Basic Tips To Make Scarier & Better Creepypasta & Horror Creeps

Creepypastas and horror stories are extremely popular, but those who write them frequently end up with monsters, spooks, and killers that are more ho-hum than horrific. Here are a few tips to help you make your bugbears, baddies, and monsters more effective at giving people the heebie-jeebies.

Last updated: November 6, 2021.

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Remember what creepypasta is.

Creepypasta exists in the same thematic vein as folktales and campfire stories. The idea is that the terrible things that are happening could, theoretically, happen to someone like you.

This also means that the more obviously fantastical you get, the less it's creepypasta, and the more it becomes straight-up dark fantasy or dark sci-fi. And if you want to write that, that's fine! But dark fantasy/sci-fi and scary campfire stories aren't really the same.

So if you want to aim for that whole folktale/campfire story feel, you want to make your creep feel fairly grounded. For example, having them wear everyday clothes would most likely be preferable to having them wear something that looks straight out of a gothic fantasy. If they have hair, it's probably going to work better to give them a normal hair color rather than some anime hair color. Of course it makes sense for a creep to have cartoonish hair if they're supposed to come from a haunted cartoon, but of course, making them come from a cartoon adds real-world context.

The same principle goes for any weapons they might use. Big fantasy scythes aren't something you can just pick up at your local hardware store, so consider something a bit more accessible unless they're, for example, a video game character who uses that kind of weapon.

Of course, your creep doesn't even need to be humanoid. It can be something fairly animalistic, or even utterly alien - check out Gourmet Quality for an example. It need not even be an actual character at all. It can simply be a situation, scenario, or thing that evokes fear and dread - see The Memetic Symbol. You can go pretty wild with this stuff, all things considered. But it's generally more impactful to have your creep grounded in the real world somehow than to going with something that's straight-up whimsical.

Know that things can be too absurd and too over the top to work well.

Effective horror needs to feel at least potentially possible. While a little exaggeration or melodrama can be scary, taking things too over the top or diving into absurdities can undermine that.

The end result can come across as humorously surreal (personally, most of the Resident Evil franchise is this for me), or it can come across as completely clueless and therefore totally unconvincing, not unlike a 90's drug PSA.

I think one of the most ridiculous creepypasta tropes are characters who are supposed to be physically-normal humans with little to no combat training easily murdering others in close physical range. In reality, people who feel threatened and fearful for their lives aren't just passive objects. They get pumped up on adrenaline, which boosts their strength, and if they're trapped or cornered they're probably going to fight back with everything they've got. See also Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know. Not to mention, if the victim starts screaming, anyone in the general area - be they people in other rooms, the adjoining apartments, or next door neighbors - are going to hear it and react somehow.

Another common point of absurdity is the creep leaving behind a huge number of bodies (sometimes even entire families at a time) with nobody really reacting in any appreciable way.

Now obviously, not every police force is going to give every murder as much attention as it deserves, especially if the victims are marginalized. But when huge numbers of people vanish or turn up dead, especially among the more privileged members of society, then claiming that the police just don't care doesn't really work.

And regardless of what the police do, people are going to react in some way. If they knew the decreased, they're probably going to mourn them. They'll probably also be tense and worried that the killer might come after them or their loved ones next. They might avoid going out at night, or going out alone. They might start trying to get hold of weapons. (Which could be a source of horror all on its own, depending on what they decide to do from there.)

This is also the kind of thing that's going to attract news reporters, and has a pretty high chance of reaching national news. If police just up and drop the case, then there's probably going to be a lot of outrage over it. And I mean, the idea that a bunch of middle class white people wouldn't be lobbying complaints left and right, if not forming their own militias, is kind of hard to believe.

In any case, writers also fall into absurdity when they start thinking that more deaths equal a scarier narrative. Generally speaking, fear in horror is generated moreso by the dread of what's coming next, than the knowledge of what's happened before.

Therefore, it can work just fine to (for example) kill off one or two characters to establish that there is a danger present, then let most of the fear come from the dread of the protagonist or protagonists meeting the same fate.

It's also worth noting that dread and fear can be generated through non-lethal means, such as turning someone's friends away from them, just generally taking away everything they love and hold dear, or by making them question their own sanity. There's nothing wrong with killing characters to generate some dread, but do keep in mind that it's not your only option, and isn't always the best option.

One last absurdity to cover frequently appears in video game horror stories, where a haunted game is said to have ultra-realistic graphics that were presumably impossible for the limitations of the computer or console's hardware. Now, speaking as someone who's used older computers and consoles, this is really pretty goofy.

So for one thing, old-time glitches were genuinely pretty unnerving, for the fact that they often involved graphics going all scrambly or strange symbols appearing on the screen. Today's systems are comparatively more fault tolerant, and have more sophisticated means of handling errors, so you don't usually see this kind of weird output.

Secondly, simplistic graphics have proven themselves more than capable of scaring the pants off people. The Strange Woman in the 1986 game The Uninvited gave many players the heebie-jeebies. Abadox pulled off some pretty disgusting viscera using only the native graphics power of the NES. Likewise, many good video game stories that involve "glitches" or games behaving strangely in some way don't rely on weirdly realistic graphics to scare people; they take advantage of the fact that the games could do downright unsettling and disturbing things with nothing more than the graphics power they already had.

The thing is, games and computers are at their most disturbing when they're behaving unexpectedly, and in ways the player or user can't control. Now sure, sudden realistic graphics are technically unexpected, but the way they're used just ignores what made older computers and consoles so genuinely unnerving at times.

This principle could be more broadly applied in that you should probably consider how something can be unnerving in real life, and work from there. As I mentioned earlier, horror is most effective when it feels like something that could potentially happen to you, and generally speaking the more fantastic you get the less your story is able to evoke that sense.

Try asking yourself what scares you, rather than what might scares others.

If you begin with the question, "What makes other people scared?" you're probably going to just retread themes and motifs you've seen in other things with no underlying comprehension of why they're scary. However, if you ask yourself what makes you scared, you'll have personal insight into just what makes it so unnerving, and you can play into that.

What are the earliest fears you can remember? Which ones lasted with you the longest? What are you afraid of now? What kind of themes and elements in horror stories gave you the heebie-jeebies? Write down a list, and use that to inspire you.

Understand that the more sympathetic and tragic your make your creep, the less scary your creep is likely to be.

Many would-be creeps are basically innocent victims of abuse who take revenge on their killers. Sometimes they're killed and come back from the grave. Sometimes they simply just snap and go on a rampage.

I think for those of us who have experienced abuse in our lives, these stories can be very cathartic, or at least give us a channel for our feelings of anger and frustration. But it's not really horror per se, because technically, these characters are the protagonists, and we're supposed to sympathize with them rather than those they kill. So instead of feeling disgust or dismay over their actions, we're more likely to go, "Yeah, they have it coming, go for it."

I'm not saying that revenge fantasies are inherently bad, but they aren't really horror. Even if the extremes these characters go to make us feel a little squicked out, it's not quite the same.

So the thing is, truly effective horror confronts and challenges our desire to believe that the world is inherently fair and just. Bad things happen to good or at least average people, and they don't get any revenge or recompense whatsoever.

On the other hand, any "horror" story that directs most of the harm at abusive, cruel, or even just obnoxious people is basically a revenge fantasy that reassures us that justice will prevail in the end. And I'm not saying that revenge fantasies are always bad or anything, but they're a different genre from horror.

Again, the spirit of creepypasta is that of folktales and campfire stories. While I can't say these things are never moralizing (the Hookman is fairly well aimed at teenagers who might have thoughts of slipping off to get affectionate with each other), there's still a sense that you could be the recipient of what's quite frankly senseless violence.

A think a good question to ask yourself is whether you'd want to hang out with your creep. If your answer is "yes," then your character probably isn't all that much of a horror antagonist. Maybe they have some characteristics most people would find alarming, sure. But whatever you have going on might be more in line with what media such as The Addams Family or What We Do In The Shadows have going on. It's often squicky and uncomfortable, sure. But it's not really horror.

Understand where less is more.

Most of the time, it's pretty difficult to have too much character development. But when it comes to creeps, adding too many extraneous details can draw attention away from what makes them frightening, or turn them more into gruesome supervillains than anything else.

Don't underestimate the power of the unknown. Part of Slender Man's intrigue as well as part of what makes him scary is that we never know exactly what it is he wants, let alone just what he's doing to those he stalks. Or take a look at Candle Cove. We know almost nothing about the creeps or what's really going on, and the story is pretty effective at delivering the jibblies.

As I mentioned above, giving your creep a sympathetic backstory can make people root for the creep instead of feeling unnerved by them. Sometimes it's really better to just let a character be bad for no good reason.

We gotta acknowledge the ableism and disfiguremisia in horror.

Mikaela Moody's article Why my disfigurement isn't your Halloween costume talks about why playing disfigurement for horror is cruel and hurful to those with visible disfigurements. Another good article is Ableism In Horror, which highlights how absurd and harmful it is to link mental illness with violence in the way so much horror media has done.

Basically, playing up disfigurement as inherently monstrous, and mental illness as something that makes people too alien to understand or sympathize with anymore, is simply reifying society's unfounded prejudices. Disfigured people are still people, of course, and they deserve compassion and inclusion within society, not revilement and dehumanization.

Meanwhile, the whole notion that mentally ill people have mental landscapes that are simply too alien for "normal" minds to comprehend is largely rooted in people's refusal to actually listen and sympathize with those who experience mental illness.

Additionally, society has long had a habit of writing off people as "mentally ill" for behaving in ways that were deemed abnormal or unnatural, or that were simply inconvenient to those in power. For example, the term "drapetomania" was created to pathologize slaves who tried to run away. Asexuality, particularly in women, is frequently pathologized. When we reflexively assume that someone committing what we perceive as a deviant act must have some kind of mental illness, we're making the same kind of judgment, and essentially stopping ourselves from investigating the true root cause of their behaviors and choices.

It also ignores how people often inflict violence and cruelty mainly because they're self-centered and small-minded, and refuse to accept that their prejudices and fears might be unjustified, or that their needs and wants aren't the most important right now.

The original story of the Hookman claims that he escaped from a mental asylum, but let's be real - the kind of violence he committed could easily have been motivated by a puritanical worldview and the belief that he was within his rights to mete out "justice" on violators. And in my opinion, that kind of extremist mentality is downright terrifying.

In Closing

Basically, if you're trying to capture the folklore, campfire story feel of creepypasta, you probably want to keep things fairly grounded in some way to create a sense that this could possibly happen to the audience. This doesn't mean you can't have fantastic elements, such as aliens or paranormal beings, but if you glam them up with a bunch of things that don't really make sense given the context, it feels less grounded and can thus come off as more fantasy than horror.

Likewise, your horror can be less effective if it leans into obvious absurdity. Even if you're using supernatural or science fiction elements, certain things can still feel jarring. Just because the neighborhood is overrun with revenants or something, doesn't mean fundamental human nature would be any different. If your creep is basically just a scrawny kid, then the idea that they can take down bigger or stronger people without any real effort or without taking any damage themselves is kind of a stretch. If they have some kind of supernatural strength or durability, sure, it could work. But basically being powered by pure hate and resentment is just really goofy and unconvincing.

Keep in mind that it's not strictly necessary to kill a bunch of characters to evoke fear and horror. Killing a few characters can establish the presence of a threat, which can create a sense of dread over wondering who might be next. There are also nonlethal ways to menace characters as well. I'm not saying there are no circumstances in which killing a bunch of characters is necessary, but you shouldn't jump to thinking it's something you absolutely have to do.

Another way to keep your story grounded is to ask yourself what scares you and develop from that, rather than simply imitating what other stories present as scary. Simply imitating others is how you end up with a story that's all motion and no feeling.

When it comes to actually characterizing your creep, keep in mind that too much characterization can make them come off more like a supervillain, antihero, or member of the Addams Family than a horror antagonist. If you make them sympathetic and send them after bullies, you're basically writing an antihero in a revenge fantasy, and while that might be a cathartic experience, that's not really horror.

While the use of disfigurement and mental illness has been incredibly common in horror media over the years, we do need to recognize that the way it's been used has been dehumanizing and harmful to real people. Disfigured people are simply just people, not inhuman monsters, and their disfigurements should not be considered cause for alarm. Also, people generally do cruel and horrifying things for reason that have nothing to do with mental illness, but rather stem from selfishness and narrow-mindedness. And quite frankly, any horror antagonist could just as easily be motivated by something like a puritanical value system combined with believing they're entitled to punish "wrongdoers" as they could be motivated by some so-called form of "insanity."

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