5 Elements of a Good Ghost Story

5 Elements of a Good Ghost Story by Shelley Sturgeon offers five things to include when writing a ghost story if you want to keep your readers awake at night!

Do you like ghost stories? I do.

This weekend we watched The Secret of Crickley Hall. The mini-series was based on a book written by James Herbert and was adapted for television by the BBC. If you’re looking for a ghost story with a good storyline, you might enjoy this.

I have a big collection of ghost story DVDs that I dust off at this time of the year. It’s my way of celebrating Halloween now that I’m too old to go trick-or-treating (and have been for some time!)

Other favourites in my collection include:

But, I think my absolute favourite ghost story is The Changeling. This is an old movie, made in the late 70’s I think, starring George C. Scott. I just think it checks all the boxes for a good ghost story.

So What Are the Checkboxes for a Good Ghost Story?

A good ghost story has all or at least most of the following elements:

  1. There is a good setting.
    A creepy old house, an out-of-the-way location, isolation… The Sixth Sense might be an exception to this characteristic of a ghost story, but Crickley Hall, The Others, The Awakening, The Changeling, Insidious, and An American Haunting all check this box. And, the idea of spending a long snowy winter in a hotel in the middle of nowhere cut off from civilization as the family in The Shining did? That’s the stuff goose bumps are made of even before anything scary happens!
  2. There’s a good back story of some tragic event or unresolved issue.
    The story needs to be something interesting and at the same time something we can almost all understand to be a justifiable reason to come back and haunt the living–if, of course, that is an option! Some of these back stories would be good stand-alone stories without the ghost story factor.
  3. There is an absence of blood and gore.
    With the exception, perhaps, of The Shining and maybe The Sixth Sense I could say this of my favourites. A good ghost story relies on the story, not the special effects. We don’t need a “slice and dice” / “slash and dash” bloodfest to be creeped out by these stories.
  4. The suspense of the story builds slowly.
    A creepy location, a bump in the night, a tragic story, very subtle at first, parsed out in bite-sized pieces like a mystery.
  5. There’s a twist, a gotcha!
    I’m not sure that you could say that all of my favourites, or all good ghost stories for that matter, have a twist, but I think the best ones do. The Sixth Sense and The Others are classic examples of this. Readers/viewers love to be outsmarted but the gotcha needs to fit in logically with the storyline to work. The readers/viewers need to be able to review the lead up to that moment and realize that the clues were there all along.

So, if you want to write a good ghost story, be sure to include these factors.

What is your favourite ghost story – book or movie? Let me know in the comments. Maybe I can add it to my collection!

Photo courtesy of hyena reality | Freedigitalphotos.net

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