We’ve all had one of those moments: you’re alone at night. Everything’s quiet. Everything’s still. Maybe you’re reading a good book or watching television or something when an unexpected noise causes you to jump, alarm bells ringing in your head. There’s usually a reasonable explanation for it, such as the cat knocking something over (or, in my case, deciding to run a marathon through the house in the middle of the night), or just the creaks and groans of an old house. You’ll look back on it a few minutes later and laugh at how foolish you looked. You’ll be glad no one was around to see it. But that moment of panic, that moment when you weren’t sure what you heard and your adrenaline started kicking in?
That, my friends, is the power of isolation.
Isolation is one of the most powerful tools in a storyteller’s arsenal. It’s an effective way to immerse your audience in a setting. Isolating a character means that, in the absence of another person to talk to, their surroundings come to the forefront. In this way, the setting itself can become a character.
One of the most apparent examples of this comes from Stephen King’s “The Shining”. The Overlook Hotel is shrouded in menace and mystery all throughout the book, especially room 217 which is implied to be one of the most haunted in the hotel. Throughout the majority of the book very little actually happens until the last two hundred pages or so, but the raw tension and the sense that something is wrong with the hotel permeates the entirety of the story.
This “wrongness” pervades the film adaptation as well. The layout of the hotel is purposefully surreal and the impossibility of it factors into the tense atmosphere throughout the film. That, combined with the quick cuts and jarring camera angles, makes for a very unsettling watch, even if nothing truly makes you jump out of your skin.
Isolation as a tool to enhance horror doesn’t just extend itself to movies and books. Video games have put that idea to great effect as well, and I would even argue in greater ways than either. For the longest time, horror video game fans wanted a game set in the “Alien” franchise that mimicked the first movie more than the second one. And they finally got it back in 2014 when “Alien: Isolation” (hey, isolation is even in the name!) released. Unlike previous game adaptations (which focused more on the sequel “Aliens” with its more action-heavy tone), “Isolation” puts you on a broken down space station with a singular alien lurking throughout the game.
The sense that you’re being hunted is present throughout the game. And that’s because…well…you are.
“Isolation” also takes after the first movie in the sense that all the technology is retro ’70s style, right down to the CRT computer monitors. It creates a strangely believable science-fiction setting.
I remember back when I took a class on science-fiction and fantasy back in college, we talked about isolation as one of the cornerstones of science-fiction. But isolation isn’t just locked into the sci-fi and horror genres. You can find it at play in many things, including “Myst”, a game I have talked about many times. From the moment you start playing, you’re hit with the sensation of being alone. Nothing pushes you forward aside from your own curiosity.
The idea of being left to your own devices is why “Myst” and other point and click adventure games appealed to me so much. I liked being forced to wander and figure things out at my own pace, rather than have the game point me in a direction and say “go”. This open-ended style is something that has only just recently crept back into gaming consciousness, particularly with the advent of survival crafting games such as “Minecraft”. But regardless, isolation is a very powerful that can pull people into your fictional world.
And hey, sometimes a little solitude isn’t a bad thing. Everyone needs to be left to their own whims every once in a while.
Thanks for reading! Check back on the third Wednesday of next month for another post. Have a wonderful January folks!