I heard a ghost story recently. It went something like this:
There was a little boy, called Tim, who was 12 years old. His parents got an emergency call at 10pm one night, and had to go to sort things out.
They put him to bed before they went, and told him that the dog was under his bed, so if he woke up in the night and they weren’t around, he could put his hand under the bed and the dog would lick it, so he’d know that he was safe.
He woke up around 2am, feeling scared, and put his hand under the bed. He felt a tongue licking it, so he went back to sleep, feeling reassured.
He woke up again not long after, and the same happened. He fell asleep pretty easily the second time.
Then he woke at 5am. His parents weren’t in yet and it was stormy outside, and the lightning was flashing in through a gap in the curtains. He put his hand under the bed, felt the lick, and then felt brave enough to get up and close the curtains fully. When he got there, he took a quick peek outside, and saw his dog strung up on the washing line, with writing on the outside of his window saying “Not only dogs have tongues.”
Obviously, there’s a lot in the delivery (which is why this story has no effect whatsoever when written down). However, deconstructing it gives some insights into what makes a ghost story good.
First, there needs to be some inventiveness on the part of the storyteller to provide enough detail to conjure up some emotion towards the characters. My two sentences set the scene, but was it spoken, you’d expect it to be more informal and take a little more time over it.
Secondly, there’s the setting up and foiling of the expectation/suspense. When I heard this story, after the first mention of “hand under bed”, a friend assumed (outspokenly) that the dog was going to bite his hand off. The listener knows, from the outset, that with two characters and one bed, not much can happen. Thus, to make a good story, you have to counter the expectation by doing the unexpected.
Thirdly, there’s the rule of three. Things happen in threes in a lot of stories, but in most of the ghost stories I’ve been told, there are two non-events linking to the final event. Ideally the two non-events bear some relation to the final event, but not enough to give it away.
Fourthly, there’s the element of horror. Something dramatic needs to be depicted to make a final impact, hopefully something graphic, involving blood, or veins, or something.
The final rule is to leave the listener with uncertainty as to what happens. This attacks one’s sense of security. In this story, the final event leaves us unsure as to what is underneath the bed, and it even makes us unsure of what had happened earlier in the story. It’s pulling the rug from under us, and is the clever bit.