As an overly-imaginative reader, I've never found it very hard to get creeped out by a book I'm reading. This has been true from the early days when I used to read Alvin Schwartz' "Scary Stories to Read in the Dark" children's series in bed with a flashlight to spook myself out.
Still, it's harder for books to truly frighten their readers than it is for films , and writers often do their work on us not by mood music or lighting or camera angles, but by presenting something uncanny:
From Wiki; The Uncanny (Ger. Das Unheimliche -- literally, "un-home-ly") is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize.
If you go back to classic gothic lit and read the narrator's description of the various monsters: Frankenstein's creature, Dracula, Mr. Hyde, they all describe that feeling, noting that the evil creature bears a resemblance to something familiarly human in form-- but is also so strange as to cause a feeling of phyiscal revulsion or illness in the viewer.
Playing with twins, doubles or dopplegangers also contribute to that uncanny effect.
Here are a few of the creepiest moment I can recall from my reading career--I'll try to avoid spoilers. What are your most fright-filled reading memories?
- An empty boat runs ashore in England, with all its crew members missing except for the dead captain, who is tied to the ship. A wolf jumps off the ship. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Nothing like an empty ship to send chills down the spine.
- And speaking of ships and dead men, the reanimated corpses of the dead sailors in Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner pick up their oars and row home. Ick.
- Mrs. Danvers stands behind the second Mrs. DeWinter, urging her to jump. Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier. Psychological terror at its finest.
- The second black cat appears, missing the same eye as the cat the narrator killed, The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe. The Doppelganger effect in this tale freaks me out more than all of Poe's other stories put together.
- Marian Halcombe makes a surprising discovery while visiting the mysterious "Woman in White" at an insane asylum, in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. Revealing more than this constitutes a spoiler (and if you read this book as an adult you'll likely guess the twist) but this is one of those shocking moments that I encountered early at a credulous enough point in my reading career so not to predict it beforehand. Readers, it blew. my. mind!