The woman murdered by a spurned lover wails from somewhere inside the walls. A malevolent spirit scratches at the wallpaper in the nursery. Something watches the newlywed couple while they sleep restlessly in their new home. Ghost stories can push your playwriting in new ways. Horror storytelling tools are myriad, but I’ll attempt to unpack a utilitarian one for the daring playwright wishing to terrorize an audience with a ghost story.
Ghost stories are distilled history. A long line of people came before us. They now haunt us for better or worse. Their bodies decompose in the very soil we’ve built our safe homes upon. We usually understand this on a gut level. After all, two of the most consistent themes of literature are “Sins of the Father” and “learn from history or be doomed to repeat it.” But as playwrights, we must further understand how shaping history for narrative and performative uses impact the ghosts and scene evoked.
Ghostland by Colin Dickey examines the evolution of ghost stories at different sites around the United States and how interpretations of those stories reflect deeper meaning about our current moment and our inability to confront the realities of history. In one chapter, he talks about Richmond, VA, purportedly one of the most haunted cities in the world. Richmond was once the biggest slave trading location in the United States with incalculable Black, enslaved peoples murdered there. And yet, almost all the ghost stories around Richmond told on Ghost Tours and bar stools are about white people. As playwrights, we should work to dissect that in order to unearth what others prefer to gloss over or ignore.
History is an inescapable part of our horror because there are so many things we don’t want to face in our lives, country, work, and past. This stems from our very problematic history that still resonates into our present day and deserves closer scrutiny, not fearful ignorance. When writing your ghost story, make space for different readings of history you might not otherwise know. Examine why you don’t know a specific facet of history, and then maybe, attempt to do the same to your characters by having them discover a truth they had not known. Our histories are messy, complicated, and are still being analyzed, scrutinized, and read for a new century. Our new ghost stories deserve the same treatment. Doing so will amp the stakes and complicate the narrative an audience has come to expect.
Just the Facts
For the first part of this exercise, think of a location you know well. This can be a historical site, a workplace, your home, fictional, or reality-based. Write a fictional “just the facts” history of this place. (For examples of “just the facts” you can look at Wikipedia's entry for the urban legend Hookman.) This doesn’t have to be fancy or spooky. Don’t worry about your turns of phrase. Use bullet-points where you feel so called. I’ve offered the following prompts, but build and deviate where you’d like.
The where. Describe the place. What was it used for? When was it built?
The who. Write five facts about the person or persons the story centers on (usually the ghost). These can be anything, but think general to specific: occupation, relationship to the location, important moments, family ties, etc.
The when. If a time period hasn’t started to emerge yet, make a definitive decision.
The what. Did they die there? How and why did they die?
Architectural Secrets. What’s hidden there? Doors, staircases, basements, attics?
Finally, write the facts of the first sighting. What did the ghost do? Who saw it?
Character and Context
Now that you have a “just the facts” version, take a stab at putting the story in a characters’ mouth. (Compare the Wikipedia entry on Hookman to the first scene in Lauren Yee’s Hookman.) How does the story change based on who’s telling it? What opinion does your character have about the place? Who is the character telling the story to, where, and why? What facts become irrelevant to the teller, which ones stay the same, and which ones become entirely new?
If you’re having trouble starting, think about context. Is this a tour? A slumber party? A warning from a parent? Is it from a patron of the building? Is it from an expert? Is it from someone trying to make a sale? Is it taking place in the location or outside of it? Give yourself thirty minutes to tell the story from the character’s point of view and if you get stuck, refer to your fantastic list of facts.
Further Writing and Reading
As you continue to work on your ghost story, let a different character tell the story each time. You might learn more about your characters, their location, and the overall play. Also, research what happened the year or time period you picked at random to see what other connections you can make to history to further complicate your ghost story.
Check out Hookman by Lauren Yee (PWC Affiliated Writer), You will be Gone by Erin Courtney (PWC Core Writer), Chisa Hutchinson’s Whitelisted, Prince Gomolvilas’s The Brothers Paranormal, and my play Bell at the Back of Her Throat.
Go forth and terrify.