I am writing notes for a haunted house story. I started sketching out all the classic elements that make up these kinds of tales, both in film and in literature. What have I missed? I'd love to hear from the people who follow this blog.
Motivation. The author or producer always has to give us some compelling reason that the characters are spending the night in a scary or dangerous place. Why not leave as soon as the walls begin to seep blood and a severed head tells you you're going to die? If you have a truly great motivation, you can set it against a very scary place, and the tension makes for a good story.
Often the motivation is money. The rich man demands that people spend the night in his creepy house to qualify for an inheritance, as in the 1927 silent classic The Cat and the Canary. In a twist on that story, a dying millionaire offers a fee to people to study the paranormal and learn whether there is life after death in Richard Matheson's book Hell House (Matheson is more famous for his story I Am Legend, but I think Hell House is an excellent read). In The House on Haunted Hill, surviving the night becomes a contest with a massive prize. In Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the characters stay here in order to make some kind of breakthrough in research on ghosts. In all these cases the house is known to be haunted at the beginning. We expect things to go bump in the night. That's part of the deal, and the characters need a payoff at the end to keep them where they are.
But there are stories where the house is creepy, but it's not clear that it's actually dangerous. The writer or producer has to find a way to trap the characters when things get really nasty. Stephen King's Overlook Hotel is an excellent example. The stay at the hotel represents a good job and a second chance for the Torrance family. And as it becomes clear that the place is lethal, the snow begins to come down, cutting the family off. Which leads us to...
Isolation. At certain points the house becomes inaccessible. There is often some foreshadowing about this -- a caretaker at Hill House famously warn the party:
So there won't be anyone around if you need help... No one lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that... In the night. In the dark. The scene puts a little chill in the air early on.
Light and perception. The power goes out. The old owner bricked up all the windows. The house is cavernous and creates deep shadows. But this isn't just about safety, about something creeping up to you. A haunted house will also use its shadows and its dark corners to play around with your perception. HP Lovecraft knew that strange architecture could unsettle his readers. And Shirley Jackson often writes about how the layout of Hill House was mercilessly oppressive toward its victims.
The House’s Story. At some point we have to learn why this house is haunted. Or we think we do. The house’s story is layered, containing mysteries within mysteries. However, many of the most successful haunted house stories put a sizable portion of the house’s story in the first few pages or scenes. In Hell House and Hill House, we know all about the murders and other terrible crimes that make the house itself menacing. For stories when the haunting of the house is unknown, the phenomena begins to develop the character’s interest in exploring the story further. As they learn more, the ghosts up the ante. Sometimes it results in a terrible realization -- an awful crime or sin has been committed, such as in Poltergeist, when the father realizes his house has been built over a burial ground. I think telling us the backstory immediately is generally scarier. Even then though, you have to have the mystery within the mystery.
Secret Spaces. The hidden passages, walled-off rooms, and even attic crawlspaces of the house help the characters unlock its history. The burnt photograph in Paranormal Activity is an excellent example.
The Owner’s Story. The house is the main antagonist, but its history is entwined with that of its original owner, usually dead or missing. As characters learn about the house, they learn about this person. His presence hangs over the building, and as the characters battle to hang onto their sanity they are always wondering whether they are confronting the ghost of this person, now transformed into something even more dangerous than he was in life.
A Ticking Clock. Why do haunted house stories often signpost the date and time? Whether it's the creepy chimes of a grandfather clock, or the author introducing chapters with a datestamp, haunted houses keep track of the time. It's usually not a race against the clock, mind you-- in fact, we as the audience know that after a certain period of time the characters can go free, their job done. So it wouldn't seem like time would be menacing. And yet... on some level we know that the house will only make things worse as time elapses. We know that the characters can't possibly spend the night the rich old man demanded without a visit from the monster. So time is the enemy. Time brings us closer to the confrontation we know must happen.
The House Swallows You. The haunted house gets in the heads of the characters, sometimes corrupting them and turning them bad, as in the Amityville Horror or the Shining. Sometimes a house can literally absorb its occupants, like little Carol Ann sucked up into the TV. This and the ticking clock are really about the same thing, the haunted house is a reminder of what has been close to us the whole time, our whole lives: death. Isn't that what every haunted house story is about? The real fear isn't that the ghosts will come back. The real fear is that they will invite us in to be with them... forever.