Pardon the Entrails
Will Ludwigsen

One Need Not Be a Chamber to Be Haunted:
Some Thoughts on Writing Ghost Stories

Little ghost, little ghost
One I'm scared of the most
Can you scare me up a little bit of love?
I'm the only one that sees you,
And I can't do much to please you
And it's not yet time to meet the Lord above.

- "Little Ghost," by the White Stripes

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

- Emily Dickinson

I love the idea of ghosts, largely from a literary perspective. I like quasi-hallucinatory figures that appear with an indirect correspondence to our fears and neuroses, I like places that absorb our powerful emotions, I like cross-temporal communication between the present and the past, and I like houses and chambers with stories to tell.

I'm not sure I believe in them, though.

Paranormal encounters of all sorts, ghosts or UFOs or telekinesis, seem heavily freighted with personal and idiosyncratic meanings; they correspond closely with the needs of the people who experience them. Almost every ghost has a message, and those messages (directly sent or merely intercepted) have an uncanny way of finding the people who need them the most. Someone is adding the meaning and intelligence to ambiguous phenomena: either ghosts are conscious spirits seeking out the right people, or we're the ones adding the consciousness through our own interpretations. In either case, ghosts are rarely random.

Story ghosts, of course, are never random. Or at least, they shouldn't be.

Writers of ghost stories have two careful choices to make at the beginning of their work:

  • What theory or cosmology will ghosts "follow" in my world? What are their "rules"?
  • What narrative function will ghosts serve in this particular story?

Let's look at these questions in turn.

Ghost Theories

What do people think ghosts are in the real world? In my recent reading, I've discovered a wide variety of theories:

  • Spirits of the dead have returned to communicate with the living, offering warnings, revelations, comforts, or secrets.
  • Frustrated spirits of the dead are trapped in the material world. We can release them by helping them to the light.
  • Spirits of the dead are unaware that they are dead, going about their old lives obliviously. We can release them by helping them realize that they're dead.
  • Spirits of the dead have returned to protect their family or friends.
  • Spirits of the dead have returned to avenge themselves on their enemies.
  • Psychically sensitive people exude ectoplasm, a cold doughy substance they can use to move things.
  • We are capable of projecting ourselves to other places by our thoughts, something we sometimes do inadvertently.
  • We've made images too real, imbuing paintings and photographs with so much detail that they capture the spirits of the dead or the living.
  • Witches or other magic-using people are traveling incorporeally.
  • Angels or deceased relatives come to Earth to comfort us with news of a life beyond.
  • Demonic spirits come to terrorize us.
  • People or places are possessed by the devil.
  • Troubled people, often young women at the onset of puberty, sublimate emotional turbulence by telekinetically throwing objects.
  • Strong feelings (perhaps stored as electrical impulses from a brain in trauma) are absorbed by a specific location or item or even person, "played back" for certain perceptive people.
  • Telepathic messages come from the past, present, or future--often a person telling loved ones far away of his death.
  • Cross-temporal perceptions enable a kind of visual or emotional time travel to the most emotionally-charged moment for a person or place. Time is "thinner" in some places for some people.
  • Psychic manifestations appear of a neurotic observer's own fears, needs, or pain.
  • A neurotic observer reports mistaken perceptions or projections of his or her own fears, needs or pain.
  • Someone hallucinates, perhaps interpreting random stimuli with added meaning.
  • People misinterpret ambiguous stimuli of sounds as whispers, groans, or laughter (called Pareidolia).
  • A group of people succumb to a single assumption or perception via mass hysteria.
  • Infrasound emanations affect the brain into feeling discomfort.
  • Electromagnetic interference affects certain parts of the brain related to perception or memory, such as the Angular Gyrus which causes us to perceive that someone is standing behind us.
  • Physical explanations: seismic disturbances, differences in air pressure, houses settling, underground water and gases, animals, short-circuited wiring.
  • People commit fraud: scaring people away from a place, impersonating dead relatives, implicating others in witchcraft.
  • People suffer from mental issues such as anxiety, conversion hysteria, mania, and dissociative reactions.
  • People awaken with sleep paralysis or a hypnogogic trance, briefly unable to move.

Some of these seem more likely than others, but there is a tension between the plausible and the interesting. Yes, there's little evidence that souls return in search of Earthly justice, but that is the engine of many excellent stories. Likewise, though it is possible that some hauntings may well be the result of errant electromagnetic fields acting upon the melatonin levels in our brains, nobody wants to read a novel whose climax is the discovery of an unshielded antenna.

Whatever theory your story "believes" doesn't need to be plausible: it needs to function in a narrative. You may not even describe the mechanism by which "haunting" works in your world, though you should know it; your ghosts should behave consistently with their powers and origin.

The theory you choose must serve the purpose of your story, fitting the emotional and physical landscape of the characters. Which of these theories drives toward the greatest possible conflict with a person's neurosis? Which makes a person's life complicated or difficult? Which makes it possible to tell a story of meaning and resonance?

Answering these questions will lead you to the next important question for your ghost story.

Ghost Functions

So what do ghosts do in stories? What will your ghost do in yours?

It seems like almost everybody has written a ghost story at one time or another, even writers outside traditional "genre" boundaries like Edith Wharton and E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling. To their number, add writers like Shirley Jackson, John Collier, Stephen King, Edith Nesbit, Russell Kirk, M.R. James, Henry James, Arthur Phillips, John Harwood, Algernon Blackwood, L.P. Hartley, Charles Brockden Brown, and Robert Aickman, and you have quite a baseline of techniques. From reading these writers and many more, I've noticed several shared elements which hint at the necessary function of ghosts in their narratives:

  • Most of these stories contain scenes in which legends, stories, photographs, paintings, dreams, or other imaginative artifacts come to life. In Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," Madeline Usher staggers from her deathbed just as the narrator reads aloud from Canning's "Mad Trist." In John Harwood's The Ghost Writer, two sisters find themselves playing roles from the Victorian ghost stories written by their grandmother, aghast that "one came true." Time and again, the characters of ghost stories help the imaginary become the real, either by misinterpretation or by active participation.
  • They contain ambiguous stimuli, interpretable as neurotic imagination or as genuine paranormal experience. Is Eleanor Vance creating her own haunted house in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House? Is she somehow responsible for the scrawled writing on the walls addressed to her, the rattling of doors during her most anxious or threatened moments? Is the governess narrator of The Turn of the Screw reporting a ghostly encounter, or is she revealing her own sexual repressions? In Angelica, by Arthur Phillips, the terrified mother of the titular character has "memories evolving into ghosts."
  • They happen to characters whose experience of the paranormal hits them in the worst possible emotional or spiritual way; the ghost story and the character's own fears and neuroses are congruent. The "ghost" that Constance Barton fears in Angelica involves her husband and daughter just as her childhood abuse involved her father and herself. The governess in The Turn of the Screw manifests her fears of motherly failure by not protecting her charges.
  • They represent some moral balancing of the universe, a second chance at justice or a revelation of a hidden truth´┐Żoften after an initial wrong impression. The "ghost" in Harwood's The Ghost Writer is addressing an ancient wrong, helping draw attention to the clues to her own "murder."
  • They frequently require the disappearance or abatement of the paranormal phenomena once some goal is achieved or the character gets away. The story requires that the ghost be thwarted, defused, or escaped. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor dies to join with the house while all of the other characters flee.

Story ghosts, then, often represent justice deferred and rediscovered by someone sensitive living at the intersection of someone else's pain and their own. These sensitive people face (successfully or unsuccessfully) their own fears or guilt along with someone else's from the past, inadvertently amplifying them with their own flawed and wishful perceptions.

In other words, story ghosts seem most often to function as forced confrontations with anxiety, usually related to a trauma from the past.

What will your ghost "represent"? Why would this spirit bother to resist the universal forces of entropy to come back? What does your living character need from a ghostly encounter? How does he or she deserve it? How is this encounter the worst possible thing happening at the worst possible time?

It's no coincidence that Henry James referred to the escalating terror of a second child in his story as an additional "turn of the screw"; it is your job to turn the screws on your own characters, making their horrors terrifyingly specific.

Then, perhaps, you'll have a hope of haunting your reader, as well.

Will Ludwigsen still hasn't gotten around to writing a ghost story, but he's gathering the courage. His other fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Weird Tales, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and the Interfictions 2 anthology. To find out more about what haunts him, check his website at

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