HOW TO SEND CHILLS DOWN YOUR READERS' SPINES
You're writing a horror story, or dark fantasy, or a thriller. You have a very creepy scene in mind, or a creepy villain or setting, but when you put it on paper, it just doesn't feel very creepy. What's wrong?
The biggest danger I see in going for creepy--and I'm thinking here about movies that were trying to be creepy--is straying into GROSS, SCARY, or GORY (or the dreaded CHEESY.) Not good.
The following is a list of story techniques that I find creepy. By the way, I am very, very resistant to being scared or "creeped out" by a movie and especially by a book. Hopefully that means that the few things that creep me out are really creepy.
Also by the way: I came up with this list as I was falling asleep one night, and I made myself an acronym to remember the key words the next day so I could type it up. My acronym was DRISSSIR.
D: I can't remember what the "D" stood for. Good start, eh?
R: Creepy is REAL, or as close to real as possible. For example, T-Rex in Jurassic Park wasn't creepy, he was scary. Cujo, on the other hand, was creepy as all get-out. We know that a dog really can get rabies and really can go crazy-violent. Cujo was scary, too, but the creepy factor was pretty high for me. Looked at another way, zombies stumbling around are just too cheesy to be creepy--too unrealistic.
I: Creepy INVADES or IMITATES. How about this? Your mom calls you up one evening and says she'll be over at 8. A little before she comes, you call her up and ask her to bring back the book she borrowed when she comes, and she says she doesn't know what you're talking about. She never called you. And she's not senile at all. And it's 5 of 8. The supernatural inhabiting someone we know or an average-seeming person can get very creepy.
While discussing this topic in my writing group, one person said that for him, having lots of crows sitting along a fence staring at him would be creepy. I see this as a form of invading--what evil force is inhabiting those ordinary crows? I pictured another one along these lines--imagine that everywhere you go, dogs stop what they are doing and stare at you. It would get pretty creepy.
S: Creepy might be best viewed from the SKEPTICAL point-of-view. I was never an X-Files fan, but think Moulder and Skulley (sp?). I don't feel as much creep with Moulder because he believes in the supernatural. Skulley denies it. She tries to come up with alternate explanations. Being with a POV character that embraces the supernatural just doesn't creep me out as much as the one that tries to deny it. Similarly, I think it's best if the POV character isn't screaming and running. It's creepier to see a character trying hard to pretend they're not scared. Let the reader be scared for them.
S: Creepy SUGGESTS. I think this is a big one. One of the very few short stories I've read that have given me the creeps was Terry Dowling's "One Thing About the Night" (I read it in "Year's Best Fantasy 4".) I recommend it, so I'll avoid spoilers, but some people are investigating an abandoned house with a strange room full of mirrors. There is very little supernatural in this story--just the slight, growing suggestion of it. A reader could interpret that it's all in the character's heads. It was done to great effect, and it was creepy. This one was coupled with a Skeptical POV character, which helped, and used ordinary, believable setting and mechanisms ("Real").
Here's another kooky example I thought of. A killer running around your house chasing you is scary. Finding a severed head in your house is gory. But how about thinking you hear something in your house, so you check every window and door and nothing is amiss... then (ladies), you go up to your bedroom and find a pair of your underwear laid out neatly on your bed. Things similar to this trick have been done in movies, of course, but I still think it's creepy. It suggests instead of showing directly; it could really happen so it's real; it's an invasion of the familiar--your home.
Cujo also suggested: there was the hint of something more malevolent than plain old rabies, but it was slight.
S: Creepy is SMART. Mindless zombies stumbling around isn't creepy, but what about a smart one? Hannibal Lector wasn't big and violent-looking. His intelligence was creepy, his ability to probe into your psyche. I should mention that omniscience goes too far for me--it surpasses realism. A ghostly manifestation that knows everything or is otherwise just too powerful stops being creepy (this flaw dispelled the creepiness for me in the movie "The Grudge".)
I: Creepy has INSCRUTABLE MOTIVATIONS. Not no motivations, not random motivations, not simple motivations like eating you. I mean the suggestion that the supernatural is up to something intelligent, but you're not sure what. The underwear on the bed does this: the bad guy is trying to scare me, but why did he have to lay it out so darn neatly? Hannibal Lector: you knew better than to hope that he was just helping Clarice to be nice. Does he want to escape? Get into her head? Or just plain get her?
R: Creepy uses clever REVERSALS to avoid being trite (cheesy). Hannibal Lector: instead of the mindless, violent serial killer, he's smart and listens to classical music. Ghostly forces manifesting as children always creeps me out more than the expected adults, especially when they start getting nasty (although this can stray into cheesy.) Those dogs staring at you that I mentioned--at first I thought of all the dogs snarling, but I think the reversal of them just staring is creepier. The movie "28 Days Later" was mostly just gory, but the speed with which the zombies moved was creepy--the reverse of the normal plodding zombie.
BOTTOM LINE: I doubt you can apply them all at once, but use at least a few and you can generate some genuine creepiness!
NEXT: How to avoid being pigeonholed as unoriginal before your readers even get past the cover blurb.