40+ Hauntingly Good Story Ideas
It’s Halloween season—one that gets increasingly longer each year (according to stores), but the build-up and anticipation fizzle quickly and quietly in a few hours on a single night. Well, quiet except for Brownie’s constant barking—she doesn’t like strangers at the front door.
Last weekend, we embraced the Halloween vibe with our first scary movie of the season—Fear Street Part One 1994. Like the ol’ lady I am, I fell asleep. There’re only so many slasher movies one can see before edge-of-your-seat becomes edge-of-sleep. But it was an entertaining effort with unique twists, good enough to watch the other two in the series. Oh, and it’s worth watching just for the soundtrack… we added several old favorites to our Spotify playlist.
The movie got me thinking about scary stories that elevate my heart rate and bring my hand up to cover my eyes (much to my family’s amusement). Growing up with Michael, Freddie, and Jason, I’m adequately desensitized to slashers.
And I don’t bother with torture flicks; that’s too much gore for the sake of gore without enough story—no thanks. What gets in my head and wrecks a good sleep for me are… GHOSTS.
“Ghosts were created when the first man woke in the night.” – J.M. Barrie
Ghost stories are classic for good reasons. They’re timeless. Cross-cultural. And nearly half of Americans believe they’re real.
Sure, if there were a similar poll on serial killers, Americans would believe in them a hundred percent, so logically, it would seem we’d stay awake at night worried about them. But there’s something about ghosts and hauntings that mix the unknown with reality to creep us the hell out. Besides… there are people out there fighting, catching, and convicting serial killers.
With ghosts, not so much. Unless you count Ghost Hunters… and come on, name one ghost they’ve caught. The show and others like it should be called Ghost Tourists or Ghost Seekers instead. Hopeful Ghost Conversationalists… eh, too many syllables, but more accurate. Still, they go places I would not, so I must give them credit. And we all love watching anyway.
“I love crime, I love mysteries, and I love ghosts.” – Stephen King
Ghosts make great stories… in any capacity. Want to add spirit to your manuscript? Here are my best ideas to inspire ghost stories that’ll haunt your pen into action. Think of these humble thoughts as stone soup for your manuscript—throw in whatever works to build substance and flavor.
#1 Ghosts are people, too… with motivations.
“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.” – Salman Rushdie, Satanic Verses
Unfinished business is a phrase oft used in ghost stories. It’s what keeps ghosts from transitioning into the true afterlife. So, just like any character in a novel, it’s essential to understand their motivations.
A ghost avenging a wrongful death is, perhaps, the most apparent motivation. No one wants to die, especially before their time in some unfair way. Or leave anything unfinished.
So, to enhance any ghost story, start with a solid motivation behind why they are still here, doing their haunting thing, and how that reason comes through in what they do with their semi-existence.
Here are some off-the-cuff ideas for ghost motivation:
A ghost who just likes fucking with people. Perhaps he was a prankster in real life and couldn’t get to the afterlife without reaching his goal of a thousand pranks. And maybe each one is a bit darker than the one before.
The voyeur ghost lives vicariously through her victims—the people she idolized in life—and manipulates things to go the way she imagines.
The helpful ghost, trapped by an unending desire to be of use. Like the cobbler gnomes who helped the old shoemaker.
The friendly ghost… couldn’t get through this blog without mentioning Casper. Many ghost stories involve a child who just wants to play and have companionship.
Ghosts who are frustrated with Ghost Hunters who never catch actual proof, so they set out to truly haunt them. This… I’d like to see.
Likewise, ghosts who are so desperate for attention that they follow the Ghost Hunters wherever they go, like ghost groupies, but can’t figure out how to use the ghost communication devices, making them eternally frustrated.
Self-loathing ghosts stuck because they don’t deserve to pass over or who fear hell if they do.
Ghosts conflicted about haunting people but are forced to by the “head” ghost… becomes how to get rid of the mean-spirited (ha, ghost pun!) ghost leader.
The ambitious ghost, hoping to rise through the ghost hierarchy through excellent haunting… and always seems to miss the mark.
The bitter ghost who creates pain in her victims like the pain she suffered in life. (Could be the source of many headaches)
“The only ghosts, I believe, who creep into this world, are dead young mothers, returned to see how their children fare. There is no other inducement great enough to bring the departed back… what is saddest about ghosts is that they may not know their child… and hate the unknown boy he has become.” – J.M. Barrie
I can seriously relate to the Mom ghost. My kids better watch out.
#2 Watch Your (Ghostly) Attitude
Almost as interesting as the ghosts themselves are how characters react to them. Not everyone is frightened by glimpses into the supernatural. Some people even embrace ghost culture. Does that make them more susceptible to seeing ghosts or simply more willing to claim it?
Why are some people haunted and not others? Understanding the haunted is as vital as knowing your ghosts. Are some people more spiritually open? Is it genetic? Does it require a childhood knock on the head? Or some other trauma? Or maybe the ghost chooses, and those haunted are the most interesting?
While terror is the obvious reaction from a character, it might be helpful in your story to consider others, like:
The child who sees ghosts as his or her imaginary friends (this may’ve been me, growing up… and now, actually. Are my stories their stories?)
This Reader’s Digest article tells about neighbors who shared a pesky ghost who liked to move items around. It didn’t bother them, but they sent it next door when they got annoyed with the disturbances. Ghosts that follow commands? That could be an interesting story premise.
The researcher out to prove the existence of the afterlife—she’d love seeing a ghost.
The detective who reaches out to ghosts for clues.
The doctor who’s dead patients help him with live ones.
The general contractor who restores old houses may be helped or inspired by a team of ghosts out to preserve what’s precious.
A truck driver with a ghostly companion who keeps him awake on long journeys.
A ghost that offers guidance to a young teacher and keeps a watchful eye on her students.
What about a character so haunted by ghosts that she invents ghost-canceling headphones or glasses? If we ignore ghosts… what happens?
#3 The haunted house.
“Death is no more than passing from one room to the next.” – Helen Keller
The basic premise is that a place holds restless, angry, creepy spirits hostage, and anyone who ventures into the sacred zone gets the shit scared out of them and ends up in peril. The victims must either defeat the spirits (somehow), give up and join them, or get the fuck out.
If you want to write one of these stories, start with a place. Create a history for it (or use one that already exists). And then throw in some poor, unsuspecting saps to endure it.
Here are some alternative haunted “houses” that could make incredible stories:
A haunted body of water
A haunted train, bus, taxi cab, airplane, boat, ambulance, or spaceship; think of any form of transportation
Haunted hotel rooms, hospital rooms, churches, cemeteries, psychiatrist or doctor’s office
Haunted colleges, high schools, rec centers, playgrounds, preschools
Haunted malls, Walmarts (many violent things have happened at Walmart), department stores, shoe stores, stores that sell weapons
Haunted parks, trails, mountains, caves, ditches, deserts, beaches
Haunted jails... like this one
Some notable twists to the classic haunted house…
In Jane Eyre, Rochester’s house was “haunted” by a real person—his crazy wife Bertha whom he kept locked in a tower. Hmm, not sure Rochester would seem like much of a hero these days for that insensitive move. But, of course, sanitoriums weren’t a pleasure dome in those days. But what if your haunted house wasn’t really haunted?
The zany sitcom Ghosts on HBOMAX features a haunted house plagued by the people who died there, and only one person can see or hear them. It’s a funny view into the reality of ghost life and ghosts that are, well, like real people. Which shouldn’t they be?
Beetlejuice is another fun twist to the classic haunted house. The couple who died there just wants their house back, and they turn to the wrong place for help doing it. Spirits don’t always have malicious intentions.
The Blair Witch Project scared the hell out of me in college. I never actually saw the movie but a dumb “documentary” on the SciFi network that I thought was real. For a twist on a classic haunted house story, this mockumentary moved its haunting to the woods. The haunted “house” doesn’t have to be a house.
#4 The Haunted Person.
“One need not be a chamber to be haunted. One need not be a house. The brain has corridors surpassing material place.” – Emily Dickinson
Some classic haunted house stories cross over into the haunted person category, too. Like Stephen King’s The Shining and Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror. One could argue that the place made them go crazy, but it shows that ghosts can make people do horrible things, and that premise can stand alone without a creepy mansion. Spirits possessing the living build many creepy ghost stories, like The Exorcist and Legion by William Peter Blatty. To add to your reading list, try these from Shepherd.org.
To create a haunted person story, start with an ordinary person who notices strange goings-on in his or her environment and then deviates from his or her character. The changes should be subtle at first, but more and more the people around him or her notice. Then worry. Then… well, all hell should break loose.
“Monsters are real, ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” – Stephen King, The Shining
Here are some alternative haunted “people” that could make incredible ghost stories.
How about a person considered “crazy” who suddenly makes a full recovery? Or any premise where the haunting improves their lives (but they’re not themselves anymore)?
Haunted animals from the vicious (lions, tigers, bears) to the benign (deer, elephants, owls).
The ghosts in the machines. Haunted cars, computers, wood chippers, lawnmowers, bulldozers, label makers (it only spits out creepy messages)
Haunted pets. Many people believe their pets can see things they can’t. Perhaps spirits can inhabit them, too.
“The stones themselves are thick with history, and those cats that dash through the alleyways must surely be the ghosts of the famous dead in feline disguise.” – Erica Jong
Hmm. I wonder.
#5 The Haunted Love.
“True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen.” – Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Loved ones returning from the dead to be with their life partners form another category of classic ghost stories. Paranormal romance has a popular following, and here’s a great list to expand your reading. While romance features in many classic ghost stories, the idea of loving that which cannot be loved is a compelling premise. Plus it keeps our heroes stuck in their grief, wedged uncomfortably between denial and acceptance.
To create such a story, establish a couple, kill one of them off (preferably strangely or devastatingly), and bring the loved one back to haunt his or her partner (perhaps to take of his or her unfinished business).
The best example I can think of is the movie Ghost. Released in 1990, it feels fair to say that it helped usher in the paranormal romance genre. And why not? Of all our ghostly categories, this one appeals to us on a deeply emotional level. Finding love is hard enough… but losing it to death? That’s something most people fear.
Alternatives to the haunted love…
What about being haunted by a guy your character never loved and found rather annoying when he kept declaring his love for her?
What about being haunted by your character's former stalker? And he wants her to help him? Avenge his death at the hands of another obsession?
Or a story about someone so grief-stricken about losing their partner they recreate him or her, imaginary-friend-style. And can’t let go.
#6 Bonus: A List of Generally Creepy Ghost-Things
Finding items out-of-place that you know you didn't move
Dolls, paintings, or statues with faces that come to life
Disembodied whispers and voices (what a great word… disembodied)
A face outside the window
Ghosts where they really shouldn’t be, like crawling across the ceiling
Things that go bump in the night… seriously
Old, abandoned places
Someone you love acting like a different person
The feeling of being watched but no one's there
This ghost-talk has zapped my energy, but I hope you’ve found some ghostly inspiration to add spirit to your story.
“With my writing, I can still play inside an enchanted castle or live inside an old fort. I can run from the ghosts or ride dolphins any day of the week.” – Mary Pope Osborne
Do you run from ghosts? What about in your stories? Share your scariest ideas below!