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.)Continue reading “Creepy Blue and Black Illustrations”
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.Continue reading “In A Dark, Dark Room And Other Scary Stories”
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.
This is the general tone of the show. The show is a spoofy blend of The X-files and reality cop shows which are popular in New Zealand and in Australia, such as Police Ten 7.
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.
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.
The guy who has been playing the record comes after them.
BACK TO SAFETY
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 backstory of 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”.
What’s the point of ghost stories?
A really good and scary ghost story focuses me. It pulls me from my ordinary, self-focused fears and connects me with something older and more mysterious.Claire Cronin at Rumpus
I have a friend who disapproves of Harry Potter, but not for religious reasons — for scientific ones. His argument: stories about magic promote magical thinking, when the world needs more critical thinking. I can’t fault him on his main point, but do magical, ghostly, supernatural stories during childhood really contribute to lack of reason, and poor critical thinking?
For storytelling purposes it doesn’t really matter if ghosts are ‘real’ or not. The feelings definitely are.
‘I believe in whatever these feelings are.’Meg Rosoff
PERFECTLY GOOD REASONS FOR WRITING GHOST STORIES
To encourage readers to believe in ghosts.To encourage readers to consider there’s something beyond our own realities.
- To create a temporary setting in which ghosts do exist, to allow us to enjoy that frisson of temporary horripilation.
- To allow us insight into the way others experience fears. Supernatural stories can be allegories for mental illness or drug-induced hallucinations. The experience of non-reality as reality is indistinguishable from actual reality. If some of that fear can be provoked in us, we might achieve empathy with those people.
- Supernatural elements in a story can function as part of the symbol web, leading the reader towards new (non-supernatural) insight about the human experience: longing, obsession, uncertainty and disbelief. The symbol web might signify memories of things which exist no longer, or various other fears and anxieties.
- To allow scary experiences without leaving the audience in a downcast mood. Stories which genuinely scare me are about climate change, about missing children, about sickness and old age. This is a depressing kind of scary, and part of me would like to really enjoy a Stephen King novel, with beasts and supernatural beings which will never actually hurt me or my family. For most of us, ghosts are a pure, safe kind of terror.
GHOSTS AS PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS
In many ghost stories the ghost is a projection of the psychology of the person to whom it appears. If a character is seeing a ghost, this means there’s something unresolved in the character’s psychology. The Dickens ghost is a great example of this. Here’s how those stories go: Once the character’s issues were resolved they aren’t seeing the ghost no more.
For this reason, some storytellers call character flaws and psychic wound the ‘ghost‘.
GHOSTS AS EXPRESSIONS OF EMOTIONS
The following is excerpted from a 1974 young adult novel by Penelope Lively, and explains how old ghost stories can still be relevant in modern times. In a metafictional discussion about a school performance of Macbeth, 14 year old Clare speaks to Aunt Susan and Aunt Anne:
Aunt Susan didn’t agree. “They are psychological ghosts. You shouldn’t see them. They are an indication of Macbeth’s private guilt and anguish.”
“Surely you are being too modern?” said Aunt Anne, retrieving hair. “To the seventeenth-century mind ghosts were perfectly acceptable. Portents, maybe, expressions of guilt, if you like, but quite real and visible.”
The aunts argued, gently. The library clock whirred, clicked, struck five.
“What do people have now, then?” said Clare. “Instead of ghosts?”
“Have in their minds, instead of ghosts. If they’re in a state about something, like Macbeth?”
“I suppose obsessions would be the modern substitute,” said Aunt Susan. “Neuroses of one kind or another. Burying anxiety in some kind of obsessive fancy.”
“Imagining something was going on that wasn’t?“
“That kind of thing.”
The House In Norham Gardens
The uneasy feeling that we are not alone is remarkably common. So common I’d guess almost everybody has experienced it:
About halfway up the steps, every time, I was overcome with an unshakeable certainty that there was a monster behind me, chasing me. I won’t say I never get that feeling anymore, but I force myself to walk up the stairs slowly and calmly when it happens now, swallowing my fear. That’s called being an adult.
The sense of someone near you when no one is actually there is called “feeling of presence” or FOPThe Brain Makes Its Own Ghosts
GHOSTS AS EXPRESSIONS OF ONE’S OWN MADNESS
Claire Messud touches upon the relevance of ghost stories to modern life in her novel The Woman Upstairs:
There is a story by Chekhov…that had fascinated me in college. The black winter of my second year, assailed by doubt at not having gone to art school, I’d read it over and over. ‘The Black Monk’: about a man who imagines himself visited by a ghostly monk, with whom he has life’s vital conversations, about creativity, and greatness, and the meaning of existence. The monk assures him of his importance, of his exceptional talents. Then he realizes that the monk isn’t real; that he himself must be mad. But how much better to be made in the company of the monk, than to be sane, and constrained in his aspirations, and alone.
“The Wer-Trout” by Annie Proulx is not a ghost story but draws from the supernatural ghost story in a tale which is realism. In classic modern horror story, the supernatural creature of the story is made up by a drunk man’s imagination, but in the Anagnorisis phase he sees himself reflected and reflected back is the face of the creature he’s concocted to scare his fishing buddy. The function of the Wer-Trout in Proulx’s story is very similar to the function of the ghost in Messud’s novel: imagined supernatural creature as outworking of one’s own frightening parts. This is generally how modern writers use ghosts, monsters and supernatural events — to allow a character insight into the inner darkness of themselves.
Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it, can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling.
This can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.Psychology Today
WRITING SUPERNATURAL STORIES
For storytelling purposes, I divide supernatural stories into two separate groups:
- The supernatural element is part of the plot. The writer creates a full fantasy setting in which supernatural elements are not only explained, but they also have their own detailed lore. Enjoyment from reading these stories derives partly from getting to know a supernatural milieu so different from our own. Twilight would be an example of that.
- The supernatural element is part of the symbol web. The writer is probably writing a story set in the real world, or something quite close to it. The origin of the supernatural element is never explained. It comes, it makes its impact on the main character(s), and it may leave at the end, or hang around to create chaos beyond the story. “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is an example of that kind of story. We don’t know where the whitebait river came from, or anything about it, but Hulme uses the supernatural fish to say something about the human condition. Neil Gaiman’s short stories are often like that, too: teenagers gatecrash a party and find they’ve gatecrashed an alien party. We don’t know where the aliens came from or why they’re at the party — the story is only about the human experience of encountering something very strange and beyond us.
The Greatest Ghost Story Ever Written And Why We Care from Word And Film
There are various words to describe the event from a main character’s past which holds them back in the present: the fatal flaw, the psychic wound, the ghost.
“Our culture believes strong individuals can transcend their circumstances. I myself don’t much enjoy books by Hardy or Dreiser or Wharton, where the outside world is so strong, so overwhelming, that the individual hasn’t a chance. I get impatient, I keep feeling that somehow the deck is stacked unfairly. That is the point, of course, but my feeling is that if that’s true, I don’t want to play. I prefer to move to another table where I can retain my illusion, if illusion it be, that I’m working only against only probabilities, and have a chance to win. Then if you lose, you can blame it on your own poor playing. That is called a tragic flaw, and like guilt, it’s very comforting. You can go on believing that there really is a right way, and you just didn’t find it.”Marilyn French
The word ‘ghost’ may come from Ambrose Bierce:
Ghost: The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
I’ve even heard the word ‘scars’.
A character becomes their scars. That’s not to say they’re defined by them, but their responses to them are.@SamSykesSwears
Fatal flaws aren’t always fatal and suggest they tend to be inborn. Fatal flaw refers to what I prefer to call the psychological shortcoming, and the ghost is a bit different.
‘Psychic wound’ is good, but other people use the word ‘ghost’. (e.g. Karl Iglesias) This is even better because I can visualise this thing as an alter-character following the main character around, actively getting in the way of their goals. However, ghosts refer to supernatural creatures, so let’s stick with ‘psychic wound’.
Most often, the Ghost involves traumas such as abandonment, betrayal, or a tragic accident which leaves the character permanently injured or disfigured, or causes guilt if the character feels he has caused another’s death. It can also be the death of a loved one. Basically, any traumatic incident that created a sense of loss, or a psychological emotional wound. […] The difference between Backstory and Ghost is that the first molds the character’s personalty, whereas the latter is still an open wound which haunts the character in your story and affects his inner need. Both, if interesting, can add emotional complexity and fascination to your character.Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias
Notice Iglesias mentions injuries and disfigurements. A disfigured character is a trope of yore, and modern writers need to be careful about that one. In these more enlightened times we know that a disfigurement or injury or missing right hand does not actually say anything about that person at all, but earlier stories conflated physical wounds with evil and mal-intent.
MOST COMMON TYPE OF PSYCHIC WOUND
The ghost itself acts as one of your main character’s opponents. One of. It’s rarely enough in a story to make your main character their ‘own worst enemy’. The ghost will be an add-on to your opposition — not the main bread and butter. (Unless you’re writing an experimental short story.)
THE FATAL FLAW
The most devastating ghost or psychic wound is sometimes called a fatal flaw.
In The Secret History, Donna Tartt opens Chapter One with the following paragraph:
Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I ued to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.Donna Tartt
The concept ‘fatal claw’ is clearly well-known, in everyday language as well as among storytellers, or Tartt’s metafictive opening wouldn’t work.
DO CHILD CHARACTERS NEED PSYCHIC WOUNDS?
What if your character is very young? A toddler in a picture book probably doesn’t have a psychic wound. They haven’t lived long enough. And if they are already damaged individuals, you’re probably not writing a children’s book. In a carnivalesque story they definitely won’t be damanged, because a carnivalesque story is all about having fun — for both the character and the reader.
Even a middle grade kid who has made it all the way through primary school doesn’t necessarily have a psychic wound. A lot of middle grade characters are a stand-in for The Every Child, where plot is given preference.
PSYCHIC WOUNDS AND UTOPIAN SETTINGS
Less common is the story in which a ghost is not possible because the hero lives in a paradise world. Instead of starting the story in slavery — in part because of his ghost — the hero begins free. But an attack will soon change all that.
This second type of ghost is far more common in children’s literature than in adult film. This makes sense, since children’s literature is where you will find many more genuine utopias (well, up until middle grade).
What about the first category, though? Do kids ever have ghosts/psychic wounds in books starring kids, for kids?
CHILDREN WHO DO HAVE PSYCHIC WOUNDS
Being an orphan is a pretty popular psychic wound for children, and there are many, many orphans in children’s literature. For the writer, this gets the parents right out of the way so children can have their independent adventures but it works doubly to create a psychic wound. The great thing about orphans is, even for child readers who are not themselves orphans, the fear of becoming an orphan is ever-present.
PARENTS WHO TRANSFER THEIR OWN PSYCHIC WOUNDS
Oftentimes the parent is the one with the ghost. This ghost affects the child, because the child is completely under the control of the adult.
Perhaps the child isn’t an orphan but has lost someone close — commonly a grandparent. Lyndsey’s character arc is set off in Freaks and Geeks after the death of her beloved grandmother, when she decides things are going to have to change around here. Suddenly aware of her own mortality, she seems to realise she can’t lead her one and only best life if she lives it like her own parents are.
In middle grade and above, rejection might take another form as the main character realises they don’t have the friends they want. Peer rejection.
This moves into possible romantic rejection in young adult literature, though the main character usually finds someone by the end, following ‘a Jack for every Jill’ ideology.
One thing is clear: fear of abandonment and rejection crops up time and again in children’s stories. This is no doubt connected to the fact that children are developmentally unable to care for themselves. Without adults in their lives, they would not survive.
Fear of abandonment morphs into fear of romantic/professional/social rejection in stories for adults. This, alone, is not a ghost but a psychological shortcoming, but once the audience is told that the main character has suffered from actual abandonment in the past, this is a ghost.
HOW TO WRITE A CHARACTER GHOST
Most writers don’t let the audience in on the ghost right away. They keep it as one of their plot revelations.
That said, occasionally the ghost appears in the first few scenes. Ghosts don’t have to be used as plot reveals. They can be introduced early as points of interest.
HOW TO REVEAL CHARACTER GHOST
Commonly in film: another character explains the hero’s ghost somewhere in the first third of the story. If writing cinematically, novelists may choose to do this also, but we don’t have to. The narrator can reveal the backstory of the ghost in the narrative summaries without it having to come via dialogue.
There is a case to be made for keeping backstory right out of any story unless it is ironic backstory. In other words, leave out the backstory the audience could have guessed anyway. If your main character is a 9-year-old boy who lives in the middle class suburbs of midwestern America we don’t need to be told about how he started elementary school when he was five, likes to watch Pixar movies and loves to eat pie. This boy’s backstory becomes ironic if you tell us his family used to live in their car, won the lottery and moved to this suburb last year.
Does advice to avoid non-ironic backstory apply equally to this specific type of backstory — the fatal flaw? I’ll argue no.
Case in point: sometimes we’re given the backstory of a villain which explains why they’ve ended up so villainous. If a villain became a villain because they were mistreated in the past this isn’t ironic — it is fully expected. However, the story of the fatal flaw must be inherently interesting and, if introduced at all, will probably have its own fully-formed story attached. (Some might call this a subplot.)
Note that a fully-formed story does not have to be lengthy. A 20 second TV commercial will be a fully-formed story.
COMMON TROPES RELATED TO THE PSYCHIC WOUND
Some of these tropes work well time and again — others you might avoid for ethical/overdone reasons.
In crime fiction, time and again we find the alcohol/tobacco addicted, workaholic, mechanically driven cop who is bad with people but can somehow read people well enough to apply their knowledge in their detective work. Most lately we have a number of autistic savants, or characters who tend to be read that way by an audience who know that one variation of autism (without the other bits which make up an entire individual).
In some romance imprints there are a lot of laconic men who are nevertheless good in bed because they absorb what their partners want by osmosis, or by relying on some kind of naked animal instinct. In supernatural romance, sometimes these men really are actual beasts of some kind. He may have been hurt by women in the past, or let down. Finally, in this story, he meets a woman who is not like all the others. Works as a fantasy; not good if applied to real life.
Mothers in horrors are almost always ‘fatally flawed’. Hana Shafi explains why this is a problem:
Marge [Nightmare On Elm Street] and her alcoholism, Wendy [The Shining] and her nervous passiveness, Maureen [Scream] and her infidelity. For centuries, real-life mothers have been blamed for social ills, both perceived and real. Mothers who work are neglecting their families; mothers who don’t work aren’t contributing to society or progressing the women’s movement; mothers who try to do it all are just kidding themselves. We plaster celebrity mothers on the covers of magazine and put them on informal trials: Are they good mothers or bad mothers? Are they worthy mothers? Are they capable of protecting their child? Will they make the right sacrifices, and often?
If horror movies are warnings, then they also act as our prescriptive fantasies for what happens if you’re a “bad” mother, if you don’t pay attention to what your kid is doing, if you opt out of the nuclear family dynamic. They say: be better or, essentially, be punished. Horror movie audiences are encouraged to feel critical of mothers. We might ask, “Will the monster win?” but it often feels like the true questions in horror are the same ones we ask of celebrity mothers, and of mothers everywhere: Are they good enough? Is everything bad that happens to the child the mother’s fault? Just as in real life, it seems, mothers are held responsible for anything and everything, no matter what they do.The Walrus
RELATED CONCEPT: THE SOUL TOUPEE
This is a concept invented by writer/cartoonist Tim Kreider and his friend. He writes about this in his essay “The Csar’s Daughter” in the collection We Learn Nothing. This essay is a wonderful example of a character sketch — a ‘fabulist’ (liar) friend who leads Kreider into a profound series of insights into why people lie and how others are complicit.
Here, he explains the Soul Toupee, which I feel is related to the Ghost:
Years ago a friend of mine and i used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink Very Large Beers from 32-ounce Styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLBs, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee. Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted. Most of the time other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Hey—got ’em all fooled!Tim Kreider
This concept is so useful for writers because it links two vital aspects of characterisation:
- The Ghost
- The Mask, which I have written about elsewhere.
Brainstorming Your Character’s Emotional Wound by Angela Ackerman
How to Write Essential Backstory Elements from Stavros Halvatzis
Fiction’s Wounding Event: Where Character and Incident Meet by Michelle Hoover
Character Secrets from Writer Unboxed
Written by Alejandro Amenábar, The Others is an old-fashioned melodramatic ghost story but done very well. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s one of those films that can be ruined in one fell swoop (like Sixth Sense), so leave the building now!
Amenábar is also well known for Open Your Eyes, and he started in filmmaking very young. He both wrote and directed The Others. (Screenplay)
This is a ‘haunted house movie’ (see here for an extensive list of many others) of the genres thriller and horror.
Remember that horror is one of the most metaphorical of genres, so there will be messages behind the story that you have to dig for a little bit.
On Twist Endings
Now that you know this film has a twist ending, it’s worth noting that just telling someone to expect a twist ending changes the story experience. You’re always better off not knowing a twist ending is coming. Take a look at the movie poster compared to the DVD collector’s edition, in which it is assumed that anyone buying the DVD will have already seen the film and know the twist. Note that, even though twist endings might at first glance make a great selling point, that information is kept off movie posters:
Other films with twist endings:
- The Village
- The Stepford Wives
- Terminator 3
Agatha Christie mastered the art of twist endings. Twist endings are almost mandatory in mysteries such as those she wrote. She managed this by setting up false villains. This is the trick employed by Amenábar here, too. Something which has been done so often that it’s almost cliche is when the audience finds out the main hero is already dead. This is done here too, after a fashion, but because we’ve also been tricked into thinking the villains are the troupe of house servants, the story still offers surprise: We probably suspect the house servants are ghosts, but we’re less likely to think the mother and her children are also ghosts. And even if we do guess that (because we’re super literate and have experienced a lot of stories), it is probably still a revelation to learn that it was the mother who killed her own children. Being a wartime setting, we probably assumed they died from some sort of war tragedy, or the Spanish flu (which killed more people during the war than did the battlefields.)
In short, the surprise twist in this story work because there is a layering of reveals — there is not just the one surprise.
This is difficult to pull off because it requires the writer to predict the audience’s response in order to confound it.
A woman who lives in a darkened old house with her two photosensitive children becomes convinced that her family home is haunted.
Genres: Thriller, horror. Remember that horror is one of the most metaphorical of genres, so there will be messages behind the story that you have to dig for a little bit. The story opens with a mother telling her children the story of Genesis. According to her religious (Catholic) world view, the afterlife is divided into parts: heaven, hell and purgatory. She believes this all the while failing to understand her reality within the story: Life on earth is likewise divided into parts — the living and the dead. Earth has its own kind of limbo, and it turns out to have nothing to do with whether someone has been baptised or not (as she has told her daughter, Anne.)
The Others is influenced by German Expressionism, an art movement dating from around 1900 until the early 1920s. German expressionist artists had often been to war, and came back a little world weary. The art they made was about the wretchedness of modern urban life, the solace of nature and religion, the naked body and its potential to signify primal emotion, and the need to confront the devastating experience of WW1. German expressionist art aims to startle the viewer. It is frank and direct. If you watch a German expressionist film you’ll find:
Chiaroscuro lighting — extreme contrasts of dark and light can be seen in this film as the characters move between dark/light rooms, often illuminated by only a kerosene lamp.
Lots of mirrors, glass and other reflective surfaces — in this film mirrors and windows come to the fore
Anthropomorphism — in this ghost story we have a similar thing: possession. (Little girl turns into old woman.) In a haunted house movie the house itself often functions as a character in its own right. The puppet Anne (and the old woman) play with is an anthropomorphised visual representation of this double world, where one has a hold over the other. But which world is more influential? In the end, the spirit world win out — the real world people drive away, unable to get rid of the ghosts.
I think (as Roger Ebert pointed out) this story is a ‘waiting game’. Unlike some of the most popular and memorable films, this one has a largely passive main character, whose only real motivation is to do nothing and keep the status quo. This was perhaps the writer’s biggest challenge. The writer also had to be very careful about the reveals, saving the one big reveal right until the very end. This meant that there could be no dramatic irony or anything like that — the audience has to be kept in the dark for as long as the main character is kept in the dark. This suspense bored Roger Ebert, who no doubt could guess what was going to happen due to having seen so many films; other fans absolutely loved the atmosphere regardless.
Why do some critics think this story drags? I think the story might seem slow because both Grace and her fake-opponent ally Mrs Mills were both waiting for each other to reveal themselves. Usually, you’ve got a driven hero and an equally driven opponent. The real opponents, who are very driven to rid their house of ghosts, are unseen by the audience, which is another problem the writer had to overcome.
Anagnorisis, need, desire
At the end of this story Grace will realise she is dead. She thinks she is still alive. She needs to realise she is dead before she can begin to ‘live’ her death. But the death is really a metaphor for the one terrible thing she did to her children — the killing could be compared to anything which damages a relationship irreparably, from which there’s no going back.
At the end Grace will also realise that she killed her own children as well as herself. This is part of her mending her relationship with them in their shared death. (They’re going to be stuck here, in this house, forever together… When I realised this I felt terribly sad for those child ghosts! Though apologies from parent to child can mend relationships, saying sorry cannot mend psychological damage.)
But here at the beginning of the story Grace thinks she is alive. She can’t work out why her servants left without so much as collecting their pay cheque, and she thinks that although she got mad and smothered her children with pillows, that she did no lasting damage, because all she remembers is that she walked back in on them and they were playing happily with said pillows.
This is the perfect story to use when illustrating the concept of the ‘ghost’ in storytelling, because this is literally a ghost story, but even if the main character hadn’t happened to have died, there is still the issue of that one day: We’re not told immediately (only after the father comes back — we learn he has asked the daughter about ‘that day’) but something terrible happened right before this story timeline began. By the time we’re told what it was we’ve already sensed it. The ‘ghost’, of course, is that Grace went mad and smothered her children to death with pillows before killing herself with the shot gun. We’ve already seen by that point in the story that the mother is controlling and mean, and that she owns a rifle. (Chekhov’s actual gun.)
The first question the audience has (although I personally forgot about it altogether until I went back): Why does Grace scream?
The post-wartime Isle of Jersey setting works very well for this particular story, partly because modern technology would prove a big problem for the basic plot. This is a family who needs to exist in a big house with no electricity. The darkness of the house is explained away at the beginning when Grace explains to the house servants that there were so many electricity cuts during the war that they just ‘learned to live without it’. There’s also the photosensitivity issue to get around the other problem — children generally play outside, and these ones don’t.
This era was also the height of the ghost story, sometimes called ‘The Golden Age of the Ghost Story’ (between the decline of the Gothic novel in the 1930s until the start of the first world war.)
There’s also a convenient reason for the father to be absent, and for him to be dead. He needs to be dead if he is to appear as a character in the story, and wars are great for that. Or is he just in a coma? The father’s semi-comatose state in this movie suggests that maybe he is lying injured somewhere on a battlefield, and when he leaves it’s because he’s returned to the land of the living. (In which case, is he the next person to arrive at the house? Will the children be haunted by the ghost of their own dad?)
For a 2001 audience, the wartime setting feels sufficiently ‘old-timey’ to suit the ghost story’s mood — after that even aristocratic families in and around England were no longer living in gothic castles on the misty moors — they were starting to open up their homes to the public in order to pay for maintenance on their historic homes, and the English aristocracy had changed to the point where the super rich could no longer live as they had been.
Another problem the writer had to overcome was: How to limit the arena to just this castle and the surrounding forest? He did this by use of mist. (A widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they are composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material.) Grace mentions at one point that ‘The fog has never lasted this long before’. In the ghost world that this writer has created, ghosts are surrounded by a white gloom, and can never escape beyond the place where they have an emotional attachment. This works really well. This boundary is tested of course, when Grace tries to leave and gets disorientated. (She finds her husband at that point, who seems to have been wandering around in a fugue state looking for home.)
This island has a long and interesting history, and would therefore have interesting ghosts. (Its recorded history extends over 1000 years. Jersey was part of the Duchy of Normandy, who’s dukes went on to become kings of England from 1066. Although it’s closer geographically to France than to England, it has remained attached to the English crown.)
Other problems the writer would have had to think about in this particular story: How to supply a family of ghosts with food? If ghosts don’t eat, wouldn’t they notice this fact? He gets around this by including a breakfast scene early in the story in which the daughter, Anne, eats toast but says it tastes funny, not like before. We — and the new housekeeper — interpret this to mean that the previous cook made better toast, and that Anne is simply having trouble adjusting to the change of personnel. But on second viewing, this is foreshadowing — she’s having trouble adjusting to being dead in general.
Other supplies such as Grace’s migraine tablets and kerosene are conceivably in generous supply at the house and haven’t run out over the course of the storytelling.
Haunted houses have a long history in literature, which is referred to throughout the film by Anne, literature in such tales, who has therefore concluded that ghosts walk around in chains. She would have been influenced by stories such as:
- The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole
- The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe
- “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe
- The House of the Seven Gables (1851) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James
- The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson
- The Rats in the Walls (1924) by H. P. Lovecraft
This house is Victorian in style, just as the mother has Victorian values about child-rearing and a literal interpretation of the bible.
Shortcoming & Need (Problem)
Psychological Shortcoming: Grace is unable to relate warmly to her own children (or indeed to anyone else) and, as it turns out, she sometimes goes over the edge into insanity. We see this when Anne is possessed by the old lady from the other side.
Moral Shortcoming: Grace is controlling and mean — she is the trope of the cold, pre-war English mother who believes children should be seen and not heard. She is motivated by the Bible and doesn’t question even its most disturbing parts. She believes all evil will be punished in hell and using this as her motivation she can be unjustly cruel on her children, particularly on her daughter Anne. We see this when she makes Anne sit on the stairs for three days reading from the bible. The housekeeper questions the severity of the punishment. (Anne has been seeing ghosts.) Grace also treats her servants harshly, and doesn’t believe that she herself might have made a mistake such as leave a door open. She doesn’t believe people even when they’re telling the truth.
Need: Grace needs to put aside the bible and experience spirituality for herself — there’s no telling this woman.
Anne has seen some ghosts and draws pictures of them — not that Grace believes this. She punishes her daughter for making up stories.
This inciting incident connects need and desire by showing the audience how Grace can’t accept experience — this contrasts with her reading the bible (in the very opening sequence) — she is a woman of words but not of experience. She can’t ‘feel’ anything.
Grace’s goal in this story is to live in this big, dark house undisturbed by the outside world, protecting her (supposedly) photosensitive children from sunlight. She is the perfect character to become a ghost without knowing it because all she wants to do is keep her children locked up in the dark. (I suspect the mother was actually agoraphobic, otherwise she would have surely memorised the names on the graves right outside her own house and realised who the servants were as soon as they turned up. I suspect Grace impressed this agoraphobia onto her own children by telling them they were photosensitive when they weren’t.)
The importance of this desire increases over the course of the story due to the ‘ghosts’ making this impossible, escalating of course when they’ve taken down the curtains altogether. (Probably because they were freaked out by them — the actual ghosts were always going around closing them during the day.)
The housekeeper Mrs Bertha Mills is a fake-opponent ally. Her desire in this story is to show Grace the truth and provide her support when she comes to her realisation that she is dead. But she seems to Grace (and also to the audience) to be deliberately undermining Grace’s efforts to keep her children shielded from light.
Grace’s main opponent is her own daughter who is beginning to enter the defiant years. She won’t do as her mother tells her to do. If Grace’s main desire is to keep her children hidden from the light (from the truth), Anne’s desire is to live, and to live authentically. She cannot ignore evidence of strange happenings, even if she isn’t fully cognisant of the truth.
Other opponents are the unseen living people who have moved into the house. Mainly, it’s the clairvoyant who has the power to get rid of them, and the main desire is to stay in the house.
The mystery is: Whose version of the truth are we to believe — is Anne making stories up? What are those noises? Are they still surrounded? Are the noises real? Are they coming from anywhere at all, or is Mrs Mills playing some sort of psychological trick on Grace? Who is the victim here? What is Mrs Mills’ motivation? The mystery thickens when we learn that Mrs Mills has served in this house before. Why has she come back?
The returning husband almost fits this description: Does he know that he is dead? Is that why he took off, to heaven? It seems he has worked out the truth of ‘that day’ from Anne, and perhaps he feels bad for his wife but does not want to spend the rest of forever with her. He makes love to her and leaves. So during that scene I suppose he’s a fake-ally. Or perhaps his real life experiences on the battlefield have made more of an impression on him than his house, and so his permanent otherworld arena is the battlefield rather than one of domesticity. (In ghost lore, ghosts hang around places when they feel a strong connection to that place.)
Changed desire and motive
Grace’s desire doesn’t waver throughout this story — her only motivation is to keep the house dark.
Even when faced with evidence to the contrary, Grace turns back to the bible, refusing to believe in supernatural things. But she realises she’s going to have to get the priest in to help.
First revelation and decision
The first big reveal is that Anne has been telling the truth — there do seem to be ghosts in the house. We see a bit of emotional growth when Grace apologises to Anne. Grace realises this for herself when she locks the piano lid then goes back to find it open seconds later. Curtains are drawn when they shouldn’t be.
More bible lessons for the children.
Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
This is a waiting game. (As Roger Ebert wrote:It’s not a freak show but a waiting game, in which an atmosphere of dread slowly envelops the characters—too slowly.) Mrs Mills knows that eventually the other side will provide enough evidence to provide Grace with her revelation.
Grace realises the house is indeed haunted so she runs out into the fog to find the priest who will supposedly bless the house and fix everything. If my theory about the agoraphobia is right, it would take desperation for Grace to run out like this.
Attack by ally
Mrs Mills gently challenges Grace at various points by dropping hints about her being dead, but she as she tells Mr Tuttle, she must come to the realisation on her own, because she won’t accept being told the truth. This is part of the religious theme of the story; in some ways it seems to contradict the Roman Catholic teachings, but in other ways it has a religious message: You have to experience spirituality for yourself; you can’t really accept spiritual things simply by being told.
It seems Grace has lost everything when her daughter is defiant. Grace can’t control the lighting in her house, doesn’t know who the intruders are (suspects they’re war criminals) and even begins to suspect the house servants of wrongdoing. She has no one as an ally. She is especially defeated when her husband leaves for a second time. Could anything else be worse for this character?
Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive
Grace is so obsessed with protecting her house and children that she takes out a gun. There’s a great scary moment when she is holding the gun and opens a door. (If you saw it in a theatre you may well have jumped!)
Second revelation and decision
Grace realises she needs to be a little softer on Anne. This comes after the scene in which she attacks her when dressed in her confirmation dress. Grace is starting to question her own sanity. She is able to say sorry to her daughter thinking her daughter is asleep. This is the very beginning of her new psychological state. The former Grace was not the sort of woman who could ever apologise to her own children.
The audience is shown that there are gravestones in the yard, and that they are being covered by leaves. We’re likely to guess that the house servants are dead. (The graves look old, covered in moss.) Perhaps we know one party is dead, but we’re not sure who. (It all depends on how many ghost stories you have read.)
Third revelation and decision
I lose count of the various revelations, but this is the point where the hero usually works out the opponent’s true identity. I suppose the third revelation takes place in the seance scene. Surely Grace realises she’s the ghost right there. (These steps really need to be shuffled round a bit to be put into the correct order.)
Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
The removal of the curtains is the throwing down of the gauntlet. If sunlight means death to her children, it means a kind of death to Grace also.
Grace scares the house servants off the property with a gun, convinced that they are playing mind games with her. They’re not surprised that the curtains have gone missing, so she suspects them of taking them down.
Grace realises the servants are ghosts when she is finds the book of the dead (which of course has come up earlier in the film — Grace asked for it to be removed from the house). This is a wonderful prop to use in film because it’s so visual. If this were a novel, such a visual revelation probably wouldn’t be quite so necessary. The servants turn up again after the children have made the same discovery via their grave stones. The ghost servants tell Grace she had better go and talk to ‘them’. (On the other side, the new owners of the house are holding a seance.) Grace is furious about this and creates a bit of a poltergeist scene.
It’s only when she’s huddling with her children after this battle that the events of ‘that day’ come back to her and she realises she, too, is dead. It is at this point the audience may remember how the story opened — with Grace screaming and then sitting up in bed. What had caused that scream? Now we know.
Now that Grace has ‘experienced’ spirituality she probably won’t stick so rigidly to the bible, and we can believe she’s not going to continue to bring her children up in strict, Victorian fashion. Now that she has had several anagnorises she will probably be a different kind of mother. (Though the past is the best predictor of the future…)
The family now has the house to themselves, though Mrs Mills says others will come — sometimes they’ll feel them, other times they won’t.