by Christina Lay
Every year about this time I partake in an annual ritual in which I retreat with like-minded folk to the foggy Oregon woods in order to conjure the dead. No, I’m not a member of a satanic cult, but merely a writer and the conjuring is in the form of crafting a ghost story. Every October, I send my mind wandering down the sort of dark paths a well-adjusted person might normally avoid. Inevitably the resulting stories, when read by unsuspecting family members and friends, lead to the question “where on earth do you come up with these ideas?” The question is usually accompanied by a suspicious frown, a sideways glance, and a subtle increase in physical separation.
I answer with a sly chuckle because who doesn’t like unnerving those who’ve become complacent in thinking they know you? But for the sake of this near Halloween blog, I’ll try to explain. For me, only the spark of The Idea is the ghost, or paranormal entity, around which the conflict will revolve. I need exert very little effort to come up with a vast array of things that scare me. The harder part is coming up with a thing that scares me that I want to spend time with; some aspect of fear that beckons more than it repulses. There are so many paths I have no desire at all to follow, or think about long enough to portray convincingly. For to create the world of the ghost, monster or what have you, the writer must enter fully the world in which said monster exists, dwells, and dominates. This can be a fairly unnerving task. The better you do your job, the more disturbing it may be. And yet, to write a scary story, I think we have to scare ourselves, at least a little.
Of course, ghost stories aren’t all about scaring the beejeebus out of the reader (though that’s certainly a bonus worth wringing one’s hands over in evil delight). It’s not even all about fear and what scares us. Fear is actually a rather simple emotion. The more intriguing story question is often, what becomes of the fear? How do we respond to true terror? How does witnessing the impossible affect us? Do we overcome horror or succumb to it? Do we fight or flee or become monstrous ourselves? How does the world of daylight and hard shadows change for us? Do we change? Does our perception shift forever? What does our reaction to threat tell us about ourselves? Do we rise above the sea of the unknown or sink beneath the waves?
When setting out to write a ghost story, the underlying theme is often not how to kill a werewolf or rid your beach house of undead occupants, but the aftermath. How to take a simple survival response and twist it into something fascinating, bizarre, perhaps improbable but with just enough truth to undermine certainty. Hopefully to reveal some hidden corner of the human soul we’d rather not see.
So while all sorts of fearsome scenarios dance merrily through my head in these pre-ghosting days, the real struggle is in finding the situation with the highest potential to lead me down a dark path I’ve never explored before; to find the character both strong and weak enough to tell the story, the one who I’ll torment and set in harm’s way; to choose a setting that will reflect and amplify the character’s predicament, adding delicious layers of creep, mystery, exoticism or sterility and then at last, at the black heart of it all, awaits the ghost.
I like to think of ghosting as an adventure akin to storm chasing or spelunking, only it’s our minds, our awareness, our emotional well-being that we risk as we wander further and further from the light, drawn to danger in spite of ourselves, ready to push our protagonist off a cliff while stepping precariously close to the edge ourselves.