29 October 2021
Top tips from author Will Maclean on writing a scary ghost story for Halloween
The first and most important thing to remember when writing a ghost story is the difference between scariness and creepiness. You will need to deploy both moods, so it’s well worth giving the matter some thought.
The part of us concerned with pure scariness is indescribably ancient, concerned only with fight or flight, with survival. As such, we are only truly, properly terrified when we’re confronted with those same primal terrors that threatened us a million years ago – being alone, being watched, being hunted or chased or otherwise pursued, with deadly intent... that small stock of evergreen human nightmares is where the pure, visceral scares will always come from.
At the other end of the scale, creepiness – the unsettling, disturbing, uncanny – is the way in which a much more recently evolved part of the brain processes that same fear. This part of the brain is concerned with solving puzzles, noticing patterns – reasoning things out, basically, – and as such it becomes scared and appalled in a different way. Things that are eerie - gaps in logic, a breakdown of reasoning, things that realistically should not be, but nonetheless are – these are the things that trouble the higher brain.
Ghost stories, of course, appeal to both bits of one’s brain, and it’s is in the conversation between these areas – the primal and the rational – that your ghost story will take shape. Both the ghostly, uncanny elements and the moments of sheer blind terror will come from that collision of rationality and primal fear, the dread of being confronted with something utterly beyond your experience, and simple dread for its own sake. Be aware of that conversation as you write.
My other big tip for writing a ghost story that’s as original as you can make it is, do real-life research. It’s worth reading as many real-life accounts of ghosts and hauntings as you can, and paying attention to how those stories played out. Trust me, patterns will emerge. The real-life stories that went into The Apparition Phase were two well-known true-life ghost stories – Borley Rectory, the Enfield Poltergeist – plus a couple of more obscure ones. However, the main thing that struck me about these stories was not so much the hauntings but how a lot of the people who gave an account of them were, in their own way, not entirely trustworthy, even if they had every intention of being so. That idea of a complex event that struck different witnesses in different ways became central to the story I ended up writing.
Also: ask relatives and friends if they’ve ever had any ghostly experiences, and listen carefully. Personal accounts are invaluable because seeing a ghost is such a personal experience, with very personal reactions. An extremely sceptical friend once told me, late one evening, about his experience of seeing a ghost when he was a child, and it carried so much more weight as a story because he absolutely didn’t want to believe it. And yet, he had witnessed it; he was clearly very uncomfortable even telling the story, making it more real by sharing it. That experience, for me, asked all sorts of questions, and exactly the kind of questions that a reader of ghost stories will be interested in. Plus, the oral re-telling of ghost stories takes us right back to the Neanderthal campfire, where the first ghost stories were shared.
Lastly - Don’t let it become ridiculous. There’s our reality – where ghosts are a peripheral presence, a persistent and tantalising possibility - and there’s spooky story world, where literally anything can happen. Unless you’re very careful, too much of the latter will overbalance the reality of the former. It’s a very hard mix to get right, but if you do, your story will end up possessing that remarkable thing that all the best ghost stories have – the ability to infect our rational everyday world with the other, the possibility of something beyond the apparent realities of life and death.
The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean is published by Cornerstone.
Interested in writing your own spooky stories in time for Halloween? Join WM's webinar How to Write Ghost Stories with Helen M Walters on 30 October!