Last week my Nook shopping feature listed a haunted house book for only .99 which got pretty good reviews. I decided that despite the May flowers and sunshine, it was time to scare myself silly. It’s fun, isn’t it?
I don’t like to criticize authors so I won’t mention their name. The book was awful, terrible, very badly conceived and written. Finally giving up in disgust, I realized that most of the ghost stories I read over the years either fell into the category of fantastic or a complete dog. Why is this?
On the surface, writing a ghost story doesn’t seem tremendously difficult. They all follow certain patterns and many use the same stereotypes. So what makes one story spine-tingling and another completely ridiculous? How can one allow the reader to suspend disbelief while another causes the reader say, yeah right?
What makes a good ghost story work?
First, it is all about escalation. The writer must build suspense. Apart from the popular use of the appetizer prologue, throwing spooks at people too soon ruins the tension. It is far scarier to think you are safe and slowly realize that something ain’t right in Denmark.
Stereotyping works up to a point in a scary story. You know the one where Mom/girlfriend and the kids see weird stuff while Dad/boyfriend is totally clueless. But if the character’s experience remains one-dimensional, the story quickly becomes tiresome. And this is important: unless the female character is intentionally being driven insane by her husband, ease up on anything approaching gaslighting. These stories with “Honey, it’s all in your imagination” husbands drive me crazy. You want to see something scary? Tell me I’m imagining things. No ghost can compete with my wrath.
Ghosts have a purpose or a reason for their hauntings. Traditionally they are:
- To exact revenge on an evildoer
- To send a message
- Get out of my house! Or, join us here.
- Acting out because they are ticked off/opportunistic at being woken or called up via occult or other means.
- Random hauntings that are associated with a particular place, time, or thing.
The human element needs to be believable. In fact, the more plausible the character’s responses, the more the reader can suspend disbelief towards supernatural events. In ghost stories, identification with the characters is crucial. You can’t get scared if you can’t put yourself in their position. Dysfunction or addiction in other characters can intensify the drama. For example, the mom’s religious mania in Carrie or Jack’s alcoholism in The Shining. Ok, Carrie isn’t technically a ghost story, but you see what I mean?
Death in ghost stories is a natural by-product. However, knocking off people right and left will sometimes weaken, rather than strengthen the effect. Why is this? Because it is the threat of harm that builds terror.
Some people just have a gift for storytelling. I once read a short story called The Haunted Saucepan. Really, a pot? But seriously, it was creepy! My husband thought so also. In fact, while I was writing this post, he mentioned that story specifically.
A good storyteller can make the ordinary super scary. Remember in the movie Paranormal Activity when the sheet blew up just a little bit? Or when the bedroom door moved just slightly? Bleeding walls couldn’t compare to the start those gave me.
Here are some of my all time scary ghost story faves:
Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
It by Stephen King (more a monster than a ghost)
Ghost Story by Peter Straub
The Virago Book of Ghost Stories edited by Richard Dalby (has The Haunted Saucepan)
What are your favorite ghost stories? What makes them scary to you?