Amy Lucavics: Setting, Atmosphere, and Creating a Creepy Tone in Horror Fiction

Amy Lucavics: Setting, Atmosphere, and Creating a Creepy Tone in Horror Fiction

The importance of location in creating a scary atmosphere can be massive. Specific settings directly control the characters’ moods, motivations, and current status of safety. In Stephen King’s The Shining, an enormous hotel that’s been closed for the winter provides the perfect backdrop to explore the effects of isolation on the human mind. As the Torrance family wanders the empty halls of the Overlook Hotel, their minds, in turn, wander as well. They start wondering about themselves and the other members of the family. By the time the tension erupts into a murderous rampage, it is the setting that traps the characters in the madness, solid in its ability to breed a viscerally terrifying experience.

Some settings can be so vivid in their presence that they almost become a main character of the story on their own merit. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson features a house that is described on the first page as being “not sane,” a living, beating heart of impending doom. This house knows things, it wants things, and it can make things happen to ensure that it gets what it wants. In some ways, the story is much less about how the characters react to the setting than how the setting reacts to the characters.

Other times, the more physical aspects of a lushly described setting are enough on their own to fill the reader with discomfort. In The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, the house is surrounded by dense marshes and shrouded with thick, drifting clouds of sea fog. It is from these marshes that the main character hears the sound of screams, and spots a mysterious specter that appears and disappears around the grounds. The setting provides a darkened lens to experience the story through; instead of just imagining the marsh, you can smell it, feel the heaviness of the humidity, experience the chill of the fog drifting around your ankles.

There are many different ways to approach building an atmosphere through the location of the story and achieve a successful result. Tension can be made, held, and increased through placing the focus on the right details of the setting. The characters can be pushed to their limits and beyond when faced with circumstances unique to the location, propelling the story forward and spawning potential plot points to strengthen the novel as a whole.