The Importance of Location in Horror

We’ve previously talked about types of horror, and the basic process to actually write a horror story, but I thought we might spend the next few posts looking at the elements of a successful horror story. You can have all of the gory bits you like, but without some building blocks, your story might not be as rounded as it could be. So this month we’re going to look at my own personal favourite, location!

You’ll often hear the phrase ‘location, location, location’, and in horror, it’s just as important. Without somewhere for your story to take place, it’s still just an idea. Of course, horror is very closely allied with one of the most famous settings of all, the haunted house. In the case of these stories, the space itself IS the story. Think of the Overlook hotel in The Shining, or Hill House in The Haunting.

You essentially have a choice between three basic ideas when devising locations.

The Ordinary

Think of the ordinary, mundane, normal spaces into which horror erupts. Look at the identikit house of Poltergeist, or the thoroughly nondescript houses of Insidious. These could be any house in any neighbourhood – they could be next door to your house, or worse still, they could BE your house.

Sigmund Freud wrote an incredibly influential essay in 1919 entitled ‘The Uncanny’, and while the uncanny covers many areas that are beyond the scope of this post, a fundamental point is that around familiarity. Uncanny feelings are provoked when something familiar becomes unfamiliar – and few things are as unfamiliar as your house becoming the conduit to the afterlife, or a battleground between you and a rampaigning psychopath. This, in particular, helps to generate the horror for readers because this house is so familiar because it’s so like their own. If ghosts can move in, or a serial killer can enter freely, then who’s to say it couldn’t happen to them?

The Not-Quite-Right

These are the locations which just aren’t normal. They aren’t bad, but there is something ‘off’ about them from the start. We know when Rosemary first views the flat in the Bramford building in Rosemary’s Baby that this is not a happy place. Still, the place in itself isn’t inherently bad, it just isn’t a comforting space, and it merely bears witness to the horror. These spaces unsettle the characters, and with them the readers, and you can play on their ‘not-quite-rightness’ to generate suspense, since the readers can tell something is off about the place, and they’re waiting on tenterhooks to see what will go wrong. These are spaces that could be cured though – the slightly dated Rhode Island house of The Conjuring just needs its resident evil presence to be evicted (presumably along with the hideous furniture).

The ‘Bad’ Place

In her landmark horror text, Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol Clover talks about the concept of the ‘bad’ place. These are those places that are just bad to the bone, baby. They’re the Overlook hotels, the Hill Houses, the 1408 hotel rooms, the Castle Draculas, the houses at 112 Ocean Avenue. While they occasionally may look alright to start with – in fact, Mike Enslin is downright surprised at just how unthreatening and boring room 1408 appears when he first enters – they are evil through and through.

These places are a lot of fun to write because you don’t even necessarily need an actual antagonist because the space itself becomes the antagonist. The space holds all the cards, and can change the rules whenever it wants, and the characters simply have to hold on and hope they can survive long enough to escape. There is always a tension between “inside” and “outside”, and getting out, and ultimately away, is the biggest goal. The characters aren’t trying to defeat evil, or vanquish a villain, they just don’t want to die.

The beauty of these spaces is that you don’t even need to explain why the space is evil – it just is. No one knows why room 1408 kills its occupants, or why the mysterious tunnel in the Paris catacombs is so keen to claim the urban explorers in As Above, So Below. The only important fact is that they simply do these things, irrespective of why. The lack of reasoning makes them illogical and therefore completely outside of anything we can truly understand.

Personally, I find the bad place the more interesting to write because it gives a wider arena of locations to play with. Look at haunted theme parks, or demon-infested nightclubs. They do tend to be more spectral in nature, and if your inclinations run to more body-based horror, then you might want to concentrate on evil entering an otherwise ordinary home, but why not try mixing and matching? Could your serial killer survive in a space like room 1408?

What types of settings do you like in your horror stories, and do you find that a good setting can redeem a mediocre story, or do you feel that sometimes story is sacrified for the sake of an interesting setting?