Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)
Open up the internet any time over the past few months and you’ll see a recount of some poor soul’s encounter with a creepy clown either crooking a finger at a small child, or offering balloons from the mouth of an isolated forest trail.
But why? Clowns are bastions of merry-making, staples at kiddie parties, and the slapstick buffoons who are far more likely to hurt themselves rather than anyone else. So what’s scary?
A few things, actually, and all of which are translatable into other devices that can make your fiction unnerving too. Consider:
1. Hidden Appearances Are Frightening
We feel trepidation anytime we are faced with the unknown. A clown in full make up has concealed his identity, thus placing us at an immediate disadvantage; he knows who he is, but we know that anyone could be behind that mask. The power imbalance is something we’re aware of both consciously and unconsciously, and it elevates our sense of vulnerability. Reflect on other characters who’ve been concealed—Jack the Ripper floated out of the fog. Jason wore a mask. The Headless Horseman had no face at all. Concealed identities are scary because we don’t know who—or what—we’re dealing with, therefore the element of menace is amplified.
2. Exaggerated Features Are Eerie
Clowns have over-sized smiles (typically blood-red, which doesn’t ease our sense of unease!), and there’s something decidedly grim about a character who never stops smiling. An exaggerated, or permanent expression upends what our brain knows to be normal, and is therefore unnerving. Consider JK Rowling’s Delores Umbridge. Powder-pink and surrounded by cute, cavorting kittens, Umbridge never loses her sweet smile—even when she is torturing Harry. Her sugary countenance makes our skin crawl because it’s an exaggerated feature that is so shockingly incongruent with the wicked things she does, and the suggestion of sadism, however subtle, is far from lost on any of us. That smile she wears is unnatural, and any time we are faced with the unnatural (be it a person, place, or thing) it is scary.
3. When Reality Is Opposite of Expectation, We Get Scared
We expect clowns to be funny, or at least fun, so when they are sinister instead, our expectations are derailed and suddenly we are in a position where we are forced to question reality—and as such feel tremendously vulnerable, for who can we trust? Consider novels or films you’ve seen where something believed to be lighthearted is revealed to be anything but. The uneasiness you feel will be palpable because your trust has been breached—and now instead of being on solid planks, you’re suddenly walking on a rotting floor through which you could fall at any time…you just don’t know. I’ve attempted to utilize this technique in a new novelette I’m releasing this week in honor of Halloween: No Vacancy is all about a vintage L.A. hotel where people go hunting their Hollywood dreams…and discover their nightmares instead.
4. Clowns Are Caricatures of the Human Experience
This one’s a little more subtle, more of a psychological head-worm, yet nonetheless still powerful.When we are faced with traits we recognize as our own, less desirable attributes, it is a disquieting experience to sit in. For example, at the light end of the spectrum, when clowns are buffoons and make fools of themselves, we cringe for we can put ourselves in the shoes of that embarrassment and shame. Similarly, though, when characters act out or reflect our most depraved impulses, it is jarring—and scary. American Horror Story ‘Murder House’ did this very well. The crowd of ghosts were intensely, uncomfortably, darkly human. They did the things most people would never do…but also the things some people (maybe most people…?) have, at the very least, had a passing and deeply uncomfortable thought about. They were sick, dirty, depraved and obscene…just as we all know, deep down, we have the potential to be—and if that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is.
Scary stuff, gang. So many darkly delicious ways to make our stories sing with spooky. Other thoughts on what constitutes fearsome fiction? Please share and…BOO! Happy Halloween, one and all!
Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.
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About No Vacancy
When therapist Lucas Stephen’s sister returns from a legendary Los Angeles hotel, she’s a shell of the artist she once was. Nearly catatonic, deteriorating rapidly, Michelle alarms Lucas by painting the same old-style straight razor over and over.
Heartbroken and frightened, Lucas resolves to find out what happened to her. With his beautiful—and psychic—colleague Della, Lucas travels to L.A., booking a room in the hotel Michelle stayed at.
They barely cross the threshold when Della senses evil. She sees bodies falling out of the sky. Broken dreams. Imprisoned nightmares. She begs Lucas to leave, but the hotel makes both time and truth shift, and when Lucas looks into the mirror in his sister’s room, he sees the straight razor—and is drawn to the bright, scarlet stain of fresh blood…