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Plausible Ghost Stories

So we're driving home from the Con Monday listening to podcasts, and one did a show on ghost stories. There were about five, as I recall, three of which were ridiculous, one of which was so-so, and one of which made me go "...huh. Okay, I could give you that one."

(For the record, I don't have much opinion on ghosts, which is maybe a little surprising, since I have so many opinions on so many other things. (I more or less want to pitch every ghost hunter show out the window while screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs, but it's not the same thing.) I have strong opinions about gray aliens, conspiracies, and every form of cryptozoology but especially Bigfoot. But ghosts I am somewhat agnostic on, unless I am having a grim fit of skepticism when I attempt to disbelieve in the entire world.)

But it got me thinking about what constitutes a plausible ghost story. Not an "I totally believe in ghosts now!" story, but just..."I do not immediately roll my eyes and call you a lying liar that lies." Obviously there's some combination of factors that reads as "plausible" and some that immediately push it over into eye-rolling territory.

On a whim, I went over to one of the many send-us-your-real-ghost-story sites on the web, and this was very helpful, because it provided so many examples of implausible stories. You could run down the list muttering "Lying...deluded...hypnogogic hallucinations*...lying...dream...get the pipes checked...yeah, you inflicted that on yourself...hypnogogic hallucination...oh honey, you need a therapist in a big way."  (I am Judgy McJudgerson when it comes to ghost stories by anonymous posters. This is undoubtedly a character flaw.)

And I started working up a mental list of what I'd find plausible in a ghost story and what threw me out completely, and I'd be curious to hear yours. (If the answer is "Nothing, because ghosts aren't real," you are most likely right, but you won't have much fun with this one.)

Frequently I found that what made something plausible was simply the narrator acting like a real person would act in those situations. Which may have some benefit for writing, somewhere down the road, or if I decide to make a living breaking into the lucrative world of telling ghost stories for no profit whatsoever.

An Incomplete List Which Probably Only Applies To Me:

POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: Any story that begins with "I've always been sensitive to spirits..." establishes you as a probably unreliable narrator who is going to assume ghosts before checking the pipes for air bubbles. (Sorry, them's the breaks.) It is possible to come back from this one, but unlikely. If you then go to talk about guardian angels, we are done.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Ouija boards. The minute the Ouija boards make an appearance, I check out mentally.

PLAUSIBLE: Trying to fix the supposed ghostly phenomena. "The cupboards kept swinging open, so we got new latches. The doors kept coming open so we replaced the hinges." Even if it doesn't help, I appreciate that you tried like a sensible person.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Dripping blood. Yawn.

PLAUSIBLE: Banal hauntings. The really implausible ones are always big and dramatic. Something like "Bobby-pins kept showing up all over the house, which was weird because none of us used bobby-pins," strikes me as a better detail.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Unexplained phenomenon that I happen to know the explanation for. One ghost story I read had someone trying to blame a fairy ring on ghosts, and talking about seeing spiders of a species they didn't know. Get a field-guide, people!

PLAUSIBLE: The ones that seem to be more "the world is stuck in a loop" than "something is purposeful here." Like the Lutheran Ladies Bible Study met every Wednesday at eight for forty years in this room, so now that it's been re-purposed for apartments, at 8 pm on Wednesday, the room suddenly smells like coffee. I'm surprisingly okay with that.

POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: Murder victims. Honestly, the minute you discover that somebody was murdered in the house, I get twice as skeptical. It's a little too pat and ties things up too neatly. Real life doesn't make for cohesive plotlines.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: "I woke up and felt like something was in the room with me." This is the classic sleep paralysis intruder phenomenon, and can be filed under "brains are weird." Also, "I felt like something was sitting on my chest and I couldn't breathe," aka the Hag. Brains do this, no ghosts required, and seeing it attributed to ghosts irks me.

POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: "And then I found an old photo album, and there was a picture of the ghost!" This is very likely a deal-breaker, since I'll assume you saw the photos first and filled in the rest mentally, and anyway, it's a little too horror-movie perfect. I'd be much more likely to accept "I found a photo album and there were photos of people. No, I couldn't pick out the ghost. Photography from that era was primitive at best and anyway "zippy blur at around ankle level" doesn't photograph well."

PLAUSIBLE: Lack of malice. I have a much easier time believing in ghosts that aren't vengeful, just, y'know, there. This is not to say that a ghost can't get angry over something the homeowners are doing, but broadly non-malicious, just doin' their own thing--that works much better for me than "I AM GHOST-DAR, DESTROYER OF TENANTS."  (Will also accept "There are X number of ghosts in the house for some reason, but only one has an attitude problem.)

POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: "I was scared, so I kept doing the exact same thing I was doing and didn't take any precautions whatsoever." Look, people do dumb things hoping that life will get better, but I am much more impressed when someone decides to sleep in a different room or put a brick in front of the door to keep it swinging closed.

DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: "I'm a professional ghost hunter..." 'Nuff said.

*The intense hallucinations/waking dream experienced when falling asleep. Hypnopompic hallucinations occur when you're waking up. I get those, incidentally, if I'm having a sleep paralysis episode, and they are as clear and vivid as real life, so I don't blame people for thinking there's weird stuff happening.

What podcast were you listening to?

I just saw this the other day and it made me grin:

Brains definitely are weird. You know, every person that I didn't like, they turned out to have a brain. I try not to let brains prejudice me against people, but you gotta wonder sometimes, right?

Sadly, I think I might have one too.

I've seen scary things a couple of times just as I'm waking up too. It's terrifying; but falls under the category of "brains are weird".

I don't have a fully formed opinion on ghosts either. I've had 2 "ghostly" experiences I want to explain away but really can't... I still hesitate to attribute them to ghosts. But like you pointed out, they were small things, not huge-creepy-off-the-wall things and in a way the small things are more believable. But also easier to forget! Til a post like this reminds, "Hey, yeah, that happened once."

So yes. Experienced unexplained weirdness, still not sure if I believe in ghosts.

Well, I'm pretty squarely in the "Nothing, because ghosts aren't real" camp, but I'm also totally in agreement with your list—the ones you've labelled as plausible are the ones that would make me think, Huh, there's something interestingly peculiar going on here, and the ones you've labelled as deal-breakers are the ones that would make me think, Yeesh, someone really wants (us) to believe in ghosts. So even though I'm not at all inclined to entertain the possibility of actual ghosts, I think your list does a good job of separating out interesting tales of unexplained weirdness from boring clichés of ghostlore.


Once upon a time, when I was a wee vac-thing spending summers in a family cabin up on stilts, a happenstance of great (and probably not actually ghostly) strangeness occurred. All the usual bizarre lead-up details one might expect from something ominous applied - the cabin was in the form of a cross, had an attic over the long leg of the cross, a huge main chimney at the center, and a thick steel cable holding the bugger together such that the arms of the cross had reinforcement.

Were there ever a cabin actually designed to make ghostly noises and have symbolism of one form or another attached, this would be the one. Instead, my ghost story, such as it is, involved getting up in the middle of the night to use the indoor outhouse - right up at the head of the cross, because... um... as a kid I figured maybe the folks wanted to poop near the head of god - and as I passed through the kitchen, was distracted by someone I assumed to be a relative making pie.

Really good smelling pie.

Passing acknowledgement took place - they seemed happy, older, and female - and I proceeded to use the facilities and stumble my way back to bed.

In the morning, I expected pie. Really, seriously good pie. Instead, after irritating my parents for quite some time about it, it was disclosed that there'd been no-one over. No one was expected over. There were no pie making ingredients in the cabin.

T'was a family thing, this cabin - we'd pictures of everyone who owned the place. Eventually I dug through years of photographs, finding neither the person in the kitchen, nor any indication that any of the folks what had actually lived there might once have been responsible the such a delightful smell.

If I ever do find a ghost in a residence of mine, I hope they'll teach me to cook.

I'm a professional ghost hunter. It doesn't pay much; it's more a hobby that earns me a few bucks on the side. For some reason, people don't like my approach. I go into a place, listen to their story, watch them use a Ouija board to summon the ghost, and then explain about ideomotor effect. I once spent half an hour at a guys house before I found, and threw out, a leaky break fluid bottle, wiped up the "dripping blood" with a rag, and handed him a $500 invoice. I had to go to small-claims court over that job. Sometimes I don't charge, such as the phone call that basically went "Fairy rings, you say? Have you tried Wikipedia?" before the client hung up. Needless to say, I don't get many referrals or endorsement. While I get rid of the ghosts, I'm obviously not what they are looking for.

I'm not cynical, just thorough. I want to find a ghost, but I want to be sure it is a ghost, not my wishful thinking, or an unknown air draft, or a perfectly normal reading on an EM sensor turned up to maximum gain so all you see is noise. After a while, I never expected to actually find a real ghost, but a few hundred dollars a month for a cheap hobby sort of kept me going.

However, one day it all changed...

You're never gonna get a TV show with THAT attitude! *grin*

You know that we are all waiting for the sensible ghost story now?

Jeff, here... Yeah you sound like you align with my general theory that I can believe the broad phenomenon that is "ghosts" stemming from some as-yet-to-be-understood temporal effect.

My reasoning (entirely without science to back me up, mind you) is basically that time itself is a pretty messed up thing, and has all kinds of loopholes and issues where it is only what it is because we perceive it to be that way, so it makes some kind of sense that it could be doing things unexpected.

That in mind, anything that is sort of a playback loop without a sense of sentience immediately becomes a "yeah I can see that being a thing." I don't 100% discount any presence of a real, sentient thing. I just have never seen anything (in person or in media) that sells me on it.

Amusingly enough I enjoy the Ghost Hunter shows for a study in field video/audio production and storytelling via creative editing. On these (and these alone) they are quite a triumph. Oddly enough I think the entire scope of them have helped more to DISPROVE the existence of sentient ghosts for me, since the sheer volume of media collection in pre-selected hotspots have, to date, turned up bupkus...

That's my idea of what ghosts are, too. I've had two experiences myself, but will not go into details because while Ursula would probably say they fall into her dubious or deal-breaker categories, they were both "you had to be there to believe that happened" sorts of things. And I'm fine with that.

The closest thing to a ghost story I have:
While visiting a little abandoned save for one person mining boom town in the middle of the desert, (Not touristy at ALL, just some pamplets in the kept open church and all the doors locked), my mother stopped to rest by sitting on one of the porches while us more energetic kids kept exploring. Well, okay, we weren't KIDS by that point, brother and I in our 20s, but anyway...
While Mom was sitting there, she heard something in that permenantly locked and abandoned house. There was the creak of a rocking chair on a wooden floor, not an "the wind knocked it over" creak, but the steady, rhythmic sound of someone rocking back and forth. Nothing hostile or mean, more a feeling of companionship.
And nothing 'followed us home' or ever came of that.

My dad and stepmom claimed their house was haunted. They bought this house when I was in my mid-20's so I never spent much time there and thus never experienced any of the things they stated were happening. My stepmom said she was pretty sure it was the wife of the guy who built the house, and she would try to make them breakfast in the morning. Most mornings the kitchen would smell like toast before they got up. No neighbors close enough to be from a neighbor's house. Apparently she did other stuff too but it was mostly mundane like the toast.

My opinion on ghost stories is much like yours. I never experienced it first-hand, so I kind of shrug and say "ok, whatever." What surprised me was that both my dad and my mother believed the story, and they are not new age crystal healing folk like my stepmom.

I like the ones with a neat (usually random and banal) twist of detail, like seeing the column of Revolutionary War soldiers riding down the road, except they are buried to their knees...because (the reader finds out later), the road was raised by a foot over the years. But yeah, not a fan of ghost stories here, either. Especially tired of the dreams being trotted out as "true" ghost stories. They all end the same way: after experiencing (insert frightening or profoundly spooky thing here) the person responds by....going back to sleep.

Also I am a fan of weirdly implausible "ghost" stories that have a real explanation that is totally silly or even more implausible. I have a couple of those. :)

So a few years ago my parents purchased a notoriously haunted house. There are entries for it on sites like hauntedhouses.com, and we've found it listed in books talking about haunted places in our state.

Most of their 'haunted house' stories are just the fun of living in a famous house, like when my mother found two bored teenage girls with an Ouija board on the front steps, or when the local ghost tour stops in front of the house around Halloween.

My mother also has a great story about the time she 'sensed a presence' in the darkened library. She was determined to introduce herself, because it seemed like the polite thing to do, and hey, how many people can say they've met a ghost?
"Is someone there?" she asked, peering into the library.
"Yes," said a low, masculine voice. My mother almost wet her pants.
"I can't see you," she said, "where are you?"
"Here," said the voice, and my stepbrother sat up from where he had been napping on the couch.

The only 'scary' story starts the day after they moved in. I called my mom to see how unpacking was going and how they liked the new house.

"It's great," she said, "but it's going to take some time to get used to the noises of having tenants above us. It sounded like there was someone going up and down the stairs all night. I could barely sleep."

A few months later, we were standing in the kitchen, and my parents were discussing the tenants. The tenant immediately above them, they said, was very quiet. She was a painter using the space as her studio, and she was almost never there.
"I thought she kept you up with her pacing," I said. No, they reiterated, she was very quiet. Then my mother turned to my stepfather.
"That's right," she said, "we had trouble sleeping that first night after we moved in."
"Oh, yeah," my stepfather nodded. He was quiet for a minute, then added, "but those noises we heard-- that's not what it sounds like when she's up there."
"That's right," my mother said. "It sounded more like someone going up and down the stairs outside our room... I thought we would just get used to it, but I don't think we ever heard those noises again after that first night."
We all stared at each other for a minute and agreed that this was creepy. But hey, sitting in a sun-filled kitchen, it's hard to get too worked up about it. My parents haven't heard the noises since, but my mother did mention that ghosts are supposed to be most active when someone new moves into the home. Our theory is that the spirits of the house are benign-- but they wanted to let us know that they're there.

Interesting. I think if I was to try and write a plausible-sounding ghost story for the sake of spine shivers, I'd probably go for a somewhat shaken narrator recounting an unexplainable experience -- the more outwardly mundane and only unsettling by context, like your bobby-pins, the better -- and implicitly querying the reader for a rational explanation, of which there would of course be none, by virtue of good writing. (Good writing can always be assumed for as-yet unwritten stories, that being the main virtue of those.)

Not that, as the former owner of a 200 year old house, I don't have an RL ghost story to share. As those go, it's patently unscary, however. (It was a good house.) Maybe another time.