What makes something scary? (Warning: Image under the cut may be upsetting)

For my latest project, I have been asked to create illustrations for some ghost stories given to us.

The task is not to actually draw a ghost, but to imply the ghost’s presence, which I think will be a interesting challenge. When illustrating I usually try to keep from drawing the actual main character or object in a direct way, because I often think that it creates a better sense of narrative or feeling – but not being able to draw the object at all will certainly be new.

To kick off with, I am first questioning what makes an image scary. 

“More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Stephen Gammell

This image by Stephen Gammell (Illustrated for “More Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” By Alvin Schwartz) is what I feel is a good example of a relatively scary image. Its black and white qualities make it seem like an old fashioned photograph, and its hazy, misty properties add that super natural feel.

These combinations make the image appear ephemeral – as if this image was only captured in a split second, and if the timing had been off then maybe the person wouldn’t have been there.

Another thing which makes the image haunting is the fact that it appears to be taken in a prison or something similar (like an old fashioned mental institute), which is a classic place for scary stories to take place.

The artist has also used lighting to create a creepy vibe, and helps highlight certain parts of the image such as the large crack running across the wall, and the phone in which the man is holding – which appears a lot more solid than the man is.

Another image by the same artist, which I think is particularly effective, is the image below:

I find this one particularly fascinating in a haunting way, since the creature has numerous levels of creepy to it. First of all, the fact that it is humanoid is very scary. Was it once human? What happened to it to make it like this? Was it ever human?

To add to this, the human it resembles most is a baby or small infant. Children and babies are often used in scary stories since there is something incredibly creepy about a child, normally a very innocent and sweet thing, being morphed into something twisted and evil.

The creature, whatever it is, seems to float, staring at you with unseeing eyes. The shadow on the wall behind it captures one of the eye sockets, which makes the creature seem even more otherworldly with its ephemeral form and physics defying qualities.

The last thing about this image I find creepy, is the fact that it is obviously set in someones home – more specifically, the bedroom. This is different from the last image, since if you go to an old mental asylum or prison you almost expect something creepy to happen, but your own home is somewhere you are supposed to feel safe – where nothing can get you.

This image plays on the nightmares of many people, since I think you could pretty much ask anyone and they would admit that they’d, at some point in their life, had a bad dream or a horrible conscious feeling that they weren’t alone in their room in the dead of night.

From personal experience, I sometimes have half conscious dreams of creatures similar to this just as I drift off to sleep. As a child, it would terrify me, but as an adult, I have learnt that this is just what my imagination does as I fall into unconsciousness. I now find images like these more interesting than scary.

Since it isn’t something I’ve tried before, I would find it  intriguing to try to recreate images of this kind. There are many things which make an image creepy, and I think this brief gives me a lot of room to play around and explore them.

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One Comment on “What makes something scary? (Warning: Image under the cut may be upsetting)”

  1. […] a follow up from what I mentioned in the “What Makes something Scary” Post, I myself have gone away and tested out my […]


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