Monster of the Week: Smoke Monster

A cloud of black smoke hanging out in the jungle.

This post contains spoilers for Lost, which finished airing six years ago, so, uh, if you were gonna watch it, you probably have.

This week’s monster is one that’s very near to my heart. Right next to it, in fact. A little to the left. Nnnnoo—stop! Yeah. Right there. That’s the spot where the rage coils in my chest and festers.

The smoke monster is an entity from the TV show, Lost, whose fans are notorious for their ridiculous theories about the show’s mysteries.

*waves*

Yeah, I was a Lost fan. I saw it through to the end, despite all the bizarre turns, unanswered questions, and beloved character deaths. I had some fan theories that were pretty… out there. But there were also many parts of the show that were so strange, my theories didn’t go much further than:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The smoke monster was one of those.

Lost begins with the survivors of a plane crash stranded on an isolated island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. They soon learn that the Island (that’s how they pronounce it, with a capital “I”) hides dangerous mysteries that could pose a much greater threat than starvation or thirst. The jungle shakes in the night. Ominous noises and whispers come from the trees.

For the first few episodes, the survivors never set eyes on the monster. That makes it all the more terrifying when they find the pilot brutally mauled to death, suspended in a tree far above their heads.

That’s pretty scary.

It’s enough to keep the survivors on edge, at least. Several episodes into the show, one of the main characters comes face to face with the monster—and is spared. Intriguing! But the monster doesn’t appear on screen, at first. The audience has to rely on secondhand responses until the monster finally shows its face on screen—well, as much as it can be said to have a face.

It’s a cloud of black smoke.

That’s, uh. It’s really more bizarre than it is scary. But by this point, we had seen it terrorize and kill enough characters that it remained a threat. As the show went on, it accrued strange abilities—appearing as hallucinations of characters’ loved ones and speaking to them, sometimes in visions or dreams—and the theories piled up. It was a personification of the Island itself. No—a metaphor for evil! No—temptation, or weakness! It’s all of them! It’s none of them!

Making up these crazy theories—and seeing even crazier ones from other fans on the internet—was half the fun of the show. In fact, I think it would have been better for the writers to leave this one up to interpretation. Maybe that’s just the benefit of hindsight, though.

For all the viewers’ complaints that Lost never answered any of its questions, they got around to this one. I wish they hadn’t.

The smoke monster turned out to be the spirit of a man born thousands of years ago. A bona-fide Latin-speaking Roman. He ended up an immortal demi-god who haunted the Island in smoke form, seeking chosen survivors to carry out the Island’s magical mythology. The plane was brought to this island by the will of a god. Everything happened for a reason, you see?

Agh—look, if you want the whole story, go watch Lost. I’m too angry to fiddle on the details.

Because—yes!—that resolution made me angry! You may think it’s just because it sounds ridiculous. And, well, that is true. But Lost and other stories have gotten away with much more ridiculous things than that without pissing me off.

Making the smoke monster a god made me angry because it failed as a monster. It failed as a storytelling device.

Why?

First off, one of the most effective techniques in horror is to keep the monster hidden as long as possible. Give only fleeting glimpses—let fear fill in the blanks. People are afraid of the unknown. The more you make your monster known, the less frightening it becomes.

When you give it a flashback to its unhappy childhood, you humanize it—literally, in this case, since the character appeared as a human.

Well, that was intentional, wasn’t it? Yes, the writers wanted to humanize this character. They wanted to change it from a monster to a human, from an it to a him. And Lost is not a horror show! It had elements of suspense and horror, but at its heart it was a drama. It was about its characters. Such a step away from effective monster mechanics could be a good thing for the show, as a whole, if that step was leading towards something that served the story better.

But that brings me to my second point—the real reason the smoke monster failed, and where the show lost its purpose.

The story was about the characters.

Plot can’t be a thing that just happens to characters. Think of the classic Greek tragedy—or think of Shakespeare, your Hamlets and Othellos. The most devastating tragedy is the kind you bring on yourself. Similarly, a victory isn’t really satisfying if you didn’t do something to earn it. In fiction, we like our characters to have agency.

The smoke monster was never a character early in the show. It was a device, and it worked best when it forced the characters to face their own dark sides. Whether as a threat that pushed the survivors to the edge of panic, fueling conflict in the group as they searched for the best way to face the problem, or as a hallucination that reminded them of their darkest moments—the smoke monster helped us learn about the characters. It threw an obstacle in their path. They had to react—they had to have agency—or they got killed.

That worked. Sometimes better than others, but in principle, it worked.

When the monster became a god? A shift into a character, but a late arrival in a field crowded with characters we’d spent six years getting to know?

That undermined all of the things that made it an effective device as a monster.

It took the agency out of the survivors’ hands and put it into the hands of a few all-powerful gods instead. It wasn’t supposed to be the gods’ story—wasn’t framed that way—and yet, there they were with all the agency.

That’s my big complaint about Lost—some didn’t like the series finale for its overtly religious overtones, which is fair. I thought much of the two-hour finale actually succeeded when it focused on the characters—but the series arc as a whole had taken so much agency away from them at that point, there was only so much they could do.

And I blame a failed story mechanic. If only we could go back to the good old days when it was just a mysterious plague of secondhand smoke.

Prompt: Try to create a personification of a monster that doesn’t fail—either use the backstory to make them more effective as a monster, or use it to shift away from horror to something else.

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