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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.

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Got a good one for you here. The best thing about it was, I wasn't the only witness.

When I lived in Germany, the tiny town that I called home had a restored Roman watchtower in a field nearby and a restored Roman road that ran in front of it and crossed the two-lane highway at the bottom of the field. It faded out into grass and gravel shortly afterwards-- it had only been restored for about a quarter mile-- and you could see the whole length of it from the third floor of the tower, which had been rebuilt as a project by an excavation team from a Frankfurt college. The tower wasn't much-- three floors, each one just a square room with a sort of half ladder/half stairs to the next floor up and a walkway outside the top floor; it had very small windows and a palisade around it and dated back to the 3rd century AD. My husband and I always figured that you had to screw up BIG time to get stationed out there in the middle of all those wild Germanic tribes.

Anyway, my friend Ayesha and I used to take our lunches and walk to it every now and then, just to climb up to the third floor and sit on the balcony with our legs swinging while we ate our sandwiches. The tower had been built on the tallest hill in the area and you could see for miles; it was a gorgeous view.

So, one sunny day we're doing just that and we hear the sounds of a horse and wagon. This being farming country in extremely rural Germany, we saw horses hitched to gods-only-know-how-old wagons all the time as well as tractors pulling the same, so we expected to see one coming down the road. But when we looked, we couldn't. That was a little odd-- like I said, we could see for AGES and there were no buildings other than the tower anywhere around, it was all fields (the nearest town was Sohren where we both lived, almost two miles away.) So we kept listening and looking, and the sounds got louder and louder but there was nothing to see.

By the time the horse and wagon got so close that we could hear the horse breathing hard as it pulled the wagon up the hill, it was obvious that it was coming along the Roman road... and nope, nothing, not in either direction. Like I said: sunny day. Full visibility, no buildings except for the tower, nothing. We got a bit agitated, trying to see what we couldn't see, and finally just stared at each other and turned to stand at the railing, watching the Roman road as the sounds got closer. By this point they were so clear that we could tell that there was just one horse; we could hear the harness jingling and creaking, hear the hooves, hear the horse blowing, hear the wagon's wheels-- it wasn't going fast or anything. And finally it came up directly in front of the tower.

Aaaaand that's when it just stopped-- went totally silent. No sound, nothing, no wagon or horse or anything. So we stood there and waited for something to happen (I was afraid we'd hear somebody climbing the ladder/stairs.) Nothing did; we stayed for about 15 more minutes, and then we took off back to Sohren.

Ayesha and I talked about what we'd heard and *not* seen, and it was the same; I've wondered since if it was just a memory that the road and tower had and if we were just there in the right conditions. We went back a ton of times but never heard or saw anything else unusual there again.

I've had a handful of other weird moments through my life and two more of them were with other witnesses; I am a believer in earthbound souls, but I also am firmly of the opinion that places and things store up memories that play like films. I just wish we could've *seen* the wagon, not just heard it; that road was used for many, many centuries both during Roman times and long afterwards-- it would've been interesting to see what it was that we heard.

Edited at 2014-07-09 08:27 pm (UTC)

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