I'm new and I hope to do this thing right, soo Hi!

I'm willing to write a short story about a girl who wakes up in a hospital and gradually discovers that the entire structure is under the influence of a "lovecraftian" being who also just awoke and drove all the people in the building insane. She has, of course, no grasp of what's going on and the more she descendes into the hospital's lower floors, the more the uneasiness, the hallucinations should be gruesome and feel real at the same time, until the final realization, which won't be a realizazion of course - this word is too... positive - but I'm still working on it.

My question is:

I'd like to create a setting that is unsettling - eh eh - due to its cleanliness. I'd like to recreate a feeling that I had reading Brave New World - I think it was - with those aseptic, lifeless halls.

The fact is... I'm unsure of the elements to insert in order to evoke fear and horror in an enviroment such as this. What hallucinations? What frightening events might shake the reader, giving him/her a sense of dread, the feeling of an ordinary reality that is crackling?

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    Welcome to the site! This is two questions, and they should be posted separately. The first one would be closed as off topic, because we don't make plot suggestions. The second question is something we're equipped to answer, though. – Arcanist Lupus Aug 19 '18 at 6:22
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    Hi Mord! Welcome to Writing.SE! We're a little different than other sites -- you can take our tour to get a sense of how we work and what kind of questions work well! And Arcanist is right -- I'll edit this question, with just the second part. I hope you'll get some great answers! – Standback Aug 19 '18 at 17:22
  • This is the kind of thing we writers learn by reading. How do your favorite horror authors unsettle you? What words and rhythms and pacing and... whatever do they use? Reading as a writer improves us as we pay attention to the techniques we see on the page. – Ken Mohnkern Aug 20 '18 at 16:00

I'm focusing on the second question, which is related to setting and metaphysics more than it is on plot.

Allow me to quote from Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic in length, because it is useful in order to understand the dynamics involved.

In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of the same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us …

The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. (1973, 25)

What this means for your case, is that you need to understand the connection between genre and metaphysics involved.

  • Case A: there are demons, and the whole reality as we know it has to change (we're scared because there are demons and reality as we know it doesn't exist).
  • Case B: there are no demons, but we are losing our mind because we are seeing them in front of us (we're scared because we're going insane).
  • Case C: we don't know what's going on; there might be demons, we might be going mad (we're scared because we don't know what's going on).

If you want your story to be unambiguously supernatural in terms of affective power, then the horror elements must be presented as such. You did mention Lovecraft, but bear in mind that madness and ambiguity is a central element in at least some of his work.

Although this is a plot matter in that sense, I think that your best option would be to prolong ontological ambiguity as much as possible, balancing between opting for the one or the other Todorovian branches (supernatural explained or supernatural accepted, to use a Gothic term).

In relation to setting in particular, and if you want to focus on how clinical and aseptic it is, you should precisely try to take life out of everything. That is, remove grit (metaphorically speaking, of course) from where it would've normally been.


It's all psychological. You don't necessarily need hallucinations, or even anything supernatural at all, because it's not the specific details or events that make it scary, it's how your character perceives them. You can do this in several ways:

  • Direct: "The hospital was comfortingly clean" versus "The hospital was eerily sterile"
  • Subconscious: "Light glinted off the counter like sunshine on a knife"
  • Biographical: "Hospitals always reminded her of that terrible night..."

Remember, compelling details are never neutral, they always tell a story, and that story is always about your character's internal life, even with a third person POV. The movie Signs is a good case-study: Contrast how scary the first part of the movie is, just from small, seemingly innocuous details (and a group of people living in fear), with the ending, where you actually see the monsters in all their fearsome gruesomeness (and can hardly keep from laughing).

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