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.