Today Writing Wranglers and Warriors
welcomes a new blogger,
novelist Noreen Cedeño
Did you ever get the feeling that something was wrong in a room or building or space? Can you sense tension in a room, even when no one is there but you, and you aren’t tense? Do old churches and graveyards have a sense of gravitas? What about Ground Zero in New York or Auschwitz? Can you feel a sense of atmosphere in certain places even if you don’t know the cause? What are we sensing when we sense that something is wrong, and we can’t identify a source?
In places where the history is apparent, such as graveyards, prisons, or battlefields, we have a reason to ascribe a particular emotional atmosphere to the space. Where we know that people died too young, grieved losses, or feared for their lives, we can put ourselves in those historic people’s shoes. We can blame our imagination for the shiver that goes up our spine when walking by the Alamo at night. We can tell ourselves that we are having a sympathetic reaction to the emotions felt by the many who died there. We can remind ourselves that we are walking on blood-soaked ground. Knowing the history of a place allows us to shrug off the emotion associated with the space because we can find a logical explanation for our feelings.
However, where we have no apparent logical explanation for the feelings a space inspires, to what do we attribute those feelings? For instance, I was talking to a high school librarian recently about this sense of atmosphere in spaces, when she said, “I know what you mean. It’s like that creepy stairwell in the 700 building.” She went on to explain what she meant. I went home that day and started to tell my son about my conversation with the librarian at his school, intending to ask him if he ever noticed anything about one of the stairwells in the 700 building on his campus. I never got to finish the story. He interrupted me in the middle and said, “Oh, I’ll bet she means that stairwell in the 700 building. It’s creepy. It’s just like the other stairwell in the building, but the other stairs don’t bother me. Only that one.” What he said matched what the librarian said. I asked if he had discussed the creepy stairs with other students. He said no. It didn’t occur to him that others might have noticed the stairs were creepy too.
I was mentioning the stairs to my sister when she said, “I know what you mean. I drove by a building today that I’d never seen before and it creeped me out. It bothered me so much, that when I got home, I went and looked it up to see what it was. I found out it was built originally to be an asylum for mental health patients over a hundred years ago.”
How did she sense that building was creepy just by driving by? Where she lives, there are lots of old buildings. None of the other ones bothered her. Both the stairwell and the building were unremarkable except for that sense of atmosphere.
I write books and short stories based on the premise that emotional atmosphere can be detected and deciphered to help solve crimes. However, outside of fiction, where I can bend the subject matter to my will, I wonder what’s really creating emotional atmosphere. Human perceptions were honed over millennia to detect danger and warn us of threats before we could consciously put the pieces of data together to understand what we were sensing. When a place triggers an emotional response without any apparent cause (not smells, appearance, sounds, touch, or any other obvious sensory input), some sort of subconscious sensory input must be involved. But what?
N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her debut novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).