Writing Horror

It’s Not About The Ghost

Welcome back. I hope you had a blast with your homework assignments from my last column. What can be more fun than binging on horror movies and reading scary stories? If you took notes, great! If not, no matter. Your brain is always working, whether you want it to or not. At least that’s what my subconscious tells me.

Okay, so now it’s time to actually write that ghost story. You have a grasp on the history of ghostly tales, so you know what clichés to avoid. Thanks to your research, you also know what types of stories work best. Maybe you’ve even uncovered a particular haunting that’s gotten little to no attention. Perfect.

It’s best to start with the golden rule of ghost stories:

It’s not about the ghost. It’s about the people.

You know how I learned that? From watching every single episode of Scooby-Doo when I was a kid. Sure, the ghosts and monsters they’d face each week sometimes made me watch between my fingers, but the reason I kept coming back was because of my love for Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby. If I didn’t care about them, I wouldn’t care what happened to them.

Believe it or not, the same rules apply to big kid fiction. You can have the most terrifying poltergeist ever put down on paper. If you don’t have sympathetic characters who have to live through the horror and try to come out with their senses intact, no one will care.

Readers respond to the scares through the eyes of your characters. If you make your heroine believable, likable and relatable, your readers will feel her fright, her sense of hopelessness, confusion and maybe even despair.

The best ghost stories, the ones that really raise the hairs on the back of your neck, are the ones that occur to everyday people. Think of a true haunting that gave you shivers. Why did it do that? Probably because you realized deep down inside it could happen to you. You’re only a strange hotel room or new house away from encountering your own apparition.

So you want your characters to be as true to life as possible. Even the brave ones have fears and faults. In fact, the more hidden faults the better. All the more playthings for the supernatural to use against them.

In rare cases, I’ve seen authors flesh out the characters of their ghosts as well. The spirit has its own storyline, with concerns and end goals just like a living person. Recently, I read a book called No Rest for the Wicked by Pamela Morris where several ghosts were given as much attention as the people who had moved into the haunted plantation home. There were good ghosts and a very bad entity who harassed the dead as much as he did the living. It made for a unique and riveting take on the haunted house narrative.

Okay, let’s move on to the silver rule of ghost stories:

A good ghost story is a mystery.

They say dead men tell no tales. Maybe not personally, but there’s always enough evidence left behind to piece their story together. A captivating ghost story is as much a mystery as any crafted by the likes of Mary Higgins Clark or Agatha Christie.

Your characters, and readers, want to know several things:

· WHO is the ghost banging on the walls and appearing in the mirror?

· WHY are they here and tormenting these poor people?

· HOW did they die?

· WHAT can be done to make them go away or help them find peace?

You can throw in WHEN did they pass from this mortal coil, but that’s not always necessary.

As an aside, as a person who has done a ton of research on real hauntings, I’ve found that the older a ghost, the less active it gets. I have no idea why this is or what it means. Just know that avid readers of haunted stories know this as well. So if you plan to have the ghost of a man who died 500 years ago as your antagonist, prepare to have a reason why he’s so active all this time later. I know this sounds strange, but it’s a quirk of the genre.

Like any good mystery writer, you need to drop little breadcrumbs throughout your story, saving it all for the big reveal in the final act. How your protagonist discovers these clues is up to you and what makes the book so engrossing. They could come from:

· Research done at the historical society

· A talkative neighbor who knew the family that was murdered in the house

· Communication with the spirit through a medium or Ouija board

· Notes scrawled on walls or floors by the entity

· Flashbacks via dreams

This is your moment to shine and really show your creativity.

Take the road less traveled and find ways to throw readers off the scent. I did that with my book, Sinister Entity. In it, bad ass ghost hunter Jessica Backman thinks she’s traveled to new Hampshire to help a girl haunted by her own doppelganger. A doppelganger is an exact double of a person. Seeing one means bad luck or even death is on your horizon. It isn’t until much later in my story that all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and Jessica realizes the doppelganger is protecting the girl from something far more horrible. I zigged when readers thought I was going to zag, and my readers loved it.

Last but not least, where and how do you find your ghosts? That part is easy and the most fun.

· You can look to real ghost stories and take bits from several and make it your own.

· Spin one entirely from your own warped imagination.

· Look at an event that you feel would lead to a haunting, such as a horrible accident, murder/suicide, natural disaster, outlawed medical program like lobotomies or eugenics.

Unfortunately, the world today, and yesterday, is filled with horrors. You never need to look far to find a tortured soul. When you do, build up a cast of full-bodied characters around that spirit and immerse them in a mystery with a deadline. The less time they have to solve it before someone gets hurt, the better.

Today’s homework — write a spooky short story. Believe it or not, crafting a chilling short story is harder than a full-length novel. You have to pack a big punch in a little package. Keep working on it until you give it to a friend and she tells you she slept with the lights on.

The best compliment you can get is that you scared someone nearly to death.

Who said being a horror writer isn’t fun?