How To Use Mysterious Locations In Horror Fiction And Comics

2016 Artwork Mysterious settings in the horror genre

Although this is an article about writing horror fiction and making horror comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer and video games (again). As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope will become obvious fairly soon.

Anyway, quite a while ago, I was watching random “let’s play” videos of various horror games on Youtube. Even though all of these games are too modern to really run on my computer or on any games consoles that I own, it’s great to see that the horror genre has had something of a revival in recent years.

One of the interesting things about horror games is that good horror games often revolve around something that isn’t always immediately obvious in genuinely scary horror novels or comics. I am, of course, talking about the fact that many of these horror games are set in mysterious locations that the player has to explore. Even the very earliest well-known survival horror games (like “Resident Evil” and “Alone In The Dark) force the player to explore a mysterious old mansion of some kind.

In fact, one of the things that makes the first three “Silent Hill” games so creepy is that fact that you have to explore two mysterious settings. Not only are you pretty much alone in a mysterious fog-covered town, but that town will occasionally transform into a much rustier and more nightmarish version of itself. So, even if you’ve explored a creepily mysterious location earlier in the game, you’ll probably have to re-explore it later.

So why are mysterious locations so important in the horror genre?

Put simply, it’s because of the tension that these locations create in the minds of the audience. On the one hand, your audience is afraid that something evil might be lurking in the creepy old mansion, the abandoned hospital,the darkened cellar etc… But, on the other hand, they also want to know what’s in there. In other words, they want to explore and to satisfy their curiosity.

It’s this tension between curiosity and caution which makes mysterious locations absolutely perfect settings for horror stories. It’s also why they have turned up again and again in horror stories, films, games, comics etc… since the genre first began.

As such, just including a mysterious location in your horror comic or story isn’t enough. You have to come up with enough innovative details and other things to set it apart from the thousands of other horror stories and comics out there.

For example, stories that include scenes that are set in some kind of afterlife can automatically be a lot creepier for the simple reason that, even though the main characters don’t have to fear death (since they’re already dead), no-one really knows for certain exactly what the afterlife actually looks like (or even if it exists).

So, your audience are automatically going to be extremely curious and – since it’s based on a location that no-one’s really seen (well, apart from people who have had near-death experiences) you have free reign to include all sorts of imaginative horrors in this part of your story or comic.

Likewise, a good way to make mysterious settings fresh and interesting is to blend them with elements from other genres. A brilliant cinematic example of this would probably a terrifying sci-fi movie from the 1990s called “Event Horizon“. Most of this film takes place on a mysterious lost spacecraft that has suddenly and inexplicably returned to within reach of Earth. It’s basically a “haunted house” movie, but in space.

Finally, another way to make mysterious settings scary again is to come up with an innovative new version of a familiar mysterious setting. A good example of this is in a genuinely disturbing comic called “Return To Wonderland” by Raven Gregory et al which ,as the title suggests, is a horror version of “Alice In Wonderland”.

Although this is nothing new (an absolutely excellent computer game from the very early 2000s called “American McGee’s Alice” springs to mind for starters), this comic re-interprets the familiar setting of Wonderland in a very unique and very disturbing way. It’s this contrast between familiar and new stuff that really makes the setting of this comic so horrifying.

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Some Thoughts On Mysterious “WTF?” Endings – A Ramble

2015 Artwork Mysterious endings article sketch

Although this is an article about writing, comics and storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about films and TV shows for a while. There’s a good reason for this that I hope will become obvious later.

However, I should warn you that this article will contain SPOILERS for both “Battlestar Galactica” and “A Field In England”. It’ll also contain spoilers for my “The Horror Of Hardtalon Hall” comic too (or, at least an explanation for the second half of it).

Anyway, a while before I wrote this article, I finally watched the last few episodes of “Battlestar Galactica“. Although I’d accidentally heard about some of the ending to this show before I actually watched the last episode, some parts of the ending still left me absolutely baffled.

In the ending, one of the main characters (who seemingly returned from the dead earlier in the series, without any real explanation) just suddenly disappears. There’s also a whole sub-plot about “god” and “angels”, which is only barely foreshadowed in earlier episodes. Although it’s a very dramatic ending to a spectacular series, some parts of the ending just make no sense.

This then made me think of a rather surreal film that I watched in 2013 called “A Field In England“. Although a lot of this film doesn’t quite make sense, the ending is especially puzzling.

About the only logical explanation for it is that the main character is trapped in some kind of bizarre time loop… in the 17th century. Either that, or he hallucinated some of the events of the film. Or he died on the battlefield and is possibly in some kind of old-fashioned purgatory. It’s a very puzzling ending to a very puzzling film

For writers and comic creators, mysterious and puzzling endings are a real double-edged sword. One the one hand, they force your audience to think about the ending of the story and to spend quite a while working out what really happened. Because the ending isn’t fully explained, these kinds of endings can make your audience feel curious about your work and more interested in re-reading it to try to understand the ending.

On the other hand, there’s also a good chance that your audience will feel cheated by an ending that doesn’t quite make sense. If your audience have invested quite a few hours of their time in reading your story or comic, then a puzzling ending can make them feel like that time has been wasted.

A good compromise if you plan to include a “WTF?” kind of ending in your story or comic is to logically resolve at least a few parts of the story, before you include something bizarre. This way, your audience still has something to feel curious about – but, because there’s some resolution, your audience won’t feel completely cheated.

For example, although the ending to “Battlestar Galactica” had some really bizarre scenes in it, the main plot of the series was still resolved in a fairly logical way. The main characters defeat the bad guys and finally find a planet to settle on (our planet, no less)… and then a few weird things happen a bit later.

However, if you’re going to include a mysterious ending in your story or comic, you should know what it means. In other words, even the most bizarre ending must have a meaning of some kind that your audience actually has a chance of working out for themselves if they think about it for long enough.

In other words, you shouldn’t use these kinds of endings as a way to finish your story abruptly because you don’t know how to end it. And, yes, it can be very tempting to do this when you have writer’s block at the end of your story. In fact, I almost did this with my “The Horror Of Hardtalon Hall” comic, which was posted here in late October.

Basically, in the second half of the comic, a lot of strange stuff happens. At the time, I thought that this was a way of including a lot of interesting drawings and vague parodies of various things in my comic.

The last page also contains a tiny bit of lazy writing too (eg: the laws of physics are conveniently suspended for a few seconds, although it is foreshadowed by other strange stuff happening earlier in the comic). But, a while after I finished this comic, I suddenly realised that the second half of the comic did have a meaning.

Roz and Rox are excited about it – and they discover lots of cool stuff in the mansion (Roz discovers more cool stuff, since she’s more excited). Derek is indifferent to the news and has a rather boring (and mildly crappy) time in the mansion. Harvey, on the other hand, is shocked and terrified – and he’s the only one to find anything genuinely terrifying in the mansion. In other words, the mansion is a reflection of each character’s emotions. It’s a strange mirror of some kind.

So, yes, make sure that your strange endings have at least some kind of meaning and try to resolve at least some of the plot before you bewilder your audience.

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂