Ghost stories are designed to scare the reader by using the mystery of the unknown. There are many techniques used by the authors to achieve this in their stories. Three of these techniques are light, isolation and imagination versus the rational mind. These three techniques are used by the authors of three books from the ghost genre; “The Woman in Black” by Susan Hill, “Harry” by Rosemary Timperley and “The Red Room” by H G Wells.
Light is generally seen to be a sign of safety and darkness a sign of danger. In “The Woman in Black” Susan Hill uses this subconscious association to help us to feel scared about the story she is telling.
“Daylight had once again renewed my nerves and resolve and banished the vapours of the night”
This quotation shows us that Arthur feels safe and reassured when the light returns to him after the night. Arthur does not feel afraid of Eel Marsh House during the daytime, but as soon as the light goes he feels as if an evil presence has come to the house. This darkness represents the supernatural and the unknown.
“I wanted to get up and go round putting on every light again … I wanted to banish the chill that had settled upon me and the sensation of fear in my breast.”
Arthur is afraid of the darkness because he cannot see the things surrounding him. This scares him and the reader, as nobody knows what will happen next.
In “The Red Room” the technique of light and darkness is used in the same way as it is used in “The Woman in Black”. When there is light the narrator feels safe, but as soon as it disappears he feels as if he is in danger. In “The Red Room” the main source of light is from candles.
“I left the door wide open until the candle was well alight.”
This shows us that the narrator feels uneasy about walking into the dark corridor without a fully lit candle. The narrator’s fear of the lack of light is an indication that he feels that the light is safety. Later on in the story the light and darkness play a more vital role in the creation of fear.
“The shadows I feared and fought against returned, and crept in upon me.”
The narrator is desperately trying to keep the light, and the safety, in the room with him. This shows us how desperate the narrator is to keep the safety with him. Towards the end of the story the narrator realises that the thing he was afraid of was fear itself, another character summarises “A power of darkness”. This means that although darkness is only a lack of light, it is very powerful when mixed with a little imagination. This technique uses the readers subconscious fear of darkness to evoke fear.
In the third story “Harry”, the roles of light and dark are reversed. For the character involved, a light summer’s day is far scarier than a dark midnight with no moon in the sky.
“Such ordinary things make me afraid. Sunshine…”
In this quotation we find out that sunshine frightens the narrator. This is because of the associations that she has with sunlight. Although during a period of light your surroundings are clear, the light reminds the narrator of a time of upset.
“The sun struck me like a hot blade.”
In the other stories, the shadows are compared to real and living objects that frighten the narrator, but in this case the sunlight is personified to explain the feelings of the narrator. This reversal of convention provokes an unusual fear within the readers mind, resulting in the reader questioning the safety of lights. Light is generally accepted as a safe convention and when it is questioned other safe conventions become subject to questioning. This provokes fear in the mind of the reader.
A second technique used is that of isolation. There are many types of isolation that are used to create fear in the minds of the reader. There is physical isolation where the person involved is cut from the ‘real’ world. This causes fear, as there is nowhere to run. In “The Woman in Black” Eel Marsh House is situated a long way from anywhere and the causeway cuts off an escape at high tide.
“You can only cross the Causeway at low tide. … When the tide comes in, you’re cut off until it’s low again.”
There is also the mental isolation that Arthur feels within the town of Crythin Gifford. He feels that he is above their foolish ways and they feel afraid of him because of him connection with Mrs Alice Drablow. This is evident when Arthur and Mr Jerome are walking to the funeral.
“I feel like a spectre at some cheerful feast … men drew back from us slightly and fell silent and stiff”
The final type of isolation is the isolation that Arthur feels because nobody understands what he has experienced.
“you have none of you no idea”
This type of isolation makes Arthur the most fearful because he does not know if his experience was real or if it was part of his imagination and in turn the reader feels frightened because they can relate to this type of mental isolation.
The technique of isolation is also used in “Harry”, but it is not as obvious as it is in “The Woman in Black”. The first type of isolation that is used is the physical isolation between the family and the neighbourhood. The family are new to the area, so they do not know anybody well. The child, Christine, has no friends so she plays on her own with Harry.
“She hasn’t any brothers or sisters. She hasn’t any friends of her own age.”
“We’re new to the neighbourhood, you see”
The second type of isolation used is the mental isolation of the mother. As she is not Christine’s real mother, she feels as if she is not connected to Christine.
“More so than if I was her real mother”
Also the mother feels isolated because she is the only person who thinks that there is anything wrong. All of the people around her think that Christine is going through a phase, but the mother feels that something is wrong.
“I didn’t mention any of this to Jim that night. I knew he would only scoff as he’d done before.”
The final isolation is at the end of the story. The mother feels isolated because she is the only person who knows the truth about what happened to Christine.
“And only two people know what happened. An old crazed woman living in a derelict house, and myself.”
The technique of isolation is used in “Harry” to scare the reader by creating a feeling that there is nowhere for the isolated person to escape to.
The technique of isolation is also used in “The Red Room”. The isolation is a physical isolation. The red room is a room that is far away from any other point in the castle. The narrator feels isolated because there is nobody around him and his imagination is left to scare him.
“I was in a state of considerable nervous tension… I spoke aloud, but the echoes were not pleasant. … My mind reverted to the three old and distorted people downstairs,… The sombre reds and blacks of the room troubled me,”
This isolation frightens the reader, as there is no escape for the narrator.
A third technique that appears in works of the ghost genre is the imagination versus the rational mind. Throughout “The Woman in Black” Arthur battles with his imagination. In a normal location, surrounded by familiar things, the events that occur around Arthur would probably have been simply explained away by a rational answer. However, as he is alone and in a place where his imagination is allowed to rule over his common sense, his view is clouded and the rational ideas that Arthur lives with are cast away. When Arthur looks back at the events of his first night at Eel Marsh House he realises how he was mistaken. This is an example of how Arthur’s rational mind comes up with a realistic answer to the events that terrified him by night:
“I felt like a new man, proud, satisfied, and most of all eager and ready to face and tackle the worst that Mrs Drayblow;s house … might have in store for me. … I was defiant, defiant and cheerful”
Another example of the battle between the imagination and the rational mind is the comparisons between Crythin Gifford and Eel Marsh House and of London and Eel Marsh House. In both cases Eel Marsh House represents the imagination. London and Crythin Gifford represent the rational mind. When Arthur is in each of the rational locations he feels safe and in a normal frame of mind, but when he returns to Eel Marsh House he allows his imagination to take control again.
Also, the people in the two rational locations are another example of the battle. Stella (in London) allows Arthur to see the events in a rational mind, as does the innkeeper, Samuel Daily and Mr Jerome in Crythin Gifford. This technique makes the reader see the story from the viewpoint of the imagination rather than rationally and this causes fear because it makes the reader see events from a different and unsettling perspective.
In “Harry” the battle between the imagination and the rational mind is between the mother of Christine and Jim, the father, and the Doctor, Dr Webster. Jim and Dr Webster think that Harry is just an imaginary friend, but the mother thinks that Harry is real.
“It’s not so rare for only children to have an imaginary companion. Some kids talk to their dolls. … So she imagines someone. … I don’t know what you’re worrying about”
This tension causes the reader to think about how seemingly normal situations can have something terrifying and unnatural behind them.
At the end of the story there is a conflict between the realm of reality and imagination. The police search for Christine, but the mother knows it is no use as she has gone with Harry. The police do not believe that someone can just vanish, so they search.
“Jim and the police searched for Christine in vain. The futile search continued for months. … And only two people knew what had happened”
In this story the mother’s viewpoint (representing imagination) is more believable than that of the rational views of the father and the Doctor. This battle between the imagination and the rational mind is frightening, because to believe the imaginative view leads the reader to believe in a ghost.
In “The Red Room” suspense is again created by building up a tension between rationality and imagination. Throughout the story the narrator is shown to battle with the rational and imaginative sides of his mind: his rational mind tells him that there is nothing supernatural in the room, but his imagination forces him to dwell upon the ideas of unnatural happenings.
“There is no ghost in there at all: but something worse, far worse- … and that is fear!”
In “The Red Room” the rational mind finally overcomes the imagination and a rational explanation is reached. However, the battle between rationality and imagination throughout the story causes the reader to feel fear.
There are many techniques and conventions that the writers of the ghost genre use to create fear in the reader. Some of these are more obvious to the reader than others, but in each case they involve using the reader’s imagination in order to scare them. The techniques of light and darkness, isolation and the imagination versus the rational mind are all used to work upon the readers imagination to steadily build up fear within the mind of the reader.