If you missed part one last week of What Does The Best Horror Anime Need? be sure to check out the post as I meander my way through the opening sequence and take a brief look at the importance of characters. This week I’m moving on to setting and atmosphere which are absolutely crucial ingredients in a good horror.
Actually, they are pretty crucial ingredients in bad horror as well.
Anyway, let’s get straight into this topic, because there’s actually more to a good setting then just dropping your characters into an isolated environment and hoping it feels creepy. When you think about it, some of the most ordinary places in the world can be made to feel creepy with the right direction and music.
(Some spoilers below.)
We’re On Our Own
The modern world has actually made it much harder for would be writers of horror. There’s not so many isolated locations these days and with cars, phones, and a plethora of other technology we’ve made the world arguably much smaller and much less mysterious. This means isolating characters in order for them to go through some horrific ordeal has become significantly harder while maintaining some sense of realism.
This is probably why Made in Abyss worked so beautifully. The fantasy aspect of the world and the Abyss allowed the writer to send the characters somewhere that was truly wild and dangerous and the nature of the Abyss actually made return more or less impossible, forcing the characters to move forward, not that they intended to turn around anyway.
The fantasy aspect really allowed the anime to capture a sense of the unknown and crafted its horror around a sense of wonder and discover and the conflicting emotions made for a truly moving and emotionally tiring viewing experience. It was one that stuck with your well after the final episode.
However, that doesn’t help an anime that wants to ground itself a little more in reality as it writes its horror story.
So let’s throw over to the other end of the spectrum and look at a horror story that takes place in an ordinary home in Japan to an ordinary boy who for once actually has parents (briefly). Parasyte isolates Shinichi in a totally different way. He isn’t geographically isolated as he lives in his house and goes to school interacting with others. Instead he’s emotionally isolate and cut off because of the knowledge he has of the invasion and because of his fear of someone finding out about Migi (largely because he’s worried Migi will kill them).
Through framing Shinichi as more and more aloof and separated from his class mates and spending more and more time away from others we still get a sense of isolation that is utterly necessary for horror to work, and yet our character is for the most part going about his normal life.
The scene where Shinichi’s mother returns home after he’s been told by his father that she’s dead is one that is actually incredibly creepy. The slow build up, watching the door lock turn, the quiet encounter between the two before it all hits the fan… This is a perfect scene set in the entry hall of Shinichi’s perfectly normal house. A house that in the first couple of episodes seemed warm and happy. This isn’t a creepy horror movie house, and yet through the lighting, pacing, tone, and the events that transpire, the narrow hall because claustrophobic and the scene is highly effective at creating the sense of horror.
A Sense of Unease In Amongst
As it gets harder to actually cut people off from the world, more stories seem to be finding ways to make the everyday world that little bit terrifying. The standard way to do this seems to be zombies. Thinking it through though it makes sense. The movie zombie bites others who in turn become zombies and so on. They are a monster that thrive in urban and highly populated environments which makes them perfect for the modern horror story given no-one is all that concerned about the swamp monster these days (sorry, we build a shopping centre of the swamp and now the swamp monster is on the verge of extinction).
And so schools can become battlefield as can almost any everyday setting (shopping malls being a go-to for a number of Hollywood zombie movies though pubs and bars also feature heavily – contrasting this with Japan that seems to focus on schools). High School of the Dead and School-Live both utilise the sense of the everyday places these kids have frequented becoming the sites of death, violence and trauma. Where High School of the Dead takes a more bombastic and action focused approach to the story, School-Live settles in for a far more nuanced, and undeniably more emotional, narrative, but both manage to make everyday settings places of true horror.
However, what happens when we combine a whole bunch of these elements together? The Promised Neverland gave us a good look at an almost perfect horror setting, even if the story was more mystery than actual horror. Like Made in Abyss, the setting is fantastical so it isn’t bound by the rules of our modern world. The location is isolated and surrounded by a fence, which turns out to be a wall, which turns out to have a massive chasm on the other side of it (they may be taking isolation a bit too far here).
Additionally, through clever use of music, lighting and direction, the inside of the house which can seem warm and comforting in one scene can take on an ominous appearance and feeling in another. Visually, The Promised Neverland was excellent at creating the tone necessary for the story and at building the sense of unease that permeated the early parts of the story where the audience and the kids were largely in the dark.
While not necessarily a horror, there’s a lot that horror writers can learn from the way The Promised Neverland crafted and portrayed its setting. A good setting isn’t just one were the story takes place but it is one that actively shapes the story and has a tangible presence in creating the tone and atmosphere of the piece. The Promised Neverland achieved that in the construction of Grace Field House. If we could get a true horror anime that put as much thought into its setting as this one then that would be a great step toward crafting the perfect horror anime.
But what do you think? Which horror anime have crafted great settings and atmosphere or which anime could horror stories borrow from? I’d love to know so leave me your comments below.
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