Last week I found myself downstairs in the dark, alone, watching a horror DVD (Insidious). What really creeped me out about this movie was that the setting – a family home – was so familiar. So much of the usual experience of living in a house was captured. Those moments of strange quiet, the more ominous moments when you are sure someone is beside you.
There was another low-budget horror flick that really creeped me out – that was Session 9.
During one early part of my career I used to do environmental assessments – mainly land-based. I sampled just about everything, assessing a wide range of properties from former rural (cattle dips were fun) to deserted industrial buildings. Now those darkened industrial buildings – with the lights off (often the power has been disconnected) and all the bustle of people and industry gone – are downright creepy. Session 9 was set in an abandoned hospital. I won’t give away too much of the plot, but the central characters were there for asbestos removal from the deserted buildings. So much of this was so familiar – including the eerie atmosphere of those deserted buildings – that it really hit close to home. One of the best horror films I have seen in ages.
All this got me thinking of the power of the familiar in fiction. It is this which often serves to give a link to the reader and can be used in different ways. In the more straightforward way, those familiar elements – particularly personality quirks or things that evoke “Hey that happened to me” are fantastic for creating an emotional link to the character.
In the case of suspense, things have a lot more impact to scare you if on some level you see yourself in the scene – either through familiar settings or situations (or are dragged there against your will!).
Do you consciously use the familiar in your fiction to engage the reader?
Oh – and I ended up finishing Insidious the next morning – in the light of day:)