Writing Haunted House Stories – Building Atmosphere Through Setting

Atmosphere strikes your character with unease. Consider the houses that might be in your neighborhood. You know the one: It’s the house that pedestrians cross the street to avoid. It’s the house that high school students dare to spend a night, beyond the creaking doors to warily explore the strange whimpers within its indefinable shadows. Even though nothing tangible has actually occurred, your characters are afraid. This fear comes from the atmosphere: The setting that surrounds your house and your characters. Atmosphere is the mood, and that mood should haunt your readers long after the story is over.

So where do you begin? Creating a haunted house story is a frightening and daunting task. To make things easier on yourself, establish the date and time from the beginning of your story. If you write a prologue, begin the story with your date and time or, at the very least, give hints to the decade. Perhaps your character is listening to Disco Inferno just before a psychopath sets the house on fire. Perhaps your character is trembling in the shadows, her bonnet is drenched with perspiration and she’s praying for her lantern to stay lit long enough to be rescued. This not only establishes your setting, but also gives you a chance to add a bit of dimension and foreshadowing to your story.

Haunt Your Readers Using the Correct Word

Using the right word can also establish the setting in your haunted house story. Consider this sentence:

Beverly Harris walked into the house.

Not very creative at all. There’s barely a setting and the action is not very descriptive at all. Lets try another set of words:

Beverly, overwhelmed with incipient danger, crept through the doorway.

Better. Crept is a stronger description than the word walked. This is an acceptable description that readers would more likely enjoy. But couldn’t we write this sentence in fewer and more ominous words? I think we can:

The house consumed her.

Ominous, descriptive and simple. This causes the reader to feel discomforted; therefore, empathetic which should be your goal as a writer. To make your readers feel what your characters are feeling.

Location, Location, Location

Your haunted house is a character just like the rest of your cast. It should have a personality. It should draw your characters into it, much like a protagonist is hunting for a villain. It should have a personality and a history. Your protagonist wants something and your house wants something too. So what kind of personality does your house have? Consider the location. It could be a bayou mansion decorated in a French-Creole, or maybe it’s a simple two-story cabin in Washington State like in Stephen King’s Alan Wake. Perhaps it’s even more classical such as a fortified castle located on top of a sheer cliff above a sleepy village. Each of these houses should reflect its geographical location, and its personality should be revealed through the protagonist’s perspective. If your house could speak, would it have an accent? How would you show that? The décor? The architecture? The location of your haunted house defines its personality. Let it speak. Let it lure your protagonist back into its swampy tendrils.

Other ways to give your house a personality through the setting is by re-establishing the environment according to how people speak in their geographical region. People in the Deep South speak differently to each other in Miami and people in Miami speak differently than people in Montana. People gossip about each other and every person has a different perspective on life. Apply that to your haunted house. No matter the geographical location, your house has a back-story and people will gossip about it. What they say and how they say it can reveal more of your house’s personality. Each time your character hears a story, his or her perspective will change. For example, The Infinite written by Douglas Clegg, some of the characters that stay in the Nightmare House see it as just an ordinary house at first. Once they begin to hear the strange stories, the paranoia begins to take over and pretty soon the house takes on a more sinister appearance. No, it doesn’t physically change. What changes is the character’s perception of the house. Your house is another character that deserves to be gossiped about. Everyone has secrets; your haunted house does too.

Originality is Vital

There are already a number of haunted house movies and books that take place in all kinds of environments all over the world. There are literally hundreds if not thousands that take place in a haunted cabin in the middle of the woods. In order for your horror story to survive the cutthroat competition, it must be unique. It must bring something new to a concept that has been done over and over again. Being unique is vital for your story to survive. Creative writers must be flexible. Instead of a haunted cabin in the woodsy Canadian mountains, perhaps your story is about a haunted floating home in the Puget Sound. Or maybe consider moving your cliché southern plantation to the sunny beachfront tropics of Africa surrounded with palm trees, monkeys and deadly spiders as big as a coconut. Originality doesn’t have to be that extreme either. Perhaps your setting is in the Colonial American suburbs of Massachusetts but the architecture is ultra-modern.

One last thing to consider when choosing an original setting for your haunted house story is the lighting and ambience. Remember that the farther your house is to the equator, the more drastic your hours of day and night become. A haunted house located in lowest parts of South America, for example, will spend at least a full month in total darkness in the winter and a full month of total daylight in the summer.

Enter If You Dare

H.P. Lovecraft was a master at building atmosphere through setting. He used the description of the landscapes and neighborhoods to give the reader an ominous feeling long before his character even approaches the house. Take this example from The Picture in the House:

… They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles and falter down black-cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities… The haunted wood and the desolate mountains [are] shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths of uninhabited islands… But the true epicure in the terrible and unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England… Their strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfect portion of the hideous.

This paints a very sophisticated picture using carefully chosen adjectives and a forward approach. Although H.P. Lovecraft has surpassed the expectation of horror in its finest excellence, award winning author Joe Schreiber writes a more literal description of the Round House in one of his most bone-chilling haunted house stories: No Doors, No Windows:

… It was sparse and plain and narrow, with a curved concrete floor and smooth, almost circular black walls that didn’t look as though they’d been painted black but were somehow sculpted out of naturally black material-some substance that literally absorbed light. There were no doors and no windows. Although the passageway appeared to be straight, there was definitely some bend to it, some winding quality just outside the lighter’s glow.

Both of these excellent examples describe the haunted house using atmosphere and setting in different ways. They work well because of the strong word choice and vivid, unnatural descriptions that go beyond the details of how someone would usually describe a house. Joe Schreiber didn’t just blatantly say: “The room was round.” Instead, he painted a picture so vivid that the reader simply got a sense that this room was unnatural and no sane person would enter it -especially if he only possessed a lighter.

When is a haunted house not a haunted house?

A haunted house isn’t always necessarily a house. It can be an apartment or a condo on the beach. Sometimes it’s a cemetery where spirits of the dead live, work and haunt like in Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Graveyard Book. Haunted factories, sanitariums, junkyards, prisons, schools, caves and even sewers could all potentially be “haunted house” stories. All the same rules apply.

If you are serious about  writing  a haunted house story, then the best thing you can do for you and your story is to read. Read every haunted house story you can find. Dozens. Hundreds. Look how they establish the house’s personality. Notice how each writer takes a different approach. Pay special attention to the word choices and sentence fluidity. Read, read, read.

Some excellent recommendations are:

No Doors, No Windows by Joe Schreiber

Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft

Hell House by Richard Matheson

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Nightmare House Series by Douglas Clegg