Decorations, reindeer and jolly, rotund gentlemen are all very well, but there’s another tradition of Christmas which I love as much as the aforementioned, and that is a cracking good ghost story. The last few weeks I’ve been hooked on Netflix series, ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ directed by Mike Flanagan. The series is loosely based on the book by Shirley Jackson. Horror writer, Stephen King, describes the series as, ‘close to genius’.
Memories or Ghosts?
The story is told through two timelines; switching between one summer the Crain family spent at Hill House when the children were growing up, and their lives as adults in the present. The story is told over ten episodes in a non-linear way and we get to know what led up to a night in Hill House that changed the family’s lives forever. We also learn why the truly terrifying Bent Neck Lady haunted Nell Cairn when she was a kid and still haunts her in adulthood long after leaving Hill House.
THoHH plays with that numinous area between emotional vulnerabilities and supernatural possession suggesting that we are all, like the Crain family, ‘haunted’ in some way; perhaps by family trauma, relationships that went wrong or wishes that never came to fruition.
Inspired by Poe
When I was at secondary school, we had to write a story in response to Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, ‘The Black Cat’. I wrote about a girl walking in a wood at night who witnessed a murder through the lighted window of a log cabin. She didn’t see the actual figures but events unfolded in silhouette on the cabin wall. I was really proud to be asked to read it to the class. My first published short story had ghosts and witchcraft, but since then I have generally stayed away from the horror genre because of its reputation as trashy entertainment, and the fact that it’s so easy to get it wrong and end up with something farcical.
Can we learn from the horror genre?
My opinions on horror changed however, when I went to a workshop at a writers’ conference a few years ago. The tutor explained how fiction writers, regardless of genre, can learn so much from the horror story. All stories need powerful antagonists, and horror stories have to deliver on that score. Readers must care deeply about the main character and at the climax of the action you know that your MC will be isolated and face-to-face with the antagonist. The classic three act structure of fiction; inciting incident, building to a climax, and resolution is already blue-printed into the ghost story.
Jekyll and Hyde
In many horror stories, protagonist and antagonist even merge into one, so that hitherto ‘good’ characters step over to the dark side. Indeed, the characters’ struggles with light and dark forces are major plot points in THoHH. This merging with dark forces also happens in Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s film of his book. In the novel, protagonist, Jack Torrance, tries his utmost to resist the evil forces in the haunted Overlook Hotel, retaining traces of his humanity almost until the end of the story. In the film, lapsed alcoholic, Jack, quickly sides with malevolent spirits and carries out their evil bidding without resistance.
Why do we need ghost stories?
Kubrick said that, ‘The Shining,’ is a positive movie because any evidence of life after death offers reassurance to mortals.
Ghost-story doyenne, Susan Hill, theorises in this Guardian article that we all enjoy thrills in a safe environment and in doing so prepare ourselves for the real frights and dangers in life. And Stephen King suggests that it’s much more diverting to be scared of ghosts than it is to worry about the true horrors of life such as serious illness, loss of loved ones and the grim reaper.
What about you? Do you like ghost/supernatural horror stories? Which ones are your favourites? Maybe you are a rationalist who has no truck with ghosts, fictional or otherwise?