“Mrs. Smith claims that the building is haunted! She’s scared out of her wits!”
“Really? What’s happened? Has she ever seen anything?”
“Well, no… but she says there’s just a really weird feeling about the place. Creepy. Like she’s being watched.”
My guess is you’ve heard this exchange, or something similar, more than a few times. Now, Mrs. Smith may be full of it or maybe the building really is haunted, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the atmosphere that has caused her to believe the place is haunted; it’s gotten inside her head and made her feel uneasy.
This is something that all good horror and paranormal writing has to do, whether you’re writing a straight-up horror story or something fun or adventurous with paranormal elements. That atmosphere is what takes your reader from their world and drops them into yours.
So, how do we conjure the perfect atmosphere?
Naturally, the first thing to consider is your setting; a lot of your atmosphere comes from there. In The Lovelace & Wick Series, I made the macabre city of Marlowe, Massachusetts is its own character. This was a conscious decision I made from the start, studying cities such as Salem and Beverly. I wanted that city to have its own presence. And so, it’s described as a sort of monster, looming over its citizens. It's as though it’s a living thing. The citizens themselves are like a Greek chorus or disciples of the great monster that is Marlowe. In adding these details, I’ve automatically strengthened the sense of atmosphere; the whole setting comes alive. (And yes, there is definitely some Lovecraftian inspiration there!) Your setting should have some presence. A story that could take place anywhere might not make the same impression as one with its setting woven into the fibers of the narrative.
Next, I think it’s important to consider the intent of the scene or piece. Let’s say Author A is writing a slasher story. Mary Jane is running through the woods, but she’s totally lost and she’s running out of hope fast. The killer is out there somewhere. The whistle of the wind, to Mary Jane, is frightening, ominous, like the lonely moan of a forlorn spirit.
But Author B is writing a paranormal romance story. Lady Carmilla is awaiting her lover in the woods. The wind whistles, and its soothing to her. It sings a sweet, but melancholy song and reminds her of Count Vlad, her vampire lover who wants to make her a part of his kingdom of the undead.
The exact same detail in these two scenes adds to the atmosphere in very different ways (both in a rather hokey manner, but you get the picture). Think about what your scene is trying to achieve and how the setting can be interpreted in conjunction with that intent.
If you feel like you’re struggling with atmosphere, try this exercise. Go to a park, your bedroom, a cemetery, anywhere. Now, how does that place feel? Take a few minutes to write it all down. Is it relaxing? Lonely? Bustling? Now ask yourself why? What’s contributing to that atmosphere. Rely on those five senses. What details, if suddenly added, would change the atmosphere? What would make it suddenly eerie? Are these changes subtle? Obvious? Meaningful?
The nice thing about being an author is you can add atmospheric details that have meaning. A butterfly sailing past might represent your protagonist’s deceased grandmother. The rainy weather might reflect her sour mood. Giving meaning to your atmosphere allows your reader to become more submerged in your story.
A scene is like a little symphony—every instrument works together. Think about all the tiny details that help create the perfect atmosphere. Then, think about how that atmosphere contributes to the overall meaning of the scene. Then, think about how that scene contributes to the book as a whole. It all works together, so it’s important to always consider how it works together, especially when you’re going for that spooky atmosphere that’s perfect for your story.
Readers and writers, what do you think makes a good, spooky atmosphere?