Horror fiction, like its predecessor, Gothic fiction, is meant to frighten and unsettle. Gothic stories often feature mystery and the supernatural, the clash of good and evil, and a sense of doom and decay woven together with ghosts, family curses, madness, and desire. Gothic fiction is the first tradition where setting acted like a character in the story and was tied to every element of the plot. This genre often used remote settings, rambling mansions, and crumbling convents and monasteries.
Contemporary horror stories also use castles, haunted houses, graveyards, deserted buildings, and lonely places because they create an emotional response and dread before the ghosts and ghouls show up. J.K. Rowling uses her Hogwarts castle for all sorts of happy circumstances, but its labyrinth of dimly lit halls, wings, and echoing rooms is also a convenient prowling ground for ghosts and evildoers. Once you understand how Gothic and horror settings amp up fear, you can apply this knowledge to all types of stories and all types of emotions.
However, sometimes setting is most effective when it’s used to go against a reader’s expectations, as in P.D. James’s A Taste for Death, where two corpses are found in the quiet vestry of St. Matthew’s Church. The double murders are discovered by an elderly volunteer and a boy there to arrange lowers. This type of unexpected discovery in the most unlikely of settings strikes a memorable note with readers and helps writers avoid using a setting that is formulaic. Similarly, the reader doesn’t expect a gang of murderous bank robbers to be playing poker in a farm kitchen in James Crumley’s “Hostages,” making that scene all the more powerful.
Ray Bradbury uses a carnival setting, usually a place for fun and cotton candy, for terror in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Stephen King and Dean Koontz place evil where the reader doesn’t expect it, so when it starts roaming a school or playground or rustic countryside, the heebie-jeebies are worse than if the malevolent force were lurking in a ruined castle. Because the reader doesn’t have scary emotional connections with and expectations of innocent places, the setting details need to work harder because they’re going against type.
Horror stories play on the reader’s private fears, exploiting the frightened child within, who is holding his breath, hoping the bogeyman is not lurking in his closet. The bogeyman is so frightening because he’s in the closet close enough to pounce, not in a remote castle. In King’s novella The Mist, people are trapped in a supermarket when a fog filled with nightmare creatures surrounds the store. Since we all need to visit supermarkets, this cranks up the fright factor, the leftover-from-childhood dread that no place is safe.
Using setting to go against type also links neatly to themes. There is nothing so shocking as innocence defiled or order destroyed, two themes often explored in mysteries and suspense. So think of where innocence reigns, such as in a toddler’s bedroom, with its faint smells of baby powder and washed cotton. If a villain breaks into this sanctuary, where the walls are decorated with ducks and bunnies and the crib is piled with stuffed animals, the violation would be doubly horrific and underline the theme that the world is a dangerous place.
Similarly, when places of justice and order (courtrooms or government buildings) or places of beauty (art museums or majestic shorelines) are defiled by a criminal element or violent acts, there should be a clear link back to themes that suggest that everyone and every place is corruptible. Small towns are often used as settings because they suggest an innocuous, simple way of life, but can also swarm with secrets, scandals, and crime, contrary to their innocent appearance.