by Jay Wilburn
I love ghost stories. I love them even though it has gotten weirdly hard to write any sort of haunting that makes the characters’ motivations and the necessities of the story work together. Everyone gets to the point early in the story where they realize: Yep, that’s where I would have drove away and never come back. I wouldn’t even have cleared my search history first. Would not have forwarded my mail. Screw my credit score. I’m out.
Most true story hauntings or ghost hunter shows have vague incidents even in the most dramatized of scenarios. There was a loud noise in the dark. I had this bad feeling. I’m sure I put my car keys over there, but now there they are. We got something that sounds like a voice on our recorder. I swear it wasn’t one of us. Every ghost story has the slow build of these type of “well, maybe …” incidents. It is that first moment of bodies floating or doors slamming themselves over and over where the reader thinks, “No logical reason to stay.” And that is usually way before the walls start bleeding or turning into giant, drywall body condoms for a floating skeleton.
The go to reasons for why the family can’t leave the haunted house is typically economic in nature. They sold everything they had and leaving this house with floating objects and dead murder aunts is that it would cost them everything. The deeper meta problem of this beyond whether it is enough for Dad to decide to leave the baby and the wife in the murder house is that the flaw in the logic of the economic trap is in the set-up itself. You have a family that was willing to throw everything away and take a leap of faith on this house. They gave up everything for this home and they were willing to do this before there were ghosts involved and the dream house became the nightmare hotel. Once the real danger starts, they are suddenly unwilling to take another leap and leave it all behind. When there is a greater motivation to bail, they suddenly switch their character pattern and stay “until it is too late” this time.
Stephen King decided to snow his characters in after laying on the economic motivations, alcoholism, fear of tearing the family apart, and so on. Even still, a few people read that story and think, no, I would have bailed sooner.
The problem is that you have to find a motivator to make the characters make the wrong choice. Sometimes it is not only the wrong choice, it is the glaringly obvious wrong choice. In an ordinary world where the readers live, we flee from danger that is much less obvious. We sometimes bail out of situations with solely emotional danger, but the ghost story often paints itself into the corner of forcing the characters to stay through what reads to the audience as a clear supernatural threat. That’s a tough sell.
It is easier to sell the idea of someone staying through physical threats. People stay in abusive relationships. People stay in dangerous houses and neighborhoods that they can’t afford to fix. People stay trapped in cycles of poverty or remain with family and the familiar instead of risking going out on their own to start over. They live in a city and keep a dead end job they hate because their ex lives there with their kids and that’s the only way to get visitation. If a ghost story can be tied somehow either directly or symbolically to one of these tragic yet frequent traps we find ourselves in often with life, the story can be gamed to feel more authentic even when the crazy stuff starts.
Every character reacts differently. If the characters in the story take different paths in response to the threats, that often rings true. I like stories where some characters flee and some stay. The ones leaving can be tied into the motivation for the ones that choose to stay. We do the opposite of others in a conflict out of reactionary emotions. We will stay with a responsibility when others abandon it out of a sense of obligation. If there is no one else to take care of a thing, it falls on us.
There has been a pushback in horror in recent years over the decades long tradition of moving a guy out of the city to Shit-Hits-The-Fan Town. Why did he go there? Why would he stay in this crazy place that feels like a bad choice going in? Sometimes these stories involved dealing with a death or an inheritance. Sometimes it was their hometown. I left old Shit-Hits-The-Fan Town back when I finished high school and the mill closed. It was a crappy place then. Now I come back to the old neighborhood and we got all these murder ghosts. I guess I better sleep in this old house another night.
One way around this problematic staple in ghost stories is to not have them go to the haunted house. Have the haunting begin or continue in a place where they are already established. It is more likely for us to stay in a place we have remembered as stable in the established past than the haunted hotel that had bleeding walls a week after we showed up. People understand lingering in a neighborhood that went bad gradually underneath you after years of being a positive place.
Find a way to make the crazy not so bat shit. Ghost stories tend to escalate. It is a pattern readers are used to and that’s why they get the early sense of “get out.” If the story takes a different track or rhythm that does not involve that deadly escalation, that can create something unexpected that the reader is willing to follow.
Connections between the worlds sells the story a bit more. There needs to be a reason these spirits and this person are connected. It needs to be more than “hey, look at this asshole moving into our murder house and moving all the furniture around.” It really should be more than someone being the chosen one. Even the fact that someone’s grandfather murdered the ghost, is a bit thin for some readers. If there can be a connection that goes to something that one or both sides of the divide want, that can create an interesting story with motivations that work. Cross purposes create a useful complexity that can add layers to the ghost story.
Ghost stories at their best are about unfinished business. Characters’ needs, wants, desires, and fears all have to be honored in a way that makes to the story work for the readers. Keeping the characters in the house just because that’s where you need them to be in order for the story to work isn’t going to produce the best or most creative story. Still use ghosts if you want, but find a way to flex the storytelling to make it something different which works for the audience.
Jay Wilburn is the author of the Dead Song Legend Series and coauthor of the Enemy Held Near as well as many other books and stories. He is also the host of The Matters of Faith Podcast on Project Entertainment Network. You can follow his writing and other activities at JayWilburn.com or have access to exclusive material through his page on Patreon.