I will never forget the first time I read Edgar Allen Poe. I had a borrowed a book of his short stories from my brother in sixth grade and spent an evening reading The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, The Fall of the House of Usher, and of course, The Tell-Tale Heart. To say that I was scared was an understatement. Scary movies and haunted houses were one thing but I was shocked that a book was able to elicit a feeling of dread and panic.
That’s just the thing about a good ghost story—while it is easy to be scared by a movie or haunted house because it’s a visual medium (see video example below!), it is often much more difficult to be scared by a story. That responsibility rests on the writer. What constitutes a “good” (scary) ghost story? What elements need to be present in order to keep a reader sleeping with the lights on?
The answer depends on what part of the world you call home. While all ghost stories are centered on supernatural elements, some are derived from oral tradition, folklore, legends, myths, and rumors. For example, in Japan, ghost stories were often told to keep citizens awake during village meetings. In the United States, ghost stories are often derived from events unique to American culture like the Civil War, the slave trade, or Puritan society.
The real surge in ghost story fascination started to emerge with the introduction of psychology and the unconscious by Freud and his contemporaries. This era produced some of the most fascinating horror literature. Authors like Henry James, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Nathaniel Hawthorne, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary E. Wilkins, Edgar Allen Poe, Edith Wharton and Shirley Jackson all flourished around this time.
One thing that all of these authors were able to do was evoke a response from the reader. Arguably, that is the main goal of horror fiction writing. If your reader experiences a physical, emotional, or psychological response to your story, you can chalk it up to a job well done. Most American horror writers focus on the fear of the unknown and the anxieties surrounding the unknown. This often invokes the strongest response. While Edgar Allen Poe was clearly able to do that for me, more contemporary authors like Stephen King are able to produce the same response.
Some additional elements you might want to include in your own ghost story are highly descriptive details, supernatural and demonic elements, all-consuming obsessions, and grotesque characters & settings. Perhaps the best fact of horror fiction & ghost stories is that is it one of the less definable genres of fiction. There is great room for experimentation. The genre now includes LGBT, technology, and even political horror elements.
Regardless of what elements you choose to include or not include in your story, do not be afraid to experiment. The stronger the response you can evoke from your reader, the better your story will be.