to Horror Part 3:
Setting in Horror Fiction
2002, Teresa Hopper
element that is easy to overlook when writing a novel is setting. You’re
busy trying to make your characters real and your plot interesting and complex,
and what difference does the setting make anyway?
You may not
have given your story’s setting much more thought than which town it’ll be
in, but if this is the case you’re missing a great opportunity to add another
dimension to your work. With a little careful forethought, your setting can add
atmosphere and originality to your novel.
In its most
basic element, the setting of your story is the ‘where and when’ of it.
Setting gives your story a context. One of the things that I love most
about horror fiction is that it is so flexible when it comes to setting. If
you’ve been thinking that writing horror limits you in your choice of where
and when, think again, for as I’m going to show you, with horror you can turn
your hand to almost anything.
increasingly popular device of alternative history is a great way of coming up
with an original setting. You might not think of alternate history as having
anything to do with horror fiction, but Laurell K. Hamilton has used it with
great success in her very popular Anita Blake vampire hunter novels. Although
set in our world and time, the difference is that ghosts, monsters, and demons
are real, known about by everyone, and that vampires have been made legal
citizens. Another popular novel is 48 by
James Herbert, set in a post World War II London where Hitler has released a
deadly blood disease that has killed most of the population. The Second World
War seems to be a fertile ground for alternative historians, but you can twist
any historical event into the basis for your story.
major setting choice is the time period your story is set in. The majority of
horror fiction on the shelves in bookstores is set in the present day, but that
doesn’t mean that it’s the only option available. Many writers have
experimented with horror set in different times than our own. Anne Rice has
written books set in various times including ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, and
Renaissance Europe; Paul Docherty has written horror stories set in the
mediaeval world; Tom Holland sets his horror in various time periods.
wonder how you write realistically about a time that you’ve never experienced
- don’t all the writing books advise you to write about what you know? They
do, and that’s fine if you want to write about your hometown, but not so great
if you want to set a horror story in the last days of the Byzantine Empire. In
this case you have to learn about your setting by research, and lots of it. Go
to your local library or bookstore, or search the Internet, and you will find
references detailing almost any time period or historical event.
element that can have a dramatic effect on your story is the location that you
choose. As humans, we connect places strongly with emotion, and writers can make
the most of this. We have preconceived ideas of what places are like; for
example the American deep south brings to mind hot sweaty nights and the mystery
of voodoo; deserts bring to mind bleakness, danger, and heat and the
insignificance of man compared to the landscape. These are, of course, mostly
stereotypes, and I’m not suggesting for a minute that you stereotype your
setting. If you either know your
location or have researched it well, you can show what the place is really like.
But be aware that these emotional connections exist, because they give you an
extra tool - it is easier to surprise your reader if you already have an idea of
what they are expecting.
brings us on to the next point about setting and how it can relate to your story
– you can set it in what I will call ‘often used’ or ‘unusual’
locations for horror. The expected ones are obvious – a haunted house, a
graveyard, or a castle. These kinds
of locations are often used and are very familiar to fans of the genre. I
personally love these kinds of creepy settings, and there is a reason they are
classics – they evoke a sense of dread before you even start with the ghastly
goings-on, and this gives you a helping hand creating the mood and atmosphere.
The down side is that these locations have already been over-used, and you will
find it more difficult to to surprise and shock your reader. This is one of the most important aspects of horror; it’s
hard to scare a reader if they know what is coming next. That’s not to say
that you shouldn’t use these locations, but bear in mind what has been done
before, and try to use the location in a new way, giving it your own twist.
‘unusual’ locations are the ones that you don’t normally associate with
horror – an office building, or a playground. These kinds of settings
haven’t been used as much, and your reader doesn’t go in knowing what is
going to happen next. When the horrid and unexpected happens, the shock value is
all the greater, and to my mind much scarier. The downside to this kind of
setting is that you will have to work harder to create a scary mood.
However, don’t be afraid to attempt it, because if you succeed, it will
be much more effective.
situation exists with setting your horror during the day or the night.
Traditionally, the action in horror stories happened during the night, as it is
so much easier to create fear when your character is in a deserted house in the
middle of the night than when they are standing in bright sunshine. But again,
this is a bit of an over-used formula, and writers are increasingly setting
their horror during the day as well. Sometimes it is unavoidable to have all the
action during the night, as with vampire stories for example, but I think it's
good to avoid, wherever possible, the situation where the bad things happen at
night and your characters are safe by day. If you want a good example of how to
create a scary scene during the day, read The Shining by Stephen King, which has a number of such scenes.
I hope that
you can now see how important setting can be to your horror story, and how much
a good setting can add to it. So next time you get a story idea, spend a little
time on your setting, and your manuscript could be all the stronger for it.