This is Glynn Washington, an avid storyteller and host of Snap Judgment on NPR.
Washington says he saw his first ghost when he was four years old. “My brother pointed it out to me. He was sleeping next to me, and I looked up and there was a ghost that was floating above my bed,” he explains.
And that wasn’t Washington’s last encounter with something he couldn’t explain. Growing up, he says he witnessed demon possessions, people speaking in other voices, levitation, and exorcisms. All things you’ve seen at least once in the horror film genre, or maybe in real life…
Whether you have your own ghost story, or it’s something you want to scare people with, Washington has some pointers for how to make your tale terrifying.
1. Don’t rush, and keep it grounded in reality.
“Get yourself some hot chocolate or some wine, depending on your age, and settle in,” Washington says. “A good storytelling rule, in general, is don’t change everything. Change the world just a little bit. A good ghost story isn’t a whole new universe; it’s not set in Narnia. It’s got something that’s just a little bit off. You want to be able to imagine what it would really be like to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
2. Try not to sound like someone who actually believes in ghosts.
“The most important thing is who’s telling it,” Washington says. “The person telling the ghost story can’t believe in ghosts. You want somebody who is reluctant, kind of ashamed to tell you what happened. ‘I don’t know if I should even tell you this,’ kind of thing.”
3. Tell the story as if it just happened.
“To start a ghost story, it starts right where you are,” he says. “‘I was sitting in that chair, in this place, holding this fork, up on those stairs.’ Ground it in the absolute present. If it happened once upon a time, it’s not scary. If it happened last week, it is.”
4. The ghost should look like you, only slightly different.
“A lot of things like the little kid and the old lady are tired,” Washington says of the types of ghosts people use. “Ghosts are all about ourselves and our own fears, and the scariest thing I could see would be a ghost who looks just like me, but a little bit different. Me without an ear, or me with one blue eye. It’s like, ‘What the fuck? Is someone trying to tell me something?’ That would scare the shit out of me. Make the ghost as familiar as possible.”
5. Make sure the ghost wants something, and that something involves you.
“Maybe the ghost wants you to get the fuck out, maybe the ghost wants some blood, or the ghost wants to be you,” he says. “Those are my favorite stories, where the ghost wants something from you. Try to find out what the ghost wants, and decide whether or not you can or cannot give it to him.”
6. Describing gore will only decrease the fear factor.
“What makes a story less scary, is the more you describe the gore,” Washington says, adding that the better option is to skip the gruesome details, so that the audience can picture it for themselves. “It’s a mind game, to some extent. We all have these fears or superstitions. Even if we’re non-religious, we’re still scared of the things that go bump in the night.”
7. Deliver your ghost story like it’s a genuine warning.
“Everyone is going to tell their story differently, but the best thing I can say about the pacing of your voice is to just make it earnest,” Washington says. “Like, ‘Look, I don’t want to tell you this, but I feel like I have to: I don’t think you should sleep in that room tonight.’”
8. Try to answer these big questions in your story: “Who are we, and why are we here?”
“When you come face-to-face with a ghost, the reason why it’s so scary is because it makes you question everything. There’s something eternal, and sad, and small, and mean, and pathetic about being a ghost, right? You’re a ghost! So it makes you wonder if something like that could ever happen to you. Whenever you have a really good ghost story, it’s a story about how the universe works. Our biggest question in life is ‘Who are we and why are we here?’ And ghost stories are another way of getting at that.”
9. A ghost story should build, and take place over a long period of time.
“You’re trying to figure out what you have to do to fix things,” Washington says. “A good ghost story for me is like, ‘Alright, there is some kind of spirit up in my house, but for whatever reason, I’m not moving. Maybe I don’t have the money, or I don’t believe in it. So I have to find a way to work around whatever this spirit thing is. It’s part of my day.’ It’s like, ‘OK, I have to go tell Jenny a story every night, because if I don’t, she will lose her ghost mind and start tearing up my shit. I’ve got to be there every single day.’ You want to interact with the ghost over time, and make it part of your world.”
10. End the story when the ghost interaction stops.
“Once you establish your ghost, you need to talk about your interaction with this entity,” he says. “And the ghost story stops when that interaction stops. You leave. The ghost goes away. You have a mark braised on your hand and you have no idea how to get it off, but you’ll need to start living with it and the fear that the ghost could return. That’s when the story’s over.”
11. For an extra challenge, try telling your ghost story in the middle of the day to really freak people out.
“I love ghost stories in the brightness of day,” Washington says with a laugh. “It’s the best! Anybody can tell a ghost story at night, but the real good ghost stories try to get in the mind anyway. It is easier to imagine phantoms and ghosts in the dark, but I certainly would not limit it.”