You’re running, heart pounding in your throat as the damp air whips your face, a horrifying cackle slicing through the wind behind you. He’s close. You push harder, fear and adrenaline spurring you on, until… You fall, your cheek grinding along the earth as you feel your nose crack. He’s above you, pressing the axe into the nape of your neck. The sun is beaming above, birds chirping, flowers dancing merrily around you as you close your eyes and await your death.
It just doesn’t work, does it?
Setting is one of the most important elements of Horror fiction, and even though there are firm favourites (Haunted House v. Creepy Castle), they are favourites for a reason. This is because ‘choosing a setting is one of the best ways to provide a mood underlying [a] … piece’, whether in Horror fiction or otherwise. In Horror particularly, however, ‘setting does more than simply enhance the story’s mood; it creates the ambience, and the expectation, of terror.’ Imagine walking through an unlit alley at midnight rather than a glowing meadow at the height of spring, and suddenly the tone changes; you almost anticipate the axe murderer.
Settings in Horror don’t always have to involve the stereotypical hell house or gothic castle. Take Stephen King, for example; most of his stories are set in fictitious reworks of small American towns that are ‘instantly recognisable to anyone who has even driven through one.’ This uncanny element of a familiar town turned sinister, whether it’s through a deranged killer, blood-thirsty vampire, or total abandonment, is unsettling because ‘we almost feel as if our hometown is in immediate danger.’ Let’s talk Salem’s Lot (1975) (read my last post if you’d like to further understand my devotion to this novel). The small-town of Jerusalem’s Lot finds itself under the threat of vampires, and when Ben Mears (spoiler alert) deserts what’s left of the Lot and burns it to the ground, I felt a pang of sadness; I had gained an attachment to the town and its inhabitants, connecting it to the English alternative that I grew up in. Displayed ‘in sharp relief against the familiar, mundane trappings of Main Street America’, the horror of associating what I knew as comfortable and ordinary being ‘invaded by the terrifying extraordinary’ was enough to make anyone shiver.
A prominent theme within Horror settings is ‘isolation’. For example, in The Visit (2015), the equally uncanny location of a segregated farm isolates the central characters, therefore isolating the viewer alongside them. This incorporates the ‘fear of the unknown’ that Lovecraft teaches; there is no one around to hear their cries, thus no one to prevent their death, instilling fear in the viewer before the true terror has even begun. Lisa Morton said that ‘a great horror setting can serve to make [the] reader instantly uncomfortable, before you’ve even mentioned a monster or a murder’, its atmospheric qualities and unpredictable nature meaning ‘the setting is the monster.’ In this case, ‘the solitude and isolation, can, of itself, become a problem,’ before any stir-crazy character has been introduced.
The concept of location emphasising a horrific atmosphere can also be extended to the location of the reader when they pick up a piece of Horror fiction. This is what Guy Debord defined as ‘psychogeography’, meaning ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Imagine watching The Visit whilst staying with a distant relative on their farm, or reading The Shining (1997) during an overnight schlep in an isolated hotel; a far more chilling atmosphere than our jolly meadow, and likely to have an impact.
So, picture this:
You fall, your cheek grinding along the tarmac as you feel your nose crack. He’s above you, pressing the axe into the nape of your neck. You imagine twisting round, grabbing his weapon and fleeing, but you’ve nowhere to run; the darkness is suffocating you, the high brick walls of the alley closing in on you, the light at the end of the tunnel a mere firefly.
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