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Terrible Places: What Makes a Horror Setting Scary

Horror Setting, Terrible Places

Horror fans can debate what makes something scary until everyone is blue in the face, but there really is no way to actually win an argument like this right? It’s all just opinion? Yeah, no. I’m going to lay out everything you ever wanted to know about why a horror setting is actually scary by defining for you the concept of the “Terrible Place.”

The five conventions of horror named in Carol Clover’s academic examination of Friday the 13th, “Her Body, Himself,” are killer, terrible place, weapons, victims and the final girl. While all these conventions are worthy of discussion, it seems to me that “terrible place” is something seen in every sub-genre of horror and something that might be more important in the horror genre than in others like mystery or romance.

I say setting is more important to horror because a lot of times three quarters of the scares actually come from the physical location of the film. The ambience. The lighting. The personality. It’s all in the unique location. S***, sometimes (and I’m looking at you haunting films) the only thing that sets one horror movie apart from another is the specific setting of the film. The setting can also be the only reason a film is watchable, like with Chernobyl, or the one thing that pushes a film from okay to great, like with As Above, So Below.

What is a Terrible Place?

The Terrible Place, Clover writes, is “most often a house or tunnel, in which the victims sooner or later find themselves.” I find it interesting that she mentions “tunnel” here. House makes sense, think of the traditional gothic roots of horror, but why tunnel?

She goes on to mention that “What makes these houses terrible is not just their Victorian decrepi-tude but the terrible families” (Clover). I think that is where tunnel comes in. And I think this opens up the discussion from setting to be the physical set where the movie is filmed, and to think about the setting as also being representative of theme and character.

The setting is only effective when it reflects the horrific concept of the film. Clover explains, stating that within the “Bates mansion enfolds the history of a mother and son locked in a sick attachment, and so the Texas Chain Saw mansion/labyrinth shelters a lawless brood presided over by the decaying corpse of the grandmother.” These are the tunnels within the homes. The key to what makes a horror setting into a Terrible Place.

I contend, then, that every effective horror movie must have a partially unique, memorable, and horrifying Terrible Place in which the story unfolds to be considered scary. That there can not be a “good” horror movie without a “good” setting.

So what makes an effective terrible place? Courtney Carpenter (hurray for C.C. initialed female horror writers!), in her article titled “Horror, Mysteries and Setting: Playing on the Unexpected,” asserts that “Horror stories play on the reader’s private fears, exploiting the frightened child within … hoping the bogeyman is not lurking in his closet.” The setting must then expose something the viewer didn’t necessarily know they were scared of. Or force them to confront something already there, I suppose.

Therefore nothing too unfamiliar could be the focus of a truly Terrible Place. It’s not a Terrible Place because the place is inherently terrible. The horror comes from something familiar being flipped. Like Carpenter’s point concerning Stephen King’s The Mist, “[in which] people are trapped in a supermarket when a fog filled with nightmare creatures surrounds the store. This if frightening not because a supermarket is frightening, but because “we all need to visit supermarkets,” tapping into “…the leftover-from-childhood dread that no place is safe.”The Mist, Stephen King, Horror Setting

Horror films work when they force us to look at something close to us and be afraid of it.

Effective and Ineffective Terrible Places

So what is an example of a film that pulls this off well? I don’t think anyone would disagree with me if I said that Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s setting is truly terrifying. Of all the horror movie Terrible Places, I think I would least like to be stuck in that 1900s Victorian style house in Anywhere, USA.

Not insignificantly, this house could be just down the road from YOU even. That abandoned-looking old house could hide a dark secret if you just had the misfortune of looking.But having a forgettable or ineffective setting can lead to a lack of a terrible place. This important element, when absent or poorly executed, can lead to a failed horror film. An effort that should be scary but just isn’t.

Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows has other issues than just the setting, but choosing to set the follow-up to a unique and groundbreaking horror phenomenon in a… well… can you finish that sentence? Is there any standout setting from Blair Witch 2 someone could point to? It says something that I literally could not write a single of this paragraph without doing a good amount of research to remind myself why I thought the setting was forgettable. It wasn’t like I thought the setting was bad. I just couldn’t remember what it was, it was so bland. And do you know why? It’s because it is set everywhere and nowhere. Attempting to repeat on the success of the first film, the movie features characters retreading the terrible places of the first (which is sort of the entire yawn-inducing plot of the movie).

When it isn’t trying to simply repeat what originally worked, Blair Witch 2 is just throwing in places like graveyards, crumbling stonework, creepy Victorian mansions, and any other cliched horror setting that is shorthand for “scary.”

Why is that? Why can settings be scary sometimes but not others?

Early Horror Settings

According to Erin Blakemore, in her article “How Victorian Mansions Became the Default Haunted House,” there is actually a very simple reason for the Victorian mansion’s transformation from a symbol of wealth and beauty to one of the most iconic Terrible Places in film history.

Blakemore explains that “in the 1870s, Victorian houses were just…houses.” But within fifty years that common style had become a sign of terror, death, and decay. In the minds of the average American, the aging houses had drastically fallen out of style by the early twentieth century. Beyond simply being left abandoned and in disrepair, all things Victorian had begun to be seen in isolationist American as ugly, excessive, and un-American.

Adding to this new perception, Blakemore adds that “Returning soldiers saw death in the once uplifting factories and bright dreams of their Victorian fathers” due to their experiences overseas. They now saw the houses as “ghostly remnants of a corrupt past.”

If you recall Courtney Carpenter’s explanation of what makes Terrible Places terrible, she mentioned that the setting need not only “play on the reader’s private fears” but also invert something familiar and safe. The transformation of the ubiquitous Victorian houses, visible in any neighborhood across the United States at the time, to a symbol of an un-American corrupted past, is an example of this.

So What is the Victorian Mansion of the Twenty First Century?

It’s been more than a hundred years since that style home was the pinnacle of creepy. Unless you are making a purposeful throw-back Gothic Romance like Del Toro’s Crimson Peak, you are most likely going to need a fresher setting for your horror film to actually inspire fear in your audience (I would argue this was not Del Toro’s primary goal with Crimson Peak, and one of the reasons why the film is not particularly frightening to modern audiences).

You need to find the 2019 version of the Victorian style home. Something once considered normal, but because of the passage of time and changing of popular opinion, has transformed in the minds of the general population.

This change happened in the middle to late part of the 20th century in horror with the focus on the suburbs as Terrible Place. Halloween’s Haddonfield Illinois. This is an effective setting not because of the crumbling architecture, monstrous statues, or sinister past of the Victorian mansion. No, Haddonfield is scary because now the horror is coming to you. You probably don’t live out in some isolated manse. However, you most likely do live in some quiet little neighborhood.

But there has been forty years of great horror set in the familiar and this-should-be-safe suburbs. Where do we go from there in a new era that knows by now the suburbs can be a scary place? I point you inward. And backwards in a way. One could make the argument that the truly terrifying setting in A Nightmare on Elm Street was not in the suburbs, but the mind itself. The dream spaces Freddy invades.

If modern films are scrutinized with the Terrible Place in mind, this same interior setting seems to show up time and time again. Take The Babadook, a scary horror film, but also widely viewed a film about postpartum depression, exhaustion, regret, shame, and the general uncomfortable feeling when you hate someone you love. This setting is more about the uncomfortable, trapped living situation of the characters and less about the type of home.

Similarly, films like It Follows, A Quiet Place, and The VVitch all use this interior setting as a way to invoke horror in their audiences. While, yes, each one has a different exterior setting, the films’ Terrible Places are more similar than you might think. It Follows explores the horror of knowing something inevitable is coming for you. Set in a sort of bleak modern city, its Terrible Place is actually the combination of the shameful head-spaces of the characters. This is shown outwardly as they travel throughout the cityscape. From parents’ homes, to backyards where they played as children, to the beach, and finally to a high school. None of these on their own are frightening, but in this context of the inevitability of aging or death made tangible in a monster, these familiar childhood locations are made all the more terrifying.

The same could be said about A Quiet Place and The VVitch. Their settings reflect the interior challenges of the characters: the isolation of deafness and overbearing religion. Again, it isn’t the farm that is scary in The VVitch. It’s the fact that this family, with their strange beliefs and tension-filled interactions, are stuck on that farm.

Which brings us to Get Out. What I consider to be them most important horror film of the 2010s. The Terrible Place isn’t the suburbs or that particular house in which the story plays out. The scariest location in Get Out is the concept of The Sunken Place. Which is, as defined by Urban Dictionary, “The metaphorical place an oppressed person goes when they have become silent or compliant to their own oppression.”Get Out, Sunken Place, Horror SettingWe see this physically in the movie, but also metaphorically throughout wherever the protagonist goes. This, and not the style of the windows or columns of the Armitages’ home, make the movie terrifying.

Terrible Place categories

So we know what Terrible Places are. We know what makes them effective or ineffective and how that has changed over the years. But are there a few basic settings every horror movie uses? I’m not talking Hotels, or Forests, but something more like a series of classifications that can apply to every movie in the genre.

I’d like to suggest the following 4 classifications of Horror Film Terrible Places:

  1. The Wild – It’s the fear of the isolated and untamed. Think Evil Dead or The Thing.
  2. The Crumbling Decadence – It’s the fear of the fallen beauty. Think The Haunting of Hill House.
  3. The Underneath – It’s the fear of what is hidden. Think The Descent or Don’t Breathe.
  4. The Right Next Door – It’s the fear of the mundane or familiar. Think Rear Window.

Let me know if I missed any categories or if you can think of a movie that doesn’t fit into these four.It’s no surprise that some of the best Terrible Places of all time effectively combine these classifications. Something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes all four for example. There is a sort of unexpected horror underneath the crumbling decadence of the family’s Victorian home. This Terrible Place is right next door, perhaps in your own state even. And yet also in the wild, the unknown stretches of road between civilization, where no one can hear you scream if something were to attack you.

It seems that no matter the decade, no matter the classification, the only constant with every horror film setting is the theme of isolation. Even within the films located in the suburbs, there is a certain isolation to the characters at times that seems central to building a sense of dread.

I believe that setting plays a larger role in horror films than in any other genre. A well thought out Terrible Place can save a mediocre film and catapult it into film history. A lazy or cliched one can hamstring an otherwise superlative movie. While every horror fan has their own distinct favorites, I think understanding exactly where these setting tropes come from is a valuable way to gain a greater understand of our fears.

We all can agree, however, f*** an old Victorian Mansion. You couldn’t pay me to go in there.

For more on Terrible Places: Ten More of the Most Chilling Settings in Horror

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