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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Writing Scenes That Creep You Out!

Posted by Author R. Ann Siracusa
What is it about a scene or novel that makes it creepy? What things do you find scary?
Part of the appeal of reading is being able to walk in the shoes of another person: to do things the reader hasn't done, to experience the emotions the average person doesn't have the opportunity to feel, or to feel them to the fullest, without risk. The operative words being "without risk".
It's all about how the characters feel and react to events and about how that makes the reader feel.
The setting of a scene, or a novel, is the time and place the events unfold; where the scene/novel takes place. 
Simple enough. The mood or atmosphere of the scene is established by the sensory details and by the feelings and reactions of the characters to those details, based on their personalities in general and their moods, or emotions, at the time. Different people react differently.
"Both setting and atmosphere are central to your story: they both rely on and influence the plot." [Author Terri Giuliano Long]
Select the best setting for each scene to enhance the mood of the character or to cause the character to react in a way that moves the story forward or builds the character.
If you want to evoke the feelings of "creepy" or "scary" in a scene, you must understand the underlying psychological basis for fear and how that relates to place.
While people, particularly children, can be taught to fear, evolutionary psychologists suggest fear exists as a primal emotion, a process that has evolved to protect us from predators, enemies, and other harmful situations. Human beings possess and use the five senses to detect exposure and danger.
To write "scary", the writer must provide the sensory details in words. The character(s) must use his senses and react to those details.
Jay Appleton, a British geographer, is credited as the first to describe what makes a place attractive or frightening to humans. "The more prospect and refuge a place offers, the more attractive it is."  [Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.- Psychology Today]
In this context, "prospect" means a clear and unobstructed view of the landscape [what is around us]. "Refuge" is defined as a secure, protected place to hide -- shelter from danger. "Places where you can see, but not be seen; eat, and not be eaten." Landscape architect Randolph Hester refers to it as a "Womb with a View."
Therefore, scary places will be exposed and potentially dangerous locations with little or no ability to see what is around us.

Creepy or scary feelings come from anxiety stirred up by the ambiguity of whether or not there is something to fear and/or the ambiguity of the precise nature of the threat that might be present.The writer has to create that anxiety using words to describe the setting, the sounds, and inner feelings. Use all five senses.
The following can be used to create anxiety:
Sense of something bad will happen but you don't know what 
Use all six senses plus to create this feeling. The word you use need to resonate with the character and the reader. 

 Example: Lightning Storm

Example: Ararat Gaol, Australia

Time of Day

 Example:A sunrise
Unusual lighting

 Example: Eerie Street Lighting

The Unfamiliar     

 Example: I.M. Cooling Tower, Belgium
The Otherworldly

Example: Maunsell Sea Forts, Steel towers, East coast,UK
Things associated Aging and Decay
Danvers State Insane           Abandoned House, Holland Island
● Things associated Death

Abandoned Cemetery                Sicilian Catacombs

Things associated Abandonment - Lacking human presence/ support systems

Example: Six Flags Jazzland, after Hurricane Katrina
● Feeling trapped – not enough space – claustrophobic – invasion of personal space

Example: Crowded Elevator

Heights – fear of falling 
● Words and images that we have been trained to understand as representing danger
 Example: Snake
● Things that violate the laws of nature as we understand them 
Regardless of culture or upbringing, the unknown always poses a threat because we don't know what to expect. The writer's job is to put those feelings into words which convey it to readers (and to the characters).
Another shared characteristic of "scary" is the blurred relationship with death and the body. "Humans are obsessed with death; we simply have a hard time wrapping our mind around what happens when we die." [Allegra Ringo Atlantic Monthly]
Anything that doesn’t make sense or causes us some sort of dissonance, whether it is cognitive or aesthetic, is going to be scary (axe-wielding animals, masked faces, contorted bodies).
Through fear conditioning (connecting a neutral stimulus with a negative consequence) we can link pretty much anything to a fear response. Suspense involves creating anticipation that something bad will happen, but not knowing when it will occur or its precise nature.
Not all people do, but we spend billions of dollars every year on movies, television, games, books, sports, and other experiences that trigger the fight-or-flight response that is in all of us, the thrill that comes with adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine flooding through us.
However, for most people, in order to really enjoy this feeling, they need to know they are actually in a secure place and the danger is "imaginary".
Our minds do a great deal to promote creepy feelings based on our upbringing, experiences we've been exposed to, values, things we've hear, read or seen, things we have mental conceptions of as ugly, scary, terrifying, dangerous. These things take root in our imaginations and blow themselves into "what ifs?"
The Riddle House, Palm Beach Florida, is listed by some as one of the most terrifying places on earth.[]
"Say what?"
Even knowing that it used to be a mortuary and that a hanging took place inside didn't make it scary to me. Words describing the house as seen in the photograph wouldn't have me on the edge of my chair.
I can't say the same for the following abandoned house in Namibia, Africa, filled inside with knee-deep sand, or the Island of Dolls outside Mexico City.
Those images trigger feelings of dread because they push buttons in our brains that evolved long before houses even existed. These alarm buttons warn us of potential danger and motivate us to proceed with caution.
It isn't so much that anything there poses a clear threat, but because it is unclear whether they represent a threat or not. This ambivalence gives us that "frozen in place" feeling, making us ill at ease.
If you want your characters, and your readers, to feel their skin crawling, to breath heavily, and start at every sound, set your scene with careful words that evoke the sense of suspense and anxiety. "Words are powerful, and you should take advantage of your word choice to manipulate how you want the reader to feel about a scene."
The following are photo of some other creepy places from
.  Study them to see if they look creepy to you. Post a comment about what aspects of the photo(s) are scary or creepy. Put those feelings in words. I'm anxious to know how others react to them.

Car Graveyard         

Sunken Yacht  in Antarctica


Pripyat Amusement Park, near Chernobyl in the Ukraine, had to be abandoned a few days before it opened
with a novel by Author R. Ann Siracusa
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Melissa Keir said...

There's so much to include when you want to set the mood. Wonderful post! :)

Cara Marsi said...

Your post and the pictures scared me. There are a lot of things that creep me out. I suppose suddenly coming face-to-face with a scary stranger on a dark street would be at the top.

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