The first ghost story I remember hearing was at a Halloween party.
I was about seven or eight years old, and a wimpy little kid. I was scrawny and suffering with undiagnosed asthma at the time and the party was held in the church hall. My mother took me up to the church, but couldn’t find a parking space, so she dropped me off, leaving me to go in alone.
I was dressed up as a witch, wearing a long pointy hat and a dress made of thin material that made me shiver as I entered the church yard. It was dark, the graveyard was to the side of me and the church spire soared up, large and foreboding.
I remember my heart hammering as I pushed open the heavy door and made my way into….a sparse room filled with a few balloons and some terrible music.
The party was awful. As most Halloween parties are to young kids, because at this time of year, we all want to be scared.
We all want that little dose of fear, it’s why the ghost train is so popular, why horror films are watched – we all want to be scared knowing that safety and daylight are just an arm’s reach away.
Halloween parties are perfect for raising this expectation, and then completely falling flat when all that’s offered is sweets and some awful music. But what can be the answer is a good ghost story. Done correctly, it can be brilliant, and here’s the thing, it doesn’t really matter if the story is any good or not, it’s all in the way it’s told.
That night, a few of us slipped out into the kitchen beside the hall, switched off the overhead lights and flicked on a torch. We all took turns telling ghost stories, and although I don’t remember the stories at all now, what I do remember is this: the delicious sense of fear creeping up my spine, the way my heart jumped up into my throat, the suspense and intrigue at what I was hearing, all the while safe in the knowledge that none of it was true.
Hearing those ghost stories fueled my love of reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz, made me a fan of horror films and now, helps me write thrillers.
Here’s the essentials of telling a great ghost story:
Be reluctant to tell the story, try to be persuaded into it, like, ‘I don’t know if I should tell you this…’ as if you’re a little ashamed of what you’re about to say but you feel you have to. And it’s better if you dress it up as a warning. ‘I don’t want it to happen to you…’ this way they’ll care about your story before you’ve even started.
Set it in reality
Base your story in this world, this time, as if it just happened recently and near to wherever you are when you’re telling it. This is not the time to talk about aliens or a parallel universe, you want to change just a few things. Keep everything else normal and grounded and don’t practice it too much beforehand. Just have the bear bones of it so when it comes to the telling, it sounds fresh and as if it’s not rehearsed. And, if you can, use the basis of a true story, it doesn’t have to be something that happened to you, but anything based in reality will give it authenticity.
Take it easy with the gore
Skip gruesome details, let the audience picture the gore – that’s much scarier than you describing blood and guts.
Take your time
The build up needs to be nice and slow. Take your time setting the scene, maybe stop once or twice because you ‘shouldn’t really be talking about it.’ Make them beg you to continue, and then let the story unfold so you really heighten up the suspense.
End with a cliffhanger
Do not end the ghost story by saying something along the lines of, ‘and it was never seen again,’ much better to end it with something like, ‘and it was only ever seen on certain nights, when people sat around and talked about it.’ Leaving them with a sense of foreboding will have a much greater impact.