This time, we’ll talk about 8 surefire ways to write a great horror story setting and locations. You’ll find a few practical tips that will keep you organized, as well as a few things that will get the creative juices going.
Although this article is about writing, I will use quite a few movie references for convenience sake. Even if you haven’t seen any of these, take a peek at the trailer and see what I’m talking about.
Take a moment and think of the most influential horror films ever made. Do “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Blair Witch Project”, “Rec”, “The Amityville Horror”, and “Saw” make your list? What do they have in common? In each one of the movies I’ve named, the setting plays a huge and important part. At least, it adds another layer to the story, if not being the most important part of the plot itself.
When you’re writing a book, your setting gives meat to the story and makes it more captivating.
So, without further ado, let’s give it a go.
1. The location is another character.
There is only a handful of other genres where a location plays as big of a role as in horror. Even then, it’s more for technical reasons. For example, how you need to know a place inside out for a good heist or a jailbreak story.
In horror, the setting is another character, and sometimes quite literally. Ever heard of an evil house that wants to kill its residents? Haunted mansions and abandoned psychiatric hospitals? There you have it.
When you’re developing a setting for a horror story, approach it as if you are working on a human character. And you don’t have to aim for the whole “this house is alive” vibe for this approach to make sense.
Develop a background for your location just like you would for a main character. Readers want to know what motivates your characters. They also want to know the troubles they are facing, their history, and all the things that make them interesting to read about.
In the same way, you can breathe life into a horror setting. So, if we’re talking about a haunted house, don’t stop at who the previous owners are and how the house become haunted. Think about what the lives of those people were before the traumatic event, how did they use the house, what’s the climate like. Did the place turn bad after humans did something bad there? Was it always bad? All of these details make the setting more realistic, and that makes the story feel real as well.
2. Make use of a well-known spot.
Especially if the spot has a few urban legends or paranormal events tied to it. But, be careful – these places come packaged with nerds who probably know every nook and cranny. They will make sure to bombard you with criticism if you dare to get one window or tile wrong. Though, you can always use that place as inspiration, starting point, or template of sorts.
In 2014, “As Above, So Below” made use of the Catacombs of Paris as their main setting. Now, I doubt that the Gates of Hell are really there because not even the Devil himself would be caught in Paris (a bit of fanservice to non-Parisian French readers), but it’s a great example of using what’s already there. The location is already scary, so just sprinkle in some lore and a pinch of human stupidity, and you have a horror story.
3. Write what you know.
It’s a cliche, but it’s repeated time and time for a reason.
I’m not telling you to write about your home, school, workplace, grandma’s house, or that cabin you went to once with your family. Of course, you can use your knowledge of these places and their layouts to craft a realistic space. You can also keep notes of furniture and little knick-knacks that you encounter in everyday life and place them in your “murder rooms”.
But, what’s more important is to think of the places that gave you the heeby-jeebies and what made them so spooktastic.
Allow me to jump genres for a second. When you’re writing the X-rated stuff, you should concentrate on feelings and not the mechanics of the intercourse, right? It’s more or less the same here. It’s good that a reader has a general idea of what the place looks like, but it matters more what it would feel like to be there.
If you don’t know what it would take to creep someone out, you may find it difficult to pass on that feeling to the reader. Hate to say it, but it’s time to revisit all your childhood traumas and seek that monster that hid under your bed. Try to remember what it felt like to be in that room alone, thinking something’s lurking in the darkness. That’s the same feeling both your characters and the reader have to get from your story’s setting.
4. Keep the Chekhov’s gun fully loaded.
Every detail of the story contributes to the overall narrative.
When you’re creating a horror setting, each piece of the puzzle has to have a purpose beyond looking spooky. Do you want to use traditional gothic decor elements? By all means, knock yourself out. But there needs to be a good reason why this eerie mansion is decked out in gargoyles and creepy stained glass windows. After all, it’s not a very popular look, especially for a house in the middle of Iowa.
Let’s try to make this idea work. If we say that the previous owner has ties to European nobility, we can also say that they tried to transport the ancestral castle to the US. Of course, that’s a bit too expensive, so they brought over whatever they could safely remove and pack on a boat.
Now it makes sense that we are seeing these decor elements, but we also get to learn about the original owner’s background and a few character traits.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a great silver screen example. Everything you see in the Sawyer family home screams of horrors that happened there.
5. Defuse Hitchcock’s bomb.
Alfred Hitchcock will forever be one of the most influential horror movie directors. He’s the master of cinematic tension, and he explained his principle through the idea of the “bomb under the table”. Pretty much, the audience knows there is a bomb under the table, but the people sitting around it (the characters) don’t. As the characters are talking about mundane things, the audience is watching with anxiety because they know that that the bomb will go off in 5 minutes.
This is one of those rare things in writing a horror story that works on screen but doesn’t work on the page all the time. It’s even more true if the story is written in the first person. Since the narrator doesn’t know there is a bomb under the table, why should the reader know instead?
Try to remember that you are taking the reader on a journey. They need to discover the details of the location in real-time, just like any of the story characters. It’s fine if they don’t discover everything, as well.
Let me put it this way: you’re in an abandoned hospital and you’re running away from a hatchet-wielding maniac. Are you rational enough to remember the exact layout of the building and to make wise decisions? Can you stay calm and take stock of every detail in each room? Or are you a super-soldier that’s trained to analyze the strategic and exit points of any space? Of course not.
What I’m trying to say is that the pace at which you deliver the information about the setting is important to the story and the reader’s experience. After all, humans fear the unknown far more than any monster you can come up with.
6. Less is more.
Does it spark joy? If it doesn’t, throw it out or donate it.
Okay, joking aside, minimalism and horror work great together. First, there’s the aforementioned fear of the unknown. The less information we get, the more tension and anxiety we will feel.
For example, in both “Cube” and “Saw”, characters wake up in an unrecognizable space and have to slowly piece together where they are and what’s going on. To top it, we don’t even know if the characters can escape to safety. Beyond those doors, we could either find rainbows and unicorns, or the space Nazi zombies.
But that’s not the only way minimalism works for these movies. Everything is happening inside one room. Okay, in the case of the “Cube”, it’s a series of empty rooms, but you get the point. Speaking of there is also not much in any of the rooms.
Removing everything but what’s essential to the plot redirects the reader to focus on the characters. In both films, we have an unknown antagonist that places our characters into said rooms. Beyond that initial setup, most of the plot is based on human nature and how we deal with danger and threats to our lives and well-being.
Monsters are scary, but humans are scarier. So, a bit of the Konmari technique can help the reader focus on your characters and what they are willing to do to survive.
7. Clean up the place and turn on the lights.
When writers think horror, they go straight for darkness and dilapidated abandoned buildings. But as we’ve learned from some of the most iconic horror novels and movies, daylight and sparkly clean places can be terrifying as well.
No one is scared of graveyards and abandoned hospitals anymore. If they are, it’s because they are great places for jump scares. If it works for your story, go for it. But, please make sure that there is a point to it and you’re not picking that location just because it’s a “classic” choice.
Two words: “Human Centipede”. It’s one of the most horrifying movies ever released. But, no matter how disturbing the story is, it makes it worse it’s happening in an upper-middle-class, posh home of a German surgeon. “Midsommar” is not quite as graphic, but the horror is not set in a dark forest, but on an open plane bathed in sunlight.
Then, there are all home invasion flicks ever made. A beautiful home, forever changed. It’s even scarier than being locked up in a dungeon somewhere because we think that violence will never happen to us. We are not out there seeking trouble, signing up for escape rooms, or hunting ghosts and summoning demons. We are in our pajamas, behind locked doors, safe under a comforter. Everything should be okay, right?
Wrong. There’s always to turn everything on its head. Challenging your reader’s sense of security is the best way to get them emotionally involved in the story. And if you’ve managed to do that, you did a good job as a horror writer.
So, why not turn a happy, sunny place into a den of terror and unimaginable trauma?
8. Easter egg hunt.
You’ll have to thank the MCU and every contemporary horror film for this one. People just expect Easter eggs in the stories these days. So, why not sprinkle a few through your setting? Adding them to the location will not take away the reader’s attention from the plot, and it may allow you to have some fun.
The truth is that you can skip them altogether, but don’t dismiss the idea from the get-go. Easter eggs can turn into the free promotion of your work. A single online thread discussing Easter eggs in your story can earn you many new casual readers and devoted fans.
But writing Easter eggs is not that easy. It’s a lot easier to chuck them in the background in a movie. When they are on the page, they are put front and center (at least for a duration of a sentence or two).
You have to master the art of disguise. Learn how to write about a person, item, or event without telling outright what it is. Think of trying to say that someone is wearing a green and red sweater without making it obvious it’s Freddy Krueger’s sweater.
At least, this can turn into a good writing exercise. Trying to do this will teach you how to provide your reader with information without serving them outright on a plate.