The formula for the perfect ghost story


There is nothing that draws people of all ages and walks of life to the edge of their seats more than a good ghost story. As kids, we clambered to reach R.L. Stine’s chill-inducing “Goosebumps” and the wickedly-illustrated “Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark.” From there, we’ve graduated to campfire tales and lining up around the block to see Stephen King’s “IT,” but as a culture, our love of things that go bump in the night hasn’t changed a bit. The best time of the year for these tales is just around the corner, but you still have a bit of time left to perfect your spooky storytelling skills.  

Setting the Scene 

For some reason, ghosts have a maturation period. Whenever a tragic death strikes a location, it takes a good amount of time for the ghost of that person to begin haunting the building, woods, neighborhood and etc. You just don’t hear about ghosts from 2001 wandering the halls, and people seeing apparitions of figures with frosted tips.  

Many listeners or readers latch onto a setting because they can relate to it. Picking a location your audience can see themselves in will be more chilling. People are more inclined to take baths rather than step behind a shower curtain after viewing “Psycho,” and a story about an empty classroom at night may affect more North Central College students than one about a desolate country road. One of the most popular methods of effective storytelling is to modify what you can to make the setting more relevant to your audience. After all, how many fireside tales have started out with the words “on a night, not unlike tonight…” ?

A believable story has just enough detail to satisfy a listener, but not enough to be predictable. The best horror movies are ones that allow the viewer to imagine the danger following them. After all, your imagination is far wilder than anything that could be placed in front of you. 


Pick one central character to focus on. Too many names, especially in an oral tale, can be confusing for listeners. Nobody will be upset when ‘Stacy’ is killed in a terrible fashion if they can’t remember who she was. Find your hero (or your villain) and follow them. Let your audience empathize and always give them someone to root for.  

Being relatable comes back into play here. If your audience can put themselves in the shoes of your protagonist, they’re more likely to find terror in the tale. “It could happen to you” is a terrifying thought you can put in a listener’s head. Play into what scares you. If you find it compelling, it will be easier to sell the idea to others. 


The verbal pacing of a good story is one of the hardest things to do naturally, so the best thing you can do is practice telling it a few times until you can feel the rhythm of it. The more comfortable you are with the material, the more confident you will be, and the more you’ll be able to draw in listeners.

When you’re leaving a fantastic movie or finishing a well-written book, don’t you just wish there were more of it to enjoy? Make sure you hit all your important points but cut out the fluff. If it doesn’t advance the plot or develop a character, then you don’t have time for it. If you leave your listeners wanting more, their imaginations will do the work for you.  

Now go out and scare your friends while you still can and head to Pfeiffer Ghost Night this Friday, Oct. 27, at 10:00 P.M. to hear some top-notch tales of on-campus hauntings. 


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