Fear is one of the hardest things to provoke in writing. Just flip through the pages of any ghost story anthology; how many of them are genuinely scary? It takes more than tortured groans and rattling chains. Anyone can throw gore at the reader and call it a day, but the art of raising goose bumps is an elusive one indeed.
If you can write a scary ghost story, you can write anything.
Are you ready to inspire nightmares? Then follow me…
Fear of the Unknown
People don’t fear death. No one’s afraid of ghosts. Monsters, murderers, darkness—none of the horror staples are really terrifying. If you rely on your audience being scared simply because your story includes any of the above, you’re doomed to fail. Instead, you must understand where terror truly lies.
Everyone fears the unknown.
Everyone fears the unknown.
People don’t know what comes after death, so they get scared. They don’t know what’s making that noise in the other room, so they call it a ghost and get scared. Darkness could be hiding anything—what exactly, we don’t know—so we get scared.
Get the picture? We fear what we cannot understand. That’s why feeling a touch on your shoulder when you’re all alone is so frightening: it should be impossible. The best ghost stories take full advantage of this. You won’t see the ghost; you’ll only hear it, smell it, feel it. A ghost is like the wind; you’ll only see a curtain flutter, and the question will remain in your mind, what is it?
In my story The Babysitter, the reader is never given a good idea of what the babysitter actually is. Everything is described through the limited point of view of a boy who refuses to look at it.
When writing your ghost story, don’t be afraid of withholding information. Remember: your readers, by the very act of reading, have activated their imaginations. Use this against them! Don’t bog them down with long visual descriptions of a gruesome specter; I guarantee whatever you describe will not be nearly as scary as what they come up with on their own. After all, they know what frightens them most, you do not.
My most extreme example of this is The Morgan House, in which the entire climax is left unclear. I offer only a few words of explanation, just enough to guide the reader’s imagination down a suitably dark path. A less severe example can be found near the end of Anniversary.
Another way you can introduce an element of the unknown is to limit how often you use trope words. If you’re constantly mentioning ghosts or vampires, then the reader knows exactly what they’re up against. By not attaching a label to your entity, you produce doubt. Doubt makes people uncomfortable, which makes them easier to scare.
Something Is Not Right
Why is it that one smile can put you at ease, while another makes you want to get out of the room as quickly as possible? Does it reveal just a few too many teeth? Are the eyes above it just a little bit soulless? Is the accompanying laughter a tad too enthusiastic?
We may not be able to tell what, but something is…off.
Something friendly has been distorted. You were climbing a familiar staircase, and the last step was missing. You were listening to a pleasant tune, but that one note—was it off-key?
What’s wrong with this picture?
This is a natural extension of our fear of the unknown. A defense mechanism. It tips us off that someone around us bears a sickness that we don’t want to catch, that someone is pretending to be something they’re not. In the realm of robotics and computer graphics, it is called the uncanny valley. When something comes so close to being real, but falls short in some subtle way. This is why mannequins and dolls are common phobias.
So how can you leverage this in your ghost story? There’s the obvious, of course: characters with slightly deformed features or unnatural movements. Houses with strange angles. An unexpected behavior works as well, as is the case with the crying security guard in Boxes
Then there’s the more subtle: mentioning a detail that would be innocuous anywhere else, but in this particular scenario is out of place. There’s nothing quite like a child’s laughter—especially coming from your basement at 3 in the morning. Is it really a child? Or something like a child?
You can also work it into your writing style. Phrase something in an odd way. Intentionally break the rules of grammar. Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll come across as illiterate instead of terrifying.
A Dreadful Descent
Fear must be built up gradually. Think of it like you’re taking the reader on a journey from the safety of their world to the nightmare of yours. Like any journey, it’s a transition from point A to point B. If you skip that transition by presenting your scariest scene right up front, it won’t have any effect. The audience is still comfortably seated at point A: a soft armchair by a warm fire.
That’s not to say you can never start with a spooky scene—in fact, it’s a good way to catch the audience’s interest and entice them to keep reading. Just make sure you save the best for last. Wait until the reader has gotten out of their comfy chair; wait until they’re curled up in the cold, damp corner of the basement. Once a reader is primed, they’re much easier to scare.
Save the best for last.
I use this steady progression of dread in The Expedition of Howard Rickson. The explorer goes from dismissing the sounds as those of his teammates to the gradual realization that he is the only living soul in the place.
Do You Believe in Ghosts?
We all know your story is fictional. Ghosts aren’t real, and there’s nothing hiding under our beds. Fortunately, your audience is gracious enough to suspend their disbelief, but you have to meet them halfway. Your plot has to make sense and your characters have to behave appropriately. Give your readers enough detail (without violating the “fear of the unknown” principle) that they can immerse themselves in your world.
Here are some hints to help you in the right direction:
- Describe the setting. This builds up atmosphere—a vital component of any good ghost story.
- Avoid ridiculous places and events. Not only is it more believable, but it’s scarier if it’s something that could happen to anyone.
- If something weird happens, make sure there’s a reason. You don’t have to (and really shouldn’t) explain everything point by point, but give the audience enough clues to figure it out for themselves.
- Flesh out your characters. Give them personalities, quirks, and struggles—give them a life beyond the story.
A good example of a believable ghost story that uses the above techniques is The Forgetful House. There’s very little by way of things going bump in the night, and what there is could easily be explained away by the narrator’s disturbed mind. The story is set in a credible place and it centers on a mundane event. Abundant details cement this realistic base in your head. When these details are filtered through the narrator’s unsettled thoughts, they build a thick, haunted atmosphere capable of frightening anyone.
There are also a few devices you should watch out for. At first, they may seem like good ways to make your tale more realistic, but they can actually pull your reader out of the story:
- “This Story Is True!” No, it’s not, and you’ve just drawn attention to how fake it actually is.
- “You Did This, You Felt That…” When I read a second-person narrative, all I can think is “No, I wouldn’t have done this, and I’m certainly not feeling that.” Stick with third- or first-person.
- “You’re Next!” This might work on little kids, but to everyone else it just comes across as desperate. If you have to rely on breaking the fourth wall and threatening the reader directly, your story wasn’t scary.
While you should avoid corny tricks like those listed above, there are exceptions to every rule. If you must employ second person perspective, or you feel your story has to have a “you’re next” moment, do it well. Just keep in mind it’s a lot easier to get it wrong than right.
Once More, with Feeling
Emotion is vital in any form of literature, but especially ghost stories. Remember, the end goal is to make your reader feel what the protagonist is feeling: pure, unbridled terror. This is why I believe first person narratives are so effective in ghost stories. They allow the reader to more easily identify with the struggles of the main character. This isn’t to say that first person is the only way, but it’s my preferred method. If you choose to go with third person, make sure you allow the reader access to the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions.
Avoid second person like the plague.
And as I said earlier, avoid second person like the plague.
When conveying emotion, it’s all in the words you choose. The basic rule is “show, don’t tell.” For example, here’s one way of saying your character is frightened:
I was scared as the footsteps approached my bed, but I refused to look.
Now, consider this excerpt from my short story, I Looked:
I wrapped the blankets tighter around me and let out a sick whimper. My chest was tight, my stomach rotten. I would not look. No matter how close those shuffling footsteps came, I would not look. I would not, I would…not…
Both examples communicate the same thing, but which one made you feel the character’s dread?
Here’s an exercise: whenever you’re writing a scene about someone being scared, forbid yourself from using the following words:
- Or any other similar terms
Instead, write what the character’s body is doing. Write exactly what they’re hearing or smelling, even if it’s only in their head. Don’t say they got pins and needles; say a thousand tiny spider legs went scuttling down their back.
Fear isn’t the only emotion you can use when writing a ghost story. Try enhancing the terror with sadness, depression, or anger. Positive emotions can have a tremendous impact as well. Offer a glimmer of hope, then replace it with something awful. The contrast can be unnerving.
Offer a glimmer of hope, then replace it with something awful.
For maximum emotional impact, your audience must care, and the best way to make them care is to develop deep characters. Establish strong personalities, allude to events in the past that have shaped them—make them feel alive. If your characters don’t seem like real people, they’re just ink on paper, and who cares about that?
Remember, in a ghost story, there are at least two characters. One is the protagonist, the one being scared. But what about the one doing the scaring? What about the ghost?
I’ve found the scariest ghosts always project some kid of emotion. It doesn’t matter what that emotion is as long as it’s dangerous:
A dangerous emotion doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative one. It could be a positive thing taken too far. Dysfunctional love, overzealous affection—as long as the ghost’s emotions project some kind of threat, you have the makings a terrifying specter.
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
Do you want to write a great, memorable ghost story? Come up with something unique. A plot that relies on overdone clichés won’t hold your readers in suspense; they know what to expect. Of course, clichés exist for a reason. If you must use one, use it well. Do it in a way no one else has and make it your own.
The End…Or Is It?
If you want to make your ghost story truly memorable, give it a killer ending sentence. As the last thing your audience reads, it will leave a lasting impression, and may even define the entire story in their minds. An unexpected plot twist or a spooky revelation are great ways to accomplish this, and often they are the catalyst for producing goose bumps. For an example, check out my short story The Scarecrow.
Sometimes, it may help to consider switching the order of the narrative for maximum effect—hint that the character saw something, but don’t reveal what it was until later. I do this at the end of The Abyss. Other times, it will be more effective to get straight to the point without giving the reader a chance to guess what happened.
Be careful not to overextend the ending. After the big reveal, it may be tempting to offer further explanation, but this can dampen the effect. Don’t be afraid to leave some things up to the reader’s imagination. Leave some questions unanswered, some conflicts unresolved. This produces doubt in the reader (fear of the unknown) and forces them to think about your story long after they’ve finished it.
Leave some questions unanswered, some conflicts unresolved.
Writing a good ghost story can be a taxing venture, but when your readers tell you they can no longer walk down dark hallways or complain of trouble sleeping—that feeling is totally worth it!
To sum up, here are the main things to keep in mind when writing a ghost story:
- People fear the unknown—use your reader’s imagination against them!
- Exploit the uncanny valley to make your readers uncomfortable.
- Use details to make your story and setting believable.
- Make your reader feel what the main character feels—utter terror!
- Use an original concept and avoid clichés.
- Make a lasting impression with a haunting revelation at the end.
The most important advice I can give you is this: read. Immerse yourself in the genre, and you’ll find you naturally improve. A good place to start would be my library of ghost stories.