Tips for writing a creepy attic or basement in middle grade or YA

1024 683 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Hey there! Could you do me a quick favour and grab me that old suitcase from the basement? Yeah, sorry, the light’s not working but you can use this torch. Oh and the door does tend to slam shut sometimes so be careful not to get locked in. Watch out for the rats! What do you mean you’ve got to go? Hello?

Alright, I don’t blame you. Attics (AKA lofts) and basements (AKA cellars) are obviously the scariest rooms in any house (except for maybe Regan’s bedroom in The Exorcist) which is why I’m glad I’m a Londoner and don’t have either. But their innate creepiness isn’t enough to sell your setting: you need to make readers see, feel, hear, smell, taste the room, experience the claustrophobia, sense the lurking danger.

If you’ve done your job properly, readers should feel connected to your protagonist and following them into a dark basement or creaky attic will make them feel as though they’re really, physically there themselves. In her book Story Genius, Lisa Cron explains that when a reader is truly immersed in a story, ‘our brain activity isn’t that of an observer, but of a participant.’ Our bodies are reacting to the story as though we’re actually taking part! How cool is that? So all you need to is make your readers believe they’re creeping around beneath or above the house alongside your main character. How do you do that, then?

First, think about why these spaces are so inherently scary. What makes them such a common horror trope? Well, they’re not usually lived in, which makes them a forgotten, unloved space: the most lifeless room in a house. They can be dangerous since they tend to be full of broken and discarded objects and it’s likely the wiring is dodgy and things are leaking, too. Unless there’s been a big renovation they’re probably dark, cold and damp. And think about where a basement is located: underground. Under the earth. What else is down there? It also means they’re hard to escape in an emergency. If the stairs are blocked, there’s no other route out.

I’m scaring myself, here. Let’s move on.

Visit a basement or attic

If you can, break into somebody’s basement and… no,I’m kidding. If you don’t have one of these rooms in your own house, ask around and see if a friend will give you a guided tour. It probably won’t be in the dusty, ghost-filled state that your fictional room will be in, but just getting a feel for the size and shape of an attic or basement is helpful. Our house had a loft conversion before we moved in so although the attic is now our bedroom, it still has the sloped ceilings and creaky floorboards (the bane of my life). At the edge of the bedroom at the front of the house are the eaves, basically a bit of the attic that was left largely untouched in the conversion and we now use for storage. In there it’s dark, draughty, dusty, full of cobwebs and bugs, covered in a random nails jutting out from the wall, there are gaps in the roof that let the light and rain in… a good old fashioned attic. It’s barely big enough to squeeze into and we just use it to store Christmas decorations so it’s not terribly scary, but those details could add some colour to a setting.

There are also plenty of basements and attics you can visit around the world:

Read The Rural Setting Thesaurus

I’m going to repeat what I said last time because I’m lazy: I adore both The Rural Setting Thesaurus and The Urban Setting Thesaurus and I think every writer should own a copy of each. It lists the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures you can expect to find in almost any setting, and even offers ideas for character interactions and conflict that might occur there. I’ll include a few excerpts here but you’ll need to buy the book to read the section in full!

A basement:

Sights: Worn wooden steps, a rusty floor drain, small grimy windows with dead flies on the sill, a clunky hot water tank
Sounds: A chugging washing machine, the raspy noise of a cardboard box being dragged across the floor, the groan of a shifting wooden beam
Smells: Musty air, mould and mildew, damp clothes from the laundry
Textures: The slight give of an old step, the clammy chill of wet laundry, the thin string of the lightbulb cord

An attic:

Sights: An exhaust fan, sunlight filtering in through cracks in the eaves, animal tracks in the dust, mildew stains on boxes from a leaky roof
Sounds: Scampering feet, the wind beating against the house, a bird pecking at bugs in the eaves
Smells: Insulation, dust, dry rot
Tastes: Stale air, damp, dust
Textures: Balancing on a wobbly ladder, bumping shins against a box in the dark

 

Watch YouTube or read blog posts

You’ll find hundreds of thousands of videos and posts that will take you on a tour of a basement or attic. Take a look at these for starters:

And of course I can’t forget my one true love, Are You Afraid of the Dark? Here are two excellent episodes that feature spooky basements and attics (and don’t forget the show’s opening credits which feature a rickety attic as an added bonus):

The Tale of the Dollmaker | spooky dollhouse in the attic

The Tale of the Dark Music | scary music playing in the basement

Listen to music and sound effects

When I’m trying to write an atmospheric scene, I love listening to ambient music or sound effects to help get me in the right frame of mind. If you’re working on a spooky graveyard scene, think about the sounds your characters might hear and pop them on YouTube or Spotify while you write. Here are a few examples to get you started:

Read how other MG and YA authors did it

Here are some recently published middle grade and YA novels that feature attics and basements as settings:

  • The Dollhouse by Charis Cotter
  • Agony House by Cherie Priest
  • All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue
  • Seven Ghosts by Chris Priestley
  • The Smashed Man of Dread Street by JW Ocker
  • The Girl in the Locked Room by Mark Downing Hanh
  • The Fade by Demitria Lunetta
  • Amity by Micol Ostow

Consider how young characters would interact with the setting

Basements and attics are perfect horror settings for middle grade and YA because it’s usually children and teenagers who are most suspicious of these spaces. We grown-ups aren’t scared of a silly old attic, right? So think about how children and teens would realistically interact with these rooms. How your protagonist would interact with them. Are they afraid of the dark? Is their older sibling teasing them and daring them to go in? Or are they too mature for all that nonsense?

Maybe they go down there to prove to their little sister there’s nothing to be scared of. Maybe they’re the ones teasing the younger kids. Or maybe they use it as a way to get away from their parents. Perhaps they sneak up/down there with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Or maybe they let a friend hide out there because they’re running away. Maybe the basement is their new bedroom and their parents have tried to make it nice and cosy for them but something just doesn’t feel right. Don’t just rely on the spookiness of the setting to sell the scares for you. Show readers how the room makes your main character feel.

Over to you!

I’d love to hear how you’ve used attics and basements in your writing! Or if you’ve read any good MG or YA fiction that uses these settings well. Drop me a comment below!

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

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