Not everyone can write a ghost story. Especially not one that strikes fear into the hearts of its readers. Why? Because rattling chains, walking sheets, and attics are vastly overdone. It takes some finesses and psychological planning to write an appropriately scary ghost story. So what else do you need to write a good ghost story? Let’s break it down.
A Ghost Story Needs Fear
It goes without saying that ghost stories are meant to frighten people. With the amount of knowledge the average person has at their fingertips, that’s a tall order. What I mean is, it’s much harder to scare the modern human. Try to imagine your life without the internet, without your education, without an understanding of what lies beyond the trees surrounding your home. If your world was that small, just the darkness would be terrifying. Nevermind a ghost!
Most of us don’t live in a world like that, so how do you, a writer, scare the average, educated reader? You need to prey on their twenty-first-century fears–the unknown. A typical person is terrified of that which they cannot explain or control.
Here’s a scenario. You’re lying in bed at night and you’re alone. You wake up to feel your bed covers sliding down to the bottom of the mattress. You didn’t move them and you don’t have a pet. At that moment, you cannot explain the bedspread moving and you’re not in control. That fear is gold! As a writer, you need to use that fear. Create scenarios like this one and turn the unknown, the uncontrollable on your readers.
The Ghost, itself, is Just a Bad Story Come to Life
Not all ghost stories need to be supernatural–aka visits from beyond the grave. In truth, we all have ghosts. No, really. It’s true! Ghosts are stories, memories, flickers of what once was, is, or could have been. Much like in A Christmas Carol, there were three ghosts. One from the past, the present, and the future. In our own realm of existence, we carry all three of these, all the time.
Tracking back to the concept of the unknown, the uncontrollable, we all have regrets and sorrows that plague our minds. If these stories took on a life of their own, how would they manifest themselves? Therefore take a look at your poor tortured protagonist in your ghost story. What secrets lie in their past, present, and future?
Another angle lies in the stability of the mind. Again, think unexplained, uncontrolled. If you couldn’t trust your own mind (think split personality or a psychotic break) what would that look like? If one character kept finding evidence from themselves and couldn’t explain it, it might look like a haunting.
The Devil is Literally in the Details
Next, give your ghost a backstory but, like in all good stories, stay in control of the details and withhold as much information as possible for as long as possible. This creates uncertainty in your reader’s mind. Remember, you’re in control! Drop breadcrumbs as needed, keeping the suspense going.
Now that you’re starting to grasp what your ghost might look like, ground your story in reality. Trauma is a great place to start. Having your main character deal with grief or tragedy sets a tone of shaky ground and instability. Make the trauma relatable and you have laid the foundation for a connection between your reader and the protagonist.
Some good examples: loss of a loved one, a violent crime, abuse. You know the cheery stuff.
Do Your Homework
Lastly, invest in research. If you’re choosing to go down the supernatural, beyond-the-veil route, there are real-life ghost investigators like this one. You could be part of an investigation. Think of the notes you could take!
If you’re choosing the more psychological route, take the time to look into how the mind works and use that information to warp the reality of your protagonist.