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Writing Haunted House Stories – Building Atmosphere Through Setting
The atmosphere strikes your character with unease. Consider homes that may be in your area. You know the one: it’s the house that pedestrians cross the street to avoid. It’s a house where high schoolers dare to spend the night behind the creaky door to warily explore the strange haunts in its undefined shadows. Even though nothing tangible has actually happened, your characters are scared. This fear comes from atmosphere: the setting that surrounds your house and your characters. Atmosphere is mood, and that mood should haunt your readers long after the story is over.
So where do you start? Creating a haunted house story is a daunting and challenging task. To make things easier for yourself, set the date and time from the beginning of your story. If you’re writing a prologue, start the story with your date and time, or at least hint at the decade. Maybe your character is listening Disco Inferno right before the psychopath sets the house on fire. Maybe your heroine is shivering in the shadows, her hood soaked with sweat, praying that her lantern will burn long enough to save her. Not only does this establish your setting, but it also gives you a chance to add some dimension and foreshadowing to your story.
Pursue your readers by using the right word
Using the right word can also set the setting for your haunted house story. Consider this sentence:
Beverly Harris walked into the house.
Not very creative at all. There is little to no setting and the action is not very descriptive at all. Let’s try another set of words:
Beverly, enveloped in ripe danger, crept through the doorway.
better. They crawled it is a stronger description than a word was walking. This is an acceptable description that will most likely appeal to readers. But couldn’t we write this sentence with fewer and more ominous words? I think we can:
The house swallowed her.
Ominous, descriptive and simple. It makes the reader feel uncomfortable; thus, compassion, which should be your goal as a writer. Make your readers feel what your characters feel.
Location, location, location
Your haunted house is as much a character as the rest of the cast. It should have individuality. This should draw your characters into it, similar to how the main character hunts down the villain. It should have a personality and a story. Your main character wants something, and your house wants something too. So, what kind of character does your home have? Consider the location. It could be a French-Creole-style Bayou mansion, or it could be a simple two-story cabin in Washington State, like Stephen King’s Alan Wake. Perhaps it’s even more classic, like a fortified castle perched atop a steep cliff above a sleepy village. Each of these houses should reflect its geographical location, and its personality should be revealed from the perspective of the main character. If your house could talk, would it have an accent? How would you show it? The decor? Architecture? The location of your haunted house determines its personality. Let him speak. Let him lure your protagonist back into his swamp tendrils.
Other ways to give your home personality through setting is to recreate the environment according to how the people in their geographic region speak. People in the Deep South talk differently to each other in Miami, and people in Miami talk differently than people in Montana. People gossip about each other and everyone has different views on life. Apply this to your haunted house. Regardless of the geographic location, your home has a history and people will gossip about it. What they say and how they say it can reveal more of your home’s personality. Each time your character hears the story, his or her point of view will change. For example, Infinite written by Douglas Clegg, some of the characters who stay in the House of Nightmares see it as an ordinary house at first. Once they start hearing strange stories, paranoia starts to take over and pretty soon the house takes on a more ominous appearance. No, it doesn’t physically change. What changes is the hero’s perception of home. Your home is another character that deserves to be talked about. Everyone has secrets; your haunted house too.
Originality is vital
There are already a number of haunted house movies and books set in a wide variety of settings around the world. There are literally hundreds, if not more thousands which take place in a haunted cabin in the middle of the woods. In order for your horror story to stand up to the tough competition, it needs to be unique. It’s supposed to bring something new to a concept that’s been done over and over again. Being unique is essential to keeping your story alive. Creative writers need to be flexible. Instead of a haunted cabin in the forested Canadian mountains, maybe your story is about a floating haunted house in Puget Sound. Or perhaps consider moving your southern plantation on sunny shores to the tropics of Africa, surrounded by palm trees, monkeys and deadly coconut-sized spiders. Originality doesn’t have to be so extreme either. You may be in the colonial American suburbs of Massachusetts, but the architecture here is ultra-modern.
The last thing to consider when choosing an original setting for your haunted house story is lighting and atmosphere. Remember that the farther your home is from the equator, the sharper the hours of day and night become. For example, a haunted house located in the lowest parts of South America will spend at least a month in complete darkness in the winter and a full month in full daylight in the summer.
Enter if you dare
HP Lovecraft was a master of creating atmosphere through setting. He used descriptions of scenery and surroundings to create an ominous feeling in the reader long before his character even gets close to home. Take this example from Picture in the house:
…They climb the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles and stagger along black cobweb-covered steps under the scattered stones of forgotten cities… Ghostly forest and desolate mountains. [are] sanctuaries, and they linger around the ominous monoliths of deserted islands… But the true epicure in the terrible and unspeakable horror is the main purpose and justification of existence, most values the ancient, lonely farms in the backwoods of New England… Their strength, loneliness, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfect part of the hideous.
It paints a very complex picture with carefully chosen adjectives and a forward-looking approach. Although HP Lovecraft surpassed expectations of horror at its highest perfection, award-winning author Joe Schreiber writes a more literal description of the Round House in one of his most terrifying haunted house stories: No doors, no windows:
… It was sparse, plain, and narrow, with a curved concrete floor and smooth, almost circular black walls that didn’t look as if they had been painted black, but were somehow molded from a natural black material—some substance that literally absorbed light. There were no doors or windows. Although the passage looked straight, there was definitely some bend in it, some twist just beyond the glow of the lighter..
Both of these great examples describe a haunted house using atmosphere and setting in different ways. They work well because of strong word choice and vivid, unnatural descriptions that go beyond the details of a typical home description. Joe Schreiber didn’t just brazenly say, “The room was round.” Instead, he painted a picture so vivid that the reader simply got the feeling that this room was unnatural and that no sane person would enter it, especially if he only had a lighter.
If it’s a haunted house no haunted house?
A haunted house is not always a house. It can be an apartment or an apartment on the beach. Sometimes it is a cemetery where the spirits of the dead live, work and haunt, as in Neil Gaiman’s novel, Book of the cemetery. Haunted factories, sanatoriums, landfills, prisons, schools, caves, and even sewers can all potentially be a “haunted house” story. All the same rules apply.
If you’re serious about writing a haunted house story, the best thing you can do for yourself and your story is to read. Read all the haunted house stories you can find. Dozens. Hundreds. See how they create individuality at home. Note that each writer uses a different approach. Pay special attention to word choice and sentence flow. read read to read.
Some great recommendations:
No doors, no windows Joe Schreiber
Scary tales of horror and horror by HP Lovecraft
Hell’s house by Richard Matheson
A woman in black Susan Hill
The House of Nightmares series Douglas Clegg
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