I've read through several of Lovecraft's works, and characters seem to react quite differently from one another in response to witnessing beings not of this world:

  • In The Dunwich Horror, one of the Dunwich men looking through the telescope faints when the Horror itself briefly becomes visible.

  • Similarly, in The Shadow over Innsmouth, the narrator also passes out when he finally has a clear view of the more grotesque Innsmouth residents/Deep Ones.

  • In The Call of Cthulhu, two sailors straight up die when Big C emerges from the massive door at R'lyeh, just from looking at him.

  • In complete contrast, in At the Mountains of Madness neither the Elder Things recovered by Lake's crew nor the Shoggoth witnessed by the narrator and Danforth seem to particularly faze their viewers. Of course, in the latter case, they fled, but this did not seem to coincide with a noticeable loss of sanity. Yet Danforth did suffer a breakdown when he alone saw something that goes undescribed when leaving the mountains.

My question is, if all of these beings humans saw possessed some madness-inducing otherworldliness, why can humans be completely fine observing some, die at the sight of others, or have a reaction of some intermediate severity?

  • The people of Innsmouth are very much of this world, plenty of them are even American citizens. Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 19:01
  • That's why I added '/Deep Ones' to the description, as it is implied that any person even partially descended from a Deep One will gradually resemble a Deep One with age and, eventually, be functionally indistinguishable from one. I believe those searching for the narrator while he was hiding on the railroad tracks were either natural Deep Ones or those residents who were completely transformed and never normally seen outside.
    – MSet
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 19:08
  • 12
    Why would everyone react the same way? What scares the beejaysus outta me would make some laugh.
    – the guest
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 19:45
  • 3
    It depends on what drugs he was on when writing each of those?
    – JohnP
    Commented Oct 12, 2017 at 15:06

6 Answers 6


Not all Great Old Ones induce madness. Looking upon Cthulu will drive all humans insane, but viewing Yig, the "Father of Serpents", does not. Yig is described as "shapen like a man, except ye look at him clost." This description strongly indicates that he can be looked at without going insane.

Yig's description is in "The Curse of Yig" (collaboration between Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop).

So, the most logical answer is that they are viewing different Great Old Ones.

  • 1
    Elder Things were not Great Old Ones, and were more normal to this world than many other creatures. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 18:34

Why do different characters react differently when seeing the same monster? In this, you suggest your own answer. Psychological trauma is a result of the individual who perceives the phenomenon, and not the phenomenon itself.

Let's consider Danforth.

Danforth sees some dead pieces of Elder Thing. He's one of the few grad students who has read any elder lore (long before the visit to Antarctica), and he's also seen the bas reliefs and the remnants of the Elder Thing city. None of these things directly threaten his person - there is no immediacy.

While the text doesn't come out directly and say it, what Danforth sees that puts him over the deep end is a shoggoth. Not dead pieces of a shoggoth, or a picture of a shoggoth, or even a shoggoth happily playing catch with an Elder Thing. What he sees is an unexpected thing, freely moving about, and possibly something that could immediately devour him.

"Madness" is a function of the perception of character, not some radioactive effect coming from the creature.


A normal "cthulhu mythos" creature (like a deep one) is much less scary than a god monstrous avatar (probably the worst thing in the universe). But not all the avatars are the same, not even from the same god.

Some gods in Lovecraft books create "avatars" of themselves to serve some purpose. Some of these avatars may exist in different planets, have absolutely no contact or relationship with each other, nothing in common except that behind the avatar is a certain god.

For example, Nyarlahotep has a shitload of avatars: https://www.yog-sothoth.com/wiki/index.php/Nyarlathotep

Some avatars may blend perfectly in human society (their purpose may be just to influence one person), others are the typical eldritch abomination (with a really weird purpose, or maybe no purpose at all).

Other gods (like Cthulhu) have only one avatar (the huge octopus monster of R'lyeh) but still it is just an avatar. The "presence" or "spirit" of the god exist all across the universe (that's pretty much why they are gods, and not just big monsters). In addition, to destroy the avatar only stops the god from having influence in that area, but the god is really not harmed at all. And some avatars (like Cthulhu's only avatar) will simply re-spawn again in the same area if they are destroyed.


One important point in many of Lovecraft's stories (as opposed to adaptations in later media) is that it isn't often simply seeing a horrific creature that breaks someone's mind, it's the 'revelation' or 'moment of insight' as to what that thing's existence means.

The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

-- The Call of Cthulhu

This quote is especially telling, IMO:

Johansen, thank God, did not know quite all, even though he saw the city and the Thing

IE, he would have been worse off mentally if he knew what Cthulhu represented; the horror is not simply the visual appearance of the creature.

In the absence of that, people can "get used to" even the weirdest things - The Shadow out of Time for example; being mind-switched into a Yithian body is originally utterly horrifying, but it doesn't lead to total insanity and people seem to eventually adapt.

The Elder Things, seen as dead specimens, aren't mentally dangerous because they are just considered to be weird prehistoric life forms - you expect odd shapes among fossil sea creatures. (They are originally assumed to be "radiates", which I think is an old term for echinoderms; IE, they aren't at first realized to be extraterrestrial or intelligent.) They don't present a threat to the "worldview" or mental stability of the scientists observing them until the real picture emerges.

The sailors who die from seeing Cthulhu may be a different case, however. Cthulhu - while above the sea - projects telepathic signal that can be received by humans (influencing the dreams of artistic/sensitive/etc. types, and causing increases in violence, thousands of miles away). The killing fear here might not be a purely "internal" reaction.

What Danforth sees at the very end of Mountains of Madness is implied to be something extra-dimensional, far stranger than an Elder Thing or even a Shoggoth...

He has on rare occasions whispered disjointed and irresponsible things about "The black pit," "the carven rim," "the proto-Shoggoths," "the windowless solids with five dimensions," "the nameless cylinder," "the elder Pharos," "Yog-Sothoth," "the primal white jelly," "the color out of space," "the wings," "the eyes in darkness," "the moon-ladder," "the original, the eternal, the undying," and other bizarre conceptions

-At the Mountains of Madness


The most drastic difference in people's reaction seem to be between Elder Things in At the Mountains of Madness and other creatures. There might be few reasons for that:

  • Elder Things in At the Mountains of Madness are unconscious, even perceived as dead by the crew - nothing to worry about. They do not pose any threat to them (at least in the beginning)
  • The group to discover them is scientists who are actually prepared to find something like that, in contrast to common folk, who neither understands nor wants to meet any of the creatures they encounter.

In the other works, Old Ones and other horrors pose an actual threat to people who encounter them, those people are already afraid of what they might see:

  • The Call of Cthulhu - sailors witness gigantic door with immense octopus-like monster to crawl from there
  • The Dunwich Horror - fellow villagers have been afraid of Wilbur for many years for his witchcraft and other oddities, and then a gigantic invisible creature starts killing them and destroying whole buildings
  • The Shadow over Innsmouth - narrator has been warned several times about Innsmouth, he knows that something is obviously not right with this city and after old man's tale he starts to actually be afraid. Later his concerns are confirmed when he witnesses Deep Ones.

In all of these cases there is quite a reason to go mad.

In At the Mountains of Madness there's only a group of scientists discovering the remains of some ancient creatures (as they think) - there's a reason to be happy as they (as scientists) may be on the verge of scientific discovery.


I think it's because At the Mountains of Madness works different than other stories by HPL: In many of his stories, he builds up tension, by not showing the creatures, but instead relying on rumors, frightened reports, vague hints. Only in the very end, the creatures appear and are described in detail, making the story come to a conclusion.

Mountains of Madness is more a long story about the decline of a civilization, finally conquered by rebellious slaves, the Shoggoths. It has smaller parts of tension buildup, with monstrous creatures: first the Old Ones, then the Shoggoths, finally an undisclosed creature as they leave. But it's not the main intention of the story, to lead up to a specific kind of monstrosity. In fact, the Old Ones in Mountains of Madness, receive a great portion of respect in the end, so that they no longer appear as monsters.

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