnophobia when sitting down to write “Spider King,” a body horror about an inmate who gets a shorter sentence by ‘volunteering’ for a medical experiment that causes spiders to erupt from his skin. Mindless arachnids emerging like botflies would make for a run-of-the-mill gross-out horror but the real thrill comes from playing with how these fascinating eight-legged hunters express their own motivations. Enter Portia, the smartest of the bunch, and Charlotte, the most rebellious. Can the main character control them? Does he want to?
You can read “Spider King” and more stories in my debut collection The World Wasn’t Ready for You. Here are my top picks for other animals in horror fiction. I’d suggest leaving the lights on.
Cujo by Stephen King
I knew that a ‘Cujo’ referred to a dog with a bite bigger than its bark long before I knew the name ‘Stephen King’, a testament to the author’s contribution to everyday culture. The most frightening aspect of Cujo had nothing to do with possession, inherent evil, or any supernatural element. Cujo was normal. He was a perfectly good, happy, loyal Saint Benard that chased a rabbit into the woods and caught rabies. Nature did this! Cujo’s rampage is a reminder that the mundane can become horrifying and that ‘man’s best friend’ is just a diseased brain away from being ‘man’s worst predator.’
The Shining by Stephen King
Jack Torrance is just trying to do right by his family. Sure, he uproots them and takes them to a haunted hotel in the middle of nowhere to bear witness to his spiral into addiction and insanity, but he’s trying. So when he gifts his son an empty wasp’s nest, something his own father did for him as a boy, it’s almost heartfelt (almost). When I tell you that those wasps coming back alive is the single creepiest thing I’ve ever read. . . it’s the single creepiest thing I’ve ever read. It’s simple. It’s easy. Because if even ONE dead wasp can come back to life, what else is possible?
Great White Shark
Jaws by Peter Benchley
The horror of the unseen. Inspiration for a cultural phenomenon. The reason I don’t venture out into the ocean by myself. The concept transcends the art, where one does not need to ever have read the book or seen the movie to experience its impact.
Whereas Steven Spielberg’s adaptation was all about the shark, Peter Benchley’s Great White almost takes a backseat to the novel’s characters and their motivations, quirks, and infidelities. But the marine killing machine still drives the horror. Benchley’s significant research on sharks and the ocean make for powerfully vivid descriptions and gruesome endings. Also, the parts from the shark’s perspective (definitely under-explored in the film adaptations) are golden.
The Forbidden by Clive Barker
Clive Barker’s short story in Books of Blood gave just enough to spark a successful movie franchise, most recently rejuvenated in Yahya Abdul-Mahteen’s 2021 Candyman sequel. The animal element in this one is without motive or body count but rather acts as a potent characterization for an iconic character. The Candyman gets its name from the swarm of bees nesting in his rotting ribcage.
Congo by Michael Crichton
The strongest human alive would be no match for a below average gorilla. And while they aren’t the kindest animals in the world they’ll generally leave humans alone unless bothered or provoked. In Congo, this particular species of gorilla has a taste for blood. Human blood, specifically.
And their preferred method of carnage? Smashing your head between two rocks. *Shivers* Intelligent, strong, and resourceful makes for a devastating combination in any horror setting.
Iconic. Game-changing. Expertly detailed. Michael Crichton, a fellow physician writer, was adept at entertaining and educating his readers. His most popular novel, Jurassic Park, and its sequel, The Lost World, are populated with an imagining of the most infamous set of animals that no human has ever laid eyes on: the dinosaur. Both novels encapsulate the wonder of a world that existed long before us, one that would still exist if not by random chance.
Among the lot, his portrayal of the velociraptor—a menacing, intelligent, pack-based predator that plays chess while its prey is busy with checkers—stands out. The T-Rex brought the audience and the velociraptors kept them coming for more.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King
“Sometimes, dead is better.” If you could bring back a loved one, would you? How about a pet? Stephen King went to the depths of horror with this one and Church the cat was the vessel to guide the reader through the descent. After being killed by a car, the family pet was resurrected in an ancient burial ground. The cat doesn’t go on a killing spree. It doesn’t bring forth the gates of hell. Instead, it’s a perfect set up. The reader sees how ‘off’ Church has become, hunting, killing, and disemboweling mice and birds without eating them, smelling like death, and overall acting “a little dead.”
It’s all a set up for the novel’s real horror. Louis sees how wrong and empty Church becomes and still the grief of losing a child pushes him to consider the unthinkable: burying his dead toddler in that same burial ground.
If I was presented with the same choice, would I do it? I don’t know. And that’s terrifying.
How to Sell A Haunted House by Grady Hendrix
If you would have told me a few months ago that ‘taxidermy squirrels’ would make my list of all-time favorites animals in horror, I wouldn’t have believed you. Grady Hendrix took a fun, weird concept and ran with it. It’s a new book and I hate spoilers so I’ll keep it brief: this brilliant scene launches the novel into its horrific premise with an expert mix of the ridiculous and the terrifying, the hilarious and the grotesque. You’ll simultaneously ask yourself ‘am I really reading this?’ while being immensely grateful that you got to experience it.
Nature on Steroids
Fragment by Warren Fahy
While Jurassic Park reimagined evolution’s past, Fragment sped it up to beyond the present. On an uncharted island, nature has accelerated its development of top predators. Everything here kills, metabolizes, and reproduces at breakneck speed. All the animals here are so good at killing and reproducing that if even a subsection of its species made it off the island they would quickly populate the planet. Similar to the reflections on dinosaurs, Fragment shows that Mother Nature could easily supplant humans as the dominant species. Our intelligence shot us to the top of the food chain but who’s to say it’s enough to keep us there?
Justin C. Key’s story collection, The World Wasn’t Ready For You, is available from Harper.