The Haunted House is one of the oldest spooky story settings in literature.
Scholars have traced this time-honored meme all the way back to the Stone Age and a series of cave paintings depicting four frightened cave teens entering Ye Olde Abandoned Cave and getting attacked by the ghost of Og who really doesn’t want other cave people messing with his cave even though he was stomped to death by a woolly mammoth a couple of years back.
That’s one interpretation, anyway…
As I travel around the country bringing the joys of all things spooky to elementary and middle school students, the discussion of The Haunted House is always one of my favorites. Nine times out of ten, the wisdom I share on the subject blows the kids’ minds (the tenth time I usually get chased by an angry mob to the city limits).
See, when you think of a haunted house story, you tend to think of a story about… a haunted house. The Haunting of Hill House. The Haunting. The Haunted House on a Hill. The Hill House Haunting. Things like that. But I have a few other favorite haunted house stories of which you may not have thought: Jurassic Park. Alien. A Nightmare on Elm Street.
In fact, for my money, Jaws is one of the best Haunted House films ever made. It’s almost the perfect Haunted House film.
“What? But… what are you…? There’s no….!! MY MIND HAS BLOWN!!!”
Relax. Allow me to explain.
The first thing to know about Haunted House stories is that there are RULES. Follow the rules, and everybody’s happy. Deviate from the rules, and the story doesn’t quite work. Simple as that. And the first rule of Haunted House stories is that they need to include a man-eating shark.
The first rule of Haunted House stories is that they take place in an enclosed location from which there is no escape. The characters are stuck there and have to deal with what is going on. No putting it off until morning, no magical heel-clicking, no climbing out a window and leaving it for the next idiot who stumbles along.
The haunted house in Jaws is the ocean. In Alien it’s the Nostromo. In Jurassic Park it’s the island. Nightmare on Elm Street? Their dreams.
Next, you need something evil in the enclosed location. This can be anything–ghost, monster, dentist, you name it. This may seem obvious, but it’s important enough to stress. Otherwise you get a story of a bunch of people trapped in a room who take out their phones and play Fortnite until they’re rescued. Boring.
The third thing you need for a haunted house story is a collection of flawed characters. It’s no good having just one character, you need a bunch of them. Their flaws may be as simple as she or he lacks self-confidence, or they haven’t yet gotten over the loss of a loved one, but they all have something wrong with them. Maybe they think they’re better than everyone. Maybe they are obsessed with washing their hands. It really doesn’t matter as long as there’s an identifiable flaw.
The reason the flaw is important is because it generally leads to their death as the characters are taken out one by one. In general, anytime a character in a haunted house story finds himself or herself alone, you can be pretty sure they’re about to die. How does this translate to Middle Grade (since we generally don’t turn our Middle Grade books into blood baths)? They are taken out of commision. Knocked unconscious. Trapped in the cupboard. Turned into a newt.
And this happens because of their flaw. The character who lacks self-confidence didn’t think he can make the jump over the yawning chasm after everyone else has jumped across. And because he doesn’t jump, he’s captured by the seven-eyed monstrocity chasing them. And then eaten.
The last rule to remember is that only the innocent (and dogs) survive. Haunted House stories grew out of parents’ need to keep children alive.
“Mom? Can I go play in the abandoned glass, needle, and razer blade factory?”
“Because I said so.”
“Because it is dangerous.”
“BECAUSE IT’S HAUNTED! OK? THERE ARE GHOSTS IN THERE THAT WILL SUCK OUT YOUR BRAINS!”
By ensuring that only the innocent survive, we are subconsciously teaching our children to be good citizens.
“You should wash your hands, Billy. Remember when SallyJesse didn’t wash her hands in He Vomits On Your Grave? She exploded. You don’t want to explode, do you, Billy? Better wash your hands.”
Yes, spooky stories make for valuable life lessons.
And yes, the dog always survives.
All of these rules aren’t meant to constrict a writer in plotting out a story, rather they are intended to serve as a guide. If you know the rules, you can break them and know exactly what you are doing and everybody is happy. Haunted House stories are some of the most enjoyable spooky stories around. Writing one can be a whole lot of fun.
Just make sure the dog survives.