How to Write Creepy Scenes to Make Your Readers Squirm

Most writers who delve into horror hit the prose with a bag of clichés and heavy handed stage props—swirling fog, glowing eyes, wicked laughs. Don’t get me wrong, camp can be great (if it’s intentional). However, a more subtle approach can work wonders.

Add Details One by One

Use disturbing details or reversals when describing your scenes. Each one, taken by itself, does little, but in combination, they imbue the reader with unease. Consider Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol. Here an unnamed narrator just inhabited a weather station on a deserted island.

Just then, I heard a pleasing sound far off. It was more or less like a heard of goats trotting in the distance. At first, I confused it with the pattering of rain; the sound of heavy and distinct drops. I got up and looked out of the closest window. It wasn’t raining. The full moon stained the ocean’s surface in a violet hue. The light bathed the driftwood lying on the beach. It was easy to imagine them as body parts, dismembered and immobile. The whole thing brought to mind a petrified forest. But it wasn’t raining.

Reversal: The narrator thinks it’s raining, but then there’s no rain. We wonder what’s creating that pattering sound, and the not knowing makes us uneasy.

Disturbing details: The water is stained violet, a bloodlike color. This idea is cemented in the reader’s skull with the driftwood, described as dismembered limbs.

Let the Character Freak Out

Nothing creeps out a reader faster than letting the protagonist freak out. Ever wonder why there are so many screams in horror movies? It’s the same thing. As an author, you must find the written equivalent to the scream.

In Bag of Bones by Stephen King, the protagonist, Mike Noonan, begins to believe that his house is haunted. He’s in the basement and hears the sound of someone striking the insulation, but no one else is home.

…every gut and muscle of my body seemed to come unwound. My hair stood up. My eyesockets seemed to be expanding and my eyeballs contracting, as if  my head were trying to turn into a skull. Every inch of my skin broke out in gooseflesh. Something was in here with me. Very likely something dead.

King lays it on thick here. Instead of one physical reaction, he dumps the whole bucket on us. He doesn’t dazzle us with a etherial decaying corpse. We won’t even see the ghost till the final chapters. No. He tells us how Noonan feels just in the presence of the thing and that’s what creeps us out.

Another example of the character freaking out can be seen in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Now we are going to have a new noise, Eleanor thought, listening to the inside of her head; it is changing.  The pounding had stopped, as though it had proved ineffectual, and there was now a swift movement up and down the hall, as of an animal pacing back and forth with unbelievable impatience, watching first one door and then another, alert for a movement inside, and there was again the little babbling murmur which Eleanor remembered; Am I doing it? she wondered quickly, is that me? And heard the tiny laughter beyond the door, mocking her.

Here the character doubts herself and what she sees. This is essential to any horror story. When weird things happen, the character mysteries react accordingly. The stranger the situation, the stronger the reaction. And most of us would doubt our sanity in creepy situations.

Let The Reader Do the Imagining

Why should you, the author, do all the heavy lifting. Your reader’s imagination will often fill in the blanks for you. Take this example from Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

As she reached the driver’s door of the cab, which hung open with vines twisting in and out of its socket of a window, lightning flashed again, painting the whole world purple. In its glare Trisha saw something with slumped shoulders standing on the far side of the road, something with black eyes and great cocked ears like horns. Perhaps they were horns. It wasn’t human; nor did she think it was animal. It was a god. It was her god, the wasp-god, standing there in the rain.

Notice that the monster is only vaguely described. It’s called “something” twice. This lets the reader fill in the blanks. There is enough description that we at least know it’s a big hulking creature. This is the literary equivalent of when Ridley Scott only showed glimpses of the alien in Alien.

Use Strong Verbs

Finally, strong verbs will help any writer to shine, but they can also allow one character to shine over another. Take this excerpt from William Blatty’s The Exorcist.

Regan’s eyes gleamed fiercely, unblinking, as a yellowish saliva dribbled down from a corner of her mouth to her chin, to her lips stretch taut into a feral grin of bow-mouthed mockery.

“Well, well, well,” she gloated sardonically and hairs prickled up on the back of Karras’s neck at a voice that was deep and thick with menace and power. “So, it’s you … they sent you!” she continued as if pleased. “Well, we’ve nothing to fear from you at all.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Karras answered; “I’m your friend and I’d like to help you.”

“You might loosen these straps, then,” Regan croaked. She had tugged up her wrists so that now Karras noticed they were bound with a double set of leather restraining straps.

“Are the straps uncomfortable for you?”

“Extremely. They’re a nuisance. An infernal nuisance.”

The eyes glinted slyly with secret amusement.

Karras saw the scratch marks on Regan’s face; the cuts on her lips where apparently she’d bitten them. “I’m afraid you might hurt yourself, Regan,” he told her.

“I’m not Regan,” she rumbled, still with that taut and hideous grin that Karras now guessed was her permanent expression. How incongruous the braces on her teeth looked, he thought. “Oh, I see,” he said, nodding. “Well, then, maybe we should introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras. Who are you?”

“I’m the devil!”

Notice the verbs that Blatty uses with Reagan — gleamed, dribbled, gloated, croaked, rumbled. In contrast, the more calm individual in the scene, Karras, responds with simple verbs like “answered” and “saw”. The contrast allows the reader to see Reagan as disturbing.

If you want to make your readers squirm, reading only in daylight hours, shy away from the obvious gore and claptrap. Rather, take the quieter road of tiny disturbing details built up over pages and chapters. Show how your character reacts to what’s happening, and the reader will feel it too.

Tim Kane

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Strolling through my Barnes and Noble, I stumbled across a graphic novel called “The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil.” How could I resist? Not only was it a beard. But it was an evil beard to boot.

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The graphic novel, but Stephen Collins, is a tranquil journey through a surreal word. I want to liken it to  Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton, but the experience isn’t that overt or obvious. The book’s tag line perhaps says it best — The job of skin is to keep it all in. Here, the skin means the skin of the world. Normalcy. The job of normalcy is to keep all the weird and frightening stuff in, so you don’t have to experience it. In this sense, the book take on a bit of the Cthulhu mythology. Only instead of a tentacled cephalopod, we get a massive black beard (which is evil, don’t forget).

Collins does a wonderful job of setting up the back story. Our protagonist, Dave, is totally bald and hairless, except for a single hair. This makes his eventual bearddom even more of a 180. This would be wonderful foreshadowing if the book title and image didn’t already let you know that the beard is, in fact, coming.

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Even so, I like how the Collins explains his world and gives its limitations, letting the reader know what’s at stake. For example, everyone in this graphic novel lives in a place called Here. It’s very similar to where you live, in fact. Only Here is an island surrounded by There. There is the unknown. The chaotic. The untidy.

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The image of Here versus There brings to mind the Greek idea of the beginning of the world.

Chaos

Tidiness seems to be a prevalent theme in the book. many pages and images are devoted to the tidying of the streets and the people. Gradually, as the evil beard makes its presence known, untidiness happens.

Dave’s only source of joy is sitting by his window and sketching the passersby (all while listening to the Bangles “Eternal Flame” on repeat). After he grows his beard, he notices how similar all the people are, and by contrast, how different he’s become.

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But this difference was there all along. Hidden beneath the skin of his dreams. He’s always heard the voices of There, hissing into his brain, bringing untidy thoughts.

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Of course, along with the brilliant story, we have Collins’s astounding artwork. His visuals aptly capture the serene creepiness of chaos leaking into the world.

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I highly recommend this book. Buy it and give it a good read through. You won’t regret it. Even if you are clean shaven.

Tim Kane

Eat Your Undertale Obsession: Spider Cider

Still salivating for Undertale, but don’t want to jump on the Genocide bandwagon? Maybe you can whet your appetite through foodstuffs. Yes, it’s another recipe from the amazing Toby Fox game, Undertale. If you haven’t yet played this wonderful game, be aware there are spoilers in this post.

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I’ve had my share of apple ciders before, so I know the recipe isn’t difficult. But 9999 gold? Come on Muffet. That’s price gouging. You know we all scrounged to pay for it, just to avoid having to fight you. And for the record, I never stepped on any spiders.

Most cider recipes are pretty basic. Apple cider (or apple juice) jazzed up with some spices. I like this recipe by Pretty Cake Machine because she adds an amazing sugar spiderweb to the top of her spider ciders. Check it out:

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All right, because I love these cider webs so much, I’m going to give you the recipe for the cider here, but you’ll have to go to Pretty Cake Machine for the instructions on how to make the webs.

SPIDER CIDER

  • 1 quart apple cider
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 5 allspice berries
  • 10 cloves
  • 1 small orange, slices
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
  1. In a large saucepan, combine the first group of ingredients. Heat on low for 30-40 minutes or until steaming nicely; do not bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and strain the cider to remove all the spices.
  2. In a small saucepan, combine the berries and sugar with 2 tbsp of the mulled cider and bring to a boil. Boil for about 3 minutes, stirring regularly, until the berries have broken down. Mash the berries thoroughly, then run the syrup through a sieve to remove the berry skins. Stir the blueberry syrup into the mulled cider.

Enjoy,

Tim Kane

 

 

Eat Your Undertale Obsession: Spider Cider Doughnuts

I’ve spent the past month playing through Toby Fox’s Undertale. Twice. If you’ve never heard of the game, go check it out. It’s amazingly addictive.

Be aware. If you haven’t played Undertale yet, they may be some minor spoilers in this post.

Anyway, I played with my daughter (she actually did all the work). We ran the neutral route first, not knowing that you could spare people. We ended up killing Toriel, which haunted us for weeks. Finally, we restarted and ran a pacifist route.

On our second try at the game, I noticed how many food items were scattered around the Underground. Of course, we snatched up as many as possible to be able to survive some of those boss fights. (Ahh Mettaton!)

Then I discovered that recipes for these foodstuffs exist all over the Internet. So I thought I’d collect them here.

First off, we have Muffet’s Spider Cider doughnuts

Muffet

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We never got a chance to try these because we only encountered them outside of Muffit’s lair. If you’ve played the game, you know that here they cost 9999 gold. Too rich for my blood.

Spider Cider Doughnuts

Spider Cider Doughnuts

I found this recipe on Jaybug Jimmie’s Web but the recipe is originally from toxiccaves. The recipe is shown below. I added the salt because, as a home baker, I know salt enhances the flavor of the other ingredients.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1/3 cup of sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons of apple sauce
  • 4 tablespoons of apple cider
  • 1/2 cup of milk
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 4 teaspoons of vegetable oil
  • Purple food coloring (a mix of red and blue)
  • Sprinkles

Directions

  1. Preheat your oven to 325° F.
  2. Mix together the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking soda, salt.
  3. Mix the wet ingredients in a separate bowl: applesauce, apple cider, milk, oil, and vanilla extract.
  4. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry ones, and mix. Once thoroughly blended together, add a few drops of purple food coloring until the batter is the right shade of purple.
  5. Pour the batter into a donut pan, (or a muffin tray is a fine substitute) and then pop it in the oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until a toothpick test comes out clean.
  6. Once they are done and have cooled down, roll them in a cinnamon sugar, or a glaze (made of powdered sugar and water).
  7. To decorate, look for spider-shaped sprinkles (best available at Halloween time), or use black and purple ones. Black sugar crystals will melt into the donuts a bit and make it look like you have tiny spiders baked into the dough.

You can choose to sell your spider cider doughnuts in the ruins for a reasonable price, or jack it up just outside Muffet’s lair. Stay tuned for a Spider Cider recipe.

Tim Kane