A few months ago I decided to sample some H.P. Lovecraft and ended up tearing through two volumes of his short stories. A sense of place figures prominently in his work, much of which is set in old towns along New England’s fictional Miskatonic River—places like Innsmouth, Arkham, and Dunwich. Horror aficionados call this semi-imaginary region “Lovecraft Country.”
What particularly struck me in reading his fiction was not the just the sense of place, but specifically the sense of historical landscape. Time and again, Lovecraft used the remnants of New England’s past to evoke a palpable sense of menace and dread. The narrator of “The Picture in the House” explains this connection between horror and historic landscape in the story’s opening paragraphs:
Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.
Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock. Two hundred years and more they have leaned or squatted there, while the vines have crawled and the trees have swelled and spread. They are almost hidden now in lawless luxuriances of green and guardian shrouds of shadow; but the small-paned windows still stare shockingly, as if blinking through a lethal stupor which wards off madness by dulling the memory of unutterable things.
Interestingly, the protagonist of “The Picture in the House” is engaged in historical research when he stumbles across something horrific. He recounts traveling near the Miskatonic “in quest of certain genealogical data,” and the awful discovery he makes in an aging house involves an illustration in an old book. This is another historical thread running through Lovecraft’s fiction. Those who go rummaging around in the past often stumble across long-dormant terrors. His protagonists are heritage tourists and history buffs; crumbling books, manuscripts, and artifacts are the keys to unlock terrible secrets. The titular character of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” discovers a sinister legacy of necromancy while investigating his family history and restoring old heirlooms. Similarly, the narrator of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” remembers “celebrating my coming of age by a tour of New England – sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical” when he arrived at a decaying seaside town occupied by inhuman beings. Lovecraft even deployed the language of the past to creepy effect, using archaic words like “shewed” in place of “showed.” For Lovecraft, history was a haunted house.
This notion of a “creepy past” is, of course, very common in fiction and film. We associate decay with death, so old buildings and artifacts are natural settings for horror stories. This is harder to accomplish when it comes to places without a visible past. They lack an atmosphere of dread because they lack an atmosphere, period. As Gertrude Stein put it, there’s no “there” there. If you’re going to use setting to evoke a mood, that setting needs to have some character, and places with a backstory tend to have more character than others.
To take a personal example, I recently watched part of Paranormal Activity, a movie about a malevolent force terrorizing a couple in a modern, suburban tract home. It didn’t frighten me in the least. It didn’t even engage me. A modern tract home simply isn’t a scary environment, at least not for me. A place needs to have some sort of patina before it can be really frightening. Even horror films set in the future will often “age” the setting in which they take place to evoke that vibe of menacing antiquity. Imagine watching a version of Alien where the Nostromo is a brand-new ship with a fresh coat of paint.
We use the past to meet all sorts of collective psychological needs, and one of those needs is the occasional desire to scare ourselves half to death.