The best horror writers give their readers a scare; perhaps make them shiver with fear or squirm at vivid descriptions of a terrifying scene or a frightening character. A good horror story will make its readers feel uncomfortable, afraid to turn the page to read what happens next. This article will discuss setting the scene that a good horror story will be happy to call home.
Ask someone to choose a setting for a horror story and the response will probably be: ”Use your imagination”. But that’s not strictly the right approach. It’s all very well to let your mind conjure up images of chainsaw-wielding zombies roaming the highway in search of fresh blood to appease the zombie king who lives on a haunted island in the middle of a lake… but how do you make the story believable? Your imagination may give you a great idea for a horror story, but that’s just the first step towards creating something to capture your readers’ attention.
A healthy dose of reality is what turns an idea and plotline into a horror story. The good horror writer will use plenty of reality to bring his story to life, creating a world that will – ultimately – terrify his readers. Inspiration is everywhere, and when creating the setting for your story you probably don’t have to look very far. The trick is to use your words to paint a typical scene – one with which most people are familiar - perhaps a place where they feel safe. Then add a couple of sentences to imply that perhaps all is not as it seems and there’s something not quite right with this picture. The paragraph below is from William Peter Blatty’s terrifying book The Exorcist. I’ve boldened the few words he’s used to add a chilling element to the basic description of an average house. Note how he’s used a couple of sentences to enhance the “normality” of the scene:
The house was a rental. Brooding. Tight. A brick colonial ripped by ivy in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Across the street, was a fringe of campus belonging to Georgetown University; to the rear, a sheer embankment plummeting steep to busy M Street and, beyond, the muddy Potomac. Early on the morning of April 1, the house was quiet… At approximately 12:25 A.M., Chris glanced from her script with a frown of puzzlement. She heard rapping sounds. They were odd. Muffled. Profound. Rhythmically clustered. Alien code tapped out by a dead man.
Although reality-based settings may appear to be mundane and commonplace that’s not strictly true. The very ordinariness of this kind of setting can work in two ways. First, readers are familiar with ordinary because that’s their world. It’s where they live, work and play. The fact that we can all relate to “ordinary” means the relationship between writer and reader is already going in the right direction. This helps readers believe the story’s setting is credible, a vital ingredient to the success of a horror story.
Secondly, you could introduce an ominous, thickly atmospheric setting - the misty-fog-shrouded swamp, the torture chamber in the dungeons of a crumbling castle, the burial ground of a Satanic church, the empty street at midnight lit by one flickering streetlamp… all these situations warn the reader that something nasty is going to happen. These kinds of settings are celebrated by the horror genre, because they prepare the reader for the rest of the story
Finally, you know your story has worked when readers think: "This could probably happen under the right circumstances”. Readers are already meeting you more than halfway – by choosing to read your story they’re making an oath of sorts: they agree to be scared and terrified by reading your words.
In the next article I will discuss character development. To close I leave you with a paragraph from a book that contains no supernatural being – the object of terror is one that shares our planet with us. I remember being absolutely terrified by the first chapter of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” when I first read it at around the age of fifteen. With just a few words he paints a silent, unknown and alien world that you just know is about to explode into terror.
The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. The mouth was open just enough to permit a rush of water over the gills. There was little other motion: an occasional correction of the apparently aimless course by the slight raising or lowering of a pectoral fin - as a bird changes direction by dipping one wing and lifting the other. The eyes were sightless in the black, and the other senses transmitted nothing extraordinary to the small, primitive brain.
That book still frightens me...