I’ve been thinking a lot about ghost stories recently. Part of that is due to the fact that we’re completely in the throes of October. Part of it is being prompted by the incredible story flowing out of @moby_dickhead’s Twitter feed. Part of it is being carried forward by still bouncing elements of the new version of It around in my head. And part of it is simply caused by the fact that I have a love of horror, even in it’s most basic elements.
But why ghost stories? Why do they stick with me, and why are they lingering? I think it’s ultimately really very basic, and I’m going to try and pick about what I think makes them work, and why they linger. At the core, a ghost story has three basic elements, and everything else is garnish and individualization added. Those three elements are a narrator, an audience, and a familiar, if slightly “off” scene. Let’s start with the first, and work our way through.
Obviously, every story needs a narrator. Someone needs to be telling the story. In many ghost stories, that narrator ends up being cast in the first-person, but that isn’t a requirement by any means. After all, a story like Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is a ghost story presented in the third person, and it’s an effective one. The narrator’s job is incredibly important, as they are the one to control every aspect of the story itself.
The one key thing that a good narrator needs, especially in a ghost story, is that they need to be believable. If the story doesn’t fit into the internal logic of the setting, it is going to fail, and a narrator that cannot be trusted is one that isn’t going to get any sort of result. Looking back at the Twitter thread I mentioned above, he has positioned himself as a sympathetic character. This isn’t to say whether the story is a real set of occurrences or just a carefully crafted tale delivered with a good sense of timing. With regards to the tale, you want to believe HIM. The narrator hasn’t given you reason to suspect his personal motives. Yes, there is often a “gotcha” moment contained in a ghost story, but the narrator controls that every step of the way. In fact, the most effective ghost stories don’t ever have a “gotcha”, but instead leave things somewhat open-ended, with a sense of foreboding carrying through. Think back to stories you may have heard around a campfire. Someone telling the story and peppering it with “boo” scares lessened the impact, and made the journey back to the sleeping bag an easy one. A trustworthy narrator not only pushed the sense of dread, but left the story in such a way that even assurances that it was “just a story” made the desire to hide under the pillow continue until morning’s light.
If the narrator of a ghost story cannot prove trustworthy, and connect to the audience, they’ve already lost at their intended goal. There are plenty of examples of narrators carrying their audience along for the ride, and even more where the narrative was poked full of so many holes, there was no way it was going to hold water, even for the most willing of audiences.
The narrator’s role, aside from telling the tale, is to get the audience to trust them. The audience also has an important job for any ghost story, and that is to be willing to set aside their disbelief. The audience has to be willing to go along for the ride. It’s an almost sacred contract between the two roles; the audience gives themselves over to the storyteller, who, in turn, promises not to betray that trust.
Again, think back to campfire stories. Even the most effective storyteller can have their narrative destroyed by an overly skeptical or questioning audience. This isn’t to say that the audience isn’t allowed to question things. Pieces of the tale that break through the illusion SHOULD be questioned, as they stick out too much to make sense. But, by accepting their role as audience, especially for a ghost story, the audience fully agrees to go along with what is presented, as long as it is presented with care.
Not every story will work for every audience. And they shouldn’t. That’s attempting to cast a net too broadly, and only serves to lessen the impact along the way. It is also not the audience’s job to make a story work for them. Speaking personally, I can watch the Saw movies because of the way I accept the narrative, both contained within the individual installments, and the overarching story that expands with each tale. The Hostel movies, in a similar vein, are not movies I can buy in to. I am not the audience for those films, and I can’t try to be. Does it mean that they aren’t effective for others? No. But they don’t work for me, and that highlights the role that the audience has to play. It isn’t even a situation where the narrator for one is more trustworthy or deceitful than the other; the audience just isn’t right for it.
As important as the narrator and the audience are, perhaps the most important aspect of a ghost story is the scene. The scene for a good ghost story needs to be something familiar; something that resonates with the audience, and provides hooks for the narrator. It also needs to be just “off” enough to provide a sense of discomfort. There should be a tickling at the “fight or flight” impulse, but not too much, as the narrator doesn’t want the audience to abandon the tale part-way through.
Thinking on It, part of the reason that the story resonates, at least for me (again, I’m the right audience for it) is that the setting is so familiar, which makes the elements that are set askew that much sharper. The Losers’ Club is something that hits close to home for a lot of people, because, while their roles as somewhat of social outcasts is important, their connection as friends going through the awkward teenage transition carries more weight. We’ve all been there. The updated version of the film brings the action into the late 80s, which provides a giant pile of cultural touchstones for people around my age. Trying to navigate through that part of life, while dealing with all of the fears (visceral or not) is something that so many of us can understand. Yes, the story makes those fears much more dangerous, providing that aspect of “off” that is needed to really bring the “ghost” into a ghost story, but the roots of it all are familiar.
The setting of a ghost story really works best when it’s rooted in a slightly darker version of our own reality, but a darker version that has clear rules, with a definite path to victory. The Upside Down of Stranger Things, the world presented by Edgar Allen Poe, and even your campfire stories, all of them are rooted in reality with a twist. When the twist gets too big, too out of control, the audience starts to step out, and the narrator has to grasp at straws to maintain the story. In skilled hands, it can shift a ghost story into a larger, broader horror narrative. In less-skilled hands, the threads all fall apart, and the end result is just a sloppy mess.
The Big Picture
Ghost stories are, at their root, more personal than other aspects of horror. They aren’t about creating a world full of evil; they are about presenting a lurking dread that may or may not be just around the corner, hiding in the shadows. Because of this personal nature, all three aspects listed above really have to be in cohesion with each other. The narrator and the audience can be on the same page, but if the setting is too unfamiliar, the story suffers for it. If the audience recognizes the setting but doesn’t trust the narrator, there’s nothing to be done to keep the story from being something that will be mocked. And if the narrator and the setting cannot get the audience on board, then there’s no point in spilling the words.
Part of the reason that ghost stories survive, and thrive, is because of that sense of the personal. When there is a personal investment, even subconsciously, it breathes a new life into a creation. It’s a sort of Frankentstein-esque scenario, where the story is given legs simply by connecting with it on that very personal level. The pacing and delivery of the tale, all in hands of the narrator, help give the story the means to try and find that personal connection, but, without it, it won’t survive. It will be chased out by the villagers, and burned away, never to be spoken of again.