“Open House on Haunted Hill” is a Nebula Award winning short (ghost?) story by John Wiswell, published in 2020. I’ve recently immersed myself in ghost stories from the 18- and 1900s. But how does one go about writing a contemporary ghost story?
Can modern writers still write an original and surprising ghost story? I mean, haven’t all the ghost tropes been done to death? Aren’t modern audiences super well-schooled in these tropes, if not from primary sources then from pop-culture descendants?
John Wiswell allays these particular fears. “Open House on Haunted Hill” may sound like a Shirley Jackson pastiche…
or a 1980s horror film…
But this is one of the kindest most original ghost stories you’ll read. If you’re in the mood for kindness (and who isn’t?), jump right in.
“The Signalman” (1866) is a ghost story by iconic English author Charles Dickens. If you’ve ever fantasised about leaving your open office or customer service job to work alone in a tiny box in the middle of nowhere, unbothered and free to get on with your straight-forward but very necessary job, this might be the story for you.
HOW DO I GET A JOB IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE AS A SIGNALMAN?
First, the bad news. You’d have to travel back in time.
A signaller is an employee of a railway transport network who operates the points and signals from a signal box in order to control the movement of trains. Some signallers are women. The job of signallers in boxes next to railways started in the early 1800s. At first they were called the Railway Police. They were as important as air traffic controllers today.
Early signallers would hang out in their signal box until a train passed by. Then they would check for the red tail lamp on the last carriage of a train to ensure nothing had fallen off. Then they’d write it down in a Train Register Book. These books were pretty large and heavy. Signallers recorded train movements and every communication that happened between other signallers at different boxes. They didn’t actually talk to anyone. They communicated via bell codes.
Sounds pretty cruisey, but this was a stressful gig! You had no computer back up. Keeping trains on the right tracks and apart from each other was entirely up to you and you had to stay awake.
Since the early 1800s, the job description of a signaller has changed a lot due to computerisation. Centralised Rail Operating Centres now do the work originally conducted in signal boxes. Old buildings are often repurposed by communities (e.g. for cafes or community projects) if they’re sufficiently distant from a working railway line.
You can still find many signal boxes throughout Britain and other British colonies, notably India, South Africa and along the three east coast states of Australia. (The Australian signal system is especially ridiculous because the signal colours weren’t shared between states!)
Oh, there was no good news, by the way. Death comes to us all.
Oftentimes in stories and metaphor, the train track symbolises our linear human experience of the passing of time. (Astrophysicists tell us that’s not actually how time works; none of the pop science communicators has ever managed to help my brain understand how space and time are the same thing. Congratulations and a stiff ticket if you are one of the few who can get your brain around that.)
What else do you associate with trains? Tunnels, probably. Tunnels (man-made caves) have a whole symbolism of their own. Train tracks are also frequently set either above or below the surrounding land. In this case, the narrator must go down a steep slope before reaching the train track. He descends into the underworld.
To get a sense of the setting, there’s a 1976 BBC adaptation of “The Signalman”.
Charles Dickens was himself in a railway accident. He was lucky to survive. This story is certainly an outworking of the trauma he experienced after that experience, and from which he never recovered. It is extremely creepy (though a coincidence nonetheless) that Dickens died five years to the day after the accident.
The Tricksters is a young adult novel by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy, first published in 1986. Mahy wrote many stories for children, but The Tricksters seems to be one frequently talked about in scholarship circles, alongside The Changeover and The Haunting, which both won The Carnegie Medal. The Tricksters is a rare example of the new female mythic form, in which a main character (often femme, sometimes not) thinks and feels their way through a problem rather than leaving home to go on a journey and fight a bunch of opponents.
A large number of stories deal with the concept of ‘many selves’, often by creating some kind of mask (a false way of presenting to the world) and then having it ripped off (happily) at the end. Only once we live our authentic selves can we be happy… That’s the general message in such stories. The tricksters in this book are three corporeal representations of a single person — they all share the same memories, for instance. This is another way of dealing in fiction with the concept of the many selves.
Ovid: head, a master of metamorphoses. (The mind usually believes he is the leader of the group, and he usually isn’t.) Felix: heart, submerged in life but striving toward dominance in the course of the story. Felix and Harry fall in love. Hadfield: gut/instinct—at one point he tries to rape Harry.
American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925-2015) divided sex into three separate aspects:
Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture.
Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.
The Tricksters is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is coming to terms with the various aspects of sex. Some aspects are thrilling; other aspects terrifying. When she conjures up three different manifestations of the same lover, she is imaginatively exploring and codifying these conflicting aspects. Unlike many young adult authors of the 1980s, Mahy does not punish her young women for exploring sex. She celebrates it. Though we are used to celebrations of sexuality in contemporary young adult literature, Mahy was ahead of her time.
Aforetime — God said he created the djinn ‘aforetime’. Stories of the djinn predate the Quran. The concept of the djinn is ancient.
Aladdin — Disney’s Aladdin is a presentation of a stereotypical genie as we view them in the West. Aladd in is only loosely based on the folklore of the djinn. Like “Ali Baba”, “Aladdin” is a French-Syrian tale dating from the start of the 1700s. “Aladdin” is such a popular and widespread story that it forms its own tale type (ATU 561). There’s a simpler version known as a Magic Ring tale (ATU 560). In these tables a poor young man with the help of a magic object builds a palace more beautiful than the king’s. He marries a princess. But he loses his palace and princess due to a second magic object. He recovers everything lost.
“The Widow’s Broom” is a 1992 picture book by American author illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like many of Van Allsburg’s books, this one remains popular with teachers, partly because this is a storyteller who requires the reader to do a little work. Students can practise their inference skills in class.
Like all good stories which rely on reader imagination, this picture book can be interpreted in a number of ways.
THE DUAL AUDIENCE OF THE WIDOW’S BROOM
This is an example of a story which will be used one way in the infant classroom and quite differently in the senior Language Arts classroom.
A broom which ‘walks’, feeds chickens and plays piano will appeal to children at an early stage of development, which Piaget described as spatial egocentrism. He also talked about child development and animism, the worldview that non-human entities possess consciousness and a life of its own. In modern picture books animism tends to finds an outworking in animals who walk and talk like humans.
[A]nimism…is the belief that everything in nature has consciousness and life…. When Christopher Robin, the child in Winnie-the-Pooh, talks to his woodland friends, a donkey, a tiger, an owl, a pig, and a bear, he is engaged in what Jean Piaget has called ‘animism’. As do the majority of picture books that feature animal characters, a child engaged in animism, readily accepts that animals can and do behave as humans. An example is Olivia, Ian Falconer’s character who has resonated with adults and children alike and is the protagonist of [more than] five titles.
Go back in time, to the early 1900s and before, and you’ll find plenty of children’s stories in which household objects come alive. This trend mostly seems to have gone away. (Likewise you won’t find so many moons with actual faces on them in contemporary picture books.)
When picture book storytellers do utilise animism to bring household objects alive, it’s generally to hark back to an earlier time. Here, to the pre-Christian world of superstition, modern ideas about Paganism, and fairytale. Therein lies the historical interest for older readers, culminating in a quite sophisticated message about humankind.
Haunted Houseful is an Alfred Hitchcock collection of stories published in 1961. Fred Banbery (1913-1999) created these very nice illustrations. From what I can gather, the illustrations don’t match the stories especially well, but they would work very well as creative writing inspo. (For instance: Write Your Own Urban Legend.)
In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories written by Alvin Schwartz was first published in 1971 for emergent readers ready for scary… but not too scary. I recently looked closely at a modern picture book called Creepy Carrots, another excellent example of a ‘scary’ story perfectly pitched at 4-6 year olds. This collection is for emergent readers and is a bit more creepy than that. The adult reader is unlikely to be scared by any of these, but many adults today have wonderful memories of A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories.
Header illustration: Walter MacEwen – The Absent One on All Souls’ Day
Whether they appear wispy or solid, often a full-bodied, non-Bedsheet apparition is depicted in values of only one color, often white/grey or blue. If there is an exception, however, it will be for the eyes.
Interestingly, Nesbit was famously scared of the dark.
I spend a bit of time on book recommendation sites and modern parents are still buying Enid Blyton. I wish someone, once in a while, would place E. Nesbit in the hands of modern kids, if we insist that classics aren’t classics unless they’re 50 to 100 years old. You’ll find Nesbit’s children’s books have aged far less terribly than everyone else’s.That’s because Nesbit was a leftie feminist. And here’s the thing about leftie feminism: What looks radical today looks sensible after a few decades, even to conservatives.
Aside from children’s literature, Nesbit wrote short stories (for adults). “Man-sized In Marble” is her best-known example, though most people who know of Nesbit probably don’t know her for her short stories at all.
THE GOTHIC TRADITION
As explained below, Nesbit chose gothic conventions to convey her ideas. What are gothic conventions, exactly? I have wondered that myself and went into it here.
‘Man-Size in Marble’’ (1893) is both a successful Gothic chiller and a more politicized investigation of the plight of the artistically ambitious New Woman under patriarchy. It posits that while Gothic’s anti-feminism during the fin de siècle (end of the [nineteenth] century) is an increasingly familiar topic of study, little attention has yet been paid to the ways in which Gothic can also serve as a means of critiquing such attitudes. Through a close reading of Nesbit’s story and a comparison with other relevant texts of the era, the essay suggests that the author’s own radicalism, often overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children*, encourages her to expose the violence inherent within late nineteenth-century social systems. For Nesbit, the Gothic is the perfect instrument for such a project.
*Though it’s doubtful meant this way here, the phrasing of ‘overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children’ may encourage an interpretation that, had Nesbit ONLY been a writer for children, this would have indeed been a lesser thing. This is an attitude that has plagued children’s literature since the beginning of children’s literature. In fact, children’s literature must appeal to both adults and children and is therefore one of the most difficult things to write.
Mrs Dorman the housekeeper is a classic Gothic archetype. She’s the Cassandra figure who warns of impending doom but no one believes her. She’s the Madwoman or the Old Wife. However, in this feminist story she is more than an archetype. She is indeed old and wise with a deep store of local knowledge. She refuses the neat division between legend and history. She is presented as the inverse of a Londoner. Mrs Dorman has a symbolic name. She oversees the transmission of stories between the ancient village and its newcomers.
Laura is the virginal character (although not literally, since she’s newly married).
The narrator is the hero of his own story, according to him. If he wet his pants and ran away screaming, he’s not going to tell us, is he.
The setting of the church and graveyard is a classic setting for Gothic horror.
Your typical gothic horror includes members of the clergy. In this tale the clergy are conspicuous by their absence — the ending does not encourage us to believe there’s a God looking after us all, though that’s what Jack thinks.
By the 1890s gothic fiction was becoming increasingly violent. This story is quietly, off-the-page violent, but shocking for its time. There are several reasons why readers were developing a higher tolerance for gore — newspapers were reporting crimes in greater detail; the library system collapsed and this led to relaxed censorship; writers of realist fiction were pushing the boundaries with stark horror; magazines wanted shorter short stories which meant writers were cramming in more content via shock value.
The symbolism is Catholic, which makes this part of British Gothic tradition — a ‘Latinate, idolatrous and regressive world at odds with the progressive rationalism and secular statehood inaugurated by Henry VIII’s break with Rome’. (Women and the Victorian Occult).
This story belongs to a subcategory of the gothic tale, about sinister ceremonies, anniversaries and rites. These are pagan in origin. Other examples: “Pallinghurst Barrow” and “Wolverden Tower” by Grant Allen, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. In film we have The Wicker Man, which ends in fire. However, Nesbit’s rites have their origins in Catholicism.
Nesbit made use of folklore and Gothic conventions but some of it is her own invention completely.
STORYWORLD OF “MAN-SIZE IN MARBLE”
“Man-size In Marble” is set in Brenzett, which today has a population of about 400. There’s not much to it. Nesbit herself lived in Kent most of her life, though she was born in what is now Greater London. When I looked Brenzett up on Wikipedia I learned that this story is one of the most famous things about it. On the map you’ll find it about halfway between Hastings and Dover.
1893 was the era of the so-called “New Woman”. Even without the vote, British feminists were encouraging independence, and advised women receive an education of their own. Of course, it was only women from the middle and upper classes who could afford to take this advice. Almost all of the fertile women in England who remained unmarried in the second half of the 1800s were from the upper classes and I surmise they preferred it that way. But these women were considered useless to society (what is a woman for, if not to provide sex and children for men?) and some put forth arguments that these women should be shipped off to the colonies, where there was a wife drought. (I wonder how many women were shipped here to Australia for that reason, against their will?)
MEN ARE MEN AND WOMEN ARE WOMEN!
During the 1880s and 1890s, there was a moral panic about how they were living in ‘sexual anarchy’ (according to writer George Gissing). All the established rules about sexual identity and behaviour were felt to be breaking down. This upsets conservatives.
I believe we have entered another moral panic in the last five years or so, as trans people are finally having their moment, and as non-binary people are requesting we use their preferred pronouns.
The Catholic All Saints tradition is now expressed in America as Halloween. All Saints Day wasn’t the only date associated with the supernatural. People used to stay up all night ‘porch-watching’. They would stay up all night in the church porch hoping to see the wraiths of all the local parishioners parade by. This would let them know who would die in the coming year. However, this wasn’t an All Saints thing to do — most people would’ve done it on St Marks Eve (April 24).
Girls were thought to have special access to these supernatural powers. They’d be able to perform acts of divination and learn who their future husbands would be. People would light bonfires. Go back far enough (into the Medieval era) and Christians thought that souls in Purgatory would be purged by the holy fire. The feast of All Saints was an attempt to relieve the ghosts stuck in Purgatory.
Protestantism rejected all this supernatural nonsense and All Saints was removed from the English church calendar in 1559. Still, all of this remained useful to writers of gothic horror.
KNIGHTS IN CHURCHES
To better understand this story, it’s important to know the Catholic tradition of burying knights in important places — the closer to the altar, the more important they’d been. Supposedly.
Another impressive feature of [Saint John’s Co-Cathedral] is the collection of marble tombstones in the nave in which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. These tombstones, richly decorated with in-laid marble and with the coats of arms of the knight buried below as well as images relevant to that knight, often telling a story of triumph in big struggle, form a rich visual display in the church.
The plot of “Man-size in Marble” isn’t the most interesting thing. Far from it. If this short story contained only the surface layer of the spooks in a church, I’d have called it underwhelming. Instead, the most interesting thing about this story is the characterisation of the young newly wedded man, whose attitude towards his wife comes through during his night of indescribable terror. In true Gothic convention, the story opens with a paragraph in which the narrator tells the reader the events contained within are indeed true. As you’ll see below, we are to read this ironically. This is a story critiquing Jack’s ‘rationalism’. The narration is a first person male, which fooled quite a few people at the time into thinking the author was male. This was useful.
Man, I don’t like this Jack guy. How much of this was intended by Nesbit and how much is my modern interpretation? There’s an unanswerable question, even bearing in mind Nesbit was ahead of her own time. Jack has been described as a ‘floppy-collared aesthete’. I’m reminded of Nathaniel P from the following contemporary novel:
Waldman’s novel ‘offers a mercilessly clear view into a man’s mind as he grows tired of a worthy woman‘, which isn’t what Nesbit’s story does, but both offer insight into a man who, on the surface, is feminist but dig a little deeper and although he is not sexist, he is nonetheless constitutionally inclined to uphold the system of misogyny. (For a clear delineation between sexism and misogyny, go no further than Down Girl by Kate Manne.) Jack doesn’t treat women as adults. He treats his wife like a child by refusing to tell her what he has learned about the house from Mrs Dorman, as it might upset her. Nathaniel Piven, a thirty-something-year-old Brooklyn novelist and burgeoning public intellectual, is thoughtful yet careless, open-minded yet absurdly entitled.— The New Yorkerreview
Jack reminds me of Nathaniel P. because both are New Age Guys (for their era); neither are alpha males; both are aesthetes; both are writers and both appear to be in touch with their emotions. When Jack finds Laura crying he tries to comfort her with “don’t cry, or I shall have to cry too, to keep you in countenance, and then you’ll never respect your man again”. This snippet of dialogue tells us layers of things about Jack:
He is blithely dismissing his wife’s emotions
He makes a show of having emotions himself
But the code of masculinity dictates he couldn’t possibly give in to them
Because his job as husband is to be first and foremost respected by his wife.
Ergo, this is performative empathy.
As I read the opening to “Man-size In Marble” I’m reminded of that show Escape to the Country and all those city people who go touring various country houses — oftentimes none of the houses are good enough and we learn the city folk didn’t really want to move to the country after all. Well, these two do eventually find a house to their liking, fussy as they are, and then the husband complains they don’t have any money. Next minute they’ve employed a ‘peasant woman’ to do all the housework.
‘Poor’ is such a variable concept, isn’t it? These two aren’t poor poor. They are living in ‘genteel poverty’, like the women in Sense and Sensibility. I mean, if you can afford to employ someone from a lower class to do all your drudgery work, you ain’t poor. When the peasant woman housekeeper takes off, this guy won’t believe her reasons. She tells him her niece is sick. He doesn’t buy it because the niece has always been sick. It doesn’t occur to him that sick people often get sicker — no, it’s all about him.
Jack speaks for Laura and Mrs Dorman throughout the story, refusing to take either of them seriously. He loves folklore but treats Mrs Dorman as a Victorian anthropologist might a tribal elder — perhaps here, Nesbit is satirizing the folklore “collectors” of the period such as Edward Clodd — and patronizes Laura with a pet name “Pussy”. He also persistently trivialises her art despite the fact that it seems to be their only earned income; while Laura is writing, he passes his time in sketching “wonderful cloud effects”. Whether her tales are “little magazine stories” or stories for the little magazines that were so much a feature of the 1890s’ literary scene, Jack sees them as insignificant, fit only for the “Monthly Marplot”. His disdain for “the jingling guinea” is what one would expect from an aesthete of the period, but it shows, too, a worrying inability to face up to the economic realities of his marriage.
At this point I refer you all to The Wife (both book and film), by Meg Wolitzer. Jack’s rationalism is at odds with the outlook of the story’s women: it is his adherence to it that ultimately brings about his “life’s tragedy”.
The story begins with a confession of rationalism’s limits, a frequent Gothic device as well as a rebutt fo the positivism that was making Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes so pouplar in the early 1890s. … For much of the story, howeer, he is quite happy to live by rationalist principles, signally a clear divide between himself, the seemingly superstitious female characters, and maybe, by extension, the villages as a whole: the Irish outsider, Dr Kelly, is after all the “only neighbour” with whom Jack socializes. The more intuitive Laura is less imprisoned by this gospel, though…her sensitivity is not enough to save her from an awful fate, perhaps because her attitudes to social class are less radical than Nesbit’s own. The “village people” are, she says, “awfully sheepy”, and if one won’t do a thing, one may be quite sure none of the others will”.
His wife, Laura, is the one who won’t listen to the housekeeper (according to Jack), and is very much down in the dumps about losing Mrs Dorman — this means they will have to do all the housework themselves. And by ‘they’, we do mean Laura, don’t we. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” the husband tells her. “There will still be time to do art even if we have to do everything ourselves.” Meanwhile, it’s a point of pride that he’s useless around the house. He tells us he has surprised himself by doing an excellent job of washing the plates. Well, if you’ve ever seen that documentary series where they take a modern family and make them live like it’s 1900, you’ll already know this, but the loss of the housekeeper really does mean the loss of the young wife’s artistic life. The husband doesn’t realise it because he’ll be swanning around doing the bare minimum at home (a bit of polishing here and there, fixing what’s broken and so on) but the day to day drudgery of cooking, cleaning and washing will be the dawn-to-dusk job of his wife. Soon children will arrive and there will be literally no time for her to pursue her creative goals.
In short, this guy has plenty of Shortcomings. But it’s up to the reader to pick up on those, because it’s written in first person so we have no detached narrator to guide us in this direction. Would a guy from 1893 have had the same reaction as I just had?
They find themselves a housekeeper but it goes tits up when she leaves. Now he will have less time to pursue his creative goals. The Minotaur Opposition is of course the spooks in the church.
Faced with Mrs Dorman’s absence, Laura worries that “I shall have to cook the dinners and wash up all the hateful, greasy plates … and we shall never have any time for [creative] work.”. The statues will not stand for her transgressions, and a collision between flesh and blood and calcified tradition is inevitable. In this respect, it is notable that they no longer have names, for they are less individuals in themselves than representatives of a reactionary brutality that destroys those who oppose it.[…] Quiescent for most of the time, the forces embodied by the stone knights have not been wholly vanquished by those of progress and modernity and are yet capable of wreaking havoc when roused.
He will try to persuade their excellent housekeeper to come back. He will also wheedle out of her why it is she has left, presumably so he can tell her that her reasons for leaving are not adequate. He doesn’t exactly set out to solve the mystery of What Spooked The Housekeeper, but he does happen to wander into the church at the exact time on All Saint’s that the statues are meant to come to life. (Coincidence works fine in gothic fiction, which is inherently melodramatic.)
While the narrator is chatting to the local blokes about spooks his wife is busy getting murdered. This happens off-the-page. Though at first pretty comical, consider this a symbolic rape and the finger as phallus. Not so comical now. No wonder that was left off the page. Writers are often advised to put the Battle on the page, otherwise the reader feels cheated. A lot of build-up over nothing. Bear in mind that this story is a Gothic ghost story in the same way that Alice Munro’s “The Love Of A Good Woman” is a murder mystery — i.e., not at all. Readers expecting genre fiction may be disappointed. Why did Nesbit choose the husband as narrator, which meant he wouldn’t be there to see his wife get murdered? Well, first, what we can’t see is indeed more scary. So there’s that. But also, this isn’t about the spooky walking statues at all. It’s about the young husband and his patriarchal attitude towards his wife.
In her ghost stories Nesbit uses the supernatural as a catalyst to precipitate an emotional crisis. This technique achieved criticism of Victorian proprieties.
Nesbit has used Catholic iconography to critique traditions of divination. After we learn she is dead we realise Laura was not protected by all those candles at all. She is ‘wedded’ to the stone knights, not to her mortal husband. Nesbit’s marble knights were once men, part of a Roman Catholic tradition which allowed their wealthy relatives to buy them a place beside the altar, even though the knights had done terrible things (‘deeds’) in their lifetimes. Of course, they’re continuing to do terrible things beyond the grave. They have no place beside the altar. Nesbit is critiquing the practice. And if we haven’t realised it by now, we know that if Jack had treated his wife as a fully-functioning adult and warned her of impending doom, Laura might still be alive.
I extrapolate that this guy won’t be getting his housekeeper back. I guess he’ll leave the area and find another wife, and he’ll never be quite the same again. If the young woman was killed, can this be a feminist story? The question has been asked. I argue that it can because, as I keep saying, subversion works better than inversion (in which ‘inversion’ would result in an ending in which the vulnerable maiden toughens up and defeats her opponents).
“Man-Size In Marble” is instead an example of subversion, but not at a plot level — at a metaphorical level. Nesbit kills Laura not to punish her, but to demonstrate the latent violent inherent in the sexual politics of the period. Many New Women are confronted by representatives of the patriarchal order, but the encounter is usually staged in solidly realist surroundings like those of Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). By injecting Gothic fantasy into what seems at first an unexceptional tale of newly wedded bliss, Nesbit is able to provide both the shock expected of the genre, especially in short stories, and imbue her fiction with an underlying sense of ideological dissatisfaction.
You may not believe in ghosts to enjoy ghost stories. I don’t either. But once you understand how ghost stories work, you’ll understand how tools of persuasion are used in other realms. Studying the ghost story is a fun way to study the techniques of persuasion.
There is a category of ghost story in which an ordinary person from the living world encounters not just a single scary ghost, but an entire room full of uncanny individuals. We suspect they are ghosts; this is subsequently confirmed.
What is so appealing about these stories, and what deeper psychological need do they satisfy in the audience?
Also, if you want to write one yourself, how are they structured? Once we learn the template writers can put our own fresh spin on it.
I’ll be looking at two stories of this category. The first is presented as a factual first person encounter — the “Lost In Time” episode of WYNC’s Spooked podcast (Episode 2 of Season 1). You can subscribe to the Spooked podcast via any podcast app for free. I don’t for a second believe this story as truth. After studying the story, this becomes obvious.
The second example has a completely different tone, presented as horror comedy — the “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” episode of New Zealand’s Wellington Paranormal series (Episode 3 of Season 1). This episode is currently available via SBS in Australia, and you can purchase it via YouTube from elsewhere.
There is already a comedy element to this show, though the comedy is somewhat muted by the fact we are laughing at the misfortunes of real people, often disenfranchised, often addicted to substances.
Another similar show is NZ Police College, only the police officers are new recruits.
Because of the inherent comedy factor, these shows are therefore ripe for a spoof treatment. And horror is the perfect blend. (Comedy and horror often go really well in stories for kids as well, e.g. Courage The Cowardly Dog.)
THE APPEAL OF GHOST WORLD STORIES
In these stories the audience gets a taste of what death beyond the grave might look like. Since no one really knows what death will be like, fictional possibilities are endlessly fascinating.
Likewise, the idea that time can stand still is appealing, especially when it feels life has sped right up and will be over very soon.
Supernatural element aside, we love stories in which characters have a near death experience but come out the other side unscathed.
We are drawn to the uncanny, and these stories are nothing if not uncanny.
Related tropes are The Inn of No Return (parodied in the Courage the Cowardly Dog pilot) and Hell Hotel. At TV Tropes, the theory is that hotels are inherently uncanny — they feel familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. This room with a bed in it… it’s kind of like your own bedroom, but it’s really not. I wonder if Foucault might call the hotel room a heterotopia.
The hotel or pub is therefore a popular setting for an uncanny story, but basically any everyday setting can be seconded for this treatment. All the writer needs to do is make it familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. Details are therefore important.
WRITING TEMPLATE FOR ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS A GHOST’ GHOST STORY
Individual stories will differ, but here’s a classic example and a place to start. Notice how this structure is carefully set up with the main purpose of persuading the audience this really happened.
Note, too, how the audience starts off in audience superior position (knowing more than the main character), then we are alongside them, and finally we are learning from the main character. The writer has guided us from a superior position to an inferior one. The narrator/viewpoint character has been turned into our mentor and guide. The audience doesn’t even know this has happened because we are caught up in the spookiness of it all.
This is the power of persuasion at work. Tall tales of any kind work in the same way.
SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD — the more every day and realistic, the better. If you can’t be specific about place (because it didn’t happen), at least be very specific about season/day of the week/time of day.
SHORTCOMING OF MAIN CHARACTERS — likely to be that they don’t know supernatural dangers when stumbling headfirst into it, refusing to believe their own intuition
DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE — what did the main character(s) set out to do before they ran into these ghosts?
ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD — emphasis on the entry, like a portal fantasy
ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG — emphasise the uncanny
OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS — who may act like nothing is wrong and also robotically
DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS — anachronous details, out-of-place objects, creepy details
DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT — one object will stand out as wrong and weird
AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS — not a revelation to us, just a confirmation
CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION — like us, our characters can’t believe this is happening
PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD — they still can’t believe it even though the audience knows what’s going on
REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD — then, after us, they do believe it
BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER — the ghosts no longer act robotically. They ‘snap’.
ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD — may be a chase scene
BACK TO SAFETY — emphasis on details of the every day world, and how nothing feels dangerous here
DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? — character thinks they are losing their mind
POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED — character may return to the scene or encounter someone else who confirms a similar experience, or read some document etc.
NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT — if the story is set in the past the writer delivers us safely back to the present. The link between past and present is established to create an Overview Effect and we are further persuaded to trust the writer/narrator with our psychological/emotional safety.
Those last three steps function as a unit, as a kind of epilogue and you may get a simple Self-Revelation phase right after the Battle instead.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LOST IN TIME”
SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD
Northwest Wisconsin, 20 years ago, 3 a.m. “A place with tiny communities and people living far apart from one another.” The woman telling this story comes from the city. She feels like a ‘stranger’ coming into these wild parts. “It’s hard to get reactions out of people. They’re friendly enough but you don’t really get close.”
‘Coming back from’ a bar in Ashland Wisconsin, which is a real, geolocatable place, but the place where this happens is described ambiguously. If I wanted to find this place I wouldn’t be able to. There are many roadhouses around Wisconsin, and all could go by the name of ‘Roadhouse Saloon’.
Pitch black, starless night. “You couldn’t see past the headlights. The forest on each side was swallowed in darkness.” With the verb ‘swallowed’, the setting is described as if it is alive.
Glynn Washington who introduces these Spooked stories has this to say, and it applies to the ‘shortcoming’ of all the main characters:
“We ignore the warnings. We jump the fence, we peek through the keyhole and open up the dark closet”.
In other words, our human shortcoming is that we don’t believe inexplicable things when we first encounter them. We get into things that are way over our heads. When we escape with our lives, we are lucky.
In this particular story, the problem faced by the two main characters is that they are in the middle of wilderness Wisconsin in the middle of the night and they need a rest stop. (I’m not sure what that means because it’s not a local phrase — do they need to use the toilet? This is a hole in the story, because the narrator doesn’t actually use the toilet once she gets to the bar — instead she has a drink. The last thing you want when you’re busting to use the loo.)
The woman telling the story walks with a cane, which is good for the story because it lampshades the reason why she can’t just crouch on the side of the road. In the ‘pitch black’ and with no one else around this wouldn’t otherwise be a problem, right? There’s another good reason for the cane — this is a very identifiable thing specific to her, which comes in handy at the climax.
Characters who find themselves in a spooky, supernatural world didn’t actually mean to find themselves there. They set out on a journey with another goal in mind. What is that goal?
Here, narrator and Bob want to get home after spending the night at another bar. They want to find a rest stop. At first they appear to get what they want: The Roadhouse Saloon.
ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD
Like portal fantasy, the narrator must focus on the entry to the supernatural world. In this story, the swinging doors of a saloon are emphasised numerous times. This world is inexplicably uncanny.
ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG
‘Uncanny’ describes the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. Therefore, the writer must go out of their way to present the setting as both familiar and off-kilter.
The other characters are not at all surprised to see Bob and the narrator. This helps the characters feel like nothing is wrong, but we know something is wrong because we know we are reading a ghost story. A helpful trick for the characters in these other worlds: Make them look like they are expecting the newcomers, as if fate has a hand in all this.
DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS
There’s a weird vibe in here — normally, as the narrator explained earlier, people turn away to newcomers, but these ones are unusually friendly.
This makes the audience suspect these people are false allies.
The setting contains anachronous objects, i.e. the old jukebox (which doesn’t look worn). It plays “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker. Although this story is set 20 years ago (the late 1990s), this is a song from 1961.
DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT
In this story there is an old mural on the wall of a saloon scene with swinging saloon doors, women sitting at a bar, gamblers sitting at a gambling table. “It had perspective but it was really unusual, garish perspective. It was almost tunnel-like but not quite, almost floorlit.” Bob notices that the men at the pool table are the same as the men playing cards in the bar. Gradually it dawns on them that all the characters in the bar are also in the painting. And there is no one else in that painting.
AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS
They realise they are the only people in the bar who aren’t also in the painting. The audience has it confirmed that the characters are ghosts. Of course, we knew that all along, so the revelation is simply a creepy confirmation rather than a revelation.
CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION
Bob and the narrator try to rationalise the scenario: Clearly these people in the bar and in the painting are regulars, so a painter must have made a cool mural starring locals.
PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD
The narrator tries to ask the bartender about it. But he ‘shrug nods’ as if he doesn’t understand the words. The ladies don’t change expression at all when they are asked. These are clearly horror archetypes, with their robotic behaviour.
This is also a feature of comedy archetypes, which is why horror can so easily tip towards comedy, and why the horror-comedy blend is so often successful. This particular story is a genuinely scary story, especially for those who believe it’s true.
REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD
The characters in the setting are not going to help them to understand this scenario, so the narrator and Bob rely on their own powers of deduction and observation:
The only people taking a sip of their drink are the narrator and her companion Bob.
BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER
The people in the bar all start to watch the newcomers. During this big struggle phase, various tropes are utilised:
VIEWPOINT CHARACTER STILL ISN’T AS SCARED AS THE AUDIENCE IS
Now, if we, the audience were in this situation, we would get out of there. But the main character in a horror story has the shortcoming that they don’t really understand how close they are to death. So curiosity overrides fear. In this case, Bob isn’t scared and persuades the narrator to stay even when it’s clear to the audience that they should get out of there.
Everything is on repeat
“Let’s Twist AGAIN” is ironic. Ghosts stuck in an earthly realm are doomed to repeat a single night for the rest of eternity. Presumably, their motivation is to mix things up a bit by welcoming people from the live world into their ghostly fold.
“When someone plays a song twice that could be their favourite song, but when they play it a third time, you know something is wrong.”
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
The mural changes to include two shadowy figures outside the door. They get closer to the figures in the mural. These figures resemble Bob and the narrator. The woman in the mural is walking with a cane.
It looks as though those two figures are ‘being filled in’ on the mural. Narrator, Bob and audience know in unison: These people are near death. If they stick around they will become one of the ghosts.
ESCAPE FROM SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD
Bob and narrator hightail it for the door. Every one of the ghosts stands up and turns to them.
But as soon as the door shuts the music stops instantly. The lights in the window go out. It is silent and black as if everything inside no longer exists. There are no cars in the carpark this time.
They speed out of there shaking, trying to catch their breath.
DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?
10 miles down the road they ask each other if it really happened. Two people have experienced the exact same thing. Folie a deux (shared psychosis) is a thing, but we’re not meant to consider that. The fact that two people saw the same thing is supposed to be a confirmation.
POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED
In this sequence, something from the real world must connect to something from the supposed supernatural world.
Bob and narrator tell an outsider (narrator’s sister). They all return to the scene to check it out. The audience learns that this place itself does exist.
JUXTAPOSITION BETWEEN COSY PRESENT AGAINST FREAKY PAST INCIDENT
The characters ‘feel compelled’ to go back into the saloon. The place is full. People are having food and drinks. The narrator recognises none of the faces but the people in the mural are all still there.
CHARACTER CHECKS DETAILS
Like a classic amateur detective, the narrator checks the scene for evidence. She notices the jukebox is no longer the Wurlitzer. Chubby Checker isn’t even on there.
The bartender is a young woman, not a man. The bartender tells the narrator (and us) that she and her dad are the only ones who tend bar, and they closed at midnight on Saturday night.
NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT
The saloon is still there. Now it’s part of a strip mall with an all night gas station and gift shops. But the mural is still there.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THINGS THAT DO THE BUMP IN THE NIGHT”
The Bump is a type of dance introduced in the 1970s.
SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD
The historical setting of a 70s party makes a mockery of the fact that most ghost stories go further back in time e.g. back to a Gothic era. New Zealand doesn’t have a Gothic history to speak of, either. So this one is set in a Wellington house.
Officer Kyle Minogue (a joke about Australian singer Kylie Minogue) and Officer O’Leary have the same shortcoming in every episode of Wellington Paranormal — they blunder forth doing their jobs as low-mimetic characters who aren’t very good at what they do. Especially considering their profession, they are wholly unobservant. They never learn from past incidents, like true comic characters.
So when Minogue and O’Leary stumble into a ghost world, they are too unobservant and grounded in the safety of the real world to be much perturbed. They will come close to death but they won’t realise the extent of it.
DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE
Minogue and O’Leary talk to the camera and tell us the goal: To get the party music turned down. In conversation between each other, they both agree it’s not their type of music.
ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD
Minogue and O’Leary enter the house as police officers might, narrating their steps for us while using police-esque language such as ‘proceed with caution’. The narration allows us to focus on the portal entry. As mentioned above, this part can’t be skipped or glossed over.
Entry to the other world is given extra emphasis with insertion of the intro credits after this point.
ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG
Wellington Paranormal has a way of handling this which is utilised across all of the different episodes:
Minogue and O’Leary see something wacko, they take it back to their boss at the station (Sergeant Maaka), who makes up some bullshit, super wacko theory to explain what they actually saw.
In this case, Sergeant Maaka draws a ridiculous picture of a creature with antennae, using them as a ‘self-defence mechanism’. The pseudo-scientific language of Sergeant Maaka coupled with the ‘police-esque’ language of Minogue and O’Leary make for a comedy with plenty of language based humour.
Minogue and O’Leary get drawn into this story, but they eventually land on the theory of ‘poltergeists’, which is correct for the setting.
OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS
When we first meet them, these ghosts don’t register the existence of the police officers. The officers resort to speaking to unruly ghosts like school teachers, which is a technique writer Jemaine Clement uses on the character of Murray in Flight of the Conchords. This undermines authority when no one takes him seriously.
A secondary opponent is brought in — the medium Chloe Patterson, a false ally. This medium derails the goal of getting the noise sorted out at this residence. Minogue thinks his grandpa is talking to him. (It is revealed subsequently that the grandpa is still alive.) This sequence is satire of the medium genre of TV shows. This establishes Chloe as a fake.
DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS
Minogue and O’Leary revisit the empty house with the medium. They walk around with their torches and we see all the details.
DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT
In this story, the central supernatural object is a birthday cake with candles on it. The birthday cake itself isn’t especially imbued with powers, but stands for the 20th anniversary nature of the party.
AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS
“It’s a seventies ghost!”
This works especially well for a dumb character because we’ve already worked that out.
CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION
Because Minogue is basically stupid, he doesn’t realise he’s walked in on ghosts in the hot tub. He thinks he’s walked in on real people. So this step is subverted.
PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD
Minogue does realise something’s amiss when the medium gets sucked into the spirit world.
Now he attempts to understand the situation by:
Working out there are two toilets in the house, by agreeing to rendezvous at this point
Making heavy use of the walkie-talkie
They conclude, falsely, that they might be in the ‘upside down’, an allusion to Stranger Things.
AM I GOING CRAZY?
At one point O’Leary says, “Are you sure you’re not just fantasising?” Minogue replies “My fantasies are set in the nineties” (when he would’ve been a teenager).
REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD
The toilet gag derails these characters, which means this step is subverted. These two never really work things out, or never really seem to.
When lipstick draws on the mirror, O’Leary says, “I think I’ve got a bit of a situation here,” which means she knows something is going on, but not to the point where she can put it into words.
BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER
Subverted. A ghost writes words on a mirror in blood (lipstick). At first it appears to say ‘Welcome to Hell’ but the gag is that it continues writing: ‘Welcome to Helen and Ray’s 20th Anniversary’.
The terrifying becomes far less terrifying. “I thought it was going to be way more scary than that.”
However, they’ve still lost the medium.
“I just saw a hideous face at the window!”
It turns out to be Sergeant Maaka who has turned up to help. The near death experience is subverted as he tries to climb down from a very low window. “I appreciate the assist.” He has come with new information. The house used to belong to “Raymond Saint John. The party king.”
Borrowing from the detective genre, the name of the opponent (the criminal) is now known. The amps up the (comic) danger.
Sergeant Maaka delivers a metadiegetic backstoryof one horrific night in 1977 when a series of events took place. Two people were found deceased when a table lamp fell into a spa pool. A man died when he got tangled up in a crocheted blanket.
Sergeant Maaka flops into a chair dramatically when learning of the ghosts.
The crocheted blanket rises up so they taser it. (New Zealand cops don’t normally carry guns.) While this near death experience is going on, O’Leary comically narrates what’s going on.
REVELATION ABOUT HOW THE SUPERNATURAL WORLD WORKS
This is where “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” departs from the structure of the Spooked episode above. The Spooked episode has a drawn out, multiple step ‘epilogue’ sort of sequence in which the characters return to the scene of the supernatural happenings.
Here, Minogue has a more classic revelation (which comes after the near-death Battle. Comically, Minogue is trying to work out a pattern. He opens and shuts the toilet door, each time expecting the toilet to transform from the 1970s to the present. But instead, it’s always just a normal toilet.
O’Leary summons them back by asking nicely.
But the Billy T. James ghost character proves to be belligerent and cheeky and won’t listen to requests to shut the noisy party down.
Inspired by a typical high school scenario, there is a juvenile scene in which the officers confront the ghosts. The Party King insults O’Leary by calling her a man and then a Nana.
ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD
O’Leary tells the party goers that they’re all deceased. They take the news on the chin and each leave, because it turns out some of them are over it. At the bottom of the stairwell they fall into a hole in the ground with flames coming out of it.
BACK TO SAFETY
The officers manage to persuade the ghosts to move on to the afterlife. We see them outside, in front of their patrol car, which is how we saw them in the very first scene. The story is now circular.
DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?
This step is subverted in a comedy. The funniest thing about Minogue and O’Leary is their partial obliviousness. So in lieu of this, we get Sergeant Maaka talking to the camera, assuring us that they are doing their job and the general public has nothing to worry about.
POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED
At first the audience is encouraged to doubt if this is really a ghost story because the sergeants have the Party King in the back seat of the patrol car.
As the underling sergeants deliver a moral lecture to the camera saying, “You can party til you drop, just not after you drop,” the Party King floats up through the roof of the vehicle and scurries off.
As usual, the episode ends with the NZ Police slogan: “Safe communities together”.