The Art of Writing Creepy

01 Oct

October is here and it’s the month for Halloween and all things creepy. I’ve always been intrigued by scary stories. Why does one have you on the edge of your seat and another fall flat?

Authors devote endless hours to creating the perfect villain and a believable plot, but when it comes to writing creepy, success comes from focusing on details.

Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock made their names selling all that’s eerie. Yet, perhaps their true genius lies in creating perfectly normal worlds. Their characters eat Doritos and drink root beer.  Their lives are not so different from our own. So when some small detail changes or something seems out of place, we notice.  When they focus on a bird on the fence or the color of a card in a hobo’s shirt pocket, the tension instantly rises.

Last summer, my family visited a tourist town in Tunisia. We spent ten days enjoying the beautiful beaches, touring the ruins of Carthage, and shopping in the old souk in Tunis. The weather was perfect. The sea was calm. On the surface, it was paradise.

Yet, every single person who went on that trip agreed that the place was really creepy.  The air just seemed to crackle with conflict. No one was surprised when riots broke out in front of the American Embassy, and an American school in Tunis was set on fire three months later.

I wanted to capture that uneasy feeling in my writing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what caused it.

Then I recalled my first impression in the Tunis-Carthage International Airport. Mangled bits of suitcases revolved on the creaky baggage carousel. A twisted handle here.  A crushed wheel there.  A smashed lock teetered on the edge of the otherwise empty conveyor belt.

Ridiculously unimportant details, yet I still remember them today.

I polled my fellow travelers: When exactly did you decide that place was disturbing? What was it that made you uncomfortable there?

Here’s what they said:

“The way the women in hijab whispered when we walked by.”

“That dead kitten lying in the middle of the market.”

“The waiters’ pinched mouths.  The smirk of the guy at the Internet café who always told us the Internet had just been shut off right before we got there. The way their body language always said the exact opposite of their words.”

“That guy who made us pay him for directions and then intentionally sent us down a dead end alley.”

More ridiculous details, yet you definitely get the feeling that these people did not like tourists. In a town where the economy is entirely based on tourism, isn’t that  disturbing? Aren’t you surprised we came out of that dead end alive?

I would love to hear your stories. What is the creepiest place you’ve ever been? Did it look perfectly normal on the surface? What details made you think it was eerie?


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23 responses to “The Art of Writing Creepy

  1. Liz Flaherty

    October 1, 2012 at 5:33 AM

    I avoid creepy, but I’m trying to think of where I’ve been that was… Neat post.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 4, 2012 at 1:12 PM

      Sorry to be so late to answer, Liz. I’ve been traveling without internet, but I’m grateful for your comment. 🙂

  2. johannaharness

    October 1, 2012 at 5:42 AM

    I love the way you brought together the creepy details. And yes! I’m thinking the person paying the guy to send you to the dead end must have been on a quick break when you arrived. *shiver*

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 4, 2012 at 1:13 PM

      Hi Johanna, So good to see you stopping by GSW. We miss you and hope all is well.

  3. Janis McCurry

    October 1, 2012 at 7:03 AM

    I’m with Liz. I avoid creepy! I haven’t really been to many creepy places. I remember being uncomfortable when I was alone in D.C. and walking around, but I wouldn’t define it as creepy. I’ve seen what I view as creepy people and it’s usually the way they look at me (in my mind, at least). A squinting of eyes, smirk, something that hits me wrong.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 7, 2012 at 8:44 AM

      Hi Janis, I think it’s interesting to see which writers avoid creepy. Although I remember a certain novel of yours–set in Boise–which had one very creepy setting. (The strip club.) Thanks for commenting . 🙂

  4. Liz Fredericks

    October 1, 2012 at 7:15 AM

    This is goooood, Clarissa! My creepiest place? I was with a realtor looking at houses. We were on one of the older boulevards in Boise and went into a small place . . . bit of a fixer upper but not outside my power tool rating. I went upstairs to the additional rooms, took a couple of steps into the bigger one and stopped. Such a wave of fear and cold and dread . . . I felt so little.

    Surprisingly, we did not offer on that house. 😉

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 7, 2012 at 8:45 AM

      So many people have told me that old houses give them the creeps. There must be something to it. Hmmm. . . Thanks for commenting, Liz!

  5. Judith Keim

    October 1, 2012 at 7:48 AM

    Gail, you’re so right about details making things creepy. I’m going to go through my kid story’s mysterious parts and give them a boost with details! I can think of plenty of creepy things, but after 9/11, being in an airport, any battered suitcase sitting away from any particular person is not only creepy it’s downright scary!!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 7, 2012 at 8:46 AM

      I agree with you on the airport. Some of the TSA agents are pretty creepy too! Thanks for commenting.

  6. Meredith Allen Conner

    October 1, 2012 at 8:34 AM

    I went with Liz and Peggy to visit an old campus in Albion, ID. They’d turned 3 of the buildings into haunted houses complete with spooky decorations and scary characters. The scariest building was the one that they claim is truly haunted. They don’t even bother to decorate that one. Just walking through the dark hallways is enough to send shivers up and down your spine.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 7, 2012 at 8:47 AM

      I was actually thinking of this trip when I wrote the blog, and wondered if any of you would mention Albion. That’s by far the creepiest place I’ve ever heard of. Thanks for commenting, Meredith.

  7. Marsha R. West

    October 1, 2012 at 9:26 AM

    What a great post, Clarissa. Your details captured the unease–that little hair raising something that something’s not right. Something missing that should be there–the silence when a dog should be barking. I don’t intentionally go to creepy places,but when I taught high school theatre, I had no choice. One auditorium was haunted. I swear. We ended a rehearsal early one time it was so spooky. We got the heck out of Dodge fast. LOL The worst part was going upstairs to the lighting booth by myself in a basically empty building to turn off the stage lights. Frankly, I prayed a lot on those trips. Thanks for the great reminder about details.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 7, 2012 at 8:48 AM

      Hi Marsha, sorry to be so late answering. I’ve been traveling this week. Empty auditoriums are creepy. I think that must be what inspired the Phantom of the Opera. You have such wonderful descriptions in your comments. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Peggy Staggs

    October 1, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    I love creepy. I’m the one you yell at in the movies. The one who goes to see what’s making that noise armed with nothing more than my pink fuzzy bathrobe and my 38. Okay, I’m not totally dumb. I know what you mean about the details.
    When Meredith, Liz and I went to Albion the truly spooky part for me was the B&B owner. His family was “visiting” relatives in Europe. The whole place was more like a storage unit with spaces cleared for visitors. I kept looking for freshly dug dirt.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 7, 2012 at 8:49 AM

      I love hearing your Albion stories. I wish someone would come online and defend that place. LOL. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  9. Stephanie Berget

    October 1, 2012 at 10:28 AM

    I’m a fraidy cat and avoid any place scary. The creepiest place I’ve been was Chicago in the early 80’s. It was after midnight and we needed to get gas. We got off the freeway and pulled into a station. People were walking all over the area (like it was the middle of the day) but the scary part was when I looked out the side window to the gas station attendant and saw a revolver on his hip. Not the place for us. Thanks for a great blog. You had me spooked with the little details of your trip.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 7, 2012 at 8:53 AM

      Hi Stephanie, I think that visible weapon would definitely be a warning sign for me too. I got the same feeling in Austin when the street signs said, “It’s illegal to talk to people on the sidewalk.” They might as well have posted a sign saying, “You’re in the wrong part of town. Get out of here!” Yikes.

  10. Susan Russo Anderson

    October 1, 2012 at 11:45 AM

    Thanks so much, Clarissa, for this blog: it is so spot on! I never thought of details creating spook or spook as something that creates conflict so your post has two great takeaways for me.

    I remember being in a souk in Baghdad in the early 70s and being so creeped because of the way the vendors looked at me. Their eyes as they gazed at me were so totally other, it really freaked me. (of course I was probably spooking them, a woman in western clothes.)

    Then years later I was working late at night in a high rise in Manhattan, a building that during the day held over 10,000 people and suddenly realizing I was all alone. My mind supplied the otherness of the details—the air looked different to me, the light was yellower, even my desk and the clutter around it was different. Suddenly the air blower went on and I jumped out of my skin.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 7, 2012 at 8:55 AM

      Hi Susan! Thanks for those 2 excellent examples of creepy. I feel like I need to read the rest of those books now 🙂

  11. maryvine

    October 1, 2012 at 7:38 PM

    I had two events as Liz Fredrickson said, “Such a wave of fear and cold and dread. One was in a historical graveyard in Galena, OR. I got out of there quick. The other was at an old building once used as an orphanage. Nuns and children lived on the 4th floor, now empty, but deteriorating. All the other floors were in use as a business. I thought it unusual that they didn’t use that floor, too. People were forbidden to see the 4th floor but I knew someone with a key.I felt that wave of fear and cold and dread in a few places on the floor. It is said to be one of the most haunted places in Oregon.

  12. Clarissa Southwick

    October 7, 2012 at 8:57 AM

    Thanks for some more great examples, Mary. My grandmother lived next to an ancient graveyard. When I was a kid, I thought it was terrifying. Now I think it’s one of the most peaceful places in the world. Strange.

  13. Corina Mallory

    October 8, 2012 at 11:42 AM

    What a great post! Sorry I didn’t read it earlier. I think traveling provides some creepy scenes. Here are some that I remember: a runway with a crashed plane pushed off to the side, weeds growing around the wheels, being on a tiny commuter plane that makes an unscheduled stop on a dirt runway in the middle of a jungle clearing, walking around a city center where men with assault rifles guard the entrances to perfectly ordinary looking shops, getting off a boat in the middle of the night and being instantly surrounded by children the size of your suitcase competing to carry your bag for a tip, a mid-day taxi ride from the airport in Yangon, Burma to the hotel, with not a single other car on the four lane road. Man, I miss traveling!


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