Well, I thought that I’d talk about storytelling, settings and the horror genre today. This is mostly because I happened to re-watch an absolutely amazing horror movie recently, where a large proportion of the film’s scares come from the location that the film is set in. This reminded me of how important settings and locations can be in the horror genre.
So, I thought that I’d offer some basic tips for coming up with good settings for your horror novel, comic etc….
1) Isolation: I’ll start with the really obvious one. One easy way to make the settings in a horror story even scarier is to ensure that the main characters are cut off from the world, and therefore have to rely on their own wits to survive.
When setting horror stories in the present day, it’s also usually obligatory to point out that the setting in question has no mobile phone reception (in fact, this has been done in horror movies for almost two decades. See the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill” for an older example).
By setting your horror story somewhere isolated, you not only increase the level of danger that the characters face but you also give your story an instant sense of direction and suspense too, since the characters have to find a way to either summon help or escape the location in question.
And, yes, the horror genre is one of the few genres where running away from danger is actually realistically presented as a sensible and heroic thing to do.
2) Symbolism and/or history: The best and most memorable settings in the horror genre are not only eerily mysterious (so that the characters, and audience, don’t know what to expect) but they will often reflect a deeper symbolic and/or historical horror in some way or another.
For example, the classic horror videogame “Silent Hill 2” (major plot SPOILERS ahead!) is set in an abandoned, fog-covered town that is filled with monsters. Every now and then, an air raid siren will sound and then the town will transform itself into a much creepier version of itself – with rusty walls, gloomier lighting and even creepier monsters. These monsters include things like a giant executioner-like character called “Pyramid Head” and creepy undead nurses.
In addition to this, there are lots of other creepy, but meaningful, details scattered throughout the town – such as an abandoned shop that contains creepy graffiti on the inside of the papered-up windows (which changes, depending on when you read it) or a mannequin that is dressed like the main character’s late wife.
All of these details might initially seem like they are just there to scare the audience, but they hold a deeper meaning for the game’s main character – they are all symbolic reflections of his own feelings of guilt about ending the life of his terminally-ill wife. For example, the undead nurses symbolise (amongst other things) hospitals and illness, Pyramid Head’s executioner-like appearance symbolises the main character’s judgment of himself, the evil version of the world represents the main character’s tormented psyche etc…
But, even if the setting of a horror story isn’t a direct reflection of the main characters, it is still important to include some kind of deeper horror too. Going back to the 1999 remake of “House On Haunted Hill”, a lot of the film’s horror comes from the fact that the film takes place in a derelict mental hospital that was run by a cruel doctor during the 1930s.
So, the additional horrors inherent in this setting include things like torture, outdated attitudes, psychological suffering etc…. Which are reflected in many of the locations within the hospital (eg: rooms containing scary-looking medical equipment that has been left to rust etc..).
The easiest way to add a deeper horror to the settings in a horror story is simply to give the location in question a creepy history. However, this alone isn’t enough. The design, style and notable features of the location must also be some kind of symbolic reflection (the more subtle, the better) of this horrifying history.
3) Unreliable locations: Another way to come up with terrifying locations for horror stories is simply to make the location itself a creepily unpredictable thing. If the main characters don’t know what to expect, or cannot even trust reality itself – then this will make the audience feel even more nervous.
The classic horror movie example of this is in “A Nightmare On Elm Street“, where almost all of the film’s horrific events take place within the main characters’ dreams. Not only does this setting give the horror a sense of chilling inevitability (since no-one can stay awake forever), but the focus on dream-like settings also means that the audience never quite knows what to expect. After all, literally anything can happen in a dream….
Likewise, a good comics-based example of this is Raven Gregory’s “Return To Wonderland”. This is an extremely disturbing (and grisly) horror comic that is based on ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (and is even creepier than a classic computer game with a vaguely similar premise called “American McGee’s Alice“).
Since the main character in “Return To Wonderland” is plonked into an evil version of a familiar fictional location (Wonderland) – this comic’s setting also plays on the reader’s expectations too. Because the readers think that they know what to expect, they soon discover that can’t even trust their own memories of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ when horrific things start happening. So, the story is a lot less predictable, and a lot scarier, as a result.
So, the less predictable a location is, the creepier it will be. If the main characters cannot even trust the world around them, then your story or comic will be a lot scarier.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂