Last week’s post was with author, Scott A. Johnson. He talked about why ghosts are his favorite monsters. This week’s blog will continue with Johnson discussing ghost stories and haunted house tales. In the way of a brief re-introduction to this author, Johnson has published 14 novels, three true ghost story books, a chapbook, and a short story collection. His latest novel: Shy Grove: A Ghost Story received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.
Johnson is an instructor and mentor in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction Program. He teaches several courses. One of these courses is focused on readings in the horror genre and focuses solely on ghosts and hauntings.
This first thing that needs to be considered when talking about ghost stories and haunted houses is what the difference between the two stories are. Johnson says that ghost stories are about “haunted people” and haunted house stories are about “haunted places.” He continues to say that in the case of a haunted house stories the spirits inhabiting the haunted location only interact and cause issues for those who come into that place. “In a ghost story, the protagonists can run, they can hide, but they can never escape,” he says.
Johnson doesn’t have a preference between ghost stories or haunted house stories. He feels they both have an important place in the literary landscape. He does, however, have a couple of favorite books about hauntings. They are Hell House by Richard Matheson and The Shining by Stephen King. (Both of these titles have been included in his Readings in the Genre course along with others like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.)
Not all ghost stories are the same. Johnson believes that they are only good, effective stories if they build with “creeping dread” and avoid reliance on the “shock scare.” He believes that the best ghost stories combine the creeping dread with revelation of “universal truths” like revenge or secrets. Good haunted house stories, according to Johnson, possess (pun intended) the same qualities. He also believes that sticking with Gothic literary tropes like “a secret revealed” and “isolation” work well in these stories.
Bad ghost and haunted house stories have many similarities in Johnson’s opinion. He feels that “cheap thrills” an “lack of motivation” are markers of a problematic and less than enjoyable ghost or haunted house story. Furthermore he says of ghost stories, “Ghosts aren’t simple, just like people aren’t simple. They’re far more complex than that.” The abundant reliance of genre clichés, such as the “black cat in the closet” doom these stories to be bad
Like every genre or subgenre of literature and movies, there will be haters, and as the scariest pop culture monster, Taylor Swift, says, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” Johnson puts up a defensive line toward people who do not like ghost and haunted house stories.
He says that these stories can be used as metaphors for any human condition. Like any good teacher, he gives examples. “Alcoholism, like in King’s The Shining, regret like in Straub’s Ghost Story, family troubles like in Ansen’s The Amityville Horror… You name it, they can be used as an allegory for it.” In further defense of the subgenre, Johnson mentions why he loves these kinds of stories. He says this, “It’s easy to say they don’t exist and that they’re dumb. But when someone tells a truly great ghost story, it gets under your skin. By the campfire light, it’s easy to laugh and say they don’t exist. But in the dark, when the only sound is your own breath and heartbeat, and you can’t be sure what that odd shadow is across the room, everyone believes a little. And the possibility is all one needs for terror.”