Plausible Ghost Stories

So we’re driving home from the Con Monday listening to podcasts, and one did a show on ghost stories. There were about five, as I recall, three of which were ridiculous, one of which was so-so, and one of which made me go “…huh. Okay, I could give you that one.”

(For the record, I don’t have much opinion on ghosts, which is maybe a little surprising, since I have so many opinions on so many other things. (I more or less want to pitch every ghost hunter show out the window while screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs, but it’s not the same thing.) I have strong opinions about gray aliens, conspiracies, and every form of cryptozoology but especially Bigfoot. But ghosts I am somewhat agnostic on, unless I am having a grim fit of skepticism when I attempt to disbelieve in the entire world.)

But it got me thinking about what constitutes a plausible ghost story. Not an “I totally believe in ghosts now!” story, but just…”I do not immediately roll my eyes and call you a lying liar that lies.” Obviously there’s some combination of factors that reads as “plausible” and some that immediately push it over into eye-rolling territory.

On a whim, I went over to one of the many send-us-your-real-ghost-story sites on the web, and this was very helpful, because it provided so many examples of implausible stories. You could run down the list muttering “Lying…deluded…hypnogogic hallucinations*…lying…dream…get the pipes checked…yeah, you inflicted that on yourself…hypnogogic hallucination…oh honey, you need a therapist in a big way.” (I am Judgy McJudgerson when it comes to ghost stories by anonymous posters. This is undoubtedly a character flaw.)

And I started working up a mental list of what I’d find plausible in a ghost story and what threw me out completely, and I’d be curious to hear yours. (If the answer is “Nothing, because ghosts aren’t real,” you are most likely right, but you won’t have much fun with this one.)

Frequently I found that what made something plausible was simply the narrator acting like a real person would act in those situations. Which may have some benefit for writing, somewhere down the road, or if I decide to make a living breaking into the lucrative world of telling ghost stories for no profit whatsoever.

An Incomplete List Which Probably Only Applies To Me:

POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: Any story that begins with “I’ve always been sensitive to spirits…” establishes you as a probably unreliable narrator who is going to assume ghosts before checking the pipes for air bubbles. (Sorry, them’s the breaks.) It is possible to come back from this one, but unlikely. If you then go to talk about guardian angels, we are done.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Ouija boards. The minute the Ouija boards make an appearance, I check out mentally.

PLAUSIBLE: Trying to fix the supposed ghostly phenomena. “The cupboards kept swinging open, so we got new latches. The doors kept coming open so we replaced the hinges.” Even if it doesn’t help, I appreciate that you tried like a sensible person.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Dripping blood. Yawn.

PLAUSIBLE: Banal hauntings. The really implausible ones are always big and dramatic. Something like “Bobby-pins kept showing up all over the house, which was weird because none of us used bobby-pins,” strikes me as a better detail.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Unexplained phenomenon that I happen to know the explanation for. One ghost story I read had someone trying to blame a fairy ring on ghosts, and talking about seeing spiders of a species they didn’t know. Get a field-guide, people!

PLAUSIBLE: The ones that seem to be more “the world is stuck in a loop” than “something is purposeful here.” Like the Lutheran Ladies Bible Study met every Wednesday at eight for forty years in this room, so now that it’s been re-purposed for apartments, at 8 pm on Wednesday, the room suddenly smells like coffee. I’m surprisingly okay with that.

POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: Murder victims. Honestly, the minute you discover that somebody was murdered in the house, I get twice as skeptical. It’s a little too pat and ties things up too neatly. Real life doesn’t make for cohesive plotlines.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: “I woke up and felt like something was in the room with me.” This is the classic sleep paralysis intruder phenomenon, and can be filed under “brains are weird.” Also, “I felt like something was sitting on my chest and I couldn’t breathe,” aka the Hag. Brains do this, no ghosts required, and seeing it attributed to ghosts irks me.

POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: “And then I found an old photo album, and there was a picture of the ghost!” This is very likely a deal-breaker, since I’ll assume you saw the photos first and filled in the rest mentally, and anyway, it’s a little too horror-movie perfect. I’d be much more likely to accept “I found a photo album and there were photos of people. No, I couldn’t pick out the ghost. Photography from that era was primitive at best and anyway “zippy blur at around ankle level” doesn’t photograph well.”

PLAUSIBLE: Lack of malice. I have a much easier time believing in ghosts that aren’t vengeful, just, y’know, there. This is not to say that a ghost can’t get angry over something the homeowners are doing, but broadly non-malicious, just doin’ their own thing–that works much better for me than “I AM GHOST-DAR, DESTROYER OF TENANTS.” (Will also accept “There are X number of ghosts in the house for some reason, but only one has an attitude problem.)

POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: “I was scared, so I kept doing the exact same thing I was doing and didn’t take any precautions whatsoever.” Look, people do dumb things hoping that life will get better, but I am much more impressed when someone decides to sleep in a different room or put a brick in front of the door to keep it swinging closed.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: “I’m a professional ghost hunter…” ‘Nuff said.

 

 

*The intense hallucinations/waking dream experienced when falling asleep. Hypnopompic hallucinations occur when you’re waking up. I get those, incidentally, if I’m having a sleep paralysis episode, and they are as clear and vivid as real life, so I don’t blame people for thinking there’s weird stuff happening.

  • reply C. S. P. Schofield ,

    My mother’s family owns a summer house with a tennis court (more money in 1917 than now). It is a family tradition that when you wake up in the early summer morning and hear a tennis match, but nobody is on the court, that is grandmother. Now, there are other possibilities. Our’s isn’t the only court in the area, though the others are kind of far and kind of hedged-in for the sound to be traveling that clearly. I suppose it’s possible that something else sounds like a couple of players volleying, though it’s pretty distinctive. We like to think it’s a nice between-the-wars era lady-ghost in a long white tennis dress.

    • reply Darla ,

      Regardless of whether the ghost is real or not, that’s a good story, and fun way of remembering Grandmother, I’m thinking.

    • reply Bookwyrm ,

      Re: tennis match – sound travels differently at night and during the day, because differently warm layers of the atmosphere distort sound waves either towards (night, cold air under warm) or away from (day, warm air under cold) the earth. You’re probably hearing your neighbors’ early morning tennis matches. Basically, the upper layer of air stays about the same temperature all the time, but the air close to earth changes temperature rapidly during the day/night cycle, as solar energy heats the earth and radiates off to the lower atmosphere. Early morning you would still have the cold, dense air close to earth.

      Or it’s your grandma. It sounds like a nice story.

      • reply C. S. P. Schofield ,

        I’m not saying you are wrong, but the nearest other courts are both surrounded by tall hedges, and have a lot of intervening scrub growth. Besides, if it’s a ghost, its a pleasant and familial ghost.

      • reply Hazel ,

        Do creepy doll stories count? Because I have a very good one of those.

        • reply dester'edra ,

          Worthy of note: i recall reading, some years back, that certain very low frequency sound waves are inaudible to people, but can still produce many of the sensations we experience with ghosts–sudden changes on perceived temperature, mood swings and feelings of unexplained dread, muscle tension…It’s been suggested that many folks who describe ghost sightings in old buildings may just be sensing an unhappy AC system or an old window that vibrates with traffic at precisely the wrong frequency. Rumor has it that while no country admits any attempt to weaponize ultra low frequency sound waves, use of them is specifically noted in the geneva convention, and attempts to protect against such a weapon have produced a lot of modern sound proofing methods.

          Also, i forget who it was that pointed out how odd it is that most ghost stories are about people who lived at least 50 years ago, preferably more. No 80’s punk ghosts, no spirits in 90’s grunge. Do we have a waiting period on haunting or something?

          • reply Escher ,

            This is one of those “kinda-sorta” deals. There’s been several experiments that found that a small subset of people (between a quarter and a fifth) react to loud infrasound with feelings of anxiety, and NASA says the human eyeball resonates somewhere around 18 Hz, which is right in that infrasound zone. (Most people’s hearing drops off sharply around 20 to 22 Hz.) A vibrating eyeball could cause visual distortions, like a shape moving around on the edge of the vision.

            That said, the volumes necessary to produce those responses are typically very high. Vic Tandy, who discovered the effect and wrote the first paper on the subject, was working in a lab whose air exchanger was producing an 18 Hz signal at over 120 dB, which is as loud as a jet engine, strong enough to palpably vibrate a table under your fingertips. Most of the other experiments have not shown a strong reaction in subjects at low volumes.

            So basically it’s not something you’re gonna get from traffic or wind on a window. It is theoretically possible that a particular building could produce very loud sounds in that range, but the conditions necessary to do so would likely be very specific (like having the wind at just the right speed, in just the right direction over the chimney).

            Further, any hallucinations created by this would be more blob-like than anything else. The source is like ripples on a pond, so you won’t get anything detailed out of that. Certainly nothing you could reasonably describe as having seen ‘a woman in a white dress’ or some such thing.

            Infrasound may well explain certain “haunted house” locations, but as a general explanation for ghost sightings, it leaves a lot to be desired.

          • reply Al the K ,

            The list works for me. Add as a deal-breaker “My BFF’s aunt’s neighbor’s first cousin’s grandfather said …”

            We coulda kinda guessed this since you haven’t posted about any Ghost-Bob hanging around the house. Don’t let that prevent you from writing anything with ghosts in them!!

            • reply ursulav ,

              Hee! The house was built new, and as far as I know, the only two things that have passed away in it are two cats, who went on to their just feline rewards. And while this area has been under cultivation for well over a thousand years, between recent European settlers and several waves of Native American settlement, it would appear that no one ever keeled over on this exact patch–or if they did, they went with a clear conscience.

            • reply Escher ,

              I had a sleep paralysis episode once (and only once!), but I’d heard of it before so it was more of an interesting experience than anything to freak out over. I didn’t have any hallucinations or feelings of unseen presences. I just woke up on a Sunday morning with the sun streaming in through the curtains and discovered that I couldn’t move. I immediately thought “Oh, neat! Sleep paralysis!” and started experimenting to see what I could move, which turned out to be my eyes and, after some effort, my fingers, a little. I was able to move my left index finger enough to drum on the mattress, and after several seconds I could move it up and down a little more, and suddenly I “heard” a sound like that crackly sound when you pop your ears and I could move normally. I’m still not sure whether that was an actual sound, like ears popping or neck crackling, caused by things starting to move after hours of immobility, or if the sound was entirely inside my brain as some manifestation of the paralysis circuit shutting off. I might have a better idea if it had ever happened again, but so far, no (and this was about ten years ago).

              Elapsed time of the whole experience was less than a minute, and probably a lot closer to 10 or 15 seconds.

              • reply ursulav ,

                Sleep paralysis can get SUPER intense–I’m pretty glad I don’t get it much anymore. I used to have them pretty much daily, but I’ve only had one in the last five years, so I think it was mostly stress. I was lucky in that mine were very rarely negative, but they were very frustrating (and more so because I would think I’d broken it and was moving, and then it would turn out I wasn’t moving after all, just hallucinating moving.)

                • reply Liliedhe ,

                  I know those. I used to have them before exams and things – I would get up, and get up, and get up… Only to find I was still sleeping. They can be quite distressful. I’m also hearing phantom noises when falling asleep. Fortunately, I know the process of changing between asleep and awake is screwed up in my brain, so I was never really afraid. Even the one time when it felt like the devil was holding me down on my bed 😉 (he went away when my dream self began to pray) – some part of my brain knew this wasn’t real. But I can very well imagine that people who don’t know about being afflicted by problems like that would be very distressed.

              • reply Amy ,

                My best friend Carole had a mean ol’ grandma who lived with them, and died a couple summers before I moved away. I came back to visit when I was 14, and Carole and I were in the house alone. It was completely closed with the swamp cooler in the living room running since it was 115 outside (Fresno, CA, August), and the cat and dog were in the front room with us. Suddenly, one of the bedroom doors slammed shut, hard enough to rattle walls and 14 y/o girls! We were too terrified to go back there for a while. A couple days later, Carole had gone to the bathroom during a commercial break. (Remember those!?) she came back and said ‘Amy, did you use my grandma’s perfume?’ I looked at her completely confused, and she said that when she went in her room, the dresser drawer where she kept it was open partway, and the bottle was sitting open on top of the dresser.

                So, pretty mundane stuff. I don’t claim to know with any certainty what was going on, but it definitely has kept me from being 100% skeptical when I hear other’s stories.

                • reply Sarah ,

                  There’s supposedly a ghost in the lab where I work. The designer and first director was a chronic workaholic and died at his desk of a heart attack one Saturday morning. It’s a fairly old building (1930’s) and it can get truly creepy at night. Lots of drafts (because it’s old and literally built like a sieve); lots of flickering lights (due to plastic sheeting/other crap hanging from the ceiling and aforementioned drafts, but also due to the wiring that hasn’t ever been upgraded.) Lots of half-seen movement out of the corner of your eye.
                  But that’s not the ghost story. No one has ever mentioned seeing him. It’s just that this guy was (according to (current) professors emeriti who were graduate students and post-docs during his tenure) a real hard-a** and neat freak of obscene proportions. As in, he situated his office such that no one could enter or leave the property without crossing his line of sight, had the position of every desk planned and mapped on the building blueprints and wouldn’t allow them to be re-arranged, custom-built cabinets with slanted tops so that nothing could be piled on them and required desktops to be bare at the end of every workday. Today, the lab is infamous for its clutter and overall dirt (we quite literally study it….), and every once in a while, someone will come in to a desk that has been neatened up. Loose papers have been categorized and stacked and lined up with the edges of the desk, pencils and rulers are parallel (or perpendicular). And no one will cop to it. (And really, no one cares enough to actually clean up someone else’s desk.– not even for the momentary confusion.) So, yeah. That’s the lab ghost– every once in awhile, he decides he can’t stand the mess and cleans up a workstation or two. That’s it. No dripping blood or strange sounds or eerie feelings. Just….random overnight cleanups.

                  • reply RhianimatorLGP ,

                    I’ve seen a fair amount of weird stuff, most of which I could science eventually. Only one I can think of that I couldn’t, but ghosts had nothing to do with it. I was riding in a recently plowed open field around noonish in the middle of summer with a friend and we both saw an extra horse and rider shadow where none should have been. My only working theory is some sort of hallucination brought on by what they were putting on that field for irrigation. (Paper mill effluent) with possible side contributions from the high voltage lines overhead and overspray from the chemical abuser just down the road who put Gods know what on his walnut orchard. So glad we moved away from there.

                    • reply boutet ,

                      A breaker for me is any similarity to a well-known urban legend or bit of history. At least make up your own stuff! or interpret your experience into something original, or whatever. Being haunted by famous ghosts is like saying you’re a reincarnation of a famous dead person. Even if the world is totally the way you think it is, chances are you’d be haunted by/reincarnated from some random shmuck.

                      • reply ADder ,

                        http://youtu.be/Td6LqD_rUUY
                        Someone with an over-abundance of humming birds. I thought you might enjoy it since they are the cause of all your garden issues.

                        • reply Darla ,

                          We lived over a mile from the nearest neighbor’s property, and were the last house on the road so we had virtually NO traffic. So when more than one of us would hear a child laughing, or singing, when there was no child for miles around, it was rather spooky. To my knowledge, the family that owned the house before us never had a child die or anything, and neither had we. I suppose there was some legitimate explanation, but it’s certainly caused my skepticism about unexplained phenomena to be slightly less… well, skeptical.

                          • reply wrp ,

                            “I’ve always been sensitive to spirits. That’s why I’m sure I was sober: it was exam week and I hadn’t had a drop in days.”

                            Sorry, had to get that out of my system…

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