The other night I took the time to finally watch The Woman In Black. This looked to be a nice, atmospheric ghost story that could be a real gem. I hadn’t read any of the reviews (intentionally) and grabbed some pop corn and soda, turned out the lights, and hit play. My expectations were well met. It was full of mood and atmosphere and did a good job of establishing the scare. That is…until the last five minutes. Then…it tanked. The entirety of the movie…ruined because of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ending. After giving this plenty of thought, I wanted to put together a post on how easy it is to ruin a good ghost story.
The following will apply to both film and fiction. When all is said and done, I’d love for everyone in the Jackverse to weigh in on their thoughts.
1. Premature ending, no resolution. This one is popular with Hollywood these days. You build up to a great climax and then BLAMO! you end it too soon. Don’t spend so much time building up to the climax that you don’t have enough time to resolve the issues. Sure cliff hangers are nice, but there has to be some resolution for a story to work. This is especially true with ghost stories. You can’t just have the climax leading up to the removal of the haunting spirit and then, the second the spirit is gone — be done. Spend the extra effort to give the audience time to take it all in. And you’ve built up that great atmosphere — don’t just let it all dissolve in the blink of an eye!
2. Kill your protagonist, have them go off to some “heaven-like” place. This one REALLY bugs the crap out of me. You’ve built up this great story only to pee all over it in the end by killing off your protagonist just to send them packing off to heave to be with their long lost love again. Oh sure, it works in some stories, but not many. This is as cliche as a country song about beer and a woman leaving a man.
3. Deux ex crappina. Although not a ghost story, Star Trek V is often referred to as the Search for God. Don’t bring a deity into your story to save the day. Why? Deities simply wouldn’t bother to come down from above to stop a ghost from stalking your ass (they have much better things to do). Besides, if you bring in a deity, you’re adding layers to your story you probably don’t want to add.
4. Nightmare schmightmare. Do not EVER resolve your story by saying it was all just a nightmare. Nothing takes away from a story more than this plot device. If you want nightmares, make the story start with one or use them as devices throughout. No matter what you do, do not solve the riddle of your story with a nightmare…not even a sexy one.
5. Artefact, artefact, who’s got the artefact? This works in certain situations, but for the most part destroying an artifact to rid your story of the evil presence informs the audience…there’s probably a prequel coming. It’s great that you build up a world where a single artefact can house the soul and spirit of an evil entity; but the thought that simply by destroying said artefact would rid the world of that presence diminishes the power of your story.
6. Send ’em packin’ to crazy town. So you’ve created this great, creepy world or situation that bleeds atmosphere and horror. You have a great gothic backdrop and plenty of spirits to tease the senses. Annnnd then you send your protagonist off to the asylum. Now that works great if the look and feel of the asylum gels with your story. But if it is a vast departure from what you’ve created, you’re going to ruin every ounce of mood and shoot your story in the face with a gun filled with bullets made of lame.
Now…its your turn. Was I right? Are their other ways to ruin a good creepy ghost story? What has been your experience? Chime in!