Setting: Inducing Fear in Nature

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Nature can be used in many ways in creative writing, whether a spot to write and be embraced by the humanless space or in the story itself, holding a beautiful setting. However, a natural setting can just as easily turn from a calming setting to intensely terrifying. This alluring idea isn’t new yet when used and ironically, the most terrifying elements of nature are simple: isolation to point of danger for a character (survival mode), being hunted by someone within this isolated area and landscape itself. We also can not ignore how these circumstances may adjust through weather, time of day (day or night) and whether or not the character is familiar with the location. In this post let us explore the use of nature and how, as writers, we can capitalize on it.


I recently finished reading two books which took place primarily in or heavily surrounded by nature – 
Still Mine by Amy Stuart and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Neither scary, although I assume the first of those books was meant (and failed) to be suspenseful, both utilized nature to not just advance the plot but intertwined it into the stories. For Station Eleven, nature is everywhere since the Traveling Symphony (a band of musicians and actors in the post-apocalyptic world of U.S.) is always on the road and most structures are either falling apart or no one really stays long enough to make a home. Other than the obvious dangers through the forest and dirt roads, which most animals are extinct anyway and more so infection would be deadlier, the real danger is other people, in particular, a bunch of religious nuts who since birth are trained to kidnap and kill.

For the novel, Still Mine, the natural setting complements the danger of people, whether the town’s people of Blackmore where Clare O’Dey is sent to in search of a missing woman or her abusive husband who is always on her trail. Through the rugged mountains, old abandoned mines and thick forest Clare drugges through, it’s a nice backdrop to a terrifying setup.

WHAT’S SO SCARY ABOUT THE BIG BAD WOODS?

What’s scary? A little bit of everything. Whether it’s nearing the end of the world and you must survive like in Into The Forest by Jean Hegland, or you’ve been caught in the very graphic woods scene in the film The Last House on the Left (1972), life being threatened in a beautiful landscape is terrifying in itself. Nature that induces horror can be narrowed by the following:

  • Nature vs. Human:
    • The vast unknown: your character has never been in these parts and not knowing what lies ahead increases the danger. The film, Miracles from Heaven (2016) is based on true story of a girl falling 30 feet into a hollow tree. She survives.
    • The memoir by Aaron Ralston (later turned into a film), 127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place explore the danger facing climbers in the Utah canyon when he’s trapped by an eight-hundred-pound boulder. Alone with not a single person in sight, Rolston had to cut off his own arm in order to free himself.
    • The countless films about Mt. Everest, the piece of nature itself is deadly, capturing souls over the last century, and for the most part, these bodies never leave the mountain.
  • Human vs. Human in Nature
    • In the popular novel by James Patterson, Kiss The Girls (great movie adaption BTW), the villain Casanova uses the dense forest as a way to hide his underground lair. Unplanned, he is then faced with chasing down Kate McTiernan through the forest who leaps over a waterfall in order to escape. The twist in all this is she isn’t entirely sure how to get back to the lair to lead detectives to Casanova. This is what makes nature in terms of setting desirable–if this was any other setting, the killer would be caught and the story would be over.
    • The Forest (2016), an awful movie with an excellent setting in Aokigahara forest. The reason I mention this film is because it highlights the mental exhaustion of a character with the slight mystique of the forest which leads to the character’s downfall. The protagonist Sara is looking for her lost sister in a very well known woods which people commit suicide in. Though she travels with a guide and good looking guy named Aiden, it doesn’t take long for her suspicions to grow when the two are left alone in the search. Delusion? Yes, but whether it was the evil of forest or the general feeling of being lost makes a good point of how nature as a setting induces fear.
    • The countless films about Mt. Everest, the piece of nature itself is deadly, capturing souls over the last century, and for the most part, these bodies never leave the mountain.

To boil it down, here are the reasons nature in setting can be a plot in itself or at least scare the shit out of your characters:

  • Getting lost and not being able to find your way back. This can lead to:
      • Your young and you simply get lost (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King)
      • Starvation or lack of clean water
      • Injury that stops mobility or can be infected and needs to be treated immediately
      • You can be killed by an animal or severely injured by a wild animal (The Grey (2011)/ The Revenant (2016))
      • You might find yourself in an area with dangerous people
      • Going in circles or deeper into the area, further away from civilization
  • You have meant to be in said nature, but forgot a few things:
      • You’re trapped–in a skylift when the resort is closed and temperatures are dropping (Frozen (2010) – and no, not the Disney movie)
      • Your arm is stuck between a rock and you can’t pull yourself free (127 Hours)
      • You’ve consumed something toxic and are not able to get help (Into The Wild )
      • The cave you and your friends are in is filled with creatures (The Descent (2005))
      • You’ve messed with water when you really shouldn’t – in general (Sanctum (2011))

 

  • What you didn’t account for:
    • You’ve been brought to this place to be murdered, perhaps by someone you know (as classic as Snow White or many fairytales)
      • Or don’t know and it’s a murder of opportunity (Black Rock (2012)
    • Your hiding there on purpose and someone is pursuing you (Basically the plot of season 1, Top Of The Lake, for Tui, one of the main characters)
    • Mythical creatures you didn’t believe exist are real and you’re in danger

Whether you’re hit by lightning while overlooking a vast forest from a mountain’s edge or you’re hiding in a swamp as your potential killer searches for you – it’s terrifying to be in such a beautiful, isolated place that at any moment can become a life or death situation.

Don’t forget to comment below with your thoughts on using nature in your setting!

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