Yesterday Started With a Dead Body

Five principles to evoke fear with your writing

A broken doll in a tree
Photo by Daniel Dan on Unsplash

Yesterday started with a dead body.

We found him in the morning, lying on the path by the gate. There was no obvious cause of death. His baby possum body lay prone, eyes shut against the darkest journey.

I wrapped him in a bag and disposed of his corpse.

A trip delayed

A few years ago my brother bought us a Red Bubble voucher which I used to purchase an overnight stay at the Werribee Open Range Zoo. We had the date booked, and then cancelled, booked, and then cancelled, booked, and then cancelled. Each time the dreaded virus scuppered our plans.

Finally, yesterday, we managed to make it there. The weather was perfect, temperatures in the low twenties, the sun a bright ball in the cloudless sky. We arrived mid-afternoon and did a circuit on foot of the zoo.

The cheetah enclosure appeared deserted. We stood still and waited but she didn’t show. Next we stared at an empty hillside devoid of gorillas. From a branch a raven watched us.

The lions were missing in action. Hippos remained submerged. You couldn’t even go inside the bandicoot house.


After checking in to our safari hut facing the savannah, we boarded the open-sided bus and headed out. In the distance the animals watched us warily. We drove through the electric gate into the main grassland. My husband attempted the Jurassic Park theme.

Our close up encounter for the day was the rhinoceros. Beautiful southern white rhinos ambled up to the bars and enjoyed their feed of hay. We took photos and despaired that they are still being hunted in the wild.

Climbing back on board we drove on. The rhinos had made it out onto the plains and moved towards us. One of them had been hand reared and made friendly with the bus. She came right up and nuzzled the tires. We came to a stop and waited.

A rhino stops the bus continuing
Photo by the author

She seemed to be saying, “Turn back.”

Eventually she relented, and we continued to the camp. We enjoyed a feast of antipasto, a trio of curries and some sparkling wine before retiring. The beds were comfortable and we soon slept.

Night terrors

When I first came to Australia fifteen years ago, I was warned about the wildlife. We have our fair share of the deadliest animals in the world. Venomous brown snakes and redback spiders, box jellyfish and blue ringed octopuses, saltwater crocodiles and great white sharks all call Australia home.

When you are out in the middle of a zoo and there is only a tent wall to protect you, it makes you think.

I woke in the early hours.

The canvas whipped and cracked in the wind as though something was trying to come in. Three high pitched calls pierced the quiet.


My ears strained against it. Were those footsteps?

A deep throaty sound rose from the depths of hell. Like Darth Vader mating with Vincent Price. I curled into a ball and held my breath.

Feet pounded across the tent tops. The devil’s reindeer tearing through the night.

My bladder drove me out of the tent. Three visitors greeted me on the deck outside. Their shadow shapes approached. I stood frozen in time and place.

Out of the dark, their deathly forms emerged.

Possums. Just possums.

The Art of Fear

I returned to my bed and thought about the book The Art of Fear by James Colton. He suggests 5 key principles you can use to frighten readers:

  • The Unknown — hearing sounds in the night that you can’t identify.
  • The Uncanny — things that are almost right, but not quite. A dead baby possum with no cause of death. Empty enclosures at the zoo. A rhino that wants us to turn back.
  • The Subtle — straightforward language works better. So don’t have Darth Vader mating with Vincent Price — it’s unsubtle and not scary.
  • The Emotional — concrete details to evoke the emotions. The canvas whipping and cracking in the wind. Three high pitched calls.
  • The Foreboding — Yesterday started with a dead body.

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