Archive for September, 2012

A writer of ghost stories (whose name escapes me now) once said, “I’m not so interested in ghosts—I’m interested in the people who see them.”

The idea that some people see ghosts and others do not is not new, and is quite a popular one now, thanks to a slew of “reality TV” shows featuring various psychics, mediums, and other sensitive types. Some people, according to this notion, just happen to be “sensitive” to ghosts the way other people are sensitive to shellfish and ragweed.

There is, of course, another explanation of why some people tend to see ghosts, and it’s been around at least since Shakespeare’s time. According to this explanation, people see ghosts because they are under intense psychological/emotional stress, or are suffering from psychosis or some other form of mental illness. In other words, they are “seeing things” that aren’t really there.

What does this mean for a writer of ghost stories? Specifically, for a writer of modern ghost stories?

As a writer, I confess to favoring the psychological approach. I want to know (and want you to know) who my characters are first, what’s going on in their lives, in their hearts and minds. What is the thing that’s leaving them open to an “intervention” from the other side?

The hazard for a writer who concentrates on the psychology of his human characters is that it can drain the energy from the supernatural element of your story—or, in some cases, push it out altogether.

That has happened to me on more than one occasion. I’ll start out writing what I think is a ghost story, then get to the end and discover that the ghost never showed up. This is what David Longhorn, editor of Supernatural Tales, calls “an almost ghost story.” And it’s a perfectly respectable and powerful type of story to write and read.

But subtlety can also be a vice in a ghost (or horror) story. Or, as a friend of mine said after seeing ‘The Blair Witch Project’, “When I spend my money on a movie like that, I want to see something!”

Another friend of mine recently remarked about how brilliantly Shakespeare “personified” the psychological torments of his characters as “ghosts.” I agreed, but also felt that there was something simplistic, even dismissive about his comment. Yes, I thought, Shakespeare’s ghosts” are rooted firmly in the deepest guilts and fears of his living characters. That’s where their raw power comes from. But is that all they are?

To put it simply, if a ghost can be explained away so easily, then it probably doesn’t belong in the story in the first place.

To have any real power at all, a spirit, any kind of spirit, must be more than a metaphor or a symbol. When I hear someone say that Banquo’s ghost is symbolic of Macbeth’s guilt, or that the ghost of Quint is a metaphor for the governess’ repressed sexual hunger, I flinch. For the characters who come face to face with them, these terrifying apparitions are not symbols or metaphors. They are experiences,┬ávivid, powerful experiences that do not ‘represent’ something else, but demand to be taken seriously at face value for what they are.

By the way, this has nothing to do with the question of whether or not ghosts “really exist”—that’s a debate for another type of post (and maybe another type of blog). This is about having respect for what you’re writing about. And for your reader.

Our job as writers is to provide our readers with an experience. In other words, to make them believe.

For ghosts to feel real, they need to resist our easy explanations. They need to have a little unpredictability, a little wildness. They need to shock us as much as they shock the character who sees them.

One of the oldest truisms in writing is, “Show, don’t tell.” That’s good advice for a writer of ghost stories. Don’t just give me a Freudian explanation or psychological rationale. Show me the ghost.


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