Scare at bedtime: How to tell a great ghost story tonight

As famed seanchaí (storyteller) Pat Speight rightly observes, the Irish love to drink, love to talk and particularly love a good story. “It’s in our psyche,” he notes. And this time of year, our love of storytelling truly comes into its own. Add a dash of the macabre, and there’s little denying it – not only do we love a story, but we also love scaring the bejaykers out of ourselves, and others.

Dr Sarah Cleary, who runs the HorrorExpo site (, completed her PhD at Trinity College, Dublin, where she focused on the effects of horror movies, comics and literature on children. She has pinpointed exactly why we love a truly scary ghost or horror story.

“A lot of it comes down to the frisson – this sense of being alive,” she notes. “It might sound counterintuitive, but it’s easy to go day to day and not realise you’re on earth as a viable creature. It’s great to be reminded of that. It’s a nice little dint for the ego to be reminded how fragile life is. Horror is often denounced as inhuman, but it’s actually the most human and humane genre out there.”

Writer Peter Dunne, whose ‘Horrors In The Black Church’ theatrical event is part of this year’s Bram Stoker Festival, echoes this sentiment: “There’s a mix of being in control and then feeling out of control. Life can be wild sometimes, and you know if you have a small fright and things go back to normal, the very first thing you do is laugh. After the ‘jump’, you own your fear for a very short time.”

But if you decide to make a good ghost story part of your Halloween celebration, the experts reveal there are many ways to really amp up the fear factor and get the right reaction…

Sort your settings

Atmosphere is everything when you’re telling a story, so be sure to keep the lights down low and the room deathly quiet.

“Keep it as dark as possible so that even the space around you is unclear,” says Peter. “Darkness always works because it means that not only are people really listening to you intently, a small sound in the background like a creaking door will allow people’s minds to go mad. It’s not about doing the scaring for people – they need to scare themselves.”

Sarah notes that when it comes to placing your story, a familiar environment really helps to lure listeners in.

“In terms of horror, it has always situated itself in the familiar, regardless of whether it’s a castle or domestic space, we are familiar with the tropes. Stephen King used the ‘dark place’ trope, where in a house, you’d have the basement door or the attic, or you’d place the action in a burnt-out house on a suburban street.”

Don’t get too scary

Rather, relatable and local is a good place to start. “Let people think of a recognisable place, so that there’s something sort of true in the story,” advises Peter. “If you get too gory or too graphic too soon, you’ve gone off the rails. Your audience will tip out of fear and into disgust.”

Pat Speight agrees that relatable legends often go down well with audiences: “If you can make things believable by making it personal or local, that’s ideal – this is why urban legends around Halloween are so effective,” he says.

Build the tension

“When it comes to horror stories and literature, the ‘jump scares’ are as effective,” notes Sarah. “A good author is able to establish fear and unsettledness in an individual without using overly dramatic language or scenes. You know the way in everyday life you drive or walk past something and it’s off and you can’t tell why? Ideally, that’s the sort of unsettled feeling you would establish in the first pages of your horror story.”

Adds Peter: “The one thing that’s true for most stories is that it’s what is implied that is scarier. What you don’t see is sometimes worse than what you do see. It’s all about the build. The longer you deny your audience the close, the more they’ll get worried about it.”

Pat notes that some of our best-loved oral stories – the Banshee, the Black Dog, the Headless Coachman – often boast a good build-up to the moment where people jump out of their skin. “It’s a matter of bringing people along with a very level voice until you reach the element of surprise at the end.”

Learn from the greats

According to Peter, the likes of MR James’s A Warning to the Curious, Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, Bird Box by Josh Malerman and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are near-masterclasses in how to pen a great ghost story.

“You have to make your characters likeable or the reader won’t be in it for the long haul,” he says. “That’s why, in horror films, it’s often the kindest and most virtuous girl that is the last one standing.”

Read the room

More specifically, read the age of the room. In the course of her research, Sarah began to understand why kids are among horror’s biggest fans.

“Children are just as discerning consumers as adults are,” she observes. “We’re pleasure seekers by nature and we’re looking for fun and entertainment.”

Yet Pat exercises a note of caution when telling ghost stories to little ones: “Children want the element of being scared, but then they don’t want to be too scared. When I ask them what their biggest fear is, they often say they don’t like clowns – the adults who scare the living daylights out of people in a nasty way. There’s something really intimidating and threatening in that – there’s no room for that sort of fear in storytelling for children.

“One story I love to tell kids is about my godmother – she lives in her own house and has no electricity despite being well able to afford it, and when I came back from trick or treating, her candle had burned out, leaving the room in complete darkness… that’s the sort of tone to continue with, until you get to build up to the crescendo.”

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