Let’s begin with descriptions, by yours truly, of three Internet images.
But, first, a brief digression: The Internet provides a wealth of sketches, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other images to assist the writer in developing descriptions. All one needs--besides a computer, an Internet connection and a graphics browser--is an appropriate keyword. The pictures upon which the following descriptions are based resulted from a search using the keyword “eerie.” (In addition, such searches allow writers to learn more than they might have anticipated. For example, relatively few of the images in the “eerie” search were of interior locations; the vast majority were landscapes, which suggests that people tend to find the outdoors eerier than the indoors.)
Now, back to the issue at hand. Here are the descriptions:
The forest floor is lost to darkness. Against a hazy gray sky, black branches writhe like the tendrils of a monstrous, unseen beast, thickening in the distance to an impenetrable tangle that bars the fleeing youth’s way, inhibiting his escape and trapping him within the wilderness inhabited by the ravenous, bestial nightmare-creatures. Their howls are louder now; they are terribly close. (The image upon which this image is based can be viewed on Flickr.)
A snapping twig, a tumbled stone, the flight of a startled animal hidden in the brush--something had caught Drake’s attention, and he paused, turned, and looked back at the edge of the dark forest behind him, unaware of the birds that gathered above him, their wings forming truncated crosses against the leaden sky in which storm clouds gathered, dark and ominous, promising something terrible and fierce. (The image upon which this image is based can be viewed on Flickr.)
At the end of the hallway, a solitary brass lamp, itself half lost in darkness, was mounted upon the cracked and yellowing wall. Its two thin, up-thrust arms extended electric candles. Their tapered bulbs cast shadows, transforming the lamp into the visage of some dark god who mocked the light. Perhaps the dreaded deity was Lucifer himself, Emily thought. (The image upon which this image is based can be viewed on Flickr.)
To resume our digression (or, if you prefer, to digress yet again): It seems that many find the night sky and forests particularly eerie, as many Internet images show these features. If a writer needs a different type of eerie image, he or she can simply change the keyword, substituting a synonym for “eerie” or whatever the keyword is that one is using. One might try using “uncanny,” for example, or “bloodcurdling.” One may, instead, extend the keyword, by adding “room” to the original term, and changing “eerie,” for instance, to “eerie room.”
Now, back to the issue at hand.
The type of the place imagined is part of what makes an image (or a description) eerie. Shadows can also make a location eerie. Unexpected colors can transform a normally cheerful or neutral location into something sinister and chilling. Bathing a bedroom in crimson, a playroom in a ghastly green hue, or a basement in sepia can create a sense of doom and gloom. Inverting the colors of a photograph or drawing can also make something ordinary look extraordinary--and frightening. A dark figure in the corner of a room might go unnoticed the first time the chamber is scanned, so that, when it is seen on a second look, its presence startles and disturbs. A boarded up door--perhaps to a closet, a basement, or an attic--gives the viewer or the reader pause as well, for a barred entryway makes one wonder why the door is locked and what may lurk behind it. A locked door will almost always motivate a character to get inside the room beyond it--and, usually, come to a horrible end as a result. Heavy drapes are ominous, for they may hide other menaces. Mirrors are always potentially disturbing, for they may show reflections of things that one cannot otherwise see or, conversely, may not reflect otherwise visible persons, places, or things. Unexpected activity, especially if it’s weird and inappropriate--the water in an aquarium suddenly begins to froth and churn, an unplugged television set starts showing images of death and destruction, furniture begins to levitate--is also cause for alarm.
Let’s return to our descriptions and analyze why they’re written as they are and what (we hope) is eerie about the mood they create.
The forest floor is lost to darkness. Against a hazy gray sky, black branches writhe like the tendrils of a monstrous, unseen beast, thickening in the distance to an impenetrable tangle that bars the fleeing youth’s way, inhibiting his escape and trapping him within the wilderness inhabited by the ravenous, bestial nightmare-creatures. Their howls are louder now; they are terribly close.
In the United States, we learn to read books from left to right and from top to bottom. We will “read” any text the same way that we read a book (and, of course, anything can be a text). In this description, though, the writer (me) violates the normal way of reading an image, starting the reader at the bottom of the image (“The forest floor is lost to darkness”) and leading his or her eye upward, toward the sky (Against a hazy sky, branches writhe”). Images of darkness are among the first thoughts that this description puts into the reader’s mind: “darkness,” “gray,” “black.” Vision is further obscured by a “hazy. . . sky.”
Symbolically, “down” is associated with immanence, and “up” is linked to transcendence. Men and women live upon the earth; gods, upon mountaintops or in the sky (and demons, like the dead, exist under the earth). Normally, in times of trouble, religious people appeal to God for help, but the “hazy gray sky” is like a veil between this world and heaven. If there is a God, his presence is cut off, as it were, by the “hazy gray sky,” just as the “impenetrable tangle” of tree branches “bars the. . . way, inhibiting. . . escape.” There is no help to be had from on high.
The same sentence (sentence two) personifies the forest, comparing the trees’ branches to “the tendrils of a monstrous, unseen beast.” At the same time, however, the woods is also likened to a prison or a cage; its “black branches“ thicken “in the distance to an impenetrable tangle that bars the fleeing youth’s way, inhibiting his escape and trapping him.” The woods is alive; it is capable of exercising a will which, to the “youth” is hostile in its intent. The forest seeks to cut off his escape and to trap him, and it hopes to do so for a reason, so that its inhabitants, “ravenous, bestial nightmare-creatures” can catch and devour their prey.
The image upon which this description is based does not include any human figures. The “youth” is invented and added to the scene that the image depicts. The addition of the youth brings human interest to the description of the wilderness, as the woods are seen from his point of view. It is, in fact, he who makes the forest eerie, because, apart from human perception and sensibility, a woods, no matter how dark and foggy, is still merely a woods. To paraphrase a philosophical koan, If there’s no one there to see a dark and hazy forest, there is no dark and hazy forest. (“To be is to be perceived.”) There are no animals in the image upon which the description is based, either. Their addition adds to the description’s eeriness as well, for their presence transforms a merely potentially frightening scene into a truly menacing one. As the trapped youth seeks to escape his predatory pursuers, he fast loses ground. The writer allows the reader to hear what the youth hears, leaving both with the bestial creatures’ “howls,” which are “louder now” and “terribly close.” Finally, the whole paragraph is written in the simple present tense to lend as much immediacy to the action as possible.
Now, let’s consider the second description:
A snapping twig, a tumbled stone, the flight of a startled animal hidden in the brush--something had caught Drake’s attention, and he paused, turned, and looked back at the edge of the dark forest behind him, unaware of the birds that gathered above him, their wings forming truncated crosses against the leaden sky in which storm clouds gathered, dark and ominous, promising something terrible and fierce.
This one gets the reader immediately inside the character’s head, as the reader hears what Drake just heard: “a snapping twig, a tumbled stone, the flight of a startled animal hidden in the brush.” The character isn’t sure what caused the sound, but, whatever it was, it has startled him, as it might have startled an “animal hidden in the brush.” If the sound he’s heard was that of a frightened animal, the animal’s bolting from the cover of the brush suggests that Drake may also be about to flee. His senses are heightened: something has “caught his attention,” and he has “paused, turned, and looked back at the edge of the dark forest behind him.” Obviously, he hopes to hear something else, more definite and identifiable. Most people have adopted just this attitude on occasion, and the reader will be able to understand easily what Drake feels--anxiety, tension, curiosity mingled with fear. He is poised in a flight-of-fight attitude, a rush of adrenaline only a heartbeat away.
Ironically, his attention is so focused on “the edge of the dark forest behind him” that he is “unaware of the birds that gathered above him.” The real threat, the reader may think, is likely to come from above, not from behind, him, and is likely, therefore, to arrive unseen, blindsiding him. The birds are ominous. They’re black--a color associated with evil and death--and their wings resemble crosses, but “truncated,” or shortened, crosses. The cross is a Christian symbol, associated with the passion and the sacrifice of Christ, but it is here “truncated,” or curtailed. The sky is heavy and gray--“leaden”--and storm clouds gather in it, like the birds, “dark and ominous, promising something terrible and fierce.” Storms often represent energy and violent emotion, such as rage. They are associated, in the description, with blackbirds, which are often symbolic of misfortune and death, as is the “bird of ill omen” in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven.” This paragraph uses the simple past tense because this tense allows the writer to establish an immediate link between what the character, Drake, has just perceived and the reader’s own imaginary hearing of the same sound as Drake tries to identify what’s caused the noise. As Drake tries to identify the source of the sound, focusing upon “the dark forest behind him,” and fails to see the birds in the stormy sky above him, the reader may get the feeling that the character is being set up by something, as the disturbing, but possibly irrelevant, sound seems to have distracted Drake from the true threat at hand.
Let’s consider the remaining description:
At the end of the hallway, a solitary brass lamp, itself half lost in darkness, was mounted upon the cracked and yellowing wall. Its two thin, up-thrust arms extended electric candles. Their tapered bulbs cast shadows, transforming the lamp into the visage of some dark god who mocked the light. Perhaps the dreaded deity was Lucifer himself, Emily thought.
Normally, light is reassuring, but the light cast by this lamp seems anything but comforting or encouraging. It is insufficient, for one thing, “itself half lost in darkness.” What it does manage to illuminate--“the cracked and yellowing wall” and shadows that transform “the lamp into the visage of some dark god who mocked the light”--are certainly not inspiring sights. The “up-thrust arms” seem to indicate some degree of resistance to the darkness, but they could also signify nothing more than a merely defensive posture. Ironically, the bulbs cast “shadows” rather than light, and these shadows seem to have a magical, or even a demonic, character: they transform “the lamp into the visage of some dark god who mocked the light,” whom the character in the scene equates with “the dreaded deity. . . Lucifer himself,” the light-bearing angel that, in Christianity, became Satan after rebelling against God and being cast into hell.
In the first and third descriptions, a character has been added to the scenes depicted in the Internet images. In both cases, as well as in the case of the image in which a human figure is shown, that of the birds in the sky above the youth, the writer has capitalized upon the characters by using them as perceptual, emotional, rational, and narrative focal points. In addition, these characters’ situations could be given thematic significance. These descriptions create an eerie atmosphere and tone, thrusting the reader into the story, and, at the same time, accomplish several other purposes, as mentioned. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but, judging by the word count of this post, a description can be worth, on the average, at least 733 words each.