How to Create a Spinechilling Setting for Horror

Doug Landsborough
July 19, 2023

What is a scary story without a great (and terrifying) horror setting?

In the best horror novels, the setting is like a character in itself: it adds atmosphere, primes us for both jump scares and an overwhelming sense of dread, and gives us enough room for the main characters to make mistakes, overcome obstacles, and face an antagonist who is absolutely evil.

Suffice it to say, the setting for a horror novel is important.

But like all things in the writing world, this important element takes time, practice, and knowledge to perfect. Crafting your horror setting isn’t as easy as dreaming up a haunted house or writing a couple paragraphs about a creepy old forest.

That’s okay, though; you know you need to write a scary setting and have come to the right place. In this guide to writing great horror story settings, we’re going to look at:

  • Horror setting basics
  • Researching and developing your spooky spots
  • Using classic elements and tropes to your advantage
  • Focusing in on the ambiance and atmosphere
  • Some horrific (and common) mistakes to avoid

You best check your closet and under your bed for monsters, then come right back because we’re getting started.

The Role of Setting in Horror Stories

In any story, the setting serves as the backdrop for the narrative. However, in horror, the setting takes on a much more significant role. It becomes a powerful tool for the author to manipulate their reader's emotions and create an atmosphere of fear and suspense

Where your scary story takes place sets the stage for the terrifying events that unfold and shapes the overall tone of the narrative.

First and foremost, the setting establishes the mood and atmosphere of the story, arguably the most important part of your creepy prose. It creates a sense of unease, tension, and foreboding that permeates the entire narrative. 

Whether it's a dilapidated mansion, a desolate forest, or an isolated cabin in the woods, the chosen setting sets the tone for the horrors that await the characters and the readers alike.

On top of that, the setting enhances the believability of the story. By immersing your reader in a realistic or well-developed fictional world, you build a sense of credibility and allow the audience to suspend their disbelief. 

This is true whether the location is grounded in reality or steeped in supernatural elements: it needs to be carefully constructed to captivate the reader's imagination and draw them deeper into the terrifying realm of the story.

Finally, as I mentioned from the outset, the setting serves as a sort of character in horror stories. It interacts with the protagonists and antagonists, shaping their actions, decisions, and emotions. 

A well-crafted setting can evoke a visceral response from the characters, amplifying their fear, vulnerability, or determination. It becomes an active participant in the story, influencing the plot and the development of the characters.

The Elements of a Horror Setting

To craft an effective horror setting, it’s essential to grasp the key elements that contribute to its eerie and unsettling nature. These elements work together to create an immersive environment that leaves a lasting impression on the reader. 

Here are some of the fundamental components of a horror setting:

Location - Location, location, location. Where the scares happen is a big deal. It doesn’t matter if it's an abandoned asylum, a remote island, or a cursed town, the location should have an inherent creepiness and a sense of isolation. It should evoke a feeling of dread and make the characters and readers question their safety. There’s a reason all horror stories take place in places where there’s no cell service or the characters are somehow cut off from the rest of the world. 

Atmosphere - The atmosphere of a horror setting is crucial in establishing the overall mood and tone of the story. It encompasses the sensory details that surround the characters, such as lighting, weather, sounds, and smells. Notice how that isn’t just “what does it look like?” A dark and foreboding atmosphere intensifies the sense of fear and anticipation, making the horror more palpable using multiple senses.

Architecture and environment - The physical structures and surroundings within the setting contribute to how spooky things are going to get. Dilapidated buildings, labyrinthine corridors, dense forests, or mist-shrouded swamps all add to the sense of claustrophobia and disorientation. Go beyond just visual appeal, too. How does the architecture and environment contribute to the bigger plot or character development?

History and backstory - An intriguing backstory and a sense of history can enrich your horror setting. The past provides depth and context, suggesting that the place has witnessed terrifying events or is imbued with supernatural forces. Unveiling snippets of the setting's history throughout the story can put in a lot of legwork to make the tale scarier.

Symbolism and imagery - Symbolism and vivid imagery can evoke powerful emotions and enhance your horror setting. The use of recurring symbols or visual motifs can create an unsettling and unnerving atmosphere. Dark shadows, twisted figures, bloodstains, or religious iconography are just a few examples of the imagery that can intensify the horror.

These are all great layers to add onto your setting, but you should have the basics down, too. Bookmark this guide to help give you a solid foundation.

Researching and Developing a Unique Horror Setting

Writing horror stories and their settings requires a careful balance of research and imagination. By grounding your setting in reality and exploring otherworldly concepts, you can craft a unique and chilling environment that resonates with readers. 

Even if your story only takes place in one such location (real or imagined), you want to be able to leverage both sides of a setting to really make something special… and horrifying.

Researching Real-Life Locations

One effective way to add authenticity and depth to your horror setting is by researching real-life locations. This, obviously, is especially true if your setting is based on an actual location (i.e., the Catacombs of Paris) but is also essential for making up places based on real things (i.e., a university or theme park). 

Drawing inspiration from actual places can provide a solid foundation for your fictional world and enhance the believability of the horror you wish to portray. Here are some tips for researching and incorporating real-life locations into your horror setting:

Explore haunted places - Investigate reputedly haunted locations such as old houses, abandoned hospitals, or historical sites known for paranormal activity. Delve into local legends, ghost stories, and accounts of supernatural phenomena associated with these places. Really try to understand what about these places makes them feel dreadful. This research can inspire atmospheric details and add a layer of authenticity to your horror setting. Of course, only explore places you have permission to be and be safe.

Study local folklore and urban legends - Every region has its own folklore and urban legends, often rooted in historical events or cultural beliefs. Dive into the myths, superstitions, and dark tales of the area you want to feature in your story. Incorporate these elements into your horror setting to tap into the fears and anxieties specific to that location.

Visit or virtually explore locations - Whenever possible, visit the locations you plan to incorporate into your story. Immerse yourself in the atmosphere, observe the architecture, and pay attention to the sensory details that make the place unique. If physical travel is not feasible, utilize virtual resources such as online tours, documentaries, and firsthand accounts to gather as much information as possible.

Conduct interviews and research - Seek out local experts, historians, and individuals who have personal experiences or knowledge about the location you are researching. Interviews can provide valuable insights and anecdotes that bring depth to your horror setting. Additionally, delve into historical records, newspaper archives, and books related to the area to uncover intriguing details and stories.

By researching real-life locations, you can infuse your own horror story setting with a sense of authenticity and tap into the fears associated with those places. However, do not limit yourself to the real world alone. Embracing otherworldly concepts can unleash limitless possibilities for creating truly chilling environments.

Developing Otherworldly Locations

Horror settings are usually not confined to the boundaries of our reality. Exploring otherworldly realms allows you to push the boundaries of imagination and create terrifying landscapes that defy logic and challenge the reader's perception. 

Here are some approaches to developing otherworldly horror settings:

Other planes of existence - Dive into concepts of parallel dimensions, alternate realities, or spiritual planes. Imagine a setting that exists beyond our mortal realm, where the laws of nature are distorted, and the unimaginable becomes reality. Consider the characteristics, inhabitants, and rules that govern these other planes, and let them influence the horror within your story.

Inside the minds of eldritch beings - Venture into the realms of cosmic horror by delving into the incomprehensible minds of eldritch beings. These ancient and malevolent entities exist beyond human understanding, and their minds are often depicted as vast, chaotic landscapes. Allow your horror setting to reflect the twisted and maddening reality of these eldritch minds. I love when a setting is so beautifully bizarre that I can barely wrap my head around it.

Dreams and nightmares - Explore the realm of dreams and nightmares, where the boundaries of reality blur and the subconscious reigns supreme. Craft a horror setting that takes place within the twisted and surreal landscapes of the dream world. Consider the psychological implications, symbolism, and unsettling imagery that can be utilized to create a truly haunting environment.

Supernatural effects on reality - You can also take those real places you researched and add a layer of the supernatural on top of them. How does the presence of a ghost alter the way of life for a small village? What does the unremarkable forest become when a creature older than time lurks inside it? Shattering what we know as “normal” is one of the best ways to unnerve your reader.

When developing otherworldly horror settings, embrace your imagination and push the boundaries of what is possible. Let your creativity run wild as you craft environments that defy logic and challenge the reader's perception of reality.

Then incorporate both real-life locations and otherworldly realms into your horror setting to strike a balance between believability and imagination.

Creating an Immersive Horror Atmosphere and Ambiance

Horror is all about the atmosphere and ambiance. Like the rug that really ties the room together, but with blood and dread and haunted mansions.

The atmosphere and ambiance of a horror story set the stage for spine-chilling encounters, psychological torment, and terrifying experiences. These intangible elements are the workhorses that will make your setting draw your reader in and sink its fangs into them.

Here’s how to add a dreadful ambiance and atmosphere to your setting.

Utilize descriptive language - Descriptive language is a powerful tool for horror authors, more so than most other genres. Paint a vivid picture with words, using rich and evocative descriptions to bring the setting to life. Don’t just describe things for the sake of adding flowery language, though. Lean into descriptions that are subtly (or explicitly) unusual and foreboding. Your reader should know something is wrong.

Manipulate lighting and shadows - Even though it’s not being portrayed on a screen, lighting plays a crucial role in setting the mood in horror stories. It’s in our nature to fear the dark and things we can’t see. Use variations in lighting to create suspense and accentuate the eerie elements of your setting. Play with shadows, flickering candlelight, or dimly lit corridors to create uncertainty and apprehension. Darkness can be as potent a tool as light in invoking fear, so use it strategically to heighten tension.

Engage the senses - Most writers have a tendency to rely solely or mostly on what characters see, but that’s limiting your own toolkit. Go beyond visual descriptions and incorporate sensory details to create a multi-dimensional experience. Describe the smells of decay, the feel of dampness, or the taste of metallic blood in the air. By involving multiple senses, you intensify the reader's connection to the setting and amplify the horror they experience.

Harness sound and silence - Honing in on one sense in particular, sound can be a powerful tool in shaping stressing out your readers. Use carefully chosen sounds and silence to evoke unease and create suspenseful moments. Silence, too, can be employed effectively to build tension and anticipation before a shock or horrifying revelation, especially in situations where there should be sound.

Leverage symbolism and metaphors - Symbolism and metaphors can be powerful tools to enhance the atmosphere and convey deeper meanings within horror. Utilize objects, weather conditions, or recurring motifs that symbolize fear, death, or supernatural forces. This is how your setting goes beyond a superficial element to something more meaningful—and thus potentially more horrifying.

Maintain consistency - Consistency is crucial in creating an immersive atmosphere. Ensure that the elements, descriptions, and atmosphere you establish in the beginning are maintained throughout the story. Avoid abrupt changes in the atmosphere that could disrupt the sense of dread you have carefully cultivated.

I hope this all shows you that crafting your best horror setting doesn’t just mean telling the reader what your reader sees. It can go much deeper than that, and the deeper you go, the more impactful your setting will be.

Seven Common Horror Setting Mistakes to Avoid

While crafting a horror setting can be a thrilling endeavor, it's important to be aware of common pitfalls that can diminish the effectiveness of your chilling environment. Avoiding these mistakes will help you maintain the impact and fear factor of your scary story.

Here are seven mistakes to avoid when writing your setting.

Lack of originality - One of the biggest mistakes in horror setting creation is relying too heavily on clichés and familiar tropes. Readers crave fresh and unique experiences, so strive to offer something new and unexpected, even to the familiar. Avoid generic haunted houses, abandoned asylums, or clichéd monsters unless you can bring a fresh perspective, story idea, or unique twist to these elements.

Excessive exposition - Providing excessive exposition about your setting can bog down the narrative and diminish suspense. Avoid lengthy infodumps that disrupt pacing and bore readers. Instead, reveal crucial information gradually throughout the story, letting the setting unfold naturally as the characters explore and interact with their surroundings. Speaking of…

Lack of character interaction - A horror setting should not merely serve as a backdrop; it should actively influence and interact with the characters. Avoid creating static environments that exist solely to frighten. Instead, ensure the setting becomes an integral part of the story, impacting the characters' actions, emotions, and decisions.

Over-reliance on gore and violence - While gore and violence can have their place in horror, especially in subgenres like splatterpunk, relying solely on these elements can undermine the psychological and atmospheric aspects of the genre. Overindulgence in explicit violence can desensitize readers and detract from the building tension and suspense. Strike a balance between psychological terror and visceral horror to create a more impactful and well-rounded setting.

Neglecting the power of imagination - A common mistake when writing horror fiction is to leave nothing to the reader's imagination by providing excessive and explicit descriptions of the horror setting. Remember that what remains unseen can be more terrifying than what is revealed. Allow readers to fill in the gaps with their own fears and imaginations, creating a more personalized and immersive experience.

Inconsistencies and contradictions - Maintaining consistency in your horror setting is crucial for reader immersion. Avoid introducing elements or rules that contradict the established world and atmosphere. Inconsistencies can break the suspension of disbelief and weaken the impact of your story. Create a coherent and well-defined setting that aligns with the tone and rules you have established.

Lack of emotional connection - It's important to establish an emotional connection between the readers and your world. If readers don't feel invested in the characters or the environment, the scares may fall flat. Develop well-rounded characters with relatable motivations and emotions, and ensure that the setting amplifies their fears and challenges.

Final Thoughts: Creating a Unique and Engaging Horror Setting

Where your story takes place is as much a living, breathing thing as the characters in your story. It takes effort to come up with your setting and nurture it into something that can add dread and scares to your story.

But that’s just the beginning.

You also need to come up with excellent characters, a compelling plot, meaningful themes, and more. Writing a horror story isn’t easy!

Dabble’s got your back, though. We have hundreds of articles to help you in your journey over at DabbleU, all totally free and available to every writer with an internet connection.

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Ain’t nothing scary about becoming a better writer, right? 

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.