What Makes a Good Ghost Story?
By Kathryn Pritchett
October 30, 2020

To wrap up our month of “Things That Go Bump in the Night” we explore the bones of What Makes a Good Ghost Story. Whether you prefer your specters spooky or sweet, here are some thoughts on apparitions that enlighten, entertain and even alarm. Happy Halloween!

Ana looks for character arcs in both the living and the dead.

For someone who believes in ghosts, I don’t seek out a lot of ghost stories. My favorite recent ghost story is Lincoln in the Bardo. (Thanks, Kathryn, for letting me read your copy!)

What makes Lincoln a great, not just a good ghost story? Both the living Lincoln and the ghosts find some satisfaction, some resolution at the end. A ghost gets to move forward. So it’s usually ghost story endings–not just the delicious chills that punctuate the stories–that resonate with me.

ALSO…I’m drawn to stories with noble characters–characters with high moral principles and ideals–and Lincoln in the Bardo satisfies me there.

Linda prefers treats over tricks.

Ghosts make a good ghost story? I suppose the fun of a ghost story is in the unknown or unexpected. Ghosts can’t be seen and their actions are unpredictable. That can be scary. I’m not much of a ghost story reader. In fact, when I searched the “ghost stories” list on Goodreads, I hadn’t read any of the books on the list. Heard of a couple, read none. I don’t like to be scared. The last time I was scared, I was reading Firestarter by Stephen King and deeply engrossed in the book. My husband came in and yelled, “Boo!” I jumped, my heart beat faster, and I even peed a little. I don’t like to be scared. So, if I had to pick a ghost story, it would have to be something like The Little Ghost Who Didn’t Like to be Scary.
C.V. Lee tells us a ghost story from her own childhood.

I never enjoyed reading or listening to ghost stories other than Casper, the friendly ghost. Maybe that’s because my family lived our own ghost story.

When I was just a toddler, my parents built a home in the state of Washington, just east of Seattle. It was a two-story house with cathedral ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows in the entry. Oh, did I mention we lived in the woods? Or that while the house was under construction, the architect, a family friend, was killed in a hunting accident.

C.V.’s spooky (but elegant) childhood home

Our house was always spooky. Walking past those windows with the lights on inside, and the darkness outside, made you feel completely exposed and fearful that someone was outside watching. But it was the oddities of slamming doors in the basement when we all sat around the dinner table at night that made us jumpy, wondering what else or who else inhabited our home.

I still recall that eerie feeling, when you couldn’t put it off any longer, of entering the domain of that other being. I’d race down the stairs and into my bedroom as fast as I could, only feeling safe once I switched the light on and closed the door.

The scary times only got worse for me after my father installed fluorescent lights in the basement. When turned on, they would interfere with the radio; a horrible crackling noise.

Sometimes I would find myself home alone at night, always preferring to remain upstairs. But then the radio would crackle. Getting up from my cozy chair, I would walk around the hall and peer down into the basement to check if the lights had been turned on. Not only were the lights not on, the radio would return to broadcasting normally, only to crackle again when I retreated to the living room.  It did this frequently when I was alone, but oddly never when other members of the household were with me.

When we lived in the house in the woods, no one verbalized their ghost suspicions. But once we moved, everyone confessed the odd happenings. I wonder if the families who have lived there since have felt that chill running down their spine. Or did the ghost move on when we did?

Katie wants plenty of spine-tingling details.

In my opinion, a good ghost story requires atmosphere. As a kid, there was always that huddled slumber party tradition, where all the kids, hopped up on pizza and chips, would sit in a lazy circle and try to scare each other with stories. The best ones were when we were all tired, only half-listening, and some of us were able to churn out dark-and-stormy-nights-stuck-on-a-roadside-in-the-rain tales. I never cared if it was a dead boyfriend scratching away on the roof of the car, or a hook hand gripping the tail pipe, as the heroine sped away to safety, but I delighted in the rain, the dark, the fog, and the eerie details that kept our belief suspended.
As for me, Kathryn, I like a ghost story that haunts me as well as the protagonist.

A good ghost story shows there’s more to this world than meets the eye. Take “A Christmas Carol.” Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three specters—four, if you count his deceased partner Jacob Marley—who show him his past, present and future—all chilling visions in their own way. Seeing them allows Scrooge to reimagine his life and act accordingly. In turn, we are given a glimpse into a different Scrooge than the one who dealt so heartlessly with his clerk Bob Cratchit (aka Tiny Tim’s father). After reading about Scrooge’s ghostly visitations, we also root for his transformation.

University College London professor John Mullan notes that Charles Dickens was “hugely influential” in establishing the ghost story genre. “Not that Dickens exactly believed in ghosts—but he was intrigued by our belief in them.”

Perhaps we choose to believe in visitations from the dead because we secretly hope they’ll lead us to our best lives.

Kathryn Pritchett

Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

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