The Art of Telling a Ghost Story

by David Pitkin

Long before the human past was recorded in writing, tales of the heroic and mysterious experiences of the ancestors were being told around campfires. In this way culture, values and a sense of wonder were passed on. Even in our more modern and “scientific” times, Americans love to sit and listen to tales of the supernatural, stories that push the envelope of imagination.

In my ten-year experience as a teller of ghost stories, I’ve discovered that most attendees have had an unnerving, perhaps ghostly, experience of some sort. So, it is a ghost story teller’s dream, to have an audience with the proper “mind set” before the first word is spoken. The listener most enjoys a tale that might easily have happened to them, whether or not it is true. There is an extra chill, however, when I bring my history teacher’s background and skepticism to the talk. I pass on only those stories that my research suggests are true.

Thus, people enjoy stories that feature the individual, be it a child, housewife, soldier or businessman…someone like them. In this way, they can identify with the thrill of each word, imagining or remembering their own experiences with the uncanny. Thus, in setting the scene, my stories usually begin with the state or country where the tale originates, and from there, we go to the town or city, then down to the neighborhood, store or dwelling. By the time I am describing the house, church, business place or school, everyone is hooked, even though many are still trying to remain objective.

In every audience there are those who desperately want to have their boundaries of thought and experience breached. They hope for an adrenaline rush or chill as they identify with the protagonists of the story being suddenly confronted with mystery. The location of each individual’s boundary lies in a different place. Some hope for a tale so horrific that they will not dare to fall asleep at night; others expect only to be intrigued by the story’s elements. So, a recitation of the facts of a story might terrorize one individual while bringing only a slight smile to the face of another. My motivation in storytelling is not to create fear in my listeners, though some depart from the story session scared. No, my aim is to speak (often humorously) about the often-usual death and reappearance of a person just like us.

Years ago, I chose not to try scaring people because today’s headlines can do that job better than I. My motivations are to speak about death and its survival by some part of the departed human personality. Often, audience members are wide-eyed when I recount stories from my personal experience, as I’ve seen, heard, touched, been touched, walked through, and smelled entities that are apparently ghosts. And I have had many dream contacts that I deem genuine. Yet, ghosts hint that what we call life or consciousness does go on despite bodily death. And, as this process happens no matter how horribly an individual dies, I tend to recount the episode in a humorous way; what is there to be scared of?

While stating the known facts of any story, one has to avoid too much dogmatism. It seems not wise to force the listener to a conclusion. Ghost stories are far more effective and entertaining if the speaker provides the known facts of the case, then lead the listener to draw his/her own conclusions. When the audience arrives at a scary finale within themselves, it seems that the outcome of the storytelling is much more satisfactory to them.

Human beings the world over are more alike than unalike, so that a good story should be able to translate to other cultures. An example of this is the “hitchhiker ghost,” a genre of ghost tales. In these tellings, the protagonist is always driving or sailing along blissfully and encounters (with many variations) a stranger. The stranger is in need of transportation from that spot to another and the traveler offers to help. Again, with so many alterations, the stranger always tells a brief story and then disappears; leaving the subject shaken when the traveler learns the story was true. This type of story is found in cultures worldwide. Likewise, there are the “murdered peddler stories” throughout eastern America.

It seems necessary that the effective storyteller must involve the listener’s emotions and not just their intellect, as it is in the feelings that we are most vulnerable and sensitive. A strictly non-emotional recitation of an episode’s facts will eventually put an audience to sleep. Good emotional stories, as Hollywood knows, touch us where we live.

The listener, as hero or heroine of his/her own life, almost always identifies with the traveler, as that is essentially the role we all play in life. Then, when, at story’s end, the traveler discovers that such a person did, in fact, exist and often met some horrible end, the listener is first shocked, then immediately grins or laughs out loud at the implausibility of it all. Later, reflecting on the story, the individual may draw certain philosophical conclusions and attempt to refute the apparent truth of the tale.

Ghost stories, as well as stories in general, are most effectively told, I think, if the storyteller moves about while talking, engaging each listener eye-to-eye. Gestures are another part of the story’s effectiveness for some reason, though I haven’t fully discovered why. Bodily movements are ages-old devices for speakers, and this lesson is not lost on modern-day politicians.

There is another quality residing in listeners which often makes the storyteller seem greater or wiser than he/she is. Each of us has a wealth of experiences and memories secreted in our unconscious mind. Each individual also possesses an almost totally forgotten fund of dream scenarios, images and early-life experiences. Therefore, each listener at a storytelling event (especially on occasions where the basic issues of life and death are related) brings more to the experience than they realize. Good storytelling energizes that hidden or forgotten part of our self, and thus the recited tales seem credible.

My experiences with parapsychology and counseling psychology have taught me much about the universal self or soul that transcends the single lifetime. If indeed, as I suspect, there is a much greater purpose to life than America’s search for constant amusement, then there must be an “operations center” within us that continually seeks new connections to truth and profound meaning. In the midst of a good story experience, I believe, that hidden part of us is energized. Therefore, no two listeners will hear the same story. Each takes away from the episode a different realization, conclusion or lesson. It is as if an artist painted a scene containing several elements, and each viewer at the gallery enjoyed and remembered a different item afterward.

In the end, good stories and good storytellers can help us connect with that which is universal and transcendent in us all. The greatest mystery is not so much the ghost stories I love and love to tell, as it is the eternal quest for a lasting meaning that we have pursued through time.

As a retired teacher of world cultures and religions, Pitkin taught 36 years in NY State schools. In 1974, following a major illness, he began a quest for enlightenment in parapsychology and developed an expertise in numerology. He had visited a haunted barn in 1968 and, following a study of the Riley House in Saratoga Springs, NY, became a dedicated collector of the details of hauntings. Traditional religions, he found, offer little constructive information about the souls trapped between the physical realm and the eternal, spurring him to write his successful “Saratoga County Ghosts” in 1998. Now a widely-sought after speaker, he has appeared frequently throughout the eastern United States.