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

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Two Amazing Short Horror Films

Okay, I’ve seen plenty of zombie films. So have you. What could possibly come along to freshen up such an overworked genre? Dring of the Dead is your answer. A five minute French film that will make you laugh as it gives us a new take on zombies. The whole “walking dead apocalypse” has become such a standard trope, that filmmakers can now use it to introduce new ideas. When the lead character is running pell mell down the street, we easily accept that a zombie as the reason why. His accidental solution to the problem of being eaten is amazing. Check it out.

This other short is Lovecraftian gold. Called Black Gold, it is the brainchild of Hank Friedmann. It reminds me a little of the 1980s flick Mazes and Monsters with Tom Hanks. Only in Black Sugar, the teens take a Chthonian drug that looks like a flourescent Twinkie. The kids are transported to a world where Cthulhu creatures rule. Or are they? The viewer isn’t sure if this is real or simply a hallucination brought on by the drugs. Either way, this would be a terrific anti-drung advert. No one would touch drugs after seeing what happens to these kids.

Black Sugar from Hank Friedmann on Vimeo.

Here’s a clip from Mazes and Monsters to make you feel better after watching Black Sugar.

Enjoy your 15 minutes of horror entertainment. Remember: Shop Smart. Shop Smart.

Tim Kane

Creepy Webcomic with Pale White Corpses

I stumbled across the webcomic Out of Skin and was taken by the stark language and stunning, almost greytone, graphics.

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 5.36.14 AM

The prose also delivers: “The moon shone clean and white as a skull.”

The story is a period piece, perhaps late nineteenth century. It centers around a woman, who lives alone in the woods, discovering a grave of pale corpses uncovered by the rain. The mystery of what happens drags her down some creepy paths. Namely a tree with flesh for bark and hands for leaves.

Screen Shot 2013-11-01 at 5.41.52 AM

Truly a work of fiction that delves into some deep places of horror. Read and enjoy.

Tim Kane

Scare Yourself Silly in Just Two Sentences

I’ve read plenty of horror stories in my day. Most have to warm up to the scare. The following is a collection of micro-fiction each only two sentences long. That’s right, two sentences. This whole micro-horror movement started with a post on Reddit. Now it’s exploded into a new art form.

Barbara Steele from La Maschera del Demonio

Barbara Steele from La Maschera del Demonio

These stories were found at the Thought Catalog

I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.” I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”

posted by justanothermuffledvo

I always thought my cat had a staring problem, she always seemed fixated on my face. Until one day, when I realized that she was always looking just behind me.
posted by hangukbrian
She wondered why she was casting two shadows. Afterall, there was only a single lightbulb.
posted by pgan91
They delivered the mannequins in bubble wrap. From the main room I begin to hear popping.
posted by Mikeysrventyfive
My daughter won’t stop crying and screaming in the middle of the night. I visit her grave and ask her to stop, but it doesn’t help.
posted by Skuppy
After working a hard day I came home to see my girlfriend cradling our child. I didn’t know which was more frightening, seeing my dead girlfriend and stillborn child, or knowing that someone broke into my apartment to place them there.
posted by cobaltcollapse
The longer I wore it the more it grew on me. She had such pretty skin.
posted by blaqkmagick
These micro-horror stories came from a site called Two Sentence Stories
The tiny creatures came through the rift from another universe. They look funny, with only four limbs and single head, but they taste great.
posted by Alex Sivier
The water of the lake was smooth,blue,glassy and warm as it reflected the green mountains surrounding it.Billy hung from his Grandfather’s vice like grip over the edge of the boat,the familiar but stern voice echoing in his head “Sink or Swim little buddy.”
posted by Saberblue
Donna was quite pleased with how dinner turned out. Her guests had eaten the evidence.
posted by Les W
Gloved hands tightened around his windpipe and red darkness flooded his vision. Then came the whisper, warm against his ear, “there was no need to give my stories only one star.”
posted by Graham Land

Tim Kane

Three Films That Will Scare the Pants Off You in About a Minute!

We all like to be scared, but sometimes it takes too long. To be able to build atmosphere and reach the scare in just a few minutes is a feat. Look at these three films, that scare you in ever decreasing amounts of time.

Sukablood scares you in 6 and a half minutes. It’s a twist on a fairytale and teaches you not to suck your thumb.

Suckablood – short fairytale horror from BloodyCuts.co.uk on Vimeo.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 1.11.13 PM

Mama is a preview of a film by Guillermo Del Toro. He manages to scare the heck out of you in 2 minutes.

One Last Dive is the fast scare in town. It goes from normal to terrifying in 1 minute.

One Last Dive from jasoneisener on Vimeo.

Screen Shot 2013-10-27 at 1.10.29 PM

Check these out and see if they scare you.

Tim Kane

Five Funny Undead Movies

Everyone likes to be scared. (Okay, not everyone. But if you’re reading this, then yes, you do.) But how about giggling during your brain eating? Not every horror flick needs to be a serious spine tingler. Humor can liven up a scary flick. What follows are the funniest zombie (or zombiesque) films around.

5 Evil Dead

Rami has a gift for delivering chills and gags all at the same time. The demon possessed folk aren’t exactly zombies, yet they stumble around asking Bruce Campbell to “join them.” This is probably the most serious of the bunch, but still good fun.

4 Dead Alive

Everyone knows Peter Jackson from The Lord of the Rings. Few know that he started with slapstick horror. Honestly, you can’t get more gore than Dead Alive. It takes gross to a whole new level. But the film is dead on funny. It has a zombie baby, a plague infested rat, and a kung fu practicing priest. “I kick ass for the Lord.” Come on, give it a go.

Zombie baby

3 Evil Dead II

If the first Evil Dead was great, the squeal is awesome. But this isn’t really a continuation of the story. It’s a remake with a bigger budget and more laughs. Bruce Campbell (aka Ash) has to do battle with his severed hand. He replaces his lost appendage with a chainsaw and proceeds to cut up some demon possessed people. All while black blood spews everything. For fun, count the number of head injuries Ash sustains in the film.

Ash tripping out as the house creaks and lamps start dancing.

2 Shaun of the Dead

This movie simultaneously pays homage to nearly every great zombie flick while making you roll over laughing. One of the best scenes is one that would probably happen in real life. Simon Pegg (Shaun) is going through his morning routine of picking up a soda and an ice cream from the corner shop. He fails to notice the staggering corpses in the streets or the bloody hand print on the glass door.

1 Dead and Breakfast

This is a highly under appreciated movie. Watch this and you will never look at blueberry pie the same again. It has it all. Line dancing zombies (alright, possessed people, but they act like zombies). A person’s head used as a hand puppet. And David Carradine.

Eating blueberry pie and ignorant of the gore behind him.

Tim Kane

What to Read: Three Different Categories of Fiction

You have to know yourself as a reader. Which type of fiction do you lean toward? Knowing the different kinds of fiction can certainly help. I get totally into this—my Master’s thesis being on genre studies. But I’ll save wordy for a doctoral thesis and give you the reader’s perspective.

Realistic or Literary Fiction
These are the books that deal with real life. They’re usually called literary fiction in bookstores, but I also lump in realistic fiction, because that applies better to young adult books. Basically these books focus more on characters and their personal problems over plot. There is a line that divides literary form realistic. Literary can often be very self-absorbed and even be devoid of plot. Realistic fiction typically has some semblance of a problem and resolution.

Some good examples (pulled from my favs) are:

Genre
These books are defined by their plot structures. Characters can be secondary and will sometimes follow stereotypes. Readers return to these books because we know what to expect. Certain situations and settings reoccur over and over. There are many different types of genres, such as: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller, Romance, and Mystery.

Some more favs:

Genre Pastiche
This is where things get interesting. Since the 1980s, films had run the gamut of genre and began mashing them up. Books are doing the same. One of the most popular pastiches is paranormal romance (horror and romance). This allows readers who love genre, to mix things up.

Final set of favs:

  • Horror + Realistic Fiction: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • Science Fiction + Fantasy: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • Fantasy + Realistic Fiction: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Next time you look for a good read, think about the type of read you are. Choose your book based on your tastes. If you have a writing bent, then check out how to write for each genre.

Tim Kane