How do you write a great ghost story?

by Sharleen Jonsson

What kind of ghost story do you like? If you want to write a great ghost story, you need to understand the answer to this question.

I know what I like: stories that fall into a sub-genre of ghost fiction often referred to as psychological ghost stories. In this kind of fiction, emphasis is on the mental state of the victim rather than on the actions of a ghost. I’m led to wonder about the reliability and mental stability of the protagonist and I don’t really know if the ghost is “real.”

On the other hand, if it’s obvious from the beginning that the ghosts are real, I lose interest quickly. My interest flags because I don’t believe in ghosts. At least, I don’t think I do. Still…

It’s in this ellipsis that I begin to doubt. I worry. My guts tense and my breath turns shallow. And I’m drawn, gripped with dread, into the story, where I will stay until the end.

Last night, I began to watch a horror movie, Insidious. Within the first few minutes, the overtones of horror were so heavy-handed and cartoonish, I turned it off. Maybe it would have been a good flick but I figured that, in order to enter into the world of that story, I’d have to suspend a lot of disbelief. I prefer, instead, a movie like The Sixth Sense, in which the world, if tragically violent, still operates as the world we expect and it’s only gradually that viewers are led to consider that other forces may be at work.

Think about what you like to read and why you like it. Which ghost movies do you love to watch again and again even though you know the end? I’ve watch Sixth Sense three times, just to admire how the screenwriter builds the story.

For more on ghost stories, see my post What Makes a Ghost Story a Great Read?

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