Creating creepy setting or characters

Hey guys so I have been working on this scary story.
I’m not that bad with writing, but I was wondering about some advice for creating a creepy setting or character.
I really want to draw the fear out of my readers :joy:

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Hi @Code-Levi

Both of the horror stories I’ve uploaded to Wattpad have been set in isolated locations (one on a mountain top and the other in a colonial-style house in the middle of nowhere); I felt it made things scarier with the cast cut off from the rest of the world.

I also tried to make at least one element in the setting somewhat unnerving to foreshadow that something terrifying would happen later. In one story, the characters wander through a forest early on. Nothing scary happens there, but I had the trees be so thick at one part that they couldn’t see the sky and one of the characters began to feel closed in.

That leads me to another point. Pulp writer James H.S. Moynahan wrote that the most-effective way to make the audience feel something is using empathy: having the protagonists act out whatever emotions you want your audience to feel; in the case of horror, that would mean the characters acting out emotions like anxiety, discomfort and even terror. In the forest example from above, I had the main character feel more and more uncomfortable once the sky is blotted out and feel intense relief once they get out of those woods.

If you think you might be laying on a character’s reaction too thickly (which can make the story ridiculous instead of scary), try asking yourself how you, personally, would act in that situation and use that as a rough guide for how your character would react. I got this advice from a booklet by another pulp writer (and a very successful writer at that), Robert Turner.

As for characters, I think one of the most-terrifying things is an unanswered question. Carrying that idea over to characters, I think that if there’s some element about them that isn’t shown or ultimately explained, that makes them scarier. H.P. Lovecraft’s story ‘The Music of Erich Zann’ is so unsettling because Lovecraft never explains what the title character is fighting against; he only conveys that Mr. Zann is trying to fight off some horrifying, destructive force; what that force is (and how Zann’s music is able to keep it at bay) are never revealed. In one of my own stories, ‘Visitors at Midnight,’ only certain parts of the villain’s body (like its claws) are visible.

Another way you could use the “unanswered question” technique would be to have the villain kill somebody…but have the murder be “off-screen.” I’ve heard many people say that violence is scarier when it isn’t shown, when the audience is only shown the before and/or the after but not the act itself. Watch it at your own risk, but ‘Se7en’ has very much earned its disturbing reputation; one of the remarkable things about the movie is that none of the villain’s murders are shown; we only see the dead bodies after the fact, when the detectives are investigating.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. If you don’t mind my asking, what will your story be about?

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Check out critic Sean T. Collins’s explanation of what he calls the Monumental Horror Image:

This piece really helped me figure out why I found certain things scary. While it’s more geared toward movies than fiction, it also applies to the written word (and a lot of the movies he cites are based on novels). This quote sums up the basic idea:

The things you see in images like these aren’t brandishing a chainsaw or baring a mouthful of fangs, but something about them feels completely terrifying anyway. It’s not just scary, it’s wrong, like you’re seeing something that should not be.

I think that “wrongness” is what makes a setting or character truly creepy, scary or disturbing. The unnerving elements and unanswered questions that @EricMichaelHeiden mentions are aspects of this. Stuff like Pennywise in It - he’s scary because he’s an ostensibly fun, friendly figure (a clown) in a place where he shouldn’t be (the sewer).

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“A clown is funny in the circus ring. But what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight, and finding the same clown standing there in the moonlight?”–Lon Chaney

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Not claiming to be an expert. Not even claiming to be a good writer.

But like everyone, I have opinions.

Whenever I’m writing horror, I tend to lean towards believability. Whether it’s a haunting of some kind, an unstoppable monster, or psychopathic murder, in my stories I like to ride the line between plausibility and insanity. I want the reader to believe it could happen to them. I start by writing in tiny details that would seem mundane if you didn’t already know you were reading a horror story. Your main character repeatedly wakes up to find that their front and back door are both slightly ajar. Maybe, without explanation, every food item in their pantry goes rotten over night. Maybe an entire small rural town is heavily dusted in white ash, with no signs of a fire taking place. Elements like this aren’t directly antagonistic, but they add a sense of having no control and no answers. These kind of things add suspense and foreboding without pushing your reader past that “it could happen to me” feeling. Then, as the story goes on, these elements take on their own sinister intent, and the reader’s imagination can be pushed a little further. To me, extremely minor events are just as crucial to creating a malevolent setting as choosing the right location or character.

Anyway, like I said, I’m not an amazing author, but these are the kind of things that speak to me as a reader.

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M.R. James once wrote something along the lines of what you’re talking about. I don’t have the exact quote, but he basically said the best ghost stories make the reader say “if I’m not very careful, something like this may happen to me.”

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YESSSssss. Exactly. In the story I’m currently working on (PLZ), I’ve loaded it with TONS of weird facts that are very true. The message my narrator is trying to convey is extremely farfetched and unsettling, but all the truth and research I’ve put in hopefully blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not. That way they’re not just omitting the scary, weird stuff.

But yeah, “this could happen to me,” or even “it’s possible this is happening within a mile of where I stand” --that’s the kind of story that sticks with me after the last page is read.

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i find that it really helps me to set a creepy mood myself. i have a spotify playlist for every single book i’m writing and it really helps me create the creepy ish setting for the book because the songs have the right mood i’m trying to recreate. it gets me into the mood which makes me more inclined to write creepy scenes

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What are some of those songs that help you get in the horror-writing mood?

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personally for me it depends on what story i’m writing. sometimes i like the louder ones sometimes i like slower ones. what kind do you prefer for your stories?

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Usually dark ambient stuff. Occasionally, I like pieces with actual lyrics, like this horrifying rendition of an old folk song: https://thehareandthemoon.bandcamp.com/track/o-death

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oh wow i don’t think i listen to anything that dark and all my songs have lyrics but a few of the songs that help me are

for dark slower settings:
you should see me in a crown - billie eilish
the beginning of the end - klergy, valerie broussard
far from home (the raven) - sam tinnesz
you belong to me - cat pierce
cold heart killer - lia marie johnson
gods and monsters - lana del ray

for fast violent scenes:
tear you apart - she wants revenge
arsonist’s lullaby - hozier
blood // water - grandson
yellow flicker beat - lorde
dig your grave - erick serena and the killing floor
i’m a wanted man - royal deluxe

even if none of these work for you i recommend you make a spotify playlist with the song you listed above and download the computer app. at the bottom of the playlist they recommend songs that are similar to the ones in your playlist already. they actually do give really great recommendations that fit the mood of the songs you’ve already chosen.

good luck!

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Thanks! I’ll keep that in mind. My go-to music for violent or fast-paced scenes is the ‘Pounding Percussions Volume B’ album from EPIC SCORE. Here’s one of the tracks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c970tLKx5d0

The only problem is that they’re each only 30 seconds, so I usually listen to the entire album during a writing session (unless I finish the action scene quickly and move into a more-quiet scene).

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To add to the slow music list: Tito & Tarantula - After Dark (from the soundtrack to From Dusk Till Dawn)

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thanks for the rec!

I’m not sure if I’m saying the same as others but in a different way but here goes:

The scariest settings for horrors (in my opinion) are in the places people deem safe. There is nothing scarier than your safe place being turned against you. Not only can readers relate to it and place themselves in the protagonist’s shoes but the story will stick with them afterwards too.

Think of everything your main character (or you) could do to logically escape or combat whatever situation you’re creating and then make all these life lines redundant.

Also in horror a slice of believable hope is important. The hope that the horror has an end in which the main character succeeds is a fab way to stick the final knife in when it all goes to pot!

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Any unusual thing often sets the mood for uneasiness to creep in. This goes for settings, people, objects. If it acts in a way that the reader finds strange, it’ll work.

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I’m creating The Voodoo Master but I don’t know how to describe him?

I’m still working on my list.

How did you find this place? It’s a year old!

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