There are plenty of scary tricks-of-the-trade to frighten us in horror movies, but the fear and anxiety also stem from environment and space. Often the location of the danger taps into other kinds of fears, or our unconscious unease about liminality. A liminal space is somewhere that transcends or transgresses boundaries: it’s neither one thing or another, but exists somewhere in between. In supernatural horror, this can be evil portals or doors to hell, but everyday liminal spaces still make for scary hiding places for all the eeriest bad guys…
1. Under the Bed
The classic horror film motif: if it’s not a nightmare monster from your childhood under there, it’s a sadistic serial killer who has written a note on the ceiling above your head telling you where he is – as in the movie Idle Hands. The scare factor of this liminal space comes from the vulnerability of having to look under: either crouching or hanging upside down puts you in an awkward position and leaves you open to a quick attack from the ready-and-waiting assailant.
2. Behind the Door
Doorways are always unsettling liminal spaces as a closed-door is both a temptation and a danger, concealing what lies beyond. Creepier still is an inversion of our expectations. If a door is open and the room revealed, it should be safe – so lurking unexpectedly behind the door against the wall is one of the most disturbing places for movie-killers to conceal themselves.
3. Behind the Shower Curtain
Psycho began the obsession, but if Norman Bates’ mother isn’t waiting for you with a knife on one side, there may be a rotting corpse stewing in the bath on the other. Bathrooms are also vulnerable places what with all that steam and nudity and slippery tiles. Then there’s the masking noise of running water, and shower curtains which are an even more frightening version of the closed door in that you (or the audience) can see something advancing without being able to clearly identify who or what, and therefore defend yourself from it…
4. In the Cupboard
Often a misdirection scare tactic, and an extension of the murderer behind the door, but the killer in the cupboard also has all the metaphoric potential for skeletons in closets and accidentally revealing dark and dirty secrets in supposedly innocent spaces.
5. On the Stairs
This wonderful liminal space is a favorite horror film trope: staircases are so easy to fall up or down, they often mark the possible transition from death to escape (up or down into the horror or away from it), and they are the period of tension between the known space behind and the unknown ahead. Better yet, they creak, twist and turn, and can break which gives the killer plenty of opportunities to create tension, hide around corners, attack over banisters or lay traps…
8. In the Basement
An extension of the anxieties ‘below the stairs’ which has class implications of the resentful people from your past that you wronged rising up to revenge themselves, but also suggests dark claustrophobic spaces, dungeons and tombs, and descents into hell. Underground locations are literally subversive and undermining our sense of security: they manifest what is going on below the surface and under people’s very noses, and monsters that inhabit such spaces are already suggesting primal predator or demonic qualities.
7. In the Backseat of the Car
In true pantomime fashion, the horror of someone or something suddenly appearing in the backseat of your car is the ‘He’s behind you’ surprise modernized. We expect the back of our car to be empty if we think we leave it locked, and returning then to discover an intruder in this uncomfortably enclosed space where you cannot easily turn around to confront it – your escape vehicle having suddenly become your prison – hits all the right fright buttons.
8. In the Woods
The dangers of the woods already have cautionary fairytale connections with wolves, lost babes and witches’ houses (Blair Witch Project-style), but this is also unpredictable and literally ‘wild’ terrain to run and hide in that the killer is bound to know better as hunting territory than the disoriented victim. Moreover, the directionality of sounds is deceiving, there is a possible attack radius of 360 degrees (with no walls to back against), and at night a torch may light your way but it also indicates your position as prey to your stalker…
9. Down Alleyways
Alleyways are the urban jungle equivalent of being lost in the woods and off the beaten track. They are liminal space writ large in being between main roads, behind houses, and literally the ‘shady’, ‘backdoor’ deal. Like with corridors and stairways, there are corners, closed doors and infinite possibilities for hiding places for violent sorts, and horror films love to reimagine true crime anxieties about muggings or molestation into scarier scenarios about what hides in city shadows.
10. In the Factory
Sci-fi film plots often like to explore the things that worry us about technology and engineering, and horror movies take that same unease and transcribe it visually. Abandoned warehouses, train stations, power plants and working factories are spaces that were designed for the inhuman and inanimate, but these un-people-friendly spaces actually have a disturbing life of their own. This metaphor of the cold, calculating machine-like monster maps eerily well onto a horror film killer (the Terminator movies loved this device), and makes such places more their realm than ours, as well as being noisy, poorly-lit, labyrinthine environments filled with dangerous machinery: the industrial haunted house. Places we can’t see into, know well, navigate easily or understand fully are always the scariest hiding spots for serial killers and supernatural forces in horror films. Scary movies are most successful when they can tap into fears we already have, and nourish them until looking under the bed or behind the door isn’t just something we did as kids to keep the nightmares at bay – but something we have to do the minute the horror film is over or before we can sleep at night. Sweet dreams…