Creepiness is a science.
Well, it’s a word that describes a feeling to be evoked. Evoking that feeling is a science. Some people might be born with this instinctively, inspiring it in everything and everyone he or she (usually he) encounters. Others have to work for it, but once they can grow a mustache, he or she (again, usually he) has it down pat.
Feeling that a person, object, or place is creepy… well, it’s not something we generally seek in real life, but it’s something we actively seek in fiction. And while some people manage to do this naturally and successfully in fiction, we mere mortals might need a bit more work to get there.
A fair amount of creepiness is generated by simple word choice, it must be said. Just like using specific colors in a picture, you can adjust your text for a creepier punch by choosing different words to say what you want to say. Warm and moist might paint a different picture than humid, for instance.
Similarly, choosing the details you include in your word picture could change the feel of the scene. Describing the sensory details— and using sensory words to convey those details, rather than more cognitive verbage— could make things more visceral. Of course, you already know all this. These are fairly standard techniques for writing horror or just good, vivid storytelling.
A little while ago, however, I started to realize part of creepiness that doesn’t involve word choice or sensory details— in other words, the macro element of the creepy, rather than the micro. While pretty much any scene can become creepy, it isn’t only a product of micro-editing it into submission.
Let’s look at what makes something creepy. It’s a term we like to throw around about people in scraggly mustaches and cocked heads, or houses with broken windows and a fence that’s falling down. Both are curious when you notice them in broad daylight, and they don’t notice you back. But in a narrow hallway, or encased in shadow, you pick up your pace.
What makes it creepy, though? The darkness? The dark has stars, and cats with eyes. The narrow hallway? It might have pictures of seasides on the walls, or a bright window at the end with a dusty windowsill. None of this is creepy in itself. You could be watching the dead old house from that window in the narrow hallway, and only feel curious. You could pass the facial hair in the night, and the dark keeps you anonymous. So what’s the deal?
In both of these examples, there’s something strange going on. For one, a thin stain of a mustache. For another, emptiness. It’s a little strange that someone with such a nasty mustache doesn’t realize it’s such a nasty mustache, or that their piercing gaze is a little too piercing. It’s a little strange that a normal-looking house is in such bad disrepair, as if people don’t want to go near it.
But strange stuff? Pshaw. That’s what we deal with every day. We want something strange, or else our tale is as dull as the flat end of a brick. So what separates the awe-inspiring labyrinthine library from the creepy labyrinthine library?
You could say it’s the way they’re described. It’s got books. It’s got shelves. It’s got one on top of the other and vice versa. What could be different except the character’s reaction?
Well, yeah, it’s the character’s reaction. That influences the word choices and the details that stick in your mind, but again, that alone can’t make it creepy. But how does the character react to the strange? Is it something to explore or something to beware? What makes them react that way? I know, I’m just restating the question again and again, but I’m going someplace. Bear with me.
Both exploration and wariness indicate something hiding beneath the surface. In the first case, it’s something to uncover— what’s inside that library? What’s inside that broken-down house? Who is that man with the mustache? In the second, it’s something to avoid, because you fear for yourself. How will I ever find my way back through those shelves? What’s waiting behind that rickety wall? Why is he looking at me that way?
In the second examples, in the creepy examples, there’s something malicious behind the scenes. Something you can’t see, but which will cause you harm. Something that’s waiting for you to do something you don’t think is that dangerous. Something you don’t recognize yet, or can’t pinpoint, but you can imagine, and imagining is the worst part. Suddenly, looking around corners becomes the worst part. Turning your back to any shadowy crevice is a struggle. Just holding a conversation— acting interested in a guy who is way too interested in you— is impossible.
You don’t know the rules of this game, but you’re playing it. Every step you take is toward danger. Everywhere you look is away from what’s about to eat you. Everything you say is encouraging something twisted.
And that’s creepy.
Not because it’s different. Not because you don’t understand this. Not even because you’re wary of the outcome. New friends are different. You don’t understand alien social behavior. You’re wary about walking on ice. But when the new friend is now sniffing you, or the alien is now harvesting your skin, or did something just hit the ice… from underneath?
Creepiness is a feeling of unseen malevolence that you don’t understand how to escape.
Easy ways to heighten this sense? The character is alone— no one to help, no one to think things through. The environment is hidden— no way to see around the next corner, everything buried in darkness. And, as already mentioned, word and detail choice. The character can be in a group, but you can find a way to make them alone anyway. The scene could take place in a well-lit, wide-open space, but you can find a way to hide the rules anyway. And if the scene is well-lit and wide-open, you can still find a way to make the description more sensory than not.
I didn’t want to call creepiness the same as horror, but in good hands they’re one and the same. People tend to think of gore and whatnot with horror, but creepiness isn’t about all that. You will get much further with pure confusion and disquiet than you will with blood’n’guts.
Go creep ’em out.