Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Horror story settings often play upon the limits of human perception and the effects of such limitations upon human self-esteem, safety, and security.
Fog blinds, and blindness makes one helpless. A forest’s density of trees makes one feel trapped. An island or a space station is isolated, which cuts one off from others and the aid that they could provide. A cavern is dark; darkness blinds; blindness makes one helpless. A cavern’s passages are tight, which could make one feel trapped, and the passages are labyrinthine, suggesting that one may become lost and, therefore, cut off from others and the aid that they could provide. An unfamiliar place is unknown, and the unknown blinds one mentally, or cognitively, thereby making him or her vulnerable to potential injury or harm.
The antidotes, as it were, to the effects of such settings are, respectively, self-reliance; escape or rescue; being located; and knowledge (especially practical knowledge).
Therefore, some horror stories start at one of these extremes and end with the other extreme. For example, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” starts with the sentencing to death of the protagonist and his imprisonment in his intended death chamber, the “pit” of the story’s title, and ends with the main character’s rescue by his enemy’s foes.
However, a horror story (or a thriller) might also start with the positive character trait--self-reliance, for example--and end with its destruction, as James Dickey’s novel Deliverance does. In this narrative, macho, self-reliant outdoorsmen are sodomized by a group of sadistic mountain men whom they encounter during a canoeing trip. Likewise, the adversary of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist seeks to destroy Father Damien Karras’ faith when he attempts to exorcize an alleged demoniac. Another of my posts, “A Descent into the Horrors of Extreme Feminism,” discusses at length the importance of the cavern setting of the movie The Descent on both the film’s plot and characters.
Few contemporary horror stories succeed in exploiting a forest setting’s dark and foreboding character as well as The Blair Witch Project. As anyone who has ever gone camping overnight in a forest knows, campers are almost certain to hear furtive sounds, breaking twigs, and perhaps even snarls or growls. Unable to see what one hears, one can quite easily let his or her imagination run wild, and his or her imagination is able to picture horrors and terrors beyond anything reality is likely to offer. The forest, in this film, is a symbol of man’s helplessness before nature--especially a forest that, cutting the band of students off from the rest of humanity, leaves them not only to their own devices but also to their own wild imaginings.
Regardless of the setting an author may select, he or she should examine it carefully for its symbolic, metaphorical, or other rhetorical significance, for by playing upon these implications, the writer can enhance the depth and richness of his or her story. In analyzing the proposed setting, the author may, in fact, find that another setting than that which he or she originally envisioned works better for his or her story in part, perhaps, because the alternative setting is more symbolically, metaphorically, or otherwise rhetorically profound than the first location that he or she considered for the narrative’s milieu. (The same is true for the story’s props: Poe, for example, originally envisioned a parrot as the foil to The Raven’s narrator, rather than the raven he subsequently selected as the poem’s avian adversary.)