WriteSpa #11 – The Ghost Story

palm_trees4WriteSpa – An Oasis for Writers

The wind blusters and dying leaves fly eerily through swirling mists and falling rain. Dusk envelopes the countryside early; the nights are damp, long, and chilly. Around here, the end of October is a yummy time to conjure up tales that are creepy, mysterious; tales of the dark, the dreary, the dead.

A long time ago, the Celts celebrated Samhain, their New Year festival, at this time of year. Samhain was one of the most significant annual Druidic festivals, and the celebration lasted for three days. Literally, ‘samhain’ means ‘summer’s end’, and the festival marked the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark half.  To the ancient druids, the end of the old year was a mystical time when the usual barriers between our world and the otherworld stretched and thinned, allowing contact to be made between human beings and the fairy folk, elemental spirits, and ghosts.

The Celts believed that on the eve of Samhain the spirits of people who had died in that past year would come back to possess living people. On that night all the laws of time and space would be strangely altered, so that the spirits could enter the world of the living.

Scary possibility? The Celts thought so, and on their New Year’s Eve they extinguished all fires and lights, so their houses would seem empty and unwelcoming to any roaming spirits. Then they donned strange costumes, many of them dressing up as ghosts and spirits themselves, and paraded through the villages noisily and destructively, so the ‘real’ spirits would be frightened away.

Here’s an ancient Irish legend to share around the fire: Jack was a handsome young man, but he was also a drunkard and a prankster. Being clever and arrogant, he decided to play a trick on Satan. He lured Satan to the top of an oak tree, and then carved a cross on the trunk below. The cross meant that Satan was trapped in the high branches, unable to come down. But being a good-natured fellow, Jack finally promised to release Satan, if he promised never to tempt Jack again. Afterwards, Jack never drank or played pranks and was good as gold. But when he died, he wasn’t allowed to go to Heaven because he’d freed Satan, but neither was he allowed into Hell, because he was so good. Feeling sorry for him, Satan gave him a carved-out turnip with a single glowing ember in it to guide Jack through eternal and frigid darkness. When the Irish came to the United States, they found pumpkins were more common than turnips, and that’s how Jack-o-lanterns evolved. So when you carve a pumpkin, think about Jack, who had to wander through an eternity in darkness with only a small glowing turnip to light his way.


Fun Writing Practice – Write a ghost story

A ghost story is different from any other kind of story. You are not writing a tale of horror or terror; it is not about werewolves, vampires, or monsters. It is not a fable or a fairy-tale. There are three essential elements to a ghost story. Most important of all: your ghost story has to be about a ghost. What is a ghost? For the purpose of this exercise, we’re going to define a ghost as the spirit of a dead person, one who appears to resemble a person who used to be alive and who haunts a person or place. This spirit may be seen, heard, sensed (usually in a cold clammy sort of way), or may even convey a familiar, eerie fragrance.

Next we come to atmosphere. A ghost story has to be sinister. You need to set a mood that makes the reader or listener shiver and huddle closer to the fire. Think about the drenching rain, the black woods, the crimson leaves, the unexplained creaks, the wail in the tower, the jagged cliffs, the moaning wind on the moors – rich imagery makes all the difference in a ghost story. (Read a tale by Edgar Allen Poe if you want inspiration on how to create spine-chilling atmosphere in a story.)

The idea of a ghost – a dead person wandering around your lonely mansion – is pretty unnerving, and your redolently creepy atmosphere is also ominous. Now you need to come up with a plot that’s intriguing and terrifying. In your story your ghost has to have a purpose, a raison d’etre, if you will. In order for the ghost to eventually depart, it must have concluded a task: either of revenge, consolation, or something you yourself come up with. Again, this does not entail horror, gore, violence. It’s more frightening than that, more deeply puzzling and mysterious.

That’s all there is to it: atmosphere, a ghost, and a purpose. Remember, in writing a ghost story you’re trying to scare your reader out of their wits. You want them to tremble as they carry their candle up the stairs when they go to bed. You want them to quiver and quake under the covers when they confuse the wind rattling the window panes for footsteps in the attic. You want them to shriek in terror when a door slams unexpectedly in another part of the house.



Daily happinesses

  • Thin mist swirling over a lake
  • Hickory nuts hurled to the ground
  • The Day of the Dead
  • Gazing into a mirror at the stroke of midnight
  • crimson poison ivy
  • belladonna
  • candles dripping down the sides and sputtering into dark

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