First, let me say that this is what my average family gathering looks like around the holidays. The poisonous mushrooms steaming up grandma’s crystal platter. The live goldfish flitting about wide-eyed in their bowl, wondering if they’ll be swallowed whole or if cousin Octavia will get a hold of them first. Cousin Octavia likes to play with her food. Then there’s the questionable Jell-o, the stuffed gecko and Aunt Muriel’s bottle of Chanel No 5. Always handy when the still-beating heart hidden under the floorboards starts to smell.
Okay, my real family gatherings aren’t quite so grim, but they would make a good setting for a tummy-turning tale. So what are the secret ingredients to a juicy, brain-curdling yarn?
1. Go with your gut.
Literally. Does a bowl full of dripping eyeballs and nondescript ear bits send that morning’s Greek yogurt streaming up the back of your throat? Does the idea of finding a curly hair lurking at the bottom of your cereal bowl make you want to throw down the Corn Flakes and run? Good, then write that. If your goal is to gross people out, you have to write outside your comfort zone. The farther out the better. If you’re not squirming in your seat, readers won’t be either.
2. Choose the right details.
When you’re writing creepy, you can’t always rely on horrifying, spine-tingling adjectives to freak out your readers. Sometimes, a well-chosen detail, especially one readers aren’t expecting, causes more chills. Take this line from Neil Gaiman’s Click-clack the Rattlebag:
“Well,” he said, sagely, soberly, a small voice from the darkness beside me, “once you’re just bones and skin, they hang you up on a hook, and you rattle in the wind.”
Seriously, that hook is killing me with awesome. And the sound of his skin bag rattling in the wind. Yes and yes! Now what about this gem from Stephen King’s The Stand:
“There were worse things than crucifixion. There were teeth.”
Teeth! Holy smokes, wasn’t expecting that. It’s the perfect detail to set my pearly whites on edge. Finally, consider this line from Larisssa Theule's demented little gem, Fat and Bones.
“In less time than it had taken for Bones to hang up his hat, Mrs. Bald had dissolved into a mass of skin, fingernails, and hair, lying helpless on the floor. Only her eyeballs remained their original shape.”
It’s those fingernails that get me. And the eyeballs, of course. It always comes back to the eyeballs.
3. Involve multiple senses.
We’ve already heard how creepy a skin bag can be when it rattles in the wind. Now imagine what a bag of skin and bones would feel like if you touched it. Dry and peeling? Sticky? Damp? What about the puddle on the floor that used to be Mrs. Bald? That would definitely be sticky, but how would it smell? It’s always important to involve multiple senses for truly titillating descriptions, but that’s especially true when you want to give readers the creeps.
So, the next time you sit down at your dusty keyboard in that forgotten cabin in the woods, don’t forget to employ these three tips to give your sentences that extra shiver.