I was prompted to write this post after reading the excellent article A Theory of Creepiness at aeon.com. In it, University of New England professor David Livingstone Smith investigates what in our psyche creeps us out.
I’m in the Carrie Bradshaw camp here; to me there’s NOTHING scarier than a clown, or at least a Whiteface clown. Maybe it was watching Killer Klowns from Outer Space that did me in. Mr. clown-by day, serial killer-by-night John Wayne Gacy certainly didn’t help!
Now, I recognize some people may be totally down with clowns. It may not be what creeps you out. But something does, I’d bet. In a study the good professor cites in his article, participants routinely listed numerous characteristics of a creepy person, including:
Standing inappropriately close
Displaying a peculiar smile
Having greasy or unkempt hair
Having bulging eyes
Having abnormally long fingers
Having very pale skin
Wearing dirty clothes
Obsessively steering a conversation towards a single topic
Sure, we may all know people who fit one or more of these categories and aren't the slightest bit creepy. But, if we think about some of literature’s greatest creepy characters, we can see their creators had an excellent sense of how creepy antagonists should look and behave.
Characters like Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lechter immediately jump to mind. As does the Master of Suspense himself Stephen King’s Jack Torrance (The Shining), his creeper ‘It,’ of the book by the same name (there’s those clowns again), and the brutal Annie Wilkes (Misery) who run a close race. And last, but certainly not least, Lord Voldemort himself perfectly fits the bill. JK Rowling hit the above list out of the park when she created him!
What’s any of this got to do with my writing blog? I ‘m going to keep this list handy, so the next time I need to create a creepy character, I can make them do some of these things, or have some of these traits. Not in a way that creates a caricature, but I am looking to subtly niggle my readers’ psyches, forcing them to ask the question: "Can I trust him (or her)?” "Am I sure?"
Creepy characters get a reader’s pulse pumping, and they don’t have to be stereotypical to do so. What do you think about the list? Is there anything else you would add? Is there one thing that really creeps you out? Do you try to combine it in your writing?