When Everyone Else Is A Ghost

You may not believe in 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.

Ghost stories have plenty of other functions, too.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM OF MAIN CHARACTERS — likely to be that they don’t know supernatural dangers when stumbling headfirst into it, refusing to believe their own intuition
  3. 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?
  4. ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD — emphasis on the entry, like a portal fantasy
  5. ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG — emphasise the uncanny
  6. OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS — who may act like nothing is wrong and also robotically
  7. DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS — anachronous details, out-of-place objects, creepy details
  8. DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT — one object will stand out as wrong and weird
  9. AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS — not a revelation to us, just a confirmation
  10. CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION — like us, our characters can’t believe this is happening
  11. 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
  12. REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD — then, after us, they do believe it
  13. BATTLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER — the ghosts no longer act robotically. They ‘snap’.
  14. ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD — may be a chase scene
  15. BACK TO SAFETY — emphasis on details of the every day world, and how nothing feels dangerous here
  16. DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? — character thinks they are losing their mind
  17. 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.
  18. NEW EQUILIBRIUM: 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.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Glynn Washington who introduces these Spooked stories has this to say, and it applies to the ‘weakness’ 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 weakness 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.

DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE

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 storyworld as both familiar and off-kilter.

OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS

UNSURPRISED GHOSTS

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 storyworld 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 storyworld 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.

BATTLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER

The people in the bar all start to watch the newcomers. During this battle 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 weakness 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.

Rule of Three in Storytelling

“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.

CHASE SCENE

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 EQUILIBRIUM: 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.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Officer Kyle Minogue (a joke about Australian singer Kylie Minogue) and Officer O’Leary have the same weakness 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 storyworld.

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!”

— Minogue

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.

BATTLE: 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”.

 

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