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Our psychiatrist explains why you’re afraid of 40k Tyranids

Warhammer 40k Tyranids are among the scariest sci-fi aliens ever - Wargamer's resident psych explains why they're so damn frightening.

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing the terrifying face of a Tyranid Screamer Killer

Chittering, chitinous hordes of crawling, leaping, many-fanged, many-clawed monstrosities – Warhammer 40k Tyranids are the stuff of nightmares. But surely there’s more to their psychological warfare than just a fearsome appearance – just what is it about the ‘Nids that inspires true, pure horror in our puny human nerd-brains? I’m Dr Joe, Wargamer’s resident psychiatrist, and today we’re getting into why your brain makes you so afraid of Tyranids.

If you’re not aware, the Tyranids are a long standing, beloved Warhammer 40k faction, one of the oldest and scariest 40k Xenos (alien) species. They’re a big, nasty, bug hive-mind, and they want nothing more or less than to eat everything you hold dear – then recycle it and turn it into (you guessed it) more Tyranids.

Now, just the thought of being targeted by a violent, hungry alien could well be enough to get your adrenaline going – but there’s not exactly a shortage of those aiming their tendrils, claws, or other appendages at the Imperium of Man.

What is it about Tyranids in particular that can consistently send genuine shivers up your spine? Real-world human psychology can offer some answers.

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing a Tyranid Hive Tyrant leading warriors

The looks

H.R. Giger – the celebrated Swiss artist behind the iconic creature concepts in the original 1979 Alien movie – knew what he was doing.  Shiny, biomechanical nasties with dripping, sharp teeth look nasty. It’s the sort of thing you really hoped wasn’t under your bed when you were younger.

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing artworks of Tyranid Warriors from different Hive Fleets

Warhammer 40k’s Tyranids were heavily inspired by the ‘Xenomorph’ creatures in Alien – and both these fictional horrors are fueled by deliberately tapping into deep-seated, instinctual fears shared by many of us foolish ape-creatures in the audience.

Some phobias seem to have a genetic component with a visual core – snakes, for example, create fear responses across cultures with surprising reliability. Some folks have specific phobias of insects, swarms, or set visual patterns.

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing details of Tyranid Termagants' weapons, with closely packed holes in them to trigger Trypophobia

One is called Trypophobia, a fear of closely clustered holes – take a look at Carnifex Spore Cysts, Thornbacks, and even the humble Devourer, and you’ll see this off-putting look being mimicked to great effect.

Humans also experience a sense of unease from the ‘uncanny valley’ – where something looks almost human, but not quite. It’s one reason human-like features (think of the Face-huggers from Alien, or some hand and facial features on Tyranid sculpts) can be so disturbing.

Pondering the evolutionary advantage of these particular fears only fills us with more unease. Consider: if I’m instinctively afraid of this thing, it follows that being afraid of it gave my ancestors better chances of survival – so what happened to the people that weren’t afraid?

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing a huge swarm of Tyranids, including a Carnifex and a Hive Crone

The overwhelming swarm

Uncountable hordes. Endless numbers. Vastness is, in itself, disturbing. Think of treading water over the Mariana Trench; it’s not just what unseen things might be swimming in the void below you, but the depth, the darkness, the unknowable size of it.

Losing control in the face of something overwhelming can happen in our day-to-day lives, but in a horror context, that vastness leaves plenty of room for our imagination to run free. Those Mariana monsters feel scary because we have no idea what they might be – in the same way, the endless bio-forms of the Tyranids mean the ones we haven’t yet seen can be the most frightening of all.

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing Tyranid Lictor models attacking Drukhari

When written well, the Tyranids also become a symbol for our in-built tendencies toward panic. Feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope with the drowning weight of all the horrors of existence – that experience is terrifying, and one we’re all too often forced to suffer even without the presence of cosmic horrors.

Because of the chameleonic variety, fathomless scale, and utter malevolence they represent, the Tyranids – like all the best horror monsters – give a face and a shape to otherwise amorphous and ignorable inner fears. It’s not always the monster we fear, but what the monster reminds us of.

Unless it’s a Tervigon. Then it’s definitely the monster.

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing a Tyranid Neurotyrant leading Von Ryans Leapers

Truly alien minds

Humans are social animals – we may be warlike too, but we’re fundamentally wired to believe, and be reassured by, the idea that any threat or adversary can be reasoned with or talked out of killing us. Tyranids are the ultimate rejection of that idea. They’re not merely unwilling to negotiate; they cannot comprehend the concept at any level.

You could probably, in the right context, negotiate with an Ork. This is an ambitious statement, but the War of the Beast novels give me some confidence, given the presence of an Ork diplomat (honest – go check them out!) Conversations with most of the 41st Millennium’s other bellicose beings are probably conceivable – but not with a Tyranid.

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing a Tyranid Hive Tyrant

Genuinely alien minds and motivations are disturbing. Horror with human antagonists often uses a lack of empathy or reasoning as a fear-inducing tool – because the idea of an opponent who has no similarity in the workings of their mind to you is frightening. No similar values, no compassion.

A large enough gap in aesthetic values (think about the interior design choices of your nearest Hive Queen in comparison to your living room) creates unease or even shock, but this goes even further when psychological concepts we consider universal are utterly disregarded.

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing a squad of Tyranid Termagant models attacking Space Marines

The value of innocence, the concepts of Good, honor, or beauty – that these ideas are not even understandable to a Termagant makes the terror inescapable because, as you look into its cruel eyes, you know there is absolutely no conscious consideration that can overrule its hunger – not bribery, not persuasion, not even strategic advantage, and certainly not sympathy.

The Hive Mind doesn’t have the territorial or survival instincts seen in Earthly wildlife. It’s a collective intelligence dedicated solely to consumption. This consciousness so vastly different from ourselves is not just non-human, but anti-human. It does not negotiate, empathize, or pause; it exists purely to spread and devour.

Why Warhammer 40k Tyranids are so scary - Games Workshop image showing a huge Tyranid swarm with Zoanthropes hovering above

It’s not an original concept for a science fiction enemy – lots of beloved settings have run with the idea of baddies who wreak carnage and destruction not because they’re evil or because they hate anyone, but because they can conceive of no other course.

But combine that chilling implacability with uncanny physical forms tailor-made to trigger humans’ inborn insecurities; the promise of limitless numbers; and endlessly unpredictable, ever mutating capabilities, and you have an alien species with extreme potential for authentic horror. Best try not to think about that, the next time a Screamer Killer charges across the table at you.

To take your mind off it, you can always read the other dispatches on our Warhammer 40k news homepage, or read our comparatively (less toothsome) guides on miniature painting, the best Warhammer 40k games, or the other top-notch Warhammer 40k books we recommend.