She's A Mystery, She's Too Much For Me, But I Keep Coming Back For More, She's Just The Girl I'm Looking For
"She was about your age, Katie," I told her in as innocent a voice I could muster. I mean--it's such a simple line, so subtle, so small, but it usually hooked her in. There were times when I would wonder how soon it would be before she caught on to my technique, but she was still too young to notice that almost every ghost story I told her began with those same words. As the two of us sat on my balcony I let that thought go and moved onto the rest of my tale.
There's a fine art to telling an engaging ghost story and the first rule is always handcuff your audience to the story. It's like my daddy always says, "without the wager, you're just watching horses run in a big circle." When they see a part of themselves in the story, well, then they might as well be in the story. Initially, I didn't see the importance of this as it pertained to ghost stories. I always more or less was a fan about setting the mood rather than tailoring the story to the particular person I was seated next to. However, as I got older and began to spin my yarns to more and more sophisticated audiences, I began to see this should always be step one. Other stories may live and breathe regardless of an audience's connection to it, but a good tale of ghostly horror dies on the listener feeling every shadow dance on his or her back, hearing every creak or moan in his or her own ears, dying a little when the big climax arrives.
Katie has an always been a willing participant. She's always been my accomplice, as willing to be terrified out of her britches as I was willing to do the terrifying. That night, like so many other nights, I had suggested we sit out on my balcony, legs dangling over the edge while I recounted the true tale of the girl who lived a few towns over.
"You see, she had always been a shy girl. She kept to herself and people, for the most part, left her alone. I don't if she was exactly lonely, but there was certainly a sense of solitude that surrounded her wherever she went.
"She was a pretty girl, to be sure, but nobody really noticed it. Other girls might have taken it hard, not being noticed and all, but she bore it in stride. She was never one for attention. She was always about being the person who blended into the background and always about pushing the attention away from her. Given the choice she would always opt to be alone with her thoughts."
I looked into my cousin's face. Her million teeth usually wedged into a million-watt smile and perfect hay color hair were going to break hearts someday, but that night she looked anything but content.
"Now, in town, there was a boy that watched her walk home alone every day. Every day he would watch from afar like a gargoyle this shy girl make her way back. For, you see, he was rather shy himself. He didn't have the words or the gumption to express what he wanted to express. At the school they both attended, he would follow her to her classes. He would smile when she smiled, but he could do no more. Then he would watch her as she left. He would smile when she would go on her merry way and he would wish he could just join her. But he could do no more. He would just watch. And every day he would watch his heart would continue to grow, bigger and deeper for the object of his affection that he could never ever have."
The second rule of telling ghost stories is to extend every detail to the point of tragedy. Even so-called "happy" ghost stories involve someone having dead, otherwise it wouldn't be called a ghost story. You need to play every opportunity for pathos as if you were playing cards with a blind raccoon. To me, ghost stories are always about two things, people who never appreciated their life when they had it and people who come to appreciate their life after being in the presence of someone who lost it. That, my readers, is the recipe for a tragedy.
At this point I brushed lightly my companion's hair. Again, it was another subtle signal I employed to signal a crucial turning point in the story. Something about touching your audience intimately ratchets up the tension. Some people will tell you to preserve the tactile response for the big "boo" moment, but I believe if you've told the story correctly there's no need to startle them into fear. The fear will be a natural result of all the elements coming together in wicked harmony. Of course, I could play Katie like a violin. Hell's bells, I could have probably read the back of a baseball card and she still would have leapt a few feet.
"This went on for a few years, with each never quite knowing what the other was feeling. For her part, she just never allowed the thought of someone being capable of loving her to creep into her mind. For his part, he just never allowed the thought of her wanting to return his feelings for her. They never arrived at a point where they could be happy with one another.
"Then one day the girl didn't make it to school. She had gone missing according to the announcement the principal made that day. Then the whole school was instructed to pray for the girl and to pray for all those who were trying to find her.
"The boy was beside himself. He didn't know what to do. Every day he had followed the routine of watching her come and go. Every day he attempted to convince himself that soon he would have the courage to say the briefest of introductions to her. But now his chance had vanished, just as she had vanished. He had missed out on ever knowing her."
"He should've just talked to her," I heard Katie pipe up. I laughed and did my best not to insult her innocence.
"Yes, he should've. But the story's not done, Katie."
"Soon a few days had passed since she had gone missing and the people of the town were beginning to give up hope. She's lost forever they said. We'll never find her now they said. Fairly soon it was believed they would find her body on the side of a road somewhere. They all began to slowly give up the idea of ever finding her alive.
"Except the boy. He couldn't watch others look for her while he did nothing. He at last took that leap into doing something about his feelings. He finally made an effort to show everybody as well as himself that he was good for something other than watching. He began to look for her in earnest. From the highways and byways, day in and day out, you could see his determined form scouring the earth for her.
The last rule, as with any other story, is to defy expectations. A ghost story is nothing without the big twist. The bigger the better. The way my daddy always says it is, "any bull ride you can walk away from is a good one." You don't need to convince the audience that it actually happened. The only thing you need to convince them is that you believe it actually happened. Get them to believe you and they'll believe anything you offer up to them. Actually, I think it's easier to convince an audience to buy an astonishing ending. If the ending is somewhat flat then the audience is more to prone to believe that it isn't real. After all, they're all looking for something spectacular. Ironically, it's the spectacular quality that gets people to believe. Why would she make up this whole elaborate scenario if it weren't true? The proof is in the pudding as the saying goes. The more fluffed up, dreamt out, and flat-out fattened an ending is, the more likely you are to have an audience walk away wondering if it really could be true.
Katie was a prime example of this rule. That night she was expecting the maddeningly overdrawn spectacle and I did my best to deliver.
"That boy searched and searched. Weeks passed into months but he could never discover one sign of her. Everyone was telling him that he should give up, that it was pointless to look for a girl who was most likely dead. He couldn't allow himself to believe that, though. She had to be somewhere. He only needed to look in the right place. He never stopped looking.
"Then one day he disappeared too and the town had two missing children to bother with. They scoured all over for him as well, but, like the girl, they could never find him.
"Sure, some people say he might be dead too, or merely kidnapped. He could have wound up in a half-dozen other scenarios, each more ghastly than the last. For all anyone knows he may have just expired from exhaustion in a part of the county that nobody had ever bothered to check in. He may have just had the bad luck to die alone as well.
I looked to Katie to see how far along she had come with me. The look in her eyes, the desperation in her breath, told me she had matched me pace for pace. Now, the only matter left was to bring the cow to pasture.
"But I think what really happened to the shy girl and the even shyer boy is something more elegant, something more poetic. You see, people have talked for the last couple of decades of seeing a young boy and a young girl walking hand in hand all over the county. I've never seen it myself, mind you. Hell's bells, I probably would be plenty scared if I ever did, sugar, but I'd like to believe it to be true. I'd like to believe that somewhere those two poor kids found each other."
"Really? You really believe that, Breanne?" I heard her ask.
"I do. And what's more I believe that it was God's design that she lose herself that night like she did. It was all His plan to bring those two together. He saw that they were missing each other, two souls which were supposed to be one, and He sought to remedy that. He knew that, should the girl disappear, the boy would eventually find her. If not in this life then in the next, you know?"
I started to stand up, pulling my cousin up along with me. I stood over the railing and set my sight over the land stretching out before me.
"Hey, Katie, you want to see if we can see them from here? Let's you and me try and spot them."
Katie, to this very day, still will call me to tell me that she saw the boy and girl once again. She'll tell me all about the goosebumps she gets every time she's driving by herself down some lonely stretch of road. And every time she sees a young couple out strolling by themselves down the sidewalk or in the park, she swears to me it's them. For her it's not a matter of whether or not she believes the story is true. It is. For her it's a matter of whether or not she'll ever glimpse the couple herself.
That's how you know you've told a winner of a ghost story, if, long after the fear fades away, they're still willing to believe that the ghosts are real.
Of course they are.