We’ve all read stories where we get a weird creepy feeling even though not much is happening on the page. No monsters jumping out, maybe just someone hears a noise, sees something out of the corner of their eye and it’s enough to give you the willies.
But when you try to write a scene full of psychological horror it’s not as simple as putting the character in a spooky environment and letting the reader’s imagination do the rest.
You know from real life that you can get the heebiegeebies for no good reason.
Alone in the house, a creak from upstairs, new underpants required.
But in fiction trying to foster that vibe out of simply describing its presence is like telling someone you were alone in your house and you felt scared. They’ll understand what you mean, but will they feel the fear?
Now tell them your ex rang you and said he was going to kill you, and then you heard a creak from upstairs. Even if it turns out to be as meaningless a creak as the first version of the story, the possibility it could be something real is enough to engender a chill in the person listening.
A direct threat in a story — a monster attacking, a killer in a frenzy, a character hanging from a ledge — is easy to understand both for the reader and the writer. If you want to establish a dangerous situation all you have to do is write a character in obvious danger.
An indirect threat isn’t so easy to create. By indirect I mean a sense of unease that crawls up the back of your neck. When it comes to writing a scene like that it isn’t as straightforward as having the character act all nervous and jumpy, even though it can feel like that’s what other writers do, and it seems to work.
But it’s easy to look at an effectively written scene in isolation and not take into consideration all the other factors adding to the effect.
By way of example I’m going to use a couple of scenes from Stephen King’s The Shining (the book, not the movie).
In the first scene, Jack is in the grounds of the Overlook Hotel doing his custodial duties of trimming the bushes. There are a number of large animal-shaped shrubs that he has to smarten up, which he does, but when he turns round the animals seem to have changed positions, then moved, then close in on him. And then they’re back to their normal positions.
I’m sure you can see how this scene would be unsettling. And it is. There’s a definitely a creepy vibe to it. But it is far more about a man who thinks he’s hallucinating or possibly losing his mind (he’s under a lot of pressure) than it is scary.
Later on there’s another scene where Jack goes up to investigate a room in the hotel after his son, Danny, claims to have seen a woman in there. He finds nothing, but he starts thinking he isn’t alone in there. Again, this is presented through Jack’s eyes as not being too sure if what he’s seeing and hearing is real or imagined, and we never actually see anything, but this scene is terrifying and really makes your skin crawl.
So what makes one scene get under the skin and not the other? Both are well written and have a definite unsettling vibe to them, and if anyone can write a good scary scene it’s Stephen King. But there is one big difference between the two.
In the first one with the topiary, Jack is alone and freaked out, but his fear is more for his sanity than it is of the bushes doing him any harm. And the reader is similarly not sure exactly what the danger is from being jumped on by a bunch of leaves.
With the other scene in the hotel room, it is preceded by another scene where the son, Danny, goes into the room and he actually does see what’s in there: a naked dead woman in the bath who gets up and grabs him...
But while you can see why the scene with the kid is horrifying, what has that got to do with the later scene with the dad?
The thing is we know when the dad, Jack, goes into the hotel room that there is something in there. And that makes a big difference to how we perceive Jack’s nervousness about looking behind the shower curtain.
That doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything to the reader before you can scare them, but it helps a lot to make the reader feel the threat is real.
If the threat is real then the reader will feel tense even if that threat doesn’t materialise.
Convincing the reader that there is the possibility of real danger, harm or loss is a complex thing. I can show the monster, or I can show you what’s left of the monster’s victim, or the effect of the monster on the locals, or the size of the police presence; or just a news report on in the background. And after all that it can still turn out the threat wasn’t real, just a guy in a mask (he would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids).
My point is that just because you establish the level of danger doesn’t mean you narrow the scope of the kind of story it will be. You can still decide to not reveal specifics of who or what is the source of the danger, you can reinterpret signs as new information comes to light, and you can even mislead your audience.
Making it clear there is a real threat out there in the woods and not just some agitated squirrels will make every trip into those woods a tense affair, whether it’s a monster hunter with a gun or a kid chasing butterflies.
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