At first the Island in the TV series Lost appears to be just another tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. And then one of the survivors from the plane crash is attacked by an unknown beast – a polar bear. Why is there a polar bear in a tropical jungle?
The impossibility of a polar bear running around a tropical rainforest sets the tone for the entire series. It says: expect strange things. The Island is a mysterious place. A place where the inexplicable happens, weird unidentifiable noises are heard in the night, the grass literally whispers weird nothings, a sentient black cloud drifts across the land dispensing its own justice. The place is alive.
In storytelling terms the Island has all the personality traits of a living character. It does things that alters the outcome of the story. It has a mind.
A properly described location contributes to the tone and atmosphere of a story. A living environment goes beyond that to become another character in the narrative. These spaces may be natural environments (forests, mountains, swamps) or buildings and structures, in the widest sense (houses, castles, hotels, spaceships).
A living, breathing environment imbues a story with a sense of magic, of the extraordinary. In Avatar the planet Pandora is a whole-living being. It’s more than just a jungle. Having a location that seems to be alive is especially important in fantasy fiction. It helps to create a sense of otherworldliness. It literally helps make the ordinary come alive.
Having a place that is alive creates an arena for horror, for the surreal, or for comedy. It provides another variable to the story, something that can change the predictable outcome. It may act as the antagonist, the antagonist’s assistant, or as the hero’s helper. It can be a force for good, or bad. In science fiction a man made, or alien structure, like a spaceship, can be alive through extra-terrestrial forces or artificial intelligence.
In The Lord of The Rings series, the forests are actually alive. The trees are living beings with all the traits of a human character. In other stories like The Perfect Storm, nature might not technically be ‘alive’, but it feels like a living, breathing antagonist, one that needs to be battled with and outsmarted. This is the man versus nature story, the battle of wills.
When buildings are portrayed as living it often means that they have been possessed by a paranormal force (magic, spells, satanic forces). The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Barton Fink, Poltergeist, and The Haunting are all examples of the haunted house, the building possessed by dark forces.
The haunted house scenario forces rational characters into conflict with irrational and horrific powers. It tells us that some things in life don’t make sense. There are forces out there beyond our control.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey Hal, a robot, takes over the spaceship and murders the crew. Although this is a science fiction story, Hal is essentially a ghost in a haunted house. Hal is a benevolent force that turns malicious; a machine, programmed to be rational, but, once possessed – a demon. In Solaris the rational crew of a spaceship come into proximity to a natural phenomenon that alters their consciousness. The rational, scientific world meets the extraordinary, the inexplicable. In The Demon Seed another robot with advanced AI takes over a physical space (a domestic house), giving itself and the building the qualities of a conscious entity with its own ‘body’ and ‘limbs’.
Buildings can have a strange influence on the characters who live in them, without explicitly being alive. The tower block in High Rise sends its inhabitants insane. The mountaintop building in Black Narcissus is never portrayed as alive, but it has an unnatural psychological presence that forces the nuns in it to flee.
The living environment, from fantasy, natural catastrophe, and horror, to science fiction, creates added interest for the storyteller. The protagonist must operate within this space, fight against it, or use it to his or her own advantage. It is an enemy, or a helper. The living environment turns an ordinary world into an extraordinary one.