Fear is one of the hardest reactions to provoke in writing. Just flip through the pages of any ghost story anthology; how many of them are genuinely scary? It takes more than tortured groans, rattling chains, and a splattering of gore; anyone can do that. But the art of raising goose bumps? That is an elusive art indeed. If you can write a scary ghost story, you can write anything. Are you ready to inspire nightmares? Then follow me…
Fear of the Unknown
People don’t fear death. No one’s afraid of ghosts. Monsters, murderers, darkness—none of the horror staples are really terrifying. If you rely on your audience being scared simply because your story includes any of the above, you’re doomed to fail. Instead, you must understand where terror truly lies.
Everyone fears the unknown.
People don’t know what comes after death, so they get scared. They don’t know what’s making that noise in the other room, so they call it a ghost and get scared. Darkness could be hiding anything—what exactly, we don’t know—so we get scared.
We fear what we can’t understand. That’s why a touch on your shoulder when you’re all alone is so frightening: it should be impossible. The best ghost stories take full advantage of this. You won’t see the ghost; you’ll only hear it, smell it, feel it. A ghost is like the wind; you see a curtain flutter, and the question remains in your mind, what is it?
When writing your ghost story, don’t be afraid of withholding information. Your readers, by the very act of reading, have activated their imaginations. Use this against them! Don’t bog them down with long descriptions of a gruesome specter; instead, use simple words to sketch a vague impression. Your readers will imagine the rest, filling in the gaps with whatever scares them most.
Another way you can introduce an element of the unknown is to limit how often you use trope words. If you’re constantly mentioning ghosts or vampires, then the reader knows exactly what they’re up against. By not attaching a label to your entity, you produce doubt. Doubt makes people uncomfortable, which makes them easier to scare.
Examples of the Unknown
The reader is never given a good idea of what the babysitter actually is. Everything is described through the limited viewpoint of a boy who refuses to look at it.
Whether it’s angry footsteps from the attic or desperate scratching at the bedroom door, our minds are left to wonder what could be making those noises.
We hear the screams, but we don’t know what’s happening to Billy on the other side of the door. Our imaginations fill in the details.
Something Is Not Right
Why is it that one smile can put you at ease, while another makes you want to get out of the room as quickly as possible? Does it reveal just a few too many teeth? Are the eyes above it just a little bit soulless? Is the accompanying laughter a tad too enthusiastic?
We may not be able to tell what, but something is…off. Something friendly has been distorted. You were climbing a familiar staircase, and the last step was missing. You were listening to a pleasant tune, but that one note—was it off-key? What’s wrong with this picture?
This is a natural extension of our fear of the unknown. A defense mechanism. It tips us off that someone around us bears a sickness that we don’t want to catch, that someone is pretending to be something they’re not. In the realm of robotics and computer graphics, it is called the uncanny valley. When something comes so close to being real, but falls short in some subtle way. This is why mannequins, dolls, and clowns are common phobias.
So how can you leverage this in your ghost story? There’s the obvious: characters with slightly deformed features or unnatural movements. Houses with strange angles. Unexpected behavior works as well.
Then there’s the more subtle: mentioning a detail that would be innocuous anywhere else, but in this particular scenario is out of place. There’s nothing quite like a child’s laughter—especially coming from your basement at 3 in the morning. Is it really a child? Or something like a child?
You can also work it into your writing style. Phrase something in an odd way. Intentionally break the rules of grammar. Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll come across as illiterate instead of terrifying.
Examples of the Uncanny
When the wife looks into the mirror, she sees nothing inherently scary. The window behind her and distant trees. They even behave as such objects should: the curtains move with a draft, the trees sway in the wind. But still the sight is unnatural. The movements aren’t as fluid as they should be, and there’s a sense that the curtains and the trees are intelligent, sinister entities.
Of course an old clown figurine with a cracked face and jerky motions is a textbook example of the uncanny valley. But the narrator’s thoughts, spiraling from cohesive units to a continuous string of run-on phrases, are what really lend an air of wrongness.
Security guards are supposed to be brave individuals with level heads on their shoulders. So when one appears in a dark room to confront an intruder, and instead starts crying, you know something is wrong even though you have no idea what.
What are the most iconic ghosts you can think of? How are they described? I’ll bet the words that just drifted through your mind weren’t college-level terms like ectoplasmic, ominous, or stygian. Rather, you probably imagined something white, something tall, a shadow.
You reached for simple terms that your brain could instantly understand.
Amateur writers often gravitate toward heavy descriptions. This is likely the result of high-school English teachers encouraging them to be more creative and expand their vocabulary. But let me remind you of a very important fact: you aren’t writing a ghost story to impress your high-school English teacher. You’re not trying to prove how clever you are.
You’re trying to scare people.
At best, advanced or overly descriptive words are harder to process. At worst, they lead to overwriting and the dreaded pit of silliness.
Simple words, on the other hand, are subtle. They conjure clear sensations in our minds, sensations that we didn’t expect. If you’ve set up your scene properly, everyday words that are innocent by themselves will take on new, sinister meanings.
If you have trouble with this, Lean on the basic structure of the English sentence: subject, verb, object.
He opened the door. The room was dark. He stepped inside. Something dripped on his shoulder. He looked up.
If you need something more, pick a single adjective and apply it to either the subject or the object. Don’t apply anything to the verb; it should stand on its own. If it doesn’t, you either used the wrong verb, or the preceding sentences didn’t set up the right context.
Examples of Subtlety
The description of the haunting’s source—the bathroom—is spare. White walls, white floors, white sinks, white toilet splashed with red. No words are spent describing how clean everything is. Blood is never mentioned. The apparition itself gets hardly any more: a still knot of flesh, a writhing twist, tiny hands reaching up. Apart from the potentially gruesome “flesh”, none of those words are frightening by themselves. But together in context? Terrifying.
Melissa touches the ghost several times, but its texture is never described with overwrought words like sticky or clammy. Such words carry sinister weight and feel at home in the horror genre, but they tell the reader to be afraid rather than make them feel afraid. Instead, the ghost that Melissa touches is smooth, cold, and wet.
The narrator dances around the discovery of the bones hanging over the bed. For a dreadful while the reader is told only that the thing hanging from the rafters is white. The characters’ reactions are enough to make that sparse description hideous in the reader’s mind.
Do You Feel Afraid?
Emotion is vital in any form of literature, but especially ghost stories. Remember, the end goal is to make your reader feel what the protagonist is feeling: pure, unbridled terror.
Simply telling the reader that your character is scared isn’t enough. You’ve heard the adage “show, don’t tell.” When writing about emotions, try forbidding yourself from using words like:
Instead, show the character’s fear by writing what their body is doing. Write exactly what they’re hearing or smelling, even if it’s only in their head.
But the protagonist is only half of the emotional equation. The other half is the ghost. The scariest ghosts always project some kid of emotion. It doesn’t matter what that emotion is as long as it’s dangerous:
A dangerous emotion doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative one. It could be a positive thing taken in a bad direction. Dysfunctional love, overzealous affection—as long as the ghost’s emotions project some kind of threat, you have the makings a terrifying specter.
Fear isn’t the only emotion you can use when writing a ghost story. Try enhancing the terror with sadness, depression, or anger. Positive emotions can have a tremendous impact as well. Offer a glimmer of hope, then replace it with something awful. The contrast can be unnerving.
Examples of Emotion
The protagonist suffers a variety of emotions. Grief over his parents’ death. Guilt over taking their place in the house. Fear that they might still be there, and that he might become like them.
His fear is made apparent throughout the story by his actions. His quick retreat beneath the bed sheets; his deliberate ignorance of strange sights; his oscilation between hesitation and desperation as he traverses the house at night.
This description of the narrator’s dread is an excellent example of the “show, don’t tell” rule:
I wrapped the blankets tighter around me and let out a sick whimper. My chest was tight, my stomach rotten. I would not look. No matter how close those shuffling footsteps came, I would not look. I would not, I would…not…
The ghost in this story is not an angry or hateful spirit. It’s playful, and ruining the narrator’s life is just its way of having fun. The narrator’s fear is communicated through shaking hands, clenched fists, hard swallowing, and a pounding heart.
A Dreadful Descent
Fear must be built up gradually. Think of it like you’re taking the reader on a journey from the safety of their world to the nightmare of yours. Like any journey, it’s a transition from point A to point B. If you skip that transition by presenting your scariest scene right up front, it won’t have any effect. The audience is still comfortably seated at point A: a soft armchair by a warm fire.
That’s not to say you can never start with a spooky scene—in fact, it’s a good way to catch the audience’s interest and entice them to keep reading. Just make sure you save the best for last. Wait until the reader has gotten out of their comfy chair; wait until they’re curled up in the cold, damp corner of the basement. Once a reader is primed, they’re much easier to scare.
This priming process is called foreboding. It’s similar to the more common literary device of foreshadowing, but with an emphasis on the ominous. It helps your reader suspend their disbelief and gradually draws them into your nightmare world.
Start small. In a ghost story, this is the quiet noise, unexpected but not altogether unusual, that the protagonist dismisses, attributing it to natural causes.
Then go a little bit bigger. A more demanding noise that piques the protagonist’s curiosity. Perhaps they investigate, but once more can only shrug their shoulders and move on with life.
Then one night the noise becomes a knocking. Maybe someone is at the front door? But the protagonist looks and no one is there. Now they’re nervous, and maybe the reader is too.
The next night, however, the knocking comes not from the distant front door, but the protagonist’s own bedroom door.
And the wood begins to splinter.
Examples of Foreboding
Many events serve to forebode near the beginning of this story. The discovery of the strange little closet and its dirty contents. The nocturnal disturbance with the garbage can. The stains on the walls. None of these things are terribly scary on their own, but together they point to something unusual about the closet. Then, once you learn the history of the house, these details join to paint a hideous picture.
Howard enters the labyrinth expecting nothing out of the ordinary. But as events escalate, he goes from dismissing the sounds as those of his missing teammates to the realization that he is the only living soul in the place.
The foreboding in this story runs along two tracks. In one, first the crows disappear, then the family finds dead crows in the field. Then the son is found dead. Finally, something tries to get in the house, and the wife is killed. The second track is more subtle, and simply documents the scarecrow’s deterioration under the elements. It goes from being a pristine creation to a desiccated, horrific visage. This focus on decay foreshadows the reveal at the end.
The End…Or Is It?
If you want to make your ghost story truly memorable, it needs a killer ending. You want your reader to keep thinking about the story long after they’ve finished it—after the lights are out, when they’re trying to sleep.
The key is to put your scariest scene last. Your scariest scene isn’t necessarily the one in which your character’s life is in the most danger. This is the horror genre, after all; death is expected. Rather, your scariest scene is the one in which your character’s identity, sanity, or relationships are in the most danger.
This may mean leaving the reader with a disturbing question or a terrifying revelation. These reveals will threaten the character’s understanding of the world and trigger the darkest aspects of your reader’s imagination.
Putting your scariest scene last might require a non-linear narration. If your scariest scene takes place three quarters of the way through your story, write around it, then use a flashback at the end to explore the scene in greater detail.
If you’re having trouble coming up with an impactful twist for your ending, try asking yourself these questions:
- What single fact would make this good situation bad, or this bad situation worse?
- What detail would alter the character’s understanding of the situation in a terrifying way?
- How can the situation force the character into a choice?
- How can that choice be bad no matter what the character chooses?
Regardless of how you end your ghost story, be careful not to overextend the ending. After the big reveal, it may be tempting to offer further explanation, but this can dampen the effect. Don’t be afraid to leave some things up to the reader’s imagination. Leave some questions unanswered, some conflicts unresolved. This produces doubt in the reader and forces them to think about your story late into the night.
Examples of Endings
The narrator sees the ghost some time in the early hours of morning, but we don’t know what he saw until he recalls it afterward.
The realization that the couple’s efforts have only strengthened the haunting is bad enough. Then the basement door opens.
This seems to be a story about self-empowerment and overcoming your weaknesses, but the ending reveals it to be one of insanity and self-destruction.
Writing a good ghost story is hard, but when your readers say they can no longer walk down dark hallways and complain of trouble sleeping, that feeling is totally worth it!
To sum up, here are the main things to keep in mind when writing a ghost story:
- Use the unknown to turn your readers’ imagination against them
- Exploit the uncanny valley to make your readers uncomfortable
- Write simple language to paint a sinister picture
- Create empathy to manipulate your readers’ emotions
- Build the fear gradually before springing your scariest scene
Finally, the most important advice I can give you is this: read. Immerse yourself in the genre, and you’ll find you naturally improve. A good place to start would be my own library of horror stories.