Cliches, Horror Writing

Clichés: Ghosts

Spooky Scary Ghosts

It should go without saying really that ghosts pop up a lot in horror stories. Traditionally when a lot of people think horror they will think of ghosts and ghost stories.

This isn’t a bad thing, as ghosts can work amazingly in stories when they are done well.

A good example of ghosts being done well is the Haunting of Hill House television series that came out recently. The ghosts here were very well crafted and it was clear from the first episode that a lot of thought had gone into their conception and creation.

However, despite ghosts being excellent narrative tools they can, and often are, the victims of excessive clichés. All of which, I believe, stems from the same issue, a simple lack of thought.

A recent example of this being when I went to see a play that I will not name here (it wasn’t the woman in black, I feel the need to point that out). The story clearly established the ghost character, her motivations were crystal clear and her abilities firmly shown early on. It was pretty good if a little overdone. But right at the end everything about the ghost changed, her motivations changed completely, it went from “find me” to “join me forever” and her abilities went from “dick around with small technology within the house” to “being able to cause traffic accidents miles away”.

I remember sitting in the theatre and thinking to myself “Well, the writer clearly wanted a twist ending and just couldn’t come up with one.” I was disappointed and frustrated, to say the least. But this leads nicely into the main cliché that ghost characters suffer from.


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This is a pretty much catch-all for gripes about ghost characters.

For ghost characters to work rules must be established, the reader/viewer needs to know what the ghost can and cannot do. This might sound a little dull but its actually far more satisfying for ground rules to be established early on rather than the ghost being able to do whatever the story needs at the time aka deus ex machina. Limitations help the audience understand the story and allow them to become far more absorbed than they might otherwise.

But consistency goes further than that, the writer/creator needs to consider what the established rules mean in context with other actions. For example, if you establish that your ghost can move through walls but then in the next chapter your ghost is picking stuff up, you’d better be able to explain how a previously intangible character suddenly became tangible. How can they be intangible in some situations but not in others? Do they control their tangibility at will? Is it just a matter of will power? Whatever it is make sure it’s explained at some point.

Or just be consistent!


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I must admit I only have a slight issue with this cliché, and it’s not because it’s bad, it just because it’s overdone. That being ghost of dead loved one coming to the rescue.

The first time I saw this in action was when I was little and watching Poltergeist 2 (if you haven’t seen it you should, its a great film especially considering that it is a sequel) in this film grandma dies and it is sad, but is used well to illustrate granddaughter’s ability to see and speak to the dead. Then at the ending when granddaughter is lost in the land of the dead, everyone cries thinking she’s lost forever, it’s pretty tragic. Then magically granddaughter comes back from the light, guided by ghost grandma. That scene is so bloody sweet in the cheesiest way, the music swells, the angelic look to grandma aka flowing white robes and the adorable granddaughter all combine to make it a cheesy but tearful moment. It’s awesome.

But (obviously, there’s a but coming) this has now been done so many times. To the point where if a horror film establishes an emotional connection with a dead character, I can already guess what’s going to happen. Insidious Chapter 3 did this to me, they push the dead mum connection so much that when teen daughter is lost in the ‘further’ you just bloody know, you know dead mums going to turn up and save the day. It didn’t spoil the film for me, its a good film, I love the character of Elise and this film was a great look at her past, but the ending was not a surprise, not in the slightest. Ghost mum saves the day.

This also needs another grumble about inconsistency, why when Insidious has already established how weak ghosts are is dead mum strong enough to smash the main antagonist and rescue teen daughter with such ease?

What kind of ghost cliché’s do you notice the most? Do they drive you up to the wall?

I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below.

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