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Horror Done Right: The Vashta Nerada (Doctor Who)

The fear of the dark is common, relatable, and biologically built into us as animals. Who knows what’s in the dark? Could it be a killer? A spider? A vicious swarm of shadow-dwelling piranhas?

The Vashta Nerada were introduced during David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor, and they are the scariest monsters of this era. Described as “the piranhas of the air”, they are microscopic carnivorous organisms that inhabit billions of planets; including Earth. Individually, they’re harmless to most living things, the same is even said when they’re in small clusters. However, when they swarm, they can strip a body down to the bone in milliseconds. The Doctor even demonstrates this by throwing a chicken leg into a shadow and the meat disappears in mid-air leaving only the bone to bounce on the floor.

Now, you may think that the Weeping Angels are the scariest villains, which is a fair opinion. “Blink” is individually one of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who, and it served as arguably the best monster debuts. However, the subsequent episodes around the Angels ruin them because we learn more about them. The whole idea of “the image of an Angel is an Angel” doesn’t work as a horror element because it means every time you see one you know you’re in danger. Also, that thing where the Statue of Liberty becomes an Angel was just stupid and made no logical sense and I could rant about it for hours but I won’t (not here at least). The Vashta Nerada circumvent this entire issue with a singular statement delivered by the Doctor; “not every shadow, but any shadow”. This is what makes it truly terrifying, the fact that at literally any given time, you may be in danger. It creates existential anxiety and you begin to keep checking if you have two shadows, which is their calling card. And by the time you notice your second shadow, it’s too late.

In the episode, they manage to devour 3 people, but what’s creepy is that they inhabit the suits of their victims. The swarm was large enough to articulate movement towards the remaining members of the group in a shambling, zombie-like manner, repeating one of the last phrases that the victim says, made audible through a “neurolink” device.

So, you may ask “how does the Doctor defeat them?”. The short answer is “he doesn’t”. The only thing he says to do is to run away, as that’s your only way of surviving an encounter, and even then it isn’t guaranteed.

If you’re ever writing horror fiction, and you want to include something that disguises itself, I would highly recommend looking at this one-time villain. It’s expertly written, and is a great way to scare people.

Also, their name translates to mean “the shadow that melts the flesh”, which is just badass.

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