copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman
The setting of a story is the time, the place, and the cultural milieu in which the narrative's action occurs, and, as such, a setting indicates what a given author (and his or her loyal readers) finds frightening or horrifying. A horror story that's set in the slums of a big city, for example, is apt to feature a monster altogether different from a horror story that's set in a rural area of patchwork farmland or in a small town. What frightens Stephen King, in Bangor, Maine, may not frighten Dean Koontz, in Newport Beach, California. Similarly, what concerns a writer at an earlier age may not concern him or her at a later age, as is clear in the career of Koontz, whose earlier fiction was all about monsters and whose later, more "mature," fiction is more and more about serial killers. His antagonists may be more mundane, but, for the same reason, they're also more believable. Likewise, with Stephen King: his earlier fiction concerned supernatural or paranormal villains who invade or attack small towns. His later fiction is, increasingly, about the interrelationships among adults, as in Bag of Bones and Lisey’s Story, or about one character's development and transformation, as in Rose Madder or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Lately, both Koontz and King have introduced religious themes in their work as well, most clearly, perhaps in The Taking (Koontz) and Desperation (King). In some cases, at least, their stories’ settings have changed to reflect these changes in their themes. Both have become farther ranging in their fiction, both literally and figuratively, or thematically.
Often, a horror story's setting is isolated. It's isolated for several reasons. First, a remote location intensifies the horror and the fear. A distant, lonely setting frames the action because it separates what is presented in the story from the ordinary events of the larger, mundane world, thereby accentuating them. An isolated setting focuses the reader's attention on what is happening here and nowhere else. At the hands (or word processor) of a skilled writer, such a setting can become downright claustrophobic. Second, a remote setting makes the characters in the story entirely responsible for their own actions. What they do will save them or damn them. They have to gain the knowledge and have the wits, the pluck, and the determination to rescue themselves, to destroy the monster, and to set things right. No one else is going to help them. No one else is going to save them. The remote setting leaves it up to them, and them alone, to save the day. Third, a remote setting isolates the story's characters from the rest of humanity--from culture and history and science and technology and medicine and food and everything else that society and civilization have developed over years and centuries of cooperative interaction. The characters have no recourse to, and no support from, the infrastructure, so to speak, of shared attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and values upon which their society and human civilization itself depend. They're returned to the "state of nature" that so troubles Thomas Hobbes (and Thomas Jefferson).
Of course, some horror fiction takes place in big cities, such as New York, which are far from being far from the maddening crowd. Such settings allow horror writers to identify and to delineate the horrors of such environments, and the monsters that attack the characters in such stories may represent some of the real-life problems that residents of metro- and megalopolises face every day: drug trafficking and addiction, prostitution and the spread of venereal disease, smog, criminal assault, rape, murder, and so forth. A vampire loose in the Big Apple may want to suck the citizenry's confidence in themselves and their fellow men and women as much as he or she wants to suck their lifeblood--in fact, such trust may be their lifeblood.
Anyone who's ever lived in a small town knows how much the residents tend to be, on one hand, nosy enough to keep their neighbors under pretty much constant and continuous surveillance while, on the other hand, exercising an apathy about them that is, in some ways, deeper and more prevalent than the indifference that city slickers are said to display toward one another. It is only those who've never dwelled in Bug Tussle or who are truly naive who might mistake small town residents' superficial friendliness for genuine affection and concern. No (true) story brings home this message more clearly, perhaps, than that of Ed Gein, the man upon whom Psycho's Norman Bates, Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface, and Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill are based. A dependent personality who was brainwashed by his mother, a religious fanatic, to believe that women are evil seductresses intent upon ruining the lives of men and securing the eternal damnation of their souls, Gein was lost when his mother died, leaving him to fend for himself on the isolated farm on which he lived near Plainfield, Wisconsin. Despite several occasions during which Gein acted more than a little odd (saying, for example, that a missing woman wasn't really missing but was "hanging out" at his house--gutted like a deer, as it turns out), Gein's neighbors showed no real interest in him, despite his having lived in Plainfield most of his life. A theme becomes clear in watching or reading biographies of the man who murdered women and robbed female corpses from their graves, wearing their flesh and body parts as masks and costumes: his monstrosity was due, in part, to the apathy of the community in which he lived. (Such indifference has become a theme of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft and Dean Koontz.)
To determine what is considered horrible to people, consider the time and the place in which horror stories are set. The theme, often, will offer a clue as to what the people of such times, in such places, feared. There's a reason that King Kong, a gigantic gorilla discovered on an uncharted island that time forgot, terrifies New Yorkers, just as there's a reason that, of all the places on the planet that he could have attacked, Godzilla chose to assault Tokyo, Japan with his radioactive breath. There's a reason, too, that Freddy Kreuger attacks adolescent boys and girls in their sleep and that babysitters are often beset by stalkers. Likewise, scientific laboratories scared Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells, who lived during a time when scientists increasingly began to think that, through applied science--technology, in other words--they could become as gods, ruling the universe. High schools are places of horror for the ostracized and ignored, as Carrie shows us, and, yes, the hills have eyes.