October is here, which means the familiar ensemble of jack-o-lanterns, costumes, bags of candy, and of course, scary stories! There’s something about a good scary story and how it sets one’s spine-tingling and blood-chilling that has lasted through generations; whether in the form of gathering around a campfire, going to the theater, or devouring a book of ghost tales late in the night, the need to share scary stories is a part of humanity. But what exactly makes for writing a good scary story? Over the course of this month, to get you in the spirit for Halloween, we’ll be covering a variety of tropes and techniques the best horror stories employ, starting with this week’s topic: creating the right setting.
Like any genre, setting plays a vital role in the composition of a story, as it gives the reader background information on where the story is taking place. Authors can manipulate their settings to suit their story’s needs. Horror stories share a common theme with setting in that they mostly take place in dark, inhospitable environments. This is a conscious choice on the author’s part. Horror is all about playing on the reader’s natural aversions. We all have predisposed phobias created from generations of survival. Some of the most common ones include: darkness, heights, dangerous animals (spiders, snakes, etc.), and strangers. The majority of horror literature and film utilizes these elements in some way, and it all starts with the right setting.
Because humans have a natural aversion to darkness and the unknown, using these themes in your setting is a great place to begin. Many horror stories take place in isolated and creepy environments such as basements, attics, forests, cabins in the woods, or abandoned buildings. Using the dark is a powerful technique because humans see poorly at night. Settings like a forest or basement or abandoned buildings where things can hide in the shadows work well for horror. Storms are also a good use of setting, as it prevents travel and eliminates natural lighting.
Some examples of works of horror that utilize strong setting include Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In this short story, Poe uses a decaying house for his setting with the climax taking place during a storm. H.P. Lovecraft in “The Call of Cthulhu” utilizes the sea and a mysterious and desolate island for his climax when a group of seamen come across a monster known as Cthulhu and only a few make it off the island alive. Many films also use this technique. The scariest scenes in Jaws take place either at dusk or dawn when lighting is poor and the water murky, just enough for the giant great white to go unseen. Both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th utilize dark and desolate woods for their settings where the main characters are cut off from the rest of the world and must fend for themselves, giving the antagonists perfect places to hide.
Next time you read a horror novel or watch a horror film, pay attention to the setting. You’ll often find they play off of similar themes, with the exception of a select few like the film Midsommar, but that’s a discussion for another time.