Analysing The Tale of the Lonely Ghost

1024 684 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Hi, horror fans! I’m really excited about this blog series and I hope you will be too. I was a big fan of Are You Afraid of the Dark? as a child; I even analysed the opening credits in great detail for my media studies GCSE coursework. For anybody who hasn’t seen AYAOTD? before, the show’s concept is simple. A group of young teenagers called the Midnight Society meet in the woods at night and take it in turns to tell scary stories around a fire.

This blog is aimed at authors, not screenwriters, but there’s a lot to learn and unpack in this children’s TV show and I bet you’ll pick up some tips and inspiration if you’re writing horror (or anything with scary bits) for young readers. The intended viewership was around middle grade level although I was still watching well into my teens so there’s something here for the YA crowd, too. So, what can authors learn from this series?

Explore common but fantastical childhood fears

First, consider the fears that writers introduce in each episode. Villains range from the sandman and clowns to mad scientists and evil headmasters, each picking up on young children’s common phobias and nightmares. But notice that the threat is never realistic: there are no babysitter stalkers or serial killers with axes here. In his masterclass, R.L. Stine pointed out that the scares in his Goosebumps books, which are aimed at the same audience as AYAOTD?, are never things that could happen in the real world. They’re speculative horror like ghosts, vampires and x-ray glasses, so however scared children might be, they know deep down there’s no real threat to them.

Note the everyday middle grade conflicts

Focusing on the spooky situations these episodes introduce will certainly help you explore what scares and excites children of this age, but the episodes as a whole will get you thinking about the realistic, everyday elements of their lives, too: fights with friends, bullies, mean older siblings, new schools, nobody taking them seriously. Every episode opens with a tangible childhood obstacle and goal; the horror is just a backdrop that often helps the protagonist face and tackle their real world problem.

Closure and hopeful endings

Also, consider the episode endings. Viewers always gets closure: the monster is defeated and everything goes back to normal, although the protagonist is usually a little better off than when they started. And just to make sure the threat’s really over and to remind viewers this was only a story, a member of the Midnight Society puts out the fire and they all go home to their safe, warm beds. Your horror story doesn’t have to have a neat, upbeat climax like this although most middle grade fiction does end on a hopeful if not happy note.

Analysing S01E02 ‘The Tale of the Lonely Ghost

Let’s get started! Here’s an embedded video from the official Are You Afraid of the Dark? YouTube channel, although you can just click on the link above and watch it over on YouTube instead:

Episode overview

Storyteller

Sensitive, quiet David

Horror tropes to look out for

Haunted house, mirror monster, scare dare

Frame story (what’s happening around the campfire) 

Shy David gives Kristen a locket for her birthday, while Frank and Eric are butting heads once again (those boys!).

Plot

Taken from the official YouTube channel:

‘Everybody is psyched about summer vacation except Amanda Cameron, because she has to spend the entire summer with her obnoxious cousin, Beth. Amanda is willing to do anything to join Beth and her group of friends, including the initiation: Amanda must sleep all night in the haunted house across the street. Even though Amanda does not believe in ghosts, what she finds in the house changes the past and the future. She might be able to change her fate for the summer after all…’

Theme

Before David starts his story, he tells us it’s about two kids who don’t get along because they’re too different, and a love that can survive anything – even death. We can see how this theme is reflected in the outer frame story: Frank and Eric have clashed since the day they met, while David conquers his embarrassment to express his feelings for Kristen with a locket – the same object that symbolises love later on in the ghost story.

Story development

Protagonist’s goal and motive

Amanda is the protagonist in David’s ghost story, and she wants to pass Beth’s initiation so she can hang out with her and her friends over the summer. Her motive is clear: she doesn’t want to spend all summer by herself. But digging deeper, we can see Amanda is a people pleaser. She wants Beth to like her and think she’s cool – what 12 year old can’t relate to that? – so she’ll do whatever it takes to impress her.

Devices and motifs: Thresholds

As in a lot of AYAOTD? episodes, there’s a big focus on thresholds here: Amanda must cross over into the haunted house and then again into the little girl’s bedroom. There are plenty of shots of doors and close-ups on handles before the horror even begins, foreshadowing what’s to come.

In a TV documentary about horror movies, film critic Mark Kermode explained that thresholds are crucial in horror because we’re drawn to danger as children. We know walking into that derelict building or empty forest is a bad idea but we do it anyway, and that feeling of risk and excitement mixed with dread as we step over the line stays with us forever. I think thresholds are particularly relevant in middle grade and YA because children and teenagers are standing on the threshold between youth and adulthood, excited to step through the door and gain some independence but also scared to leave the safety and comfort of their childhood. In this episode, Amanda goes through a transformation that allows her to stand up to her cousin Beth, and immature Beth is forced to grow up a bit, too.

Monster / Villain

The baddie in this episode is actually cousin Beth. She’s a cruel, spoilt teenager who symbolises every bully or mean older sibling any of us had in the ’90s. At first we’re supposed to think that the monster of the piece is whatever’s haunting that house across the road, and later we suspect Nanny of some strange sorcery, creeping around the house and jumping out at people in the dark. But of course, she’s just a grieving mother trying to live a quiet life.

Luckily, the villain is defeated in the final act when Amanda threatens to leave Beth locked in a cupboard forever if she doesn’t promise to stop bossing everybody around. When the story’s over, David tells us that Amanda had a great summer hanging with Beth’s friends, and she even let Beth join in. Win!

Setting and atmosphere

It’s pretty easy to build up the scare factor in this episode because haunted houses are intrinsically terrifying. The house is treated like a character in its own right, with Amanda’s aunt announcing at the start that ‘sometimes I think this house doesn’t want to be sold’; when she sticks a For Sale sign in the garden, it immediately falls over. Foreshadowing! When Amanda enters the house, it’s dark and dusty and she finds her way around by torchlight.

The stairs creak, there are sudden, unexplained noises creating jump scares and, most importantly, Amanda is all alone. When she finds the little girl’s bedroom, she sees EM PLEH written on the wall (backwards writing is always scary) which, I must admit, takes Amanda quite a while to interpret considering she seems to be a pretty intelligent girl. Anyway, next she sees a ghost girl trapped in the mirror and runs from the house, screaming. Later, Amanda and Beth go back to the bedroom together and EM PLEH is covering the walls, taking the horror to the next level, but this time the ghost girl comes out of the mirror to give Amanda a locket. Amanda realises the girl is Nanny’s daughter who died in the house, and she reunites them, shifting the atmosphere from scary to heartwarming.

Climax and resolution

It’s a happy ending all round. Amanda gets one over on Beth and Nanny is finally at peace, stepping into the mirror to be with her long-lost daughter.

Structure

There are lots of ways to structure a story. Formulas like Save the Cat! and Freytag’s Pyramid work brilliantly for lots of genres but horror often follows a different pattern. There are dozens of articles and books that cover horror-specific structures and over the course of this AYAOTD? series we’ll be testing a few out. First, here’s the episode mapped out against Karen Woodward’s take on the hero’s journey:

 The monster with a thousand faces 

1) The initial situation/The ordinary world

    • The hero does something normal: Amanda arrives at Beth’s house and is her lovely, friendly self, trying her best to get Beth to warm up and accept that they’re going to have an amazing summer together.
    • There’s a problem: Oh dear, Beth is a total cow. She has no interest in hanging out with Amanda this summer, so she makes up a fake initiation that Amanda must pass in order to get in to her gang.
    • Warning: Amanda stands outside the haunted house with Beth’s friends, listening to Beth tell a scary story about the girl who died in the house. Beth gives her the chance to back out and spend the summer alone, ‘reading books or something’.

2) Break into act two

    • The protagonist makes a choice: Amanda ignores this warning and decides to smash this initiation, no matter what. She heads into the house, torch in hand.
    • Initial problem is either solved or changed: Amanda makes it to the little girl’s bedroom and sees a ghost in the mirror. The initiation is over; her new problem is escaping alive.
    • Fake solution: She makes it home to safety. Even when she and Beth have to go back to the house to clean up, Beth reassures her nothing will happen in broad daylight.
    • Fake villain: Karen explains that often at this point the protagonist identifies the wrong person as the villain and thinks they’re now safe (think of any horror film you’ve ever seen) before the real baddie reveals themselves. This doesn’t happen exactly in The Lonely Ghost but Amanda does assume the ghost in the mirror is the threat when in actual fact it’s Beth.

3) Climax

    • Protagonist and antagonist/villain fight. There isn’t a physical fight but Beth pleads with Amanda to let her out of the closet and Amanda makes her sweat.

So it looks like this structure fits ‘The Tale of the Lonely Ghost’ really well. How does it work for your story?

 The Trajectory of Fear 

RPG author Ash Law wrote an excellent article about working through the four stages of fear in a horror game. It’s long so I won’t quote it all here but here’s an overview:

UNEASE This is the starting point. It is the knowledge that something is not right in the world. Effective Horror stories set this up well, poor Horror stories skip Unease entirely. The more time you can devote to building Unease the better the foundation is laid for later types of fear. Unease is the sense that something is not quite right with the world.

DREAD Dread is the suspicion, unconfirmed, that something is not right and is HERE; it is more immediate and focused than unease. Dread is built on the foundation of Unease, and without that foundation can feel hollow. Dread is the uncertain possibility of certain danger: you know that danger exists and what form it might take and that it is close, but it exists in a Schrödinger’s jack‐in‐the‐box.

TERROR Terror is the most powerful type of fear because of its immediacy. Terror is the sure knowledge that something terrible is imminent, that the danger is here and now but has not yet been revealed.   Terror is used in Horror stories at their scariest point. If the foundations have been properly laid this is the place on the trajectory of fear that is the highest point, the biggest emotional pay‐off.

HORROR Horror is the most immediate and primal type of fear, but paradoxically the weakest. Horror is the revelation, meeting the danger and discovering the boogieman. Horror is the punch line of fear, the thing that elicits gasps and jumps. Unfortunately the moment the horrible thing is revealed the tension from the terror is released and we are back to where we started from.

Read more of Law’s fascinating essay

In The Lonely Ghost, unease builds as soon as Amanda arrives. There’s obviously something wrong with that house across the road and it’s clear to viewers that trouble’s brewing, but it’s not an immediate threat. Dread starts when Amanda is dared to go into the house; she’s still not sure there’s anything to be truly frightened of but she’s about to find out! Terror comes when Amanda is in the house and hears scary sounds and sees ‘HELP ME’ on the wall. Now she knows something’s definitely coming – soon. Horror hits when she finally sees the ghost girl in the mirror pointing at her. The monster has been revealed. We get another hit of horror later when Amanda goes back to the house and gets even closer to the ghost girl.

Call to Adventure!

How to use these ideas and observations in your own work

Hopefully this episode has given you middle grade horror or dark fantasy writers a lot of ideas and inspiration! Here are some things to think about when writing or revising your own manuscript:

    • Look at how the lighting technicians and sound engineers create atmosphere in the haunted house. How can you recreate that on the page by using all the senses and having your characters interact with the setting?
    • The central fear in this episode is a simple, timeless one: ghosts. How might you put a twist on this to make the story feel fresher for a modern audience who may have read a lot of ghost stories already?
    • Think about what’s going on in Amanda’s life, beyond the scares. How might you write her character? She’d need to be developed a lot in order to drive the plot of an entire manuscript: what might her backstory be? What made her have sympathy for Nanny and the dead girl in the mirror when many children would have just run away? Does she have a character flaw that might lead her to make the wrong decisions?
    • Notice how Amanda is an active character, making choices and driving the action forward. Yes, Beth dares her to go into the house, but it’s Amanda’s decision to accept because she has a goal she needs to achieve. All good protagonists need to take actions that keep the story moving.
    • It’s a while before anything truly scary happens, but the foreshadowing and tone of the episode tell viewers something horrifying is just around the corner so they’re kept on edge the whole time. How might you build up those four stages of fear Law talks about in your story before the monster enters the story? How can you warn readers that the scares are coming?
Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes