In the ground-breaking Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol J Clover identified several slasher movie tropes. Today, horror fans are well-acquainted with her concept of The Final Girl. But another hallmark of horror, according to Clover, is the Terrible Place. Classic Gothic horror had its castles with winding staircases and secret passages. No self-respecting mad scientist would be caught dead without their laboratory. But most of us aren’t spending much time in castles these days. And workplace safety codes ensure labs have eye-wash stations. So where has horror turned in the last few decades to find scares? Below we take a look at eight of the more Terrible Places in contemporary horror.
8 – Abandoned Factories and Warehouses
We don’t have castles and mausoleums anymore. Not in most North American cities and towns. Forget about haunted hotels. Corporate chains have monopolized this corner of horror, turning most into family-friendly cut-out’s. But it’s probably not hard to find a burned out industrial area with decaying factories and warehouses. Like a ‘cabin in the woods’, industrial areas are usually remote from neighborhoods and downtown cores. As such, they capture that sense of isolation horror movies want from their ‘Terrible Places’. And there’s a reason raves are held in old factories and warehouses. No one can hear all the electronic dance music. So just imagine how tantalizing an abandoned factory is to a horror movie villain. Throw in some rats and you have the perfect modern ‘Terrible Place’.
Best Examples: Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), Saw III (2005), Graveyard Shift (1990)
7 – Cornfields
Maybe it’s because they’re found in isolated rural settings. Over the years, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from nature, so they’re something unfamiliar about a cornfield. Moreover, the endless rows and looming stalks make it easy to feel hopelessly lost. Not surprisingly then, horror movies – which also love rural settings – frequently use cornfields for their ‘Terrible Place’. Children of the Corn gets its creepiest moments out of its cornfield and decor fashioned out of dried up husks. Bonus scare points if there’s a scarecrow in the fields. Harold is one of the better segments in Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark. And horror fans who are old enough may remember the unsettling made-for-television movie, Dark Night of the Scarecrow.
Best Examples: Dark Night of the Scarecrow, A Quiet Place, Children of the Corn
6 – Amusement and Theme Parks
Have you ever wished you could stay in a theme park after it closed – no other customers, all the lights out? Sounds like a great idea on paper. But theme parks are secret death traps. Whether it’s the creepy carnies, the hall of mirrors, or pitch black houses of horror, they’re a madman’s playground. Carousel music is pretty off-putting, too. If you don’t believe me, watch Herk Harvey’s surreal nightmare, Carnival of Souls. And you can add the recent explosion in escape rooms and haunted attractions to ‘Terrible Place’ settings for horror movies. If you were a murderous psychopath, wouldn’t you hide in a haunted attraction? The appeal of escapes rooms to horror is self-explanatory.
Best Examples: Carnival of Souls, The Funhouse (1981), Hell Fest (2018), Hell House LLC (2015)
5 – Funeral Homes
Decades ago graveyards were a big part of horror iconography. Today, graveyards tends to be well-maintained, staid places in the middle of bustling cities. But funeral homes – just the idea of them – are unsettling. Even in big cities funeral homes are often located in classic Gothic mansions. While the main floors are meant to be comforting, no one wants to go to a funeral home. We associate them with death, loss, and mortality. And no one wants to think about what goes on downstairs. Funeral homes are a no-brainer when it comes to ‘Terrible Places’ in horror.
Best Examples: Phantasm (1979), Mortuary (1983), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
4 – The Woods
Everyone loves to re-connect with nature on a good family hike. But local and national parks are pretty safe. You’d have to try pretty hard to get lost. And they’re crammed with similar-minded people. Now take a drive several hours outside the city to a forest where you have to hike another hour or two to set up a camping site. No WiFi signal. No park restroom centre. It’s just you and whatever else is lurking in the woods. And in horror movies, getting lost is the least of your problems. There’s a reason why so many horror movies are set in the woods. Just remember, if you get lost and stumble upon a cabin, don’t go in. Don’t knock. Run.
Best Examples: The Blair Witch Project, The Witch, The Ritual, Friday the 13th
3 – Basements
Not finished basements, mind you. Those are okay. We’re talking about dark, dank, and musty basements. With poor lighting, it’s like walking into a cold tomb. And with all that clutter and those dark corners, who knows what’s waiting to jump out at you. We’ve probably all run up the basement stairs as quickly as possibly after flicking off the light switch, hoping nothing grabs you through the stairway. Perhaps basements work so well as a “Terrible Place” because they’re metaphors for dangerous secrets we hope stay buried. After all, in horror movies, the basement is usually where you’ll find something that should have stayed buried.
Best Examples: It (2017), The Evil Dead (1981), Psycho (1960), Don’t Breathe (2016)
2 – Bedroom Closets
If you’re eight years old, or younger, there’s probably no scarier Terrible Place then your own bedroom closet. At nighttime, in the pitch dark, all those clothes and piles of junk take on new, frightening shapes. Even small bedroom closets have plenty of room for ‘The Boogeyman’. How many kids have spent the night peering out from under their covers at a partially open closet door? And horror movies know it. Wide open or closed all the way, bedroom closets are nightmare fuel.
Best Examples: Poltergeist (1982), Saw (2004), Halloween (2018)
1 – The Ocean
Planning a trip to an all-inclusive oceanside resort? Enjoy the pool bar and all-you-can-eat buffet, but stay out of the water. Sharks swim fast. Not even Michael Phelps could swim faster than a shark. Let that sink in for a minute. Oceans are vast and deep. Who knows what lurks below? And that’s why the ocean makes such a great ‘Terrible Place’ for horror movies. We’re not really afraid of sharks (okay, maybe a little) or mutated sea monsters. It’s the feeling of not knowing what’s beneath you. There’s the fear of something unseen pulling you under into the dark abyss.
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