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How to write a ghost story | Part 1

I can’t honestly tell you how I fell into creating bizarre effects. I’ve never been a huge fan of horror films, generally I find them boring and often quite predictable. I never used to enjoy being scared at all and have never invested much time in the idea’s of witches, vampires, zombies and clowns. I do quite like the idea’s around spirits and ghosts however. That always seemed to be a particular enjoyment for me. But I digress… In short, horror just isn’t my cup of tea! Surprised to hear me say that?

When I was at university, I guess I began starting to develop my voice in writing narratives and began exploring the idea of making an audience feel uncomfortable. I enjoyed the immersive aspect of this kind of theatre and surrounding an audience with ‘happenings’ felt interesting and edgy.

Just to catch you up, I studied for a BA (Hons) Degree in Drama and Performance Studies at London Southbank University. Just behind the London Eye if you’re not from the UK! Our final piece was a large performance and the syllabus that year was that we needed to look into experimental forms of theatre and ‘tricking’ an audience.

It was actually really very interesting! We looked into times that people weren’t aware something was happening. For example, we looked into the Moscow Theatre Siege which happened in 2002. If you haven’t heard of it, essentially during a performance of Nord-Ost, around 40 people stormed the theatre with explosives and held everyone captive. I won’t go too deep into the details here but feel free to read up more. But, the reason we looked into this as an interesting case study was that, during the musical Nord-Ost, the show had soldiers dancing with guns. When the terrorists entered the building, the audience thought it was part of the show and enjoyed how immersive it felt. Until of course, they realised it wasn’t part of the show. Horrific, but an interesting idea that, the make believe and the real life collided and created an ambiguity of reality.

We also looked at how many crimes were committed because people generally trust uniforms. If someone comes to your front door in a high visibility vest, you’re more likely to trust them. However, a high visibility vest also makes a person somewhat vanish. Because they’re so common place in everyday society, we tend to ignore when we see workers in the street with them on. They almost blend into their surroundings.

We explored many more of these idea’s taken from real life but in short, the idea was to use everyday misconceptions against an audience. So, for my first exploration of this idea, I went to Davenports Magic shop in London and purchased a bunch of dulled razor blades usually intended for a razor blade swallowing effect. If you’ve not seen these before, they look exactly like real razor blades but are totally dulled on the edges. However, there are corners that are a little sharper so that if you wanted to slide a piece of paper with one, you could. I also purchased some blood capsules that could be bitten. Then, I brought the ‘high visibility jacket’ section of my idea. The thing that would legitimise what the blades were. So I went to a supermarket and purchased an everyday pack of Wilkinson Sword razor blades. A brand that a large majority of the public would be aware of and therefore trust. Then, carefully, I took out the real razor blades and disposed of them. Then I placed my fake razor blades inside the Wilkinson packaging and closed everything back up so it looked untampered with. Finally, I purchased an apple and using a clean drill bit, I made a hole big enough to put the blood capsule in.

I think you can see where this is going…

This was my first ever actors head shot. The first pictures I ever had taken by a

professional and... I still hate it!

During our ‘share session’ I took out the blades and had someone open the packaging for me and remove a blade without taking off the outer paper. Then, I carefully took the dulled, fake blade out of the paper and held it carefully, as if it were real, at fingertips. My premise was that fear can be manipulated and if you weren’t scared of something like a razor blade, it couldn’t really hurt you. I took the apple being carful to hide the hole at the back and I sliced it with the corner of the dulled blade so it sliced into the apple. Then, rather dramatically, I stopped what I was doing and stuck out my tongue, allowing a beat for the reality of what I was about to do to set into my classmates and lecturer. I then proceeded to place the blade flat on my tongue and bring my tongue back into my mouth with the blade resting on it. As you can imagine, everyone was either cringing or had their hands over their eyes. Even my lecturer felt unable to find the words to tell me that I was taking things too far.

I then stuck out my tongue and removed the blade, allowing everyone to again calm and sigh relief. As soon as they were comfortable and chatting, I stuck my tongue out again and dragged the blade rather quickly and erratically down the length of my tongue. Everyone stopped immediately what they were talking about and absolutely freaked out. Verbal cries of horror rang from most everyones lips. Finally, I was told to stop by my lecturer for my safety. So I wrapped the blade up in the paper it came from and placed it into a bright yellow ‘sharps box’. The kind intended for disposal of injections in a hospital. As the class moved on, discussing what had happened and working out how I could improve, I picked up the apple, bit into the side with the pill imbedded into it and began chewing a piece of apple. Inside was the blood pill. So, nonchalantly, as I ate the apple, my mouth began to drip blood. Slowly the group began to realise and I was asked to seek medical help by my rather panicked lecturer.

Of course, then I came clean and told them what had really happened. But this was the first time I had performed a real piece of horror magic to a group of people. The interesting thing was, the majority of the group mentioned that during my performance, the range of emotions they felt was quite varied. Tension, apprehension, fear, shock but also intense relief and happiness when it was over and enjoyment (after I’d explained) that it was all achieved in a totally safe way. It was all play acting. It was like a horror film but live.

A horror film… but live. If I find horror films boring, let's make them exciting and write my own!

This is the concept that piqued my interested. The idea that I could give an audience the feeling of being scared and relieved but in complete safety. But, I didn’t know if this was as interesting concept as I’d hoped. But then I did some research… there is a long, rich history of magicians and performers horrifying audiences for entertainment. Something that has gone somewhat out of style in the modern age but, a rich history none the less.

When you look around the magic circle, you can see countless images of performers throughout history creating spooky or bizarre magic. Ionia, Selbit, Kellar, Maskelyne, The Great Lyle, Mrs Eva Fay, Bermaine, Harry Houdini, The Fox Sisters, The Davenport Brothers and I could go on and on. Each of their posters has a call back to bizarre of spiritualistic magic. Whether thats angels, devils, ghosts and even electrocution (Selbit). So, I always enjoyed the idea of exploring this niche a little more.

But, one question I often get asked is, how do I write a narrative for a horror story. Or any story for that matter!

Scream, He’s Not Here, The Deceased, Zener Murders, The Given, Chased, The Dolls Leg and tons more are just some of the stories I’ve devised. But, how do they come about…


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Jun 13, 2022

That was very well written. I'm with you in not liking horror films very much. I love thrillers though. Suspenseful movies hold my interest very much. A good thriller relies much more on emotions and not knowwing what will happen next. I love convoluted plots often prevalent in political thrillers.

Having said all that, I do enjoy at times schock stuff in magic a la Penn and Teller. I also really like your effects such as the Deceased and He's not there. Again, suspense over schlock.

Always looking forward to your ramblings.

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