In what ways can setting be used to establish the sub-genre of psychological horror in a Post-Apocalyptic novel?
The genre of any story is apparent the moment you open a book. Readers should not have to waste time trying to figure out if what they are reading is drama, action or comedy. But an author does have some flexibility to toy with the tone of a story at a secondary level. If it is a comedy, than it might amuse an audience to ponder whether or not the premise can be considered a dark comedy. Establishing the sub-genre in itself can be difficult and is often not even attempted in most works of fiction. But if a novelist feels adventurous and wants to add another layer to his story, then writing in a sub-genre can help the reader dive further into the plot.
This is what I am attempting to do in my novel, THE NEST, a post-apocalyptic science-fiction, horror about teenagers trapped in their high school following a devastating event that completely wipes out everything around them for as far as they can see; their building is the only thing left standing.
While total devastation of your hometown is horrifying, the real horror is what happens among the students. THE NEST explores the breakdown of society. Suffering from various symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the students divide into factions, the strong control cafeteria food and prey on the weak. The hallways become wastelands where it is survival of the fittest. Within this context I want to establish the sub-genre of psychological horror. A post-apocalyptic setting easily establishes the physical danger of the situation, yet it is still a very surface anxiety that most consumers of this media are all too familiar with. Scaring your readers to the core requires more than just visual and physical threats. It requires an invasion of discomfort at a much deeper level. In my novel, I attempt to guide readers to this level through the use of environment.
Before diving into the different elements of setting that help create psychological horror, I first needed to establish my own definition of psychological horror. Most secondary sources define it as characters dealing with mental conflict. To have a protagonist with a fragile mental state before the story starts helps to identify this sub-genre. But what if your characters are normal? How do you create mental conflict within stable people? You drop them into an environment that is beyond their comfort zone, into the deep end, that takes them out of their element. A stressful, isolating setting can put pressure on the mind and cause it to crack. And a post-apocalyptic situation is the perfect vehicle for that but that is only half the work. Sucking the characters deep into an isolating, creepy environment that plays tricks on their minds intensifies the despair and speeds up the descent into madness, as well as the breakdown of society where survivors turn on each other with violent results.
Elements of setting that I believe help to create a basis for psychological horror are: using a familiar setting then destroying that familiarity / breaking emotional connectivity with it in order to launch a character out of his / her comfort zone; establishing setting as a character, which allows for an additional antagonist that is working against the characters; and, creating extreme isolation that facilitates the mental deconstruction of a character or a group of characters, after complete deconstruction of which opens the door for madness to take over.
In her essay entitled ‘Some Reflections on the Concept of Place in Fiction’ (2011), Karen Brennan – an award-winning author who teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Utah – writes: ‘The fiction writer’s task is to invent a place as if it were real, to cause in the reader the sense of a real recollection of what is actually an imaginative place’ (Brennan 2011, p.210). It is important in storytelling that readers emotionally connect with the setting of a story, not just with characters themselves. They are more engaged if they feel at home along with the protagonist they are being asked to relate to. A significant amount of time will be spent within the environment being established and so place is crucial. One approach to ensuring that a connection is made between reader and setting is to set up a familiar environment. It is safe to assume that 99% of an audience has gone through high school at one point in their adolescence and so creating a setting with lockers, classrooms, hallways, school gyms, cafeterias, etc., creates an easily identifiable surrounding.
Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey (2007) goes into significant detail about establishing the Ordinary World before an inciting incident launches the story into a series of events. Before there is conflict, there needs to be a basis of comparison between two worlds so that it is evident when the protagonist crosses over. The story will not take off if the readers do not grasp the extraordinariness of the main setting. ‘It’s a good idea for writers to make the Ordinary World as different as possible from the Special World, so audience and hero will experience a dramatic change when the threshold is finally crossed’ (Vogler 2007, p.87). The process of crossing the threshold from the Ordinary World to the Special World is what I call destroying the familiar. The ordinary world, an everyday high school, is violently replaced by the special world, a post-apocalyptic setting, which eventually the audience agrees is certainly not special but absolutely horrifying.
For the majority of readers, their high school period was one of self-discovery, achievement and friendship. Just the mention of students in a classroom conjures up fond memories that might lure a willing reader into a sense of security going into the story. Horror and psychological trauma is instantly created as soon as this comfortable, familiar environment is torn to pieces and left in ruins, if not out-rightly used against the protagonists:
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. (Morrell 2006, p.160)
At a technical level, a high school is not a traditional setting for a horror story and so there is an additional element of surprise and anxiety that is not expected. It strikes a memorable note as fond memories of familiar places are destroyed. It immediately creates doubt and confusion from the very beginning, thus intensifying the psychological impact of the horror that will take place in the novel.
Your humble writer,
Brennan, Karen. (2011). ‘Some Reflections on the Concept of Place in Fiction’. In: A. Barrett and P. Turchi, ed., A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on their Craft. 1st ed. San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
Morrell, Jessica Page. (2006). Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing. 1st ed. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.
Vogler, Christopher. (2007) The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 3rd ed. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions.