What makes a great ghost story?
I have a few ideas that I’d like to run by you, but first:
Hallowe’en: A Remembrance
October: The whole damned month is ours, and we make it last. November 1st does not come at the stroke of midnight—not at all. Hallowe’en owns the night, and the first of November arrives with the sun, bringing with it the sudden, sobering intrusion of the real world.
November: Everything looks a little different—a little colder. We must clear the front lawn of dismembered rubber corpsebits. We get our decorations up into the attic as quickly as possible, and we sure as hell don’t watch a horror movie. Not for a few days, anyway, as we acclimate to wretched normality. In November, watching a good horror movie is kind of cool. In October, that shit is a sacrament.
But October is back there, and here we are, in November, talking about ghosts.
They’re different now, aren’t they, our ghosts? They’re no longer dangly white sheets and crumpled crepe paper. They’re no longer fun. They’re . . . more real, somehow, no longer reduced to harmless grinning cartoons. October captures our ghosts—makes them safe. November frees them.
Don’t misunderstand: I do not believe in ghosts. Not in the traditional sense, anyhow. I do not believe in restless, earthbound spirits anymore than I believe in dragons or werewolves or angels who help me find my car keys. I do, however, believe in the vast strangeness of the human brain. I believe in the reality-distorting power of belief, of faith. It’s powerful stuff.
Ghosts: We Need ‘Em
There’s a “what if” attached to ghosts, one that can sometimes tighten the scalp of even the most ardent non-believer. See—ghosts (and demons, angels, God, the Devil, the afterlife) exist in the abstract realm of the immaterial. Science and reason have dispelled trolls, goblins, vampires, and any number of mythological beasties, and the ghost lingers because we need it to. The ghost promises some retention of self, long after we’ve stopped metabolizing.
The ghost lingers, and with it—the ghost story.
So—What Makes A Great Ghost Story?
Two things, really:
1. A Sense of Dread
The great ghost story creates a sense of dread and unease. It makes us feel as if we’ve brushed against something truly weird. You needn’t believe in ghosts to be unnerved by a solid ghost story, be it filmed or the written word, because a really effective one will worm its way through the holes in your defenses and burrow beneath your flesh.
If you already believe in things that go bump in the night, the story doesn’t have to work quite so hard to reach you. In his indispensible book on the philosophy of horror, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, Thomas Ligotti declares that only the vilest of storytellers will prey upon the religious beliefs of the reader in order to frighten. This is probably a debate for another day, but, for now, let’s just say that I disagree with him: something like The Exorcist (in either of its forms) is far more successful if you’re still disentangling yourself from the rosary beads of your youth. And hell—if you’re still caught up in that scene, you may just wanna skip it altogether.
Regardless of your beliefs, a great ghost story makes you uneasy in the middle of the night when you’re sitting alone in front of your computer and something clicks or clatters at the other end of your house. You know it’s just the house settling, but you get up and look around and remind yourself that you don’t believe in that crap.
A great ghost story turns you into a child.
Dread is summoned, too, when reality is made to feel . . . out of sorts. When the unknown intrudes upon the known and the cart is toppled, the foundations shaken. A keen hand is needed, though—those mysteriously stacked chairs in Poltergeist are far more alarming than the big skull-faced, water-tank rod-puppet creature that shows up at the end of the film. Better to distort reality than to drop the utterly unreal screaming and flailing into suburbia.
2. Tell Us Something About Ourselves
The great ghost story must not depend solely upon its ability to inspire a superstitious tingle or to make us feel the icy touch of the unknown. It must have a substance beyond the surface conceit of “oh god this place is haunted.” A great ghost story digs deeper—it holds up a mirror, tells us something about ourselves as individuals and it proclaims a simple truth:
A house is only as haunted as the people inside it.
Belasco House and the Overlook Hotel are Bad Places, without a doubt, but Jack Torrance and the paranormal investigators of Richard Matheson’s Hell House arrive with all the tools their respective haunts will need to take them apart. The great ghost story reminds us: we’re all haunted—each and every one of us. Whether or not the supernatural exists, our ghosts are very, very real, and they’re always looking to hurt us.
If it’s well-crafted, a ghost story can get away with succeeding in only one of these two categories, but the great ghost story accomplishes both.
Oh, and corpsebits is a real word now. Because I said it was. Please use it as often as possible.
Your turn: what makes a great ghost story?
See you in December.
We at Nightmare Magazine like discussions. Please use the comments feature to give us your thoughts on whether the H brand is an albatross or worth holding on to, and feel free to drop me a line at rj@nightmare-magazine. Print may be dead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be old school and have a good, old-fashioned letters page.