Writing a Haunted House Story
I was watching a horror movie when a banging noise made me jump. It came from inside my apartment. I live in an old building. The heater makes noise when it turns on. Only it was summer, the heater doesn’t come on.
There’s a house in my neighborhood. Years ago, whenever I passed it, I’d hear this squawking sound like the owner had a bird on the top floor. Recently, I discovered the house was empty. Had been for a while. What was making the squawking sound?
I’ve had mice problems in my apartment. When you put out poison, the mice tend to die in hidden places. You know where they are by the rotting odor. When I started to smell something rotting in my kitchen, I knew a mouse died somewhere. I worked myself up to search for it. One day, I left my apartment to take my dog for a walk. That rotting smell slammed into me, 100 times worse. It came from an apartment 2 doors down from mine. My first thought was it smelled like a dead body. Unfortunately, I was right. They were wheeling that thing out when I returned after walking my dog. Seeing the body bag and then being assaulted by the smell in my apartment…the memory of it still gives me the chills.
There’s something fascinating about a horror story. They aren’t a lot of fun when you experience them. That’s why I love books and movies. I especially love haunted house stories. I think it’s the history, the mystery. They’re subtle in their creepiness. They’re the type of stories that make you jump at strange noises in your houses.
For some reason, despite my love of haunted house stories, I don’t write them often. Devdan Manor was the first. For those following me on Instagram and Twitter, you’ve heard me talk about my haunted dorm story that’s turning into a haunted island story.
How do you write haunted house stories?
A bit obvious. There needs to be a place to haunt. This place doesn’t have to be scary looking. A nice twist would be having an ordinary, bright house with a dark past. I tend to go towards old, scary houses mostly because I love old buildings. Those places that just look like they have history built into their walls.
Generally, haunted stories take place in old locations because they’re more likely to have a dark history. However, history can be yesterday so you could set a story in a modern apartment where a gruesome murder happened.
You could also go the Poltergeist route where the land is cursed.
Most stories pair a haunted house with an ordinary family. Paranormal Witness is nothing but everyday people being tormented by evil forces. That contrast makes you feel how powerless they are. You feel sorry for them because they’re trapped and there’s no escape.
It’s difficult to pull off the powerlessness if you have magical beings trapped in a haunted house. Why can’t they use their powers to get out or banish the monsters? Both Devdan Manor and the haunted island story, The Unburned Island (working title) have otherworldly people in a haunted location. In Devdan Manor, the characters are demons and the house was made to trap them. In The Unburned Island, the characters willingly went to the island to solve the haunted mystery.
It’s possible to write a haunted house story with paranormal characters. You have to work a little harder so readers can believe these characters are in trouble.
Then there are paranormal investigators. Hunter Shea’s books are good references on how to write haunted stories with paranormal investigators. These characters hear about strange happenings, they stay in the house with all their equipment and most of them die. They’re not everyday people because they’re trained to research haunted locations.
This type of story takes some research to write. You need to know the type of equipment a team would bring to a potentially haunted house. How would a typical team investigate the paranormal?
Classic literature often featured the crazy house owner with the story being told from the POV of the mentally stable house guest.
One spouse, usually the wife, experiences the hauntings. The husband, who’s away all day, doesn’t believe his wife and becomes angry at her insistence that the house is haunted. Or you have a skeptic who believes in ghostly phenomena but thinks there’s a scientific explanation for it. I often wonder about the skeptic. Why are they included in the story? There’s that wonderful feeling of satisfaction when they are proven wrong. Maybe that’s why. Maybe ghostly or demonic antagonists aren’t enough, we need human drama added to the mix.
Most horror movies have certain types of characters. The skeptic is one of them. There’s also the ultra believer. The two morons who go off to have sex in the middle of a haunting. The female who becomes a weeping mess at the first sign of anything paranormal.
This is one of those instances where movies shouldn’t be your inspiration. At least not always. Books need characters we feel for, especially in horror. A scene can be creepy but if the reader isn’t invested in the characters, they won’t feel fear.
Writing the location and characters are the easy parts. Hauntings should escalate, slowly. Somehow, you have to keep readers interested even when the only thing happening is a door opening by itself. There needs to be a balance. Not enough haunting makes the story boring. Too much and readers get tired of it.
The best way to learn how to portray a good haunting is to inhale media about it. Not just books. Movies and TV shows as well.
I watch Paranormal Witness.
-Some of my favorite haunted house movies are:
- The Conjuring 1 and 2
- Grave Encounters
- Dark Skies is an alien invasion story but it has the haunted house feeling to it.
- The Woman in Black
- Lights Out (the movie)
- Horror short films on Youtube are great for inspiration. I created a playlist for when I’m in a horror-y mood, which is all the time.
-Books are harder, at least for me. With movies, you have creepy visuals. It’s difficult to translate that jerking movement from the female in The Ring into a book.
- I mentioned Hunter Shea above
- Great Ghost Stories
- Hell House by Richard Matheson
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirey Jackson
- The House by Bentley Little
- The Acadamy by Bentley Little
- People tend to include The Yellow WallPaper. I never understood that. It’s a good story but I didn’t get any haunted vibes from it.
- The Turn of the Screw and The House on the Borderlands are often included in haunted house book lists. I tried both of them. Couldn’t get into them.
Remember, don’t throw in a strangled cry just because it sounds creepy. Why would a ghost or demon make that noise? Everything in a story needs to have a reason.