The worlds of Lovecraft, Shelly, King, and others are unnerving places that transport us to realms of nightmare. Building a horror world, or placing aspects of horror into other world types, takes both skill and an acute understanding of primal instinct. In horror worlds, the environment is tailored to induce specific emotions in an audience: anxiety, unease, terror. As a worldbuilder you must know how to introduce elements into your world that will trigger these emotions.
When building a horror world, incorporating common fears into the world itself can create an atmosphere of immersive dread. These are elements separate from whatever is the main source of horror in that world. For instance, worlds that are populated by monsters that stalk their human prey may also have claustrophobic or aquaphobic elements built into them that further the sense of anxiety. While being hunted by a ravenous monster or serial killer may be terrifying, being hunted while trapped in a subterranean cave system is worse. Having the caves slowly flood with water as the tide ebbs is worse still. When choosing elements to include in a horror world, be they environmental elements, locations, characters, or others, consider how these elements play into common fears and how they can heighten the sense of terror in both subtle and obvious ways.
- Acrophobia: Fear of Heights
- Aerophobia: Fear of Flying
- Agoraphobia: Fear of Public Spaces & Crowds
- Aichmophobia: Fear of Pointed Objects
- Aphenphosmphobia: Fear of Being Touched
- Aquaphobia: Fear of Water
- Astraphobia: Fear of Thunder and Lightning
- Ataxophobia: Fear of Disorder & Untidiness
- Autophobia: Fear of Being Alone
- Bacteriophobia: Fear of Bacteria
- Bathmophobia: Fear of Stairs or Steep Slopes
- Claustrophobia: Fear of Confined Spaces
- Hemophobia: Fear of Blood
- Hypochondria: Fear of Illness
- Necrophobia: Fear of Death or Dead Things
- Nyctophobia: Fear of the Dark
- Pathophobia: Fear of Disease
- Thalassophobia: Fear of Deep Bodies of Water
- Trypanophobia: Fear of Needles or Injections
Think of ways to incorporate triggers for these fears into your world. While some may be obvious (a cramped spaceship as a primary location or a steep stairwell leading into darkness) others may be more subtle (a distant mountain range that resembles teeth or a security system that requires a drop of blood). Often these types of elements can be used to foreshadow future narrative events.
Note: Works of horror will incorporate these triggers into both the narrative of the world as well as the world itself. Other Atlas focuses on the world, but obviously there is considerable interplay between a world and a narrative which explores it.
What minor elements make you uncomfortable and how can you introduce them into your fictional horror world?
Environments & Locations
In horror worlds the environment serves as both an amplifier and a medium for pervasive dread. This can be accomplished in two ways: the environment can be an inherent source of unease, or it can act as juxtaposition for whatever element is the source of horror. The abyss of the deep ocean, the hidden depths of a fog, the unknown lurking in the darkness just beyond the candlelight – all of these factors play on preexisting human fears and can act as a wonderful facet of any horror world. The comfort of protective environments such as the safety of a home or the walls of a fortified area can also act to amplify fear if that environment is unexpectedly breached. A location that usually brings joy, such as an amusement park, museum, or carnival can also serve as a medium for terror if those expectations of joy are subverted. Locations can also serve to increase unease by virtue of being places where we feel disconnected or separated from others, such as the case of a remote camp site.
Example Horror Locations
- Amusement Park
- Abandoned Building
- Haunted Site
- Summer Camp
- Archeological Dig Site
See Locations: Buildings and Artificial Areas
When adding locations to a horror world, or designing a pocket horror world within a larger world, consider what emotions and memories a specific site may induce in your audience.
Weather, generally in the form of storms or other inclement weather, can be used to great effect in horror worlds. While raging storms and weather-related catastrophes can be threatening in and of themselves, the quiet unease of a mist or the oppression of a cloudy day can also accomplish a tone shift. Weather can limit vision and mobility, stripping away agency to create a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. The day/night cycle can be also used to the same effect.
In Combination with Other Worlds
Horror worlds are often combined with other world types. Horror and Sci Fi are commonly merged for worlds where unlucky humans are stalked by monsters from deep space. Horror and supernatural worlds blend to generate worlds featuring hauntings or demonic possession. In addition, many worlds feature small facets of horror worlds built into them as minor aspects or pocket worlds. Take for example a witch’s lair in a fantasy setting or mutant, cannibalistic occultists in a post-apocalyptic world. In game-oriented worlds often elements of horror are incorporated to denote a more difficult area.