Fascinating lists!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Creating an Eerie Atmosphere and Tone

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

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.

No comments:

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

Product Cloud

You Tube Player

Loading...
There was an error in this gadget

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

Popular Posts