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Writing ghost stories

Close the curtains, light the fire, curl up in your favourite chair. Maybe the wind is howling round the house, or rain lashing against the windows. Listen. Winter is traditionally the time to read and share ghost stories. Why? Perhaps we all like to be frightened, but only from the comfort of a cosy chair in a warm room. In this post I talk about the history of the ghost story, its main elements and how to write a ghost story of your own. I just hope you won’t scare yourselves too much when you are writing it!

Writing a ghost story – how to start

When you start writing your ghost story, you can begin by thinking about or sharing with other people your own experience of ghosts.

Have you ever ‘seen’ a ghost? Many people, especially children, tell me they’ve ‘seen’ or experienced a ghost. Often ‘seeing’ a ghost follows the death of someone very close to you. In the immediate few days afterwards, you seem to see them again. They’re sitting in their favourite chair, or just passing from one room to another. You might even hear their voice, or smell their perfume. This ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ isn’t frightening, but it can be startling, because you really know they’ve died. Even though you know you’re imagining they’re there, for that fleeting moment you believe that you really have seen them.

Have you ever had a ghostly experience?

By this I mean something that unnerves you and which has no explanation. I once entered a room in a converted barn that was known as ‘the goose house’. I was alone. As I crossed the room to go to my bed I had the sensation of being pressed against the wall. I couldn’t move or shake the pressure away. I could hardly breathe. My eyes were open, but there was nothing to see. There was absolutely no-one else in the room. After a moment the pressure was released, I was able to step away from the wall and continue to my bed. I have no explanation for this, but when I reported it the next day the owners of the ‘goose house’ said that other guests had had the experience too.

The fear of ghosts

Perhaps people like ghost stories because they like to be afraid. But why do they frighten us?

The fear of ghosts is the fear of the unknown, of experiencing something that is outside our control. We can explore this in our writing by thinking about our own experience of fear. Most people have been afraid at some time or other.

Have you ever been afraid?

Write down how it affected you mentally and physically. Your skin, your temperature, your breathing, your heart, your movement, your voice, your mind? Can you think of anything else?

The main elements when writing ghost stories

  • Setting
  • Characters
  • Mood
  • Revelation

How to write a ghost story – the setting

The setting is actually one of the main characters to consider when writing a ghost story. Once you’ve chosen the setting you’ll begin to have an idea about the other main characters.

So how do you choose a setting? Write down the settings of some of the ghost stories you’ve read. Do they have anything in common?

Now write a list of places you’ve visited that you think might be suitable settings, for their creepiness, their reputation, their remoteness. Anything else?

And, if you think you might like to be adventurous, think of unlikely places for a ghost story.

Choose one to be your setting. You can go with the familiar: castle, old house, graveyard. Try to avoid too many cliches.

Or you could choose a lonely, deserted place, or somewhere that’s difficult to escape from – a ship, a school, an island, an empty, locked theatre…

Or be daring: a shopping mall (moving escalators, shutters, reflecting windows…), a building site (rubble, gantries, cranes, falling masonry…) or underground train systems (rush of passing trains, echoey stations, long passages…). See if you can think of more.

Why is this place being haunted? What connection does the ghost have with this particular place? Did they once live there, work there, die there, fight there…? Was it once a place of peace for them? Is it their territory?

Is it the scene of a crime committed by the ghost, or to the ghost?

Is the ghost trapped there?

Haddon Hall, Derbyshire
Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which is said to be haunted.

The characters in your ghost story

The ghost

Who is the ghost? Is there actually a ghost, or is it imagined? What kind of ghost is it – friendly, not meaning any harm? Lonely? Does the ghost know it is dead? Has the ghost come to make amends, to take revenge, to find something lost, to put something right? Does it want to warn you about something? Or anything else?

The central character/protagonist

Decide whether you’re going to write this story in the first person, so you are the person being haunted. (Or you could be the ghost.) Or is it in the third person – in which case, who is it? Make sure you know who your central character is. What happens to them will affect them deeply, and you want to share their emotions, responses, fears, imaginings and rememberings with the reader.

Is that person alone? Is he or she with other people, but is the only one to see the ghost (like Macbeth when he sees Banquo)? So how will the other characters react? Will they be sceptical, amused, dismissive, annoyed, curious, protective, disbelieving, envious…?

Why has this person come to this place? Is there a connection between the character, the place and the ghost that is haunting it? Or is there something about this person that makes him or her susceptible to ghosts? Are they grieving? Highly imaginative? Ill? Guilty of a crime? Or determined to prove that there are no such things as ghosts or the paranormal?

The mood or atmosphere

You can create the mood or atmosphere of the story when you decide what kind of ghost story you’re writing. Is it going to be comical (white sheets, clanking chains, boo!), disturbing, creepy, frightening or absolutely terrifying?

Victorian ghost stories are full of creaking floorboards, flickering candles, shadows, gas lamps – but so were Victorian houses! Could you use today’s houses to create the same atmosphere? Electric lights, window blinds, carpeted floors, central heating…

Your ghost story’s revelation

You are taking your main character on a journey to a certain place, where they will encounter disturbing happenings. They will find out what is happening, and they will do something about it. This is the revelation. When they leave that place, their life will have changed. They will never forget this experience.

Remember this isn’t a detective story. You and your reader don’t have to solve anything, but you do have to resolve it. So the revelation leads to the resolution of the story. What does your character do to put things right? For themselves? For the ghost? Or do they simply run away?

How do you want your reader to feel at the end of the story? My anecdote about my goose house experience wouldn’t work as a ghost story, not as it stands. There’s no development, revelation or resolution. I would need to use my inagination to turn it into a satisfactory story. Are you going to explain everything? Or leave ends untied? Will the reader still be disturbed? Too scared to go to bed? Relieved? Amused? Or quietly, and for a long time afterwards, haunted by the memory of what they have been reading?

Some dos and don’ts when writing ghost stories

Don’t reveal too much too soon. Don’t let everything happen at once. Gradually introduce elements of the haunting.

Roald Dahl said: “The best of ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them.“ A classic example of this is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The ghost in this book is never seen; it is the memory of her that haunts every page.

Don’t use cliches – the headless corpse, the white sheet, the undead zombie. Get away from horror, vampires and goths. Don’t try to write a detective story. Don’t let the protagonist or ghost use physical force. The fear is psychological, not physical. The ghost might temporarily harm the mind, but not the body.

Do use surprise and hints. Just when your character thinks things are going to be all right…

What is not fully seen (glimpses, shadows, brief reflections) will be much creepier than a lurking figure with clanking chains.

And what is not properly heard (whispers, sighs, light footsteps) will be much more frightening than wails and shrieks!

Some tutorials on how to write ghost stories keep referring to ‘monsters’ or to ‘horror stories’ or even ‘thrillers’. A classic ghost story should be none of these things.

Do enjoy writing your ghost story. It’s a wonderfully imaginative genre – go for it!

The history of ghost stories

Since ancient times people have believed in ghosts and spirits. In many cultures the dead were buried with precious objects to take into the spirit world with them, as it was believed that the life of the spirit continues after the life of the physical body has ended. The First Ghosts, by Irving Finkel, explores the tradition of ghosts in Assyrian culture of three thousand years BC, and asserts that it is the belief in ghosts that make us human.

Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity by D. Felton shows that ghost stories were as popular in ancient Classical literature as they are today. We still use their concept of the haunted house, the unquiet dead seeking a proper burial, or revenge, or needing to help certain people. Similarly, we use, borrow or perpetuate the same idea of animals sensing the presence of ghosts, and the atmospheric devices of sounds, illusions and smells.

In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the ghosts of the murdered often return to terrify and to seek revenge. Five of Shakespeare’s plays have ghosts who profoundly affect their troubled living relatives and friends.

In Victorian times, it was common practice to attend a seance, to have the ghost of the dead speak to their grieving loved ones and bring them comfort. Dickens was one of the most productive ghost story writers, which he published in his periodial All the Year Round. Other contributors were Wilkie Collins and Mrs Gaskell. Dickens’ most famous ghost story, of course, is A Christmas Carol, where a procession of spirits bring the miserable Scrooge out of his miserly misanthrope to redemption and happiness.

Examples from some of my own stories and novels

The Haunting of Miss Julie

This is the second story chapter in my first book, How Green You Are. The setting is my own school – a convent school with basement corridors, religious statues, a nuns’ graveyard, an overgrown pond, and a school legend that a nun once drowned there. I only had to use my imagination and memory to write a ghost story about a friendless girl.

You are welcome to use all those elements to create your own ghost story, perhaps using your own school as the setting.

Haunted

A short story set on the Derbyshire moors. Two children find a horse trapped in the ice inside a cave. One of the children rides the horse at night, and the other child gradually realises that both the horse and its rider are actually ghosts. I’m using my knowledge of the local landscape and my imagination to write this story.

This short story can be found in the Haunted anthology.

The Company of Ghosts

The Company of Ghosts by Berlie Doherty

The setting for The Company of Ghosts is a small island about a mile off the coast of Scotland. The only buildings on it are a disused lighthouse and the former lighthouse keeper‘s cottage. All you can hear is the cry of gulls and the waves pounding on the rocks. In my story a girl is abandoned there. She is haunted by memories of her estranged father, but soon becomes aware that there is another presence on the island; the ghost of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Again, I used my imagination and my memories of the island to create this story.

Writing ghost stories: a spiral staircase

Slowly, soundlessly, she climbed the spiral stairs. She could feel her breath fluttering in her throat; she was too frightened to set it free. Now she felt a flurry around her like a cold wind; something made her flatten herself against the curved wall as if she was being pushed to one side as someone passed her. She listened, eyes wide, ears strained. Nothing, except for the rummaging of waves on rocks and the distant mockery of gulls. Every nerve in her body told her to turn and go down the stairs and out of the lighthouse, and yet she carried on.

The Haunted Hills

The setting is an old stone cottage in Derbyshire where a boy is staying with his family. He is grieving for his friend, who died when a stolen car crashed. The boy is drawn to the desolate moors and hills which are haunted by the ghost of the lost lad of local legend. I use the local story and the dramatic landscape of the Dark Peak as well as my imagination to create the atmosphere and the plot.

(This novel for 12+ will be published in 2022.)

Writing ghost stories: a plane wreck site

I crest the mound of dark moor, which looks completely desolate, breathing mist. The drizzle is like the white curtains some people have over their windows. I don’t know what I’m looking for, then I’m noticing scattered bits of tiny metal, just fragments at first, and now I can make out broken pieces of fuselage poking out of the ground, shards of metal like spearheads. I walk on, following the trail of debris around an area that could be the size of a football pitch. There are simple little wooden crosses stuck in the ground, made out of what look like ice-lolly sticks. Memorials to men who died here over seventy years ago. My stomach is turning over.

Everything’s so sad. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t know it was going to be like this. I wasn’t ready for it at all. Suddenly I can’t take it. Suddenly I’m shivering, I’m cold all over. Why have Mum and Dad brought me here, of all places, to see this, of all things?

The mist is drifting like breath. It’s spreading damp fingers over my skin, into my mouth, into my eyes. I can hardly see in front of me. Yet there are movements, shapes rising, lumbering towards me, reaching out to me. I can hear sighing, moaning. Desperate, I try to run away, but I can’t move.

Others

Also Thin Air (see plays) and Quieter than Snow (see my poetry collection Walking on Air).

You may also be interested in my blog post on writing haikus.

Hallowe’en and all that

In our culture, few people believe in ghosts, or the spirit world, yet we still retain the festival of Hallowe’en, the evening of All Saints’ Day, in which, in the Christian calendar, all saints are remembered. On the following day, All Souls’ Day, the dead are remembered and celebrated. In the culture of today we ‘raise’ the dead on Hallowe’en by wearing scary plastic masks, fancy dress of ghosts, skeletons, witches, anything really. Under American influence, Hallowe’en has become ‘Fright Night’. Shops are full of spider’s webs, bats, lanterns made of pumpkins etc; like Christmas, a Christian festival has become ‘paganised’ by commercialisation.

In Mexico the Day of the Dead, El Día de los Muertos, celebrates the dead with dancing and flowers. I’ve heard it said that Mexicans love death!

Authors’ favourite ghost stories

There are many really powerful ghost stories and novels. In many the ghosts simply have walk-on parts or are simply ghosts, not there to haunt, frighten or alarm anyone.

A quick poll on Twitter revealed favourite ghost stories to be:

  • Any by M R James – Brian Moses and six others
  • Dark Matter by Michelle Paver – Hilary McKay, Melinda Salisbury and four others
  • Any by Robert Crickman – Chris Priestley and four others
  • The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley – Stacey Sampson
  • Three Miles Up and Mr Wong by Elizabeth Jane Howard – Ian Beck

Here’s my own current favourite: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.

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Over to you

Please recommend some more wonderful ghost stories in the comments box below!

Original unmodified version of main photo: Ján Jakub Naništa/Unsplash. Other photos: Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her most recent books are Far From Home and Joe and the Dragonosaurus. Her latest novel The Haunted Hills will be published in 2022. See the About me page for more information.

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