Setting Your Horror Story Up for Success
Rhonda Jackson Joseph
The success of speculative fiction hinges largely on the ability of writers to convince readers and viewers to suspend belief long enough for the story to be told. Audiences expect reality to be, to a certain extent, fused with the fantastic in a seamless blend of a core story that could happen, even if it most likely never would. Integral to the writer’s purpose is not only creating a setting that the audience can relate to, but also one that serves as the perfect backdrop for the journey the reader and viewer will take. Three main setting types can help a horror story succeed with the reader: isolation, the unfamiliar familiar, and the ultimate creep.
Many horror stories use isolation as a setting, mainly because most readers can agree that being alone somewhere is one of the greatest fears for humans. Isolating characters also gives writers a reason for not allowing their protagonists to escape danger quickly. For instance, in Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, much of the terror is derived from the fact that Jack, Danny, and Wendy Torrance cannot simply get into a vehicle and leave when the weirdness starts up in the Overlook Hotel. Roads made impassible by winter storms and the isolated, mountainous location of the hotel also ensures no one from the outside can rescue the characters quickly. They must endure the terror until a feasible plan for escape can be made.
Jack Torrance extends the theme of isolation when he actively checks out from his family and mentally joins the side of the supernatural forces. He also breaks the radio and snowmobiles, making sure Wendy cannot use the radio to call for help or drive the snowmobiles. By enforcing the loneliness for Wendy and Danny, Jack plays into the setting as a catalyst for horror.
Jordan Peele used cultural isolation as a vehicle in his horror film, Get Out. The main character, Chris Washington, finds himself the only black person in an all-white, suburban enclave. His girlfriend’s parents live in a secluded, wooded area, but Chris doesn’t seem as put off by that as he is at being the only black person around. When he does spot other black people, their “offness” creates suspense as Chris grows more and more uncomfortable. Without the familiarity of other black people around who behave in ways that he recognizes, Chris is effectively isolated without a ready rescuer or a clear escape route.
Chris and the other victims in Get Out fall further into isolation within themselves when they find their inner psyches trapped within their physical bodies while other inhabitants take up residence. They’re effectively isolated and kept prisoner inside their own bodies. Most insidious about this detachment is the fact that the victim must watch helplessly while the intruder takes control of the body they both inhabit. The victim might be able to make short surface visits, but he or she cannot take back control for the long term because the resident hypnotist stays at the ready to imprison them again.
The Unfamiliar Familiar
Some horror stories bank on settings that are familiar to many readers and viewers, but then change the expectation by making the setting unfamiliar in some small way. In The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, Reagan McNeil is the victim of a demonic possession that takes place inside her own home. Home is generally where most of us find solace, but for Reagan, she found herself unprotected when a demon gained access through her and her mother’s use of a Ouija board and possessed the 12-year-old.
Reagan is the daughter of an actress and they belong to the upper socioeconomic stratum. Reagan is a pretty, white, innocent female child. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to rich, pretty, white, female, and innocent children. Their money and privilege should protect them from all kinds of monsters, especially in their well-appointed homes. However, her mother’s money failed to protect Reagan. The audience is more horrified by Reagan’s ordeal because being at home should have also kept her safe. If we aren't safe at home, then danger exists everywhere.
The 2014 film, Cooties, directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, took horror to an elementary school. Regardless of how terrifying elementary-school-aged children can be, the terror is generally mild, nondangerous, and limited to common childhood misbehavior. High school is a more likely setting for truly frightening scenarios and situations. Cooties brings a deadly virus as the horror and turns the innocent children into feral monsters.
Young children and the places where they play out their childhood lives often work well as settings for horror because of the innocence attributed to these small beings. Thoughts of a playground or schoolyard as the setting for monsters and monstrous behavior can trigger a visceral fear within an audience. Innocent children are supposed to be protected and allowed to grow up. When something terrible threatens that innocence, the result is an unsettled feeling.
One other place where terror isn’t expected to reside is in massage parlors. Usually linked to feelings of relaxation and possibly sexual intimacy, massage parlors are innocuous places where adults experience happiness and satisfaction. The massage parlor in Vampz, the 2004 film directed by Steve Lustgarten, is the site of grisly murders. After making appointments to receive sexy massages by beautiful women, unsuspecting victims are instead met by ancient vampires who like to have sex with their prey before they kill them. The idea that a massage could lead to a gory death isn’t a logical one for most audience members and Vampz plays up this setting.
The film further plays on setting as part of the terror with an urban Los Angeles locale. No one is ever alone in the middle of a large, urban city, and most people who leave the city do so because there are always people around in a metropolis. The vampires in Vampz kill their victims in the middle of the busy and loud city, creating unease in an audience that might think the city would provide the most comprehensive protection against such monstrosities.
The Ultimate Creep
Another way a horror writer or filmmaker can deliver a horrific setting is through the use of places most usually associated with terror. For instance, the graveyard setting of Brian Keene’s novel, Ghoul, is an obvious place for a monster to exist. Not only are cemeteries the place we bury our dead, leaving them to decay as victims of the elements, these final resting places aren’t on most people’s list for frequent visits. Even if there are a few mourners who come through often, most of the grounds are deserted and easily navigated by a creature that moves around underneath the bodies.
The underground tunnels beneath the cemetery in Ghoul have their own creep factor. The idea of digging around and through dead bodies is unappealing and frightening. When imagining the stench and the rot of human corpse decay, the ghoul takes on a deeper meaning, as only a ghoul would relish those surroundings.
Similarly, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House presents an old, deserted mansion as the backdrop for her haunted house story. If ghosts exist anywhere, wouldn’t this place be a large, old, drafty house? The mansion as a setting works to instill terror because most readers and viewers can relate to the feeling of being inside a huge space, surrounded by antiques, with lighting that only goes so far to dispel the impending darkness and monsters.
The old house setting plays on the real human fear of loneliness. No matter how many other people may be in the house at one time, a visitor will inevitably find him or herself all alone at some point. When Eleanor begins to react to the aura of the house, the reader understands because she has been left alone to hear the whisperings of terror.
Many stories begin with setting the foundation and showing where the story takes place. Using an isolated, unfamiliar familiar, or ultimate creep setting for your horror story can provide the welcoming invitation you will need to get your reader or viewer invested in the tale you want to spin. They will be more willing to place their trust in you as a storyteller if you invite them in with a background that immediately instills delicious thrills where disbelief would ordinarily reside.