What Makes a Good Ghost Story

I was reading a book earlier in the month and it looked as if it was going to be about a married couple on a vacation in Scotland. They were staying at a chapel that had been repurposed into a vacation home. Spooky stuff started happening and things were getting pretty dire. It turns out that it wasn’t a supernatural threat, but a human one.

In a lot of current fiction, ghosts seem to have become cliché. Instead of haunted houses and poltergeists, more natural reasonings like humans and nature have taken its place. For instance, Silvia Moreno-Garcia wrote a book called Mexican Gothic that replaced psychedelic fungi instead of ghosts.

I’ve got a theory about this change. It’s easier to tell a story with a human or scientific element. The story begins with the main characters suffering from some conflict. It could be a broken marriage, ill relative, or mental illness. Then the supernatural stuff starts happening which allows the main characters to work through their own conflicts. Then they deal with the supernatural elements. That’s the basic plot of a ghost story. However, when the storyteller reveals that it’s not a ghost but a human, it’s easier to explain. It’s easier for the main characters to overcome.

It’s easier to turn a human into a ghost than to kill a ghost. What I’m really trying to say is that it’s lazy writing. If you’re going to tell a ghost story, then actually write a story that has a ghost in it. Not everything has to be explained by the time the reader turns that last page.

I would love a hat like that…

“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” – Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.

One of the most classic examples of the unexplained endings in a ghost story is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It could be implied that the main character Eleanor was being possessed by the haunted house, but it also implied that the house wasn’t haunted and that it was all in her mind. Personally, I’d like to think the house was haunted and that Eleanor was just one of the many victims of Hill House. Jackson let the reader decide and I love that. It makes for a great discussion.

That’s the first tip I have for writing a good ghost story. In the end, don’t explain everything.

The next couple of tips I found while watching the YouTube channel, Write with Claire Fraise. Those steps are not having control, the unknown, the uncanny valley, brutal threats. I’ve already spoke about the unknown, so I’ll skip that step.

1. Not Having Control

It’s always scary when you can’t control the situation. I remember losing control of my Ford Taurus on a wintery day. I did a 360 through an intersection in South Bend. It wasn’t fun. Now, imagine the car driving down the road during an Indiana winter. That’s your ghost story. Your main character is the driver, and the passengers are the secondary characters. The main character believes he/she has control over the car (which is the narrative in this scenario). Then the driver hits an icy path (the ghost) and that’s when the narrative starts spinning out of control. Will the driver regain control? Will there be an accident? What about fatalities?

Maybe the characters in the story don’t know how to defeat the ghosts. In Jay Anson’s story, The Amityville Horror, the Lutz family had no clue how to defeat the poltergeist that plagued them. In the end, they moved across the country to defeat the haunted house. Have you ever watched a ghost film and they lock all the doors, or the windows don’t open? That’s an example of the characters not having control. Another great way to take away control is to have the ghost possess the character.

2. The Uncanny Valley

So, this term is a hypothesized relation between an object’s degree of resemblance to a human being and the emotional response to the object. The concept suggests that a humanoid object that resembles a human would provoke uncanny or strange familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion. For example, look at the house in the film The Amityville Horror (1979). The house sorta resembles a person’s face, especially when the upstairs lights are on. Look at Michael Myers in the Halloween franchise. The dude wears a mask that looks human, but the dude just ain’t human.

I mean, he looks human and acts human but the dude ain’t human.

As far as ghosts go, look at the film The Sixth Sense (1999) or The Shining (1980).Those ghosts look human, but they appear as how they died…bloody and horrible.

3. Brutal threat

RIP Dick Hallorann. We all knew Danny and Wendy couldn’t be killed so they put you into the fray.

The whole point of this week’s column is to help you write a good ghost story. Most ghost stories will have some type of conflict to it. And, if I’m being brutally honest, will include some sort of brutal threat to the protagonist. Danny’s dad being possessed in Stephen King’s The Shining for instance. Danny watches his dad slowly slip into craziness, driven by the haunted hotel, and it culminates in Jack trying to kill Danny and his mom. Same goes with The Amityville Horror. Having the threat of brutality in the final act of the story will create tension and make the reader want to finish the story.

Those are a few tips that I found useful that have helped me. Hopefully they help you as well. If not, then you can haunt me later. Until then, keep calm and write on.

***Funny Story***

So, after I wrote this I went to that haircut. And the lady clipped my ear with the clippers, and it bled for a bit. No lies.



Categories: Mastering the Craft

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