The rotting mansion, the ruined castle, the abandoned hospital...why are decrepit, deserted, man-made places so interesting? Why is it that almost all horror, be it literature or film, takes place in broken, forgotten locales?
If you've been reading my blog, then you know I'm big on isolation as a fundamental component of building your horror. Isolation can take root in many forms, be it physical isolation, intellectual isolation or emotional isolation. And the really good horror tale will use all three to isolate a character. They'll find themselves in a lonely location, misunderstood by even their best friends, and completely alone in their feelings and fears.
The easy answer to why dystopic, decayed locations make a great place to abandon a character is that they're rotted and creepy. Well YEAH! But the interesting question, if we dig deeper, is “WHY does rotted and ancient equal creepy?”
It symbolizes death, that's why. It always has and it always will. Way back in the recesses of our dark origins, some human was walking along one day, hunting or exploring, and there, covered in vines and rotting leaves, was the ruin of some antediluvian structure, dating even FURTHER back than himself. It was empty, crumbling and dark inside. It not only represented the unknown (darkness through the empty door) but also death and temporal existence (like our own). This first human was probably overwhelmed with inexplicable terror.
Here before him was a stone building, something that was viewed as permanent. Something that was dependable. Something he could count on to always be there. And it was in shambles. Nature was taking it back. It was a corpse, and even though this first human didn't know it, he saw in it, his own death, his own curse of temporary life. Mortality. Rot.
And not only was the building dead. So were its architects, builders, and everyone who lived in, worked at, or visited this place. The viewer's mind unconsciously remembers all those living vibrant people who once utilized this location. All of them gone. All of them dead. Long, full lives, completely snuffed out by callous father time. But their traces are there to be seen – the worn handles on doors, smoothly sanded floors from all the shoes that once walked it's halls. These fingerprints of humanity on this old dead place give the final terrifying touch to a perfect physical metaphor for our own fate.
To glimpse a dead or dying location in this way is at the same time terrifying, exhilarating, and life affirming. It thrills us with a thousand questions about what once was here, who was here, what happened here.
This is how a place becomes haunted.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, your mind works hard to fill these locations with the inhabitants who once called it home. And the creative mind further colors in the inhabitants so that they match the locale... rotted, dying, dead, shambling... horrible.
Historically, it used to be castles that scared us. Then it was mansions. Now it's public buildings.
Because all of these buildings, in life, bustled with activity, they were massive, seemingly permanent, immobile against the push of time. But after they're abandoned, the image of death and decay comes creeping in.
To see something so permanent be unmasked as a charlatan, to be revealed as so temporary, pops a hole in our veneer of our own permanence. And the more relatable the building is to us, the more horrifying is its demise to us.
That is why the haunted castle and the haunted mansion have given way to the deserted, overgrown cities, the abandoned boiler rooms, factories and abandoned hospitals.
It's hard to see our own death in ancient ruins, it's true. But when we see modern dystopia, we see our own frail mortality, and THAT is scary.
Gaudium Per Atrox