What is more terrifying than being alone? Isolation is an intense feeling: complete and utter abandonment, no one to turn to, no one to ask for help. That’s why it is often used in horror fiction, both in the literal and metaphorical sense.
As a writer, isolating your character or characters can lead to an increase in tension. Let’s say that two couples get together and go on vacation. A is married to B, and C to D but A is sleeping with C who is also sleeping with B. D finds outs and goes nuts. If the happy couples’ revelations take places in a crowded hotel, there are too many complicating factors and intervening forces. Put them on a yacht out in the ocean, or a snowed-in winter log cabin and watch how the tempers flare when there’s nowhere to go. Interesting situation with great possibilities.
Michael Chrichton’s novel ” Sphere” is a great example of how isolation can impact a group of people. Without wanting to give away the plot, a group of researchers are trapped in a special habitat miles under the ocean. They are cut off from outside assistance and as the action increases, so does the tension, because they have nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help.
A notable short story about a character in complete isolation is Stephen King’s “Survivor Type” in which a single character survives the sinking of a cruise ship only to be left on a tiny island with only a logbook, a knife and a smuggled load of heroine. This story makes for an interesting read as it explores the question of what one would do to survive.
“Event Horizon” is a particularly disturbing film revolving around a salvage crew trapped on a spaceship. Once again, it is the isolation that plays a crucial role in creating devastating events.
So what is it about isolation that gets to us? Perhaps its linked to our instinctive feeling that there is safety in numbers, or that two heads are better than one. When your characters are isolated, they have no one to reach out and all the decisions (and resulting consequences) rest on them.
An individual that has been isolated for extended periods of time can experience feelings of depression, anxiety, dislocation, sensory illusions and loss of time. Some say isolation can lead to madness. In groups, the dynamics change and so does the ‘normal’ social order.
In what ways can isolation be useful in fiction?
– it stops your characters from getting external help.
– it heightens their stress levels.
– it increases each character’s internal conflict.
– it forces decision making.
– it forces cooperation and rivalry.
We forget how much a situation can change we are alone, especially as a group. Bare this in mind when writing a horror story…