By Hilary Davidson
"There's a killer on the other side of your bathroom door. What do you do?" Let me get this straight: I'm inside my own bathroom and the killer is outside, aiming to get into the bathroom to do away with me? Ha! I'm completely safe. For the record, I live in a New York City apartment with a bathroom so tiny, my attacker would have to be toddler-sized to get inside with me. Good luck, little killer.
But the question made me think about the settings I use in books and stories. As much as I may curse my tiny bathroom in real life, claustrophobic settings can be a goldmine in crime fiction, both on the page and on the screen. One writer who really exploited this territory was Edgar Allan Poe. His "The Pit and The Pendulum" is the most claustrophobic story I've ever read (after all, the burning walls really do close in on the narrator, while a pit yawns below and a blade slices at him from above; try getting out of that, Houdini). Other stories featured cellar tombs ("The Black Cat"), people buried alive ("The Premature Burial"), and collapsing houses ("The Fall of the House of Usher" — which also featured a cellar tomb and a live burial, making it a triple threat).
Alfred Hitchcock shared Poe's fascination for claustrophobic settings, but in his films they were served up with a twist. Hitchcock had a talent for taking a magnificent setting (think of the mansions in Notorious and Rebecca) and give the viewer an ever-increasing sensation of the walls closing in. Even more deviously, he could contort crowd scenes into pictures of total isolation. That's not to say that he didn't use small spaces — think of the shower scene in Psycho (come to think of it, I guess that could be taken as Hitchcock's answer to our question of the week).
I keep both Poe and Hitchcock in mind when I'm writing. Lily Moore, my main character in The Damage Done and The Next One to Fall, suffers from claustrophobia. Oh, she's fine getting on a plane or standing on a crowded subway train, but if she feels trapped, she panics — and that can happen in places large and small.
I can't even begin to describe how Lily would feel about my miniscule bathroom. One thing I know: she would actually choose to unlock the door and face the killer outside. But, knowing her, she would take a razor out of the medicine cabinet first.