Boroughs of the Dead

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How To Tell Ghost Stories


An ordinary tour guide has one prime directive: to impart information. How they do it is entirely up to them. They can embroider with narrative and literary quotations, they can focus on one specific aspect such as history, ethnicity, food or architecture, or they can stick with a roundup of just-the-facts-ma’am. But a ghost tour guide has a very different task indeed. The ghost tour guide must, absolutely must, know how to tell a ghost story.

Easier said than done.

Have you ever heard someone tell a ghost story that isn’t quite scary? You long to jump in at certain moments and scream, “You’re not telling it right!” You agonize as they fumble the most frightening parts, rush the pacing, and muddle the climactic finale. In your mind you’ve thought, “I can do better,” and then you try and then… you can’t.

The thing about a ghost story is that unless you’re telling it right, you end up with little more than, “I opened the closet and then I saw a ghost.” Not very terrifying stuff. Nor original. No, a good ghost story requires much more than mere re-telling. And so, in the spirit of sharing, this ghost tour guide is opening her playbook to share some of our tricks and tips with you.

“Contemporary, even ordinary….”

Sometimes the best ghost stories take place in the most mundane places. Cemeteries and haunted mansions are far too predictable. A haunted Burger King, or a shiny modern glass hotel, now that’s unexpected. The great author M.R. James once wrote, “as a rule, the setting [for a ghost story] should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet and hear any day.” James loves to sneak the terror up on his reader, so he deliberately avoids trying to build a dreadful atmosphere. The drier the atmosphere, the more impact the eventual introduction of the ghost will have. He’ll start off with a very plain, simple, quotidian chain of events and ever so lightly add in that one strange dusty object that, of course, turns out to — whoops! — open a portal to hell. Or, as he puts it, your protagonists must be “undisturbed by forebodings, pleased by their surroundings.”

But then again…

From time to time a truly atmospheric place demands attention. There actually is a haunted mansion in New York that is so stuffed with terrifying – and true – ghost stories that it would be impossible not to talk about it. So should you find something that looks wonderful and old-fashioned, or a place that just looks creepy (say, an ancient-looking, gnarled tree or an abandoned old construction site) you might want to surrender to it and set a story there. The heavy setting works best with true ghost stories, and with stories to be told aloud. Might as well give people something to look at – unless you’re happy to be the focal point.

“Some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories….”

On a related note, though a contemporary setting is desirable, you are allowed to hazard a few ghosts out of the past, though preferably the recent past, obscured only by (James again) “a slight haze of distance,” for instance, thirty years ago, or “some time before the war.” If you can somehow create the effect that you are handing down a “true narrative of remarkable circumstances” that happened to, say your cousin, then you have all the more authority, and everything you say is decidedly scarier.

If you do prefer your ghosts ancient, at least have some sort of rational or contemporary interlocutor to bring it into the present. Medieval knights being chased by ghosts are a nice bit of folk tale, but not really frightening. The ghosts of medieval knights chasing a hapless antiquarian, though, seem all right (because the antiquarian’s “finding of documents about it can be made plausible”).

No nice ghosts

Another requisite is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable ghosts and helpful apparitions are all very well, but they’re not about to frighten anyone. Never introduce the ghost of a friendly uncle to help you find a bit of hidden treasure. No, create a ghost that makes you wish you’d never opened that door, written that letter, disturbed that skull, or opened that book. Ghosts shouldn’t mess around around. They should want you dead. Otherwise, you’ve just created an imaginary friend.

Not too gory, please….

You want to frighten people to death, not dismember their corpses. If any blood is shed in your stories — which can indeed involve violent death; how do you think the demons get you? — it should be “shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded.” (Guess who said that?) In other words, if your little nephew asks for a ghost story and you give him Saw, you will never be invited back to another family dinner.

The Climax….

A must: the nicely managed crescendo. You’ll want to go for a slow burn but once you’ve got the ghost going, you’ve got to bring it home and quick while you’re still feeling shivery. Drag it out too long and your listener gets bored. A bored person is seldom shivery.

Remember, telling a good ghost story is like telling a good joke. It’s got to have a punch line, a topper. Never, ever, let a ghost story just peter out. In fact, if you remember nothing else about what I’ve told you here, just remember this: the ending is the most important part of any ghost story.

There. Now you should be equipped to “inspire a pleasing terror” in your audience.

Go forth and frighten.

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