From the first time I set foot in my high school alma mater, ghost stories were among the spooky legends associated with the school. While the stories were fun fodder for us teenagers to gossip about, it wasn’t until one time when I was at the school late at night for a fundraiser that I actually began to believe them.
I had wandered off with a friend to try to get into the choir loft of our school chapel—where access was normally restricted. The door to the choir loft was locked, but as we turned to leave, we heard the chilling sound of the organ being played, just beyond the door. Rather than running away, we went down a level and slowly crept toward the main chapel entrance, to see who was playing.
A figure sat at the organ, flowing greyish-white hair to mid-back. We caught one glimpse and ran away, as fast as we could, to tell other people what we’d seen. When they went to look, they found no one. And silence.
Ghost stories have long been a source of chills and thrills. Maybe it’s because we all seem to know someone who either has one to tell or is once-removed from the story. Maybe it’s because ghosts exist in all cultures, across the ages. The supernatural haunt, the possibility of what-if, and the unknown somehow has a way of shifting us all to the edge of our seat.
But how do you tell a good ghost story?
The most effective ghost stories have elements that have a way of playing at our fears. They remind us of a paranormal world that might coexist right alongside our own. They make us wonder about the lives and events of times long-since passed. While ghosts can be used in less serious ways and genres or to teach lessons (think: Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas Eve), I’m referring here specifically to ghost stories meant to be suspenseful or frighten. So what are some of these elements of an effective ghost story?
1. A protagonist in crisis
Ever notice how ghosts seem to most often affect the protagonists going through a deep-seeded emotional issue? Maybe it’s a lonely child. Or a mother suffering a divorce or a loss. Or a widower haunted by thoughts of lost love. Either way, the psychological crisis of the protagonist helps plant seeds of doubt in the reader about the character’s sanity or the reality of the paranormal experience.
2. A well-developed ghost backstory
If you’re going to include a ghost in your story, take the time to develop them as a character just as well as you would any other character in your novel. You may not have time to relay all that backstory in the text, but it will help make the ghost seem more real.
3. Ghostly realms set in reality
In the best ghost stories, the ghosts are grounded in the mundane bits of everyday life. Ever watch Ghost Hunters? They’ll talk about the same door opening and closing. The same rocking chair eerily swaying. The same wooden plank creaking. The most chilling ghost stories lift these details of a past life on repeat and make them come alive.
4. The unexplained left unexplained
Don’t feel the need to explain everything about the paranormal realm you create. After all—we don’t know everything about the paranormal, its realness, and what it all means. A good ghost story will leave things open to interpretation and tease out possibilities that may be beyond comprehension.
At the end of the day, a good ghost story will leave the reader unsettled, chilled, but exhilarated.
As for me…it’s been over 20 years since I wandered that high school hallway. I still don’t know what I saw, but I know I’ll never, ever forget it.