Trigger Warning: Mentions of death and dying
Picture this: it’s a cold, dark, stormy night. You’ve gone on vacation to some cabin in the middle of nowhere, when all of a sudden you hear something creaking, scratching, coming closer. You reach for your phone, only to realize that you don’t get service all the way out here. Now it’s just you and whatever lies out there in the dark...
This is just one example of how isolation can raise the stakes in your horror story. Imagine how this might have gone if you were in your well-light apartment in the middle of a crowded city. It probably wouldn’t have been as scary, and you may not have even heard these sounds in the first place. If you’re pushed away from society and other people, it means that there’s no one there to come get you, no other option but to face the antagonist and hope for the best.
This is why a lot of horror movies take place in secluded areas, often forests or nature parks (and why summer camps and cottage vacations are a very popular premise). There is usually little to no phone reception that deep in the woods, and people tend to be more spaced out, so no one can hear you scream. Not to mention, forests are pretty disorienting, and look the same after you’ve been wandering in them for long enough. So that would leave your character totally alone and disoriented. If you add in the total darkness of nighttime, and maybe a fierce storm to decrease visibility and make sure that no one can drive out fast enough (if they can even be contacted in the first place), and you’ve got the perfect recipe for absolute terror.
This is not to say that you can’t write a horror story set in a bustling metropolitan area. In fact, that could be a compelling setting, and you’d still have plenty of opportunity to create a sense of being alone.
When I say “isolation”, it doesn’t have to be just in a physical sense. Maybe your character doesn’t have anyone to reach out to, maybe they have reached out and they haven’t been believed, or the villain is someone they know and maybe even live with, who has already destroyed every chance your character has of escape. This is why many horror stories written about children work so well. Even if a child is surrounded by people, they may still feel alone, and are often seemingly helpless in a situation without their parents or a trusted adult.
A great example of a movie that demonstrates this is Coraline (I’m only going to talk about the movie version, as I haven’t read the book). In the movie, Coraline is surrounded by people, and the location doesn’t really change throughout the movie (by which I mean that the basic structure of the house and it’s residents stays more or less the same). What builds the sense of isolation and fear for Coraline isn’t just where she is, it’s the people — and otherwise — that are around her.
Coraline’s parents are there for most of the movie, but they may as well not be, as they pay no attention to her and dismiss all of her concerns. Same with her friends and neighbors. They are all there, and they all hear her, but no one is actually listening, which actually creates an even more devastating and horrifying sense of isolation. Knowing that even if you could tell the people around you of the danger you’re in, but not be believed raises those stakes even more, because it leaves your character not knowing who to trust.
There are many settings that are underutilized in horror. My personal favorite niche horror setting is deep space. In terms of total isolation, it isn’t going to get much better than this. My absolute deepest fear is getting stuck in space, because of how harsh and unforgiving space is. If you don’t have a proper source of oxygen, you die. If you get launched into the cold abyss of space, you die. If you happen to come across a black hole, you get spaghettificated, and you die.
(Fun fact, spaghettification is the process in which you get sucked into a black hole and your entire essence is stretched out until you look like a spaghetti noodle.
Not to mention how isolated space is. Nobody can come to get you, unless they manage to pull a rocket out of nowhere and send it up fast enough, which seems unlikely. If your team goes down, you have absolutely no one, and if something evil was lurking around every corner, where could you go?
The ocean is another great setting, like space, it has the advantage of being vast and difficult to navigate, and if you get lost out there, it’d be nearly impossible to find you in time. Again, the ocean is very unforgiving and volatile. Since it’s so deep, there’s no way to see what’s lurking at the bottom.
Putting your character in a setting like these not only ensures that they’re alone with no means of escape, but it throws in additional obstacles that make things even harder for your character (in horror, nothing should be easy — otherwise it wouldn’t be scary).
It doesn’t fully matter where you put your characters, as long as they’re far enough from safety that they have no other option to stay where the antagonist is. One thing that is sure to take your audience out of the story is having an obvious exit that your character either doesn’t see, or doesn’t use to their advantage. When this happens, the audience stops feeling bad for your character, and starts resenting their stupidity. Think of how many horror movies you’ve seen that could be solved if the protagonist just called for help. This makes your story far less effective. No matter how scary your monster is, if the person can just leave, it is no longer horror.
Isolation is one of the most effective elements of horror. By using the setting to your advantage, you’ve managed to immediately increase the horror that your characters (and hopefully your readers) feel. Keeping your characters stuck in whatever unfortunate situation they’re in makes your work into a story that is memorable and terrifying.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favourite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi.