On My Mind: That Which Unnerves

There’s a weirdness that some settings have, an eerie sense of something being wrong that can be hard to define. You see it in horror movies and horror games and you read it in stories that do their best to worm their way under your skin.

It can be a difficult thing to convey, as it’s a more subtle thing than the somewhat brazen attempts to evoke fear found in most horror tales. In the stories that do it well, however, there’s a wonderfully unsettling quality of the world that I love. There’s something terrific and uncanny and downright creepy in knowing, deep in your bones, that something is terribly wrong.

Today I want to talk about a few specific examples of this and what they mean to me. More of a personal jaunt than a how-to. Further, this is by no means an exhaustive list – just some things that speak to me personally.

The Empty Cop Car

You’re walking down a dark, empty street. It’s dark. It’s empty. No-one’s around, but ahead there’s the flashing red and blue of a police car. Hopeful, right? Lights mean people, police (generally speaking) represent order. There’s safety there.

But you get there, and the police car is empty. The doors are open, but there’s no-one in sight, let alone any cops.

And you have no idea what happened.

Where is everyone? What happened here? Where is the safety that was promised?

Tying in with the idea of an empty city (which in and of itself is a commonly used example of this), there’s something utterly wrong about something we normally associate with A being B instead. In this case – the normality and sense of “there is safety here” replaced with a sense of isolation and the eerie sensation of things not being as they should be.

It’s the same reason why ghost children, haunted music boxes, and killer teddy bears can unnerve us – we’ve made associations with them as being one thing (cute, safe, innocent) and when that’s disrupted it can get under our skin.

We’re creatures of habit, of adopted norms, and when the expectations of the fundamental things we take for granted (a city has people, for example) are disrupted it can unsettle us to what might seem like a disproportionate degree.


There’re two things I want to talk about regarding shadows – their absence and their misplacement.

The first hasn’t been a seen a lot in recent fiction, the last time I recall reading it was in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and I think this decline is largely due to it being considered a little hamfisted or clichéd in more modern writing.

But stop and think for a moment – you’re trapped in a dark room with a friend, there’s a single yellow light bulb providing a faint, yellow fluorescence. Your shadow’s moving on the wall as you try to find a way out and you realise, all of the sudden, that your shadow is alone. Your friend is standing next to you, but his shadow isn’t next to yours. Just think about how much that would unsettle, how much that would unnerve you were you actually in that setting.

Note: In practice it’s naturally somewhat difficult to execute this factor without coming across as overly dramatic or cliché. But that’s a story for another time.

The second thing about shadows worth discussing is finding them in the wrong places.

I used to have a particular dream when I was ill, years ago now, of walking through my old school. It had open walkways with pillars lining them, and towards the end of the day when the sun started to set they would cast thick, dark shadows that fell across the path. Normal.

But in my dream, one of the shadows would be facing the completely wrong direction – aiming out into the schoolyard instead of across the walkway. Every other shadow behaved, but this one shadow played by different rules. My mind would immediately wrench itself awake when I noticed this, rejecting this rebellion against the laws of reality. My brain would recognise it as being too strange to be real, recognise that it must be a dream, and thereby wake me.

But the feeling of uneasiness would linger for a time, and there’s something to be said for it as a whole – put a shadow in the wrong place, present a mundane thing in a way that defies what we recognise as “the way things should be”, imagine what that might make you (or your audience) feel.

A Sliver of the Mundane

This is a promotional poster for the newly released season three of Twin Peaks.

Sure, the dimensions are off. The image is upside down. Kind of weird, but nothing inherently impressive or off putting. You’ve held a picture upside down before, it’s not a big deal.

But then you look at the owl. The world is wrong. The picture is wrong. Everything is wrong and you’ve just been reminded of just how wrong it is by the owl, flying right side up.

It’s a perfectly normal looking bird, it’s the world that’s wrong, and the bird is there purely to provide contrast in a way that I think embodies this example perfectly.

Contrast gives us perspective in horror in the same way that a straight-man does it for a comedy. If everything is insane, why should we not just accept it? What does it matter? That’s just the way this world works. But if there’s one thing that’s normal it tells us that this isn’t just the way things are, it’s the the way things have become.

And that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

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