Ghosts, as a monster of interest to horror fans, have fallen on hard times. Films, cartoons and comic books like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Ghostbusters play up the comedic angles of ethereal spirits. The Ring (2003) was a huge success as a horror film because its creator remembered something we have all forgotten after our endless white-sheet ghosts: ghosts must be scary.
The idea of the transparent version of a human soul, that looks and acts like its corporal self, dates back to ancient times. The Greeks peopled their underworld with such specters. Were they scary? Not really, nor were they meant to be. Such tales of Hades and Tartarus are more symbolic or mythological. They were never meant to be ghost stories per se.
The Ghost Story, as we know it, is a product of the 19th Century. Less than a century earlier, the Gothic writers like Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, produced thrills with ghosts that usually turned out to be badly explained frauds, a lost heir or trapped former wife. We know this formula best today from cartoons like Scooby Doo.
The Victorians who followed the Gothic writers, pioneers like Ainsworth, Le Fanu and, of course, Dickens, shaped the ghost story into a tale in which real supernatural events affect the lives of ordinary people. Magazines published ghost stories by the ream. Many of these stories have become the staid clichés, even in Dickens’ own time, as evidenced by Dickens’ complaints in “Christmas Ghosts” (1850).
The classics Victorian ghost stories are those that still create a delicious shiver of dread even today, despite being set in a world of lace collars, train stations and upstairs maids. A good ghost story touches that which is human in all of us. Turning the trick must be more than just “…and he disappeared.” Such clunkers were hoary with age in Roman times, when Pliny the Younger used it in his “Letter to Sula”.
So what makes a ghost scary? As with the film, The Ring, it always comes down to how well the artist can convey the sheer malevolence of the dead spirit. The ghost may have special powers or none at all, but it must have an unending hatred (Oscar Wilde’s “Canterville Ghost” begins nasty enough but ends up just another friend of the family. This is fine for a fantasy like Frank R. Stockton’s “The Great Staircase at Landover Hall”, where a man falls in love with a ghost but it is not a “ghost story”. ) Mere physical harm alone is not enough. We don’t recoil from a rattlesnake except out of physical fright. We know its poison and speed make it deadly but it doesn’t fill us with dread. There is something missing, an intelligence bent upon our destruction. The snake is operating on instinct alone, and would like to avoid you as much as you it.
The ghost story writer has a few tricks to show this all-important evil to the reader. I will outline these with examples from classic ghost stories.
Persistent. Scary ghosts never give up. You can’t run away. The ghost-like vampire in “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant follows its victim from house to house until he goes mad and tries to burn the house down, ghost and all. Like a guilty conscience, scary ghosts will follow you forever. The matronly ghost from Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” will always be waiting for some unsuspecting child to be left alone.
Unbendable. Scary ghost will never negotiate, or if they do, their price is too high to consider. How can you debate with the terror that dwells inside Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House? The forces loose in that house are massive like an earthquake. You might as well try and argue with a tornado or a volcano. The Robert Wise film version was scarier than the remake with Liam Neeson because the forces remain unseen and therefore negotiation is impossible.
Unstoppable. Scary ghosts have amazing power. They can wait for centuries. They can come back again and again. The ghostly ancestor who dwells in the “The Secret Chamber” by Margaret Oliphant, will have his way. His progeny can try to defy him but in the end, he will be victorious. It is this knowledge of invincibility that makes him so repulsive. Fickle lovers experience the determination of the dead in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Phantom Rickshaw” and Mary E. Braddon’s “The Cold Embrace”.
Insidious. Scary ghosts will use everything and anything to get at you. They can look like your mother or your daughter. The ghostly lothario, in “Eveline’s Visitant” by Mary E. Braddon, can’t win the husband’s ailing wife away in life but he knows he can in death. In many Japanese ghost stories, some of the very best, the ghosts may not appear harmful until aroused as with the specters in “Hoichi, the Earless” by Lafcadio Hearn. A wise man must tell Hoichi he is consorting with spirits, and that mystic symbols are needed to ward them off. Unfortunately the wiseman forgets Hoichi’s ears. The title tells what happens next.
Unfathomable. Lovecraft pointed out that the greatest fear is fear of the unknown. A sense of mystery is essential to a great ghost. If we understand all there is to know about a ghost it loses some of its creepiness. M. R. James was the master of suggesting ghosts, giving very little but producing such terrible specters. My favorite is the hairy ghost-creature from “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”. This apparition appears to whomever owns the scrapbook. Joseph Le Fanu does a similar thing in “The Watcher” and F. Marion Crawford in “The Upper Berth” where the ghost is felt before it is seen. If the writer does not suggest enough the effect may not work, as in the novel-length The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams.
A few more caveats:
1) Avoid logical explanations. The old Scooby Doo ending is acceptable, maybe, in some children’s publishing, but nowhere else. The writer might hint at why a ghost does what it does but to reveal it was “only Mr. Dingwall the Principal in a rubber mask” is like frosting a birthday cake with garden slugs. You build a beautiful, scary structure then ruin it.
2) Avoid humor. Ghost stories are somber things. Humorous ghost stories, such as those collected in Robertson Davies’ High Spirits are fun but not the same animal. Black humor stories such as the works of Robert Bloch can work in a horror tale but not a ghost story.
3) Avoid sentiment. Ghosts should not become likeable in the end. A good example of this is “How Fear Left the Long Gallery” by E. F. Benson. In the first part of the tale the twin ghosts are scary as hell but by making the ending warm-and-fuzzy the story loses momentum. Another one that creates no fire at all is Kipling’s “They” in which a man finds an old plantation where children’s spirits live. To make the film version scary the writers had to introduce a scary owl-like ghost. Kipling wrote the story after his daughter’s death, making it cathartic for himself rather than scary for us.
4) Avoid the soapbox. A political or sociological dissertation hidden in a ghost story was acceptable in Dickens’ time, but it’s death today. His story “The Last Words of the Old Year” is a rant disguised as a story and dull except to political science students. Ghosts have their own agenda. Stick with that. Your job is to scare people.
5) Avoid the cliché. This includes white figures with chains and a hundred other Dickenian clichés. Make your ghost memorable in some way. Don’t be afraid to make your ghosts modern too. The girl in The Ring used videotape. The spirits in Poltergeist came through the television. Ghosts are not always ancient creatures bound to the past. They can be a minute old or even from the future.
Originally published in WHISPERING SPIRITS