10 Under-Utilised Horror Settings

It’s the Gothic mentality that still permeates horror fiction. The dark castles, the grave-yards, the small country towns, the old churches, the old deserted houses, even the cellars (some great places to use a Spirit Box) – it’s all there. Always all there. The settings for the standard horror stories.


Look, I’m a reader and a writer, and I understand the sense of isolation that can increase tension and terror, and the darkness is something that makes horror work because the hidden is often more terrifying. There is something to be said for the imagination of the reader/viewer being allowed to have a go. I think that’s why a lot of horror does not translate well from book to screen – what they create visually often does not match what we have created in our own minds. And I’m going off track.


The point I’m trying to make is that we see these settings and we know we need to be ready for jump scares and clichés and the old-fashioned tropes. And that’s fine; it works and the reader knows what to expect. But in my reading, I feel there are some other settings that are not used anywhere near enough and yet could well be used to create a gripping horror story. In my opinion.


Here’s ten I think should be looked at more closely.


1) Schools
Now, what I mean here is a regular school. Stephen King’s recent The Institue (https://www.weekendnotes.com/the-institute-book-review/) is about a special school that is more a concentration camp, but what I am talking about is a real school. The Treehouse Of Horror series from The Simpsons may have reduced this idea to a concept of fun, but I feel there is still great value in a school. And not a deserted school, but an operational school with real people and students and teachers and administration staff and custodial staff and all that goes along with that. There is a myriad of possibilities there. And if you don’t think schools are scary places – ask any kid about that…
(Note: I did sell a ghost story set in a school a few years ago, so this is a possibility.)


2) Suburbia
Take a standard Australian soap opera – Neighbours or Home And Away for example –and you have suburbia in all its dull, tedious, banal boredom. Boring normal people doing boring normal things, just amped up to make it vaguely interesting for people with nothing better to do. However, how hard would it be to tweak that to make it the setting for a good horror story? I don’t mean a done-to-death zombie flick but something more insidious. We’ve seen it a few times – Invasion Of The Body Snatchers for one, Stepford Wives for another – but nowhere near enough. A normal suburb with normal housing (no deserted old house on the hill tropes) surely has great possibilities for horror beyond replacing people.


3) Seats of Power
Some would say that looking at the current crop of world leaders that maybe horror has infiltrated the seats of power in real life, but we read horror to escape, and so we could surely up the ante in these places. Not necessarily those in power – who are, after all, just puppets, if the brilliant BBC series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister are anything to go by (and they are) – but those bureaucrats pulling the strings. The horror could possibly be an all-encompassing “devil in charge” tale to a strange creature using politicians to get access to victims. And, really, who wouldn’t be scared when faced with mind-numbingly brainless politicians zombies slaves to aliens ruling the world?


4) Factories
The nooks and crannies and machinery make a factory the ideal setting for strange goings-on and evil to lurk. We’ve seen it in the beginning/end of The Fly and there’s a scene in one the Hulk movies and the ending of Terminator 2 set in factories, but these are really just scenes. A whole factory with workers and functioning machines could be an ideal setting for a creepy horror film. There is so much darkness, with all those nooks and crannies and hidden places, that this could be a great setting for a swarm of rat-like creatures to run amok. Or people to merge with their machines. Or… look, there are a heap of possibilities. And I’m not going to give away all my ideas…


5) Shopping Malls
Sure, Dawn Of The Dead was set in a shopping mall, but that was a deserted one, post-zombie-apocalypse. For an idea of how a shopping centre could be used in all its glory, see the car chase scene from The Blues Brothers and nod and smile. Now, take away the cars and replace with, say, a werewolf (An American Werewolf In London style of huge animal, not a wolfman) and let the horror and fun begin! You have so many different shops, so many hiding places, so many potential victims, so many other things that could go awry in these places!
(Note: I did sell a story last year about a hungry escalator in a shopping mall, so this is also a definite concept.)


6) High Rise Apartments
We’ve had suburbia, so how about a different sort of living space? The high-prise apartment block, many storeys high and filled with different rooms and different people living in them and different levels… Again, it lends itself so well to a nice open-ended world in just one place. Again, not a deserted one, but one where normal people live and work and play. Rosemary’s Baby was set in a similar place, but there are so many more ideas than just a cabal of Satanists bringing forth the anti-Christ into the world. I’m surprised it hasn’t been used more often, to be honest.


7) Pubs, Hotels, Bars and/or Nightclubs
Drinking establishments. Places where people go to get drunk, to catch up, to unwind and be with like-minded people. Yes, there have been vampire books with nightclub settings (e.g. Robin Baker’s Chasing The Sun) but let’s get away from vampires and look at something a little different. Pubs are a great place to set all sorts of things. FAQ About Time Travel is an awesome sci-fi comedy set in a pub; The World’s End is a great sci-fi apocalyptic comedy. What about real horror, though? Surely, we can find something out there that works because pubs can be quite disturbing places. Think about it – a nightclub which is actually a level of hell where people are forced to dance for eternity… and that’s off the top of my head.
(Note: I have sold a story about a barman that kills certain individuals, so this has selling potential.)


8) Beaches
Not out in the water, like Jaws and its sequels, but the actual beach. Sure, the 1980s gave us Blood Beach (a ‘so bad it’s good’ film) but if we take that as a precursor to some more interesting horror concepts (though the idea of a beach that eats people is awesome) then the beach can become a scary place. It might look idyllic, but go to an Australian beach when it’s forty-plus degrees Celsius (104°F) – which is quite common – and tell me that despite the clear blue skies and golden sands and wonderful ocean you don’t feel like you’re dying. Monsters, people, sands – there are so many things we could worry about in an Australian summer. Or a Hawaiian summer. Or a Californian summer…


9) Art Galleries
Museums have been done, although I am yet to see a good one (except maybe some of the Wax Museum films… and Stiller’s Night At The Museum is not a good one), but what about the art gallery? Pictures, sculptures, installations – you name it, there is everything there for a decent horror yarn. Statues that come to life, paintings that trap people, installations that draw people in – these are all tales that have been mentioned in passing or used as part of a greater story, but to bring these aspects out on their own could make a really decent little horror story.


10) Brothels
Now, I do not watch pornography – never have doubt I ever will. Just does not do anything for me, I’m afraid. And this means I do not know if any porn horror films set in brothels have been made. However, for a mainstream horror tale, the setting could be ideal. I have seen some horror comics with a tale in a brothel – all involving vampires, I’m afraid – but surely it could be so much more than that? There are endless possibilities in an establishment that exists slightly outside the law, and so could be forced to deal with its horrors in-house. Whatever those horrors may be.
(Note: I have sold a story about a ghost brothel, so this is yet another idea with distinct possibilities.)


Of course, I am the first to admit I have not seen or read everything to do with horror, so there could well be some fine examples set in these places. But for writers looking for somewhere different, looking to avoid the clichés of writing, looking to expand themselves, these ten settings could well lend themselves to all sorts of wonderful tales.


Good writing!

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