Last year for Halloween I wrote an essay about the qualities inherent in a good ghost story. I'm very pleased with and proud of that piece, and as I've been so busy getting ready for this year's October Season, I thought I might share it again with you in the (I suppose selfish) spirit of saving time and energy. I hope regular readers won't mind a repeat, and I welcome all new visitors with what I hope to be some enlightening perspectives!

What makes a ghost story?

Many storytelling festivals, including the Bay Area Storytelling Festival in Richmond, CA, the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN and our own local Storytelling By The Sea Festival in Trinidad have special programs dedicated to the telling of ghost stories; they're often some of the most popular events of each festival, as audiences seem to love a good, scary tale (something I could have easily told them if asked.)

But …not every storyteller is comfortable with telling ghostly tales. Some don't care for them or have no interest in them; some simply don't understand them. So in the past some of the tellers at Storytelling By The Sea have fallen back on stories such as, “This is what happened one day when I was lost at an amusement park; it was sooo scary…” In other words, personal reminiscence that contained fearful moments.

But these were not ghost stories, and audiences reacted with displeasure; they wanted genuine tales of spectral terror, haunted castles, and dreadful apparitions. Consequently, when I began hosting the “Mostly Ghostly” segment of the Festival Friday evenings, I was asked to write a series of guidelines for those participating, to make certain everyone knew what was expected.

This is what I wrote:

First and foremost, a ghost story must have a narrative; a beginning, middle and end. Some great and unnatural event must take place and be resolved, either happily or not.

A ghost story must have a strange and unearthly event, and someone that recognizes that what is happening is not part of the normal world of everyday existence. Forces of nature must surround and possibly overwhelm the protagonist, either in a threatening or fantastic manner.

A ghost story need not have a supernatural element; witness PSYCHO or the tale of the Hook prowling Lover's Lane, or the madman dressed as Santa Claus terrifying a murderess in TALES FROM THE CRYPT. But even if the situation is entirely of this plane of existence, the situation must be out of the ordinary and weird.

A ghost story need not be scary; indeed, there are many famous ghost stories that are quite funny, as witness “The Canterville Ghost”, Jerome K. Jerome's “Told After Supper”, and the macabre humor of Edward Gorey. But again, the humor must arise out of the strange and unusual.

It's the macabre atmosphere, either amusing or horrifying, that makes a good ghost story, not simply a memory about fear.

This year, when I was invited back to perform at the 2013 Festival and again host “Mostly Ghostly”, I was asked to again write a short paragraph or two as a guideline for the other tellers. I never did, because I thought the performers this year were well-versed in what I wrote above.

But I did give it a great deal more thought.

What makes a good ghost story?

Ask somebody for the first item that would insure a successful ghostly tale, and many are certain to answer, “a ghost”. And that's a fine start; certainly if a tale has a ghost in it, it's a ghost story. How could it be not?


Let's look at a very famous writer of ghost stories and the Dark Fantastic. He worked some years ago, so we're not discussing Mr. King or Mr. Bradbury or Mr. Straub; we're going back further than Mr. Serling or Blackwood or Poe or Lovecraft. We're speaking of that wonderful ghost story author William Shakespeare.

Mr. Shakespeare wrote quite frequently of supernatural occurrences, both in his comedies (“A Midsummer Nights Dream”) and tragedies (“Macbeth”). One reason he used ghosts both literatl and metaphorical was that at that time, belief in the supernatural phenomenon was very common, and ghosts could be presented in a piece of writing without there being a terribly great need for suspension of disbelief. Ghosts were accepted and believed, as simply as that.

Let's look at three of his plays that feature ghosts: the aforementioned “Macbeth”, “Julius Caesar” (which many forget contains a spectre) and perhaps the most famous piece of literature to feature a ghost ever written, “Hamlet”. And let's ask ourselves whether these are actual ghost stories, using the criteria I've outlined above.

I don't think we'll have any quarrel about “Macbeth”; witches in a blasted heath prophesizing death and disaster, bloody accusing spectres at a banquet, murder and manipulation, and a shrieking madwomen walking the halls of her castle home with blood on her hands and her conscience.

I've often referred to “Macbeth” and Shakespeare's “The Shining”, and I believe that description wholeheartedly. It is a big, bloody, grand macabre work, terrible and terrifying; to quote the author, it is “supped full with horrors”, and truly a sublime landmark in the Dark Fantastic. Yes, “Macbeth” is most certainly an ideal example of a ghost story.

What of “Julius Caesar”? For most of the work it is a political parable of ambition, guilt and betrayal. Yet late in the play Brutus awakens in the middle of the night to find the ghost of Caesar standing in his room. (Hence the famous expression, “Great Caesar's Ghost!”, beloved by Perry White of “Superman”.) The spectre identifies himself as “thy evil spirit”, and foreshadows doom in the coming battle with the opposing armies.

Here is one of the great themes of the ghost story: guilt, and a foreshadowing of death. The ghost is almost the personification of Brutus's tormented conscience. So with these classic themes in play, obviously “Julius Caesar” is a ghost story, correct?

I would disagree. This one instance is the sole supernatural event in the play; indeed, it's suggested by Shakespeare that the encounter may be simply a nightmare. The rest of the play deals with real-world issues of power and corruption. No, I would place this work outside the realm of a ghost story; say instead that it's a story that contains a ghost, if only a symbolic one.

Now, what of “Hamlet”? This also is a play that takes place in the ‘natural' world, and concerns familial betrayal and corruption. Yet, from the very beginning of the play, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears. Others have seen him, so he is the genuine article haunting the battlements. When Hamlet finally encounters him it is after much discussion and foreshadowing, a wonderful build-up worthy of any modern tale of fear. And when the Father reveals the terrible crime of Hamlet's Uncle and Mother, the entire condition of all the participants is turned upside-down.

Inexorably blood leads to blood and madness, vengeance and rage. The tragedy is set in motion from the ghost's arrival, and cannot be deterred. In a very literal sense, the castle that Hamlet now inhabits is a haunted house, and the occupants the Living Dead. The fact that the haunting concerns a crime of the past is again in the classic tradition of “Ghost Story”, “The Shining”, “The Turn Of The Screw”, “Bluebeard”, “Hell House”, and other genre landmarks. "Hamlet" fits in quite comfortably, for the atmosphere is one of dread and foreboding, as befitting my second point:

A ghost story must have a strange and unearthly event, and someone that recognizes that what is happening is not part of the normal world of everyday existence. Forces of nature must surround and possibly overwhelm the protagonist, either in a threatening or fantastic manner.

I would argue that “Hamlet” is more than simply a ghost story; it is in many ways the quintessential ghost story, an could be comfortably condensed and told around any campfire to produce a sense of shivery, subdued horror. (And while the ghost is offstage for much of the proceedings – returning late in the play to chastise Hamlet for not focusing his vengeance on the one truly deserving, his Uncle – the ghost's presence is keenly felt throughout everything that occurs, much as Dracula hovers over the events of the novel while remaining offstage. It is a great effect, and Shakespeare pulls it off as skillfully as Mr. Stoker does.)

(And I want to point out that the two most famous moments of “Hamlet” concern ghostly doings; the famous “To be or not to be…” speech is rife with unease at what exactly awaits the soul after death: peace, or further nightmares from which none can awaken. And“Alas, poor Yorick…” treatises what is left behind in memory of those gone from this plane; it takes place, appropriately enough, in a graveyard.)

What make a good ghost story?

I think, if you'll look at my third point above, you'll agree that the term ghost story can be used very liberally. To wit:

A ghost story need not have a supernatural element; witness PSYCHO or the tale of the Hook prowling Lover's Lane, or the madman dressed as Santa Claus terrifying a murderess in TALES FROM THE CRYPT. But even if the situation is entirely of this plane of existence, the situation must be out of the ordinary and weird.

I think we'll all agree that what we're really discussing here when we use the term ‘ghost story' is ‘horror story', ‘weird fiction', or ‘fantastique'. We call tales of Horror and the Dark Fantastic ‘ghost stories” as a kind of shorthand simply to categorize.

Yet within the field of Horror and Dark Fantasy, there is a quantitive difference between a 'horror story' and a 'ghost story'. As I stated above, It's the macabre atmosphere, either amusing or horrifying, that makes a good ghost story…

Let's play a game. Let's not look at literary works of fiction; let's take some classic contemporary Horror films and see if they pass the test for a good ghost story.

Obviously, such movies as THE HAUNTING, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE UNINVITED, THE INNOCENTS, THE SHINING, GHOST STORY, POLTERGEIST, THE CHANGELING, INSIDIOUS, THE SIXTH SENSE and others constitute the traditional definition of ghost stories; they take place in haunted houses and concern supernatural events. Let's move beyond these obvious ones and look at a few others.

Let's compare the classic George Romero films NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its follow-up DAWN OF THE DEAD. I would argue yes, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD qualifies as a ghost story; the tale begins in a graveyard with the stumbling corpse, moves to an isolated farmhouse, and takes place in one long twelve-hour period. Filmed in black & white, the atmosphere is thick with dread, violence and half-glimpsed phantoms. The movie harkens back to the classic Universal films in term of image, but the visceral impact is quite modern and jarring.

By contrast, DAWN OF THE DEAD takes place in a shopping mall, brightly lit and filled with chrome and plastic structures. There are larger set pieces and an expanded sense of narrative, encompassing the entire country, if not the world. The tone is also sharper, satirical and garish, not reflecting the classic mold that NIGHT still adheres to. While I consider the movie a landmark and a personal favorite, I wouldn't call this a ghost story; rather, it's a grand Horror tale spun on a very large canvas.

How about THE EXORCIST? The slow buildup in daylight, the terrors revealed one by one that something is terribly wrong, the drawing in of the outside participants, especially Father Karras, haunted by his own mother's passing, and growing isolation of the back bedroom as the horrible events progress, culminating in a thunder-filled struggle against an embodiment of evil that echoes the conclusion of THE INNOCENTS. Yes, I believe this fits neatly into the niche we've been discussing.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE? As I stated above, like PSYCHO, a ghost story needn't have a supernatural element, and many authors have made use of the isolated backwoods of rural America to create an atmosphere of dread, which the film has in abundance. But I'm going to come down on the “no” side this time; like DAWN OF THE DEAD, this is a noisy, visceral film more garish than ghostly.

Since it's been mentioned twice, what about PSYCHO? I think yes, absolutely. The Bates Motel is a perfect old, dark house filled with a terrible past, and if any individual is haunted, it would be Norman Bates. Pity those who cross his doorstep…

While we're on the subject of Mr. Hitchcock, what of THE BIRDS? Hmmmm…very close. The town of Bodega Bay seems to possess secrets under its sunny façade, and the arrival of Melanie Daniels brings the tensions simmering to the surface. The birds become a supernatural force of nature as terrible as any avenging spirit, and the final claustrophobic stand inside the lonely, besieged farmhouse is affectively Gothic in nature.

I'd definitely consider Daphne du Maurier's novella a ghost story; the original story concentrated on the farm family living under the attacks. The film made some specific changes to the story, opening it up and adding characters. I'm on the fence with this one; I'll let you decide for yourselves.

While we're discussing atmosphere, I definitely consider the Universal Classics firmly in the ghost story tradition, from their sterling black & white photography to the thick, fog-filled ambience. FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE WOLF MAN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN all fit comfortably on the shelf; the only one I wouldn't place there is THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, which is much-more monster-centered.

Quickly now:

THE EVIL DEAD. No. Too frantic and frenetic, albeit stylish.

SAW. Perhaps you could argue the original; I wouldn't. Definitely not the sequels.

JAWS. No. See THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON above. A glorious Adventure/Horror/Monster film.


CAT PEOPLE. The original, yes. In fact, all the Val Lewton films fit comfortably.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Absolutely. A perfect campfire tale as well.

NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. I think so. Mr. Kruger as the Boogeyman haunting the dreams of others; yes.

Speaking of the Boogeyman: HALLOWEEN. The original, yes.

FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH. Hmmmmm again…yes. But a poorly told one.

ANGEL HEART. Very much so.

SCREAM: Certainly, although not one of my favorites.

28 DAYS LATER. No. More along the lines of DAWN OF THE DEAD.

PAN'S LABRYNTH. One of the few modern films of the Dark Fantastic simply too large to fit into any category. I'd say no, although it's still a masterpiece.

These are ones that came to me with a little thought and a glance around the reference books on the shelves in my crypt. You are welcome to agree or disagree; your own lists may vary.

What makes a good ghost story?

Author Orson Scott Card ventured one working definition in a book review of ghostly tales; ironically, they were nor meant for Halloween, but for Christmas (which is not so unusual; after all, Christmas is the traditional time for ghostly tales, he repeats for what seems like the thousandth time) but the criteria remains:

“…(T)elling ghost stories as a natural thing to do on Christmas Eve wasn't part of my family's Christmas traditions. And I, for one, am sorry the custom has been lost. Because ghost stories, though scary, have an aura of mystery and awe completely lacking in the Halloween horror that has supplanted them. The ghost story always contains the promise that if you can only find out why the ghost appears, its purpose can be satisfied, the haunting ended. ” (Italics mine.)

Quite true. The theme of solving the mystery of the haunting is an old and well-worn path, explored by some of the finest authors: both Richard Matheson's “Hell House” and Shirley Jackson's “The Haunting of Hill House” concern psychic investigators trying to determine the veracity of their respective dwellings; Peter Straub's “Ghost Story” tells of a gathering of old men trying to come to terms with a terrible secret from the past; Steven King's “Bag of Bones” explores the same territory. The most famous of all ghostly tales, “The Turn of the Screw”, is almost the template for such a tale, and many agree it is the finest ever put to paper. (More on this in a moment.) Of my own tales, “The Ghost's Hand”, of a murdered woman haunting an estate, also follows in this vein; the local minister takes it upon himself to bring her murderer to justice and bring her peace from her nightly wanderings.

This isn't to say that all ghost stories have the happy endings of a haunting solved and a ghost freed from its torment; too many times, in fact, humanity meddling with supernatural affairs only seem to make things worse; consider again “The Haunting of Hill House”, where Eleanor Vance is drawn into a rapport with whatever inhabits the halls that she is called to remain behind with them when the others escape. “Hell House” claims a goodly body count before its spectres are exorcised, as do the creatures terrorizing Mr. Straub's Milburn, NY.

And even with lighter fare, as in Noel Coward's supernatural romantic triangle of “Blithe Spirit”, it doesn't pay to underestimate the possessive nature and determination of the Dead once their minds are made. Indeed, Hamlet himself goes against his spectral father's wishes, and the old man's spirit must attend his son again to make certain he remains focused on his task; still and all, in the end, Hamlet lies dead, along with the rest of his family, proving that undertaking the task of settling a restless soul may be hazardous to everyone's health.

The outcome of a ghostly tale sometimes falls into a third realm; that of the draw, where humanity and the spirit world come to a mutual cessation of tensions, learning to live comfortably on the fringes of each other's kingdoms. Perhaps the best example of this is THE SIXTH SENSE. Yes, Mr. Willis discovers a terrible secret affecting his life and his happiness, and young Mr. Osment is still troubled by the unsleeping Dead, but he has come to see beyond the fear generated by their presence, and actually becomes a champion for their own gladness.

The spirit world and that of man can co-exist peacefully, even benefiting the other. One of the finest ghostly tales is a short story titled “Dust Motes” by my human companion, award-winning author P. D. Cacek, featured in "The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror: Eleventh Annual Collection". A woman suffering from cancer discovers that, due to her illness and the close proximity of her own passing, she has the ability to see ghosts all around her. Conversing with a sympathetic spectre, she believes that she's been sent ot hear the final confessions of the spirits to help them move on into the next life. When her cancer begins to go into remission, her abilities begin to fade, and she frantically tries to counsel as many of the Dead as she can before she loses her talents completely.

My simple synopsis can't begin to approach the poignancy of this acclaimed story, one of the authors very best. I consider it the finest TWILIGHT ZONE episode never filmed. Even moreso, it examines the very thin divide between life and death, and the myriad levels in between. It's funny and heartbreaking, and very, very human, and perhaps that's the greatest accomplishment of ghost story: it gives a physicality to that which has none, and puts a human face on something beyond human understanding. In “Dust Motes”, the spirit world is filled with diversity, humor and regret – much like the world that precedes it.

What makes a good ghost story?

On Tuesday evening, as I write this, the Eureka branch of the Humboldt County Library began it's annual Halloween film series for October. This year they're doing a series of especially strong selections, all from England . They led off the weekly viewings with the classic movie THE INNOCENTS.

Based on “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, the story has been hailed as the greatest ghost story ever written. The film is absolutely faithful to the tale, and is a terrifying, exceptional production. It was directed by Jack Clayton, who had previously directed the Academy Award-nominee ROOM AT THE TOP; he would later go on to helm the adaptation of Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. The screenplay was written by William Archibald (from his play adaptation of the novella) and Truman Capote, and it starred actress Deborah Kerr in what she considered her best role.

I don't want to spoil too much of the story; part of the terror in both the film and the novella is how it slowly unfolds in an inexorable, unremitting line from light to darkness. If you haven't seen the movie or read the story, you might want to skip the rest of this essay and return to it after your viewing; I guarantee you it will be worth the wait; It's an extraordinary film, truly deserving of its classic status, and you won't regret seeking it out.

The story concerns a young governess, hired to care for two orphaned children by their emotionally distant uncle. The children, Miles and Flora, are precocious and worldly beyond their young years, charming and sweet, but unusually close, with whispered secrets. Slowly, the governess comes to believe that the children are possessed by the spirits of the dead former groundskeeper and his lover their former governess.

But are they? The governess, Miss Giddens, is a nervous, unsettled individual; the daughter of a minister who seems to possess a rich and dark imagination. It's suggested she's repressed, both emotionally and sexually, and her suspicions about the children may simply be her own neurosis.

That's the great strength of the tale; everything is underplayed and subtle; nothing is overt. Viewed one way the actions of the principals are completely innocent, as the film's title suggests. Viewed slightly askew, everything is sinister. Miles plays roughly with Miss Giddens and speaks almost flirtatiously, at one point kissing her directly on the lips. For her part Miss Giddens seems preoccupied with the uncle, and her own desires seem to emerge in her moaning, restless sleep. When she turns her attentions to the children's unnatural desires, she may simply be projecting her own.

Seen through this dark reflection, it doesn't really matter if the ghost are real or not; the house that these people live in is quite haunted, and the individuals carry their own ghosts within them, comprised of equal parts guilt, fear and shame. The groundskeeper and the former governess carried on a torrid and explicit affair (there is a marvelous line in both the novel and the film: “ Rooms , used by daylight as though they were dark woods.” ) that may have included the children. Miss Giddens concern is stiflingly self-righteous as well; in discussion her plans for exorcism, she explains, “My father taught me to love people and to help them; help them even if they refuse my help, even if it hurt them sometimes.” In many ways she's as damaged as the children she is trying to save.

Stephen King, when asked about his book “The Shining” as to whether the ghosts are real or a product of Jack Torrance's madness, replied, “People ask if the book is a ghost story or is it just in the guy's mind. Of course it's a ghost story, because Jack Torrance himself is a haunted house. He's haunted by his father…”

This applies equally and perfectly to THE INNOCENTS, and “The Turn of the Screw”. Seen in that light, the question of whether the spectres truly exist becomes moot.

What makes a good ghost story?

The knowledge that humanity is its own ghost story; that the billions of people walking the earth are haunted houses simply because each contains a ghost waiting to emerge; that everyone has a past they carry with them ever-present that shapes their futures; that guilt and pain can do as much damage as any marauding revenant.

Hamlet, the lead character in the quintessential ghostly tale, phrases it better than I ever could: “ There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And in his “A Winter's Tale”, the tale in question is revealed: "A sad tale's best for winter: I have one / Of sprites and goblins."

Peter Straub's "Ghost Story": begins with a quote from R, D. Jameson: “Ghosts are always hungry.” And the book's opening is iconic:

“What was the worst thing you've ever done?

I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me…the most dreadful thing…”

All this, and more, makes a ghost story.




© 2012 Patient Creatures Ltd.