Creating the Horror Atmosphere

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

You know, I never realized it wasn’t spelled ‘Cemetery’ until now.  All I remember is that this covered always freaked me out and was responsible for me not trusting a neighborhood cat for a week.  It looks creepy even though you don’t know the specifics of the story.  Again, I guess when it comes to horror, so you can only take my opinions and advice so far.  Further if you buy then a few drinks.

I’m going to try to explain something that I’m forming in my head as I write this.  I try to touch on multiple senses with my writing by describing things that relate to each sense.  You can feel the breeze, sea the fantasy city, taste the food, smell the flowers, and hear the goblins sneaking up on you in the alley.  I do it to create an atmosphere and draw you into Windemere where you have fun.  Yet, I’m sure a few tweaks and you have what many horror authors do.  It’s all about atmosphere and finding a way to keep the reader tense as they move through the story.  A scary cover simply kicks things off by working off the sense of sight.

So, what can you do for each sense?

  1. Sight– Cover aside, you can touch on what the character sees.  Maybe have things slowly come into view, use fog to make the area ambiguous, or use short, abrupt sentences like a verbal pounce.  One trick can be to have the character unsure as to what he or she is seeing, so the reader starts to wonder.  Is that a chair or a murderous beast crouched to pounce?  You don’t know until the light shifts or the thing moves, so you can draw the discovery out just enough to make either answer have a strong result.  That would be relief both ways, but one is messier than the other.
  2. Hearing– If action and adventures depend on big noises like dragon roars and explosions then horror is at the other end of the spectrum.  The dripping of a faucet at night, something tapping on the window, and the list goes on.  I think this might be more important than sight because many horror stories take place at night when you’re more dependent on your ears.  Think about how a person is wandering through a dark forest and they can barely see.  Noises are what will freak them out and drive them into action or in certain directions/traps.
  3. Smell– I’m not really sure how much this one will be used unless you establish a certain scent as a sign of trouble.  Sulfur smells for demons can work or a smell that is associated with a ghost’s previous life.  If you establish these then mentioning them in passing will activate the caution of the character and reader.  This doesn’t always mean an attack too.  Could just be that the creature was there or is passing by.  You have to balance false alarms and real attacks with this.
  4. Taste– I’m even less sure here.  Possibly a taste of decay on the breeze or if someone is tricked into eating human flesh.  Though I do know that some people get a metallic taste in their mouth when they’re terrified.  Something tells me that taste works better in conjunction with smell or touch.  For example, tasting something foul or familiar on a breeze.
  5. Touch– You can have a lot of fun with this one because a terrified person tends to have an immediate reaction to being touched without warning.  There’s also using the sense of something briefly touching them that can enhance a scene.  Nothing severe like punches and kicks, but gentle grazes and contact that a person might not even be sure happened.  Again, I think the point of aiming for the senses in horror is to create suspense and put as many of them on edge as possible.

That’s all I can think of here.  A lot of it would depend on story, setting, and the type of monster/villain you’re working with.  Wolfman might not be gentle touching, but a ghost could do it.  Any horror experts out there want to weigh in and tell me where I went wrong?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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12 Responses to Creating the Horror Atmosphere

  1. sknicholls says:

    That cover freaked me out too. Purrfect!


  2. Great post, just enough to get the Muse working.


  3. Wordlander says:

    Sound is definitely a major part of horror. The best horror films, in a medium when visuals are often given prominence, always use good sounds. Watch a horror film with the sound off its far less scary! So sound is an important thing to describe in horror stories.


  4. I guess the King can get away with that. I also typed Pet Cemetary in Amazon right now and his book with different spelling was, of course, the first match. That makes two things that don’t apply to us. 🙂


  5. I think you’ve hit on something with combining the senses. A gentle breeze that carries an unpleasant odor creates tension through the contradiction of sensory input.


    • Never really thought of the contradiction. Though I’ve used it before, I never really delved into the usage. You’re right that it brings an odd sense of ‘wrong’ to the readers’ and characters’ minds.


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