Scares and dares: why we love to be haunted by stories
We created a ghost story to try to understand part of our world we found frightening
SA Dunphy: We crave stories, and we want to believe in their magic. Even if that magic scares us
In If She Returned, the third book in my series of crime novels featuring the criminologist David Dunnigan, the emotionally damaged investigator finds himself involved in an unusual mystery: five successful men from different parts of the country and from disparate walks of life all believe they are being stalked by a figure called Mother Joan – an online ghost story that has somehow passed into the realm of urban myth.
I was inspired to write the book when, some years ago, a student approached me in a state of distress, convinced she was being haunted by Slender Man. She was referring to a fictional creation by an online horror writer who worked under the pen-name Victor Surge. He had invented this faceless, motiveless entity for a competition: he and his fellow participants were tasked with developing legends for the internet age. Surge’s proved so effective it took on a life of its own, with fans creating their own stories based around his original creepy images. With surprising rapidity, people started insisting this horror was real.
It is easy to dismiss such beliefs, particularly for those of us who grew up in the age before the information explosion. But as I researched online mythologies I found my mind going back to my own childhood, and a story that became very significant for me and my little group of friends.
I grew up on a local authority housing estate just outside Wexford town. We moved there when I was four, and for the first couple of years our street sat on the edge of acres upon acres of farmland and forestry, an island of civilisation amid a sea of green countryside.
This gave me and my friends two different play areas: the crags, pits and canyons of the deserted building site with its shells of half-finished structures and idle machinery, or the wide expanse of the woods and fields.
Often we did both, starting the day by climbing on scaffolding or building a fort from left-over boards, then blitzing off into the trees. It was during one of these explorations that we came upon The House.
We discovered it quite by accident. My garden backed onto a wide field, behind which was a low ditch and beyond that a series of copses, mostly of oak and ash. A rabbit path meandered through these, and one afternoon we decided to see where it led. We were surprised when pieces of masonry began to show through the high grass and even more stunned when we came upon an old well, complete with ragged rope and a rusted bucket.
We rounded a high bramble bush and there it was, looming above us like a ruined castle – a crumbling colossus of peeling paint, cracked concrete and lichen-encrusted windows. We stood there, a group of six- and seven-year old boys, gazing up at this edifice, each of us frozen to the spot for long moments.
Then, almost as one, we turned tail and fled back the way we had come.
We didn’t speak until we were back amid the safe confines of our little street, and only then did we share what we had all been thinking: this was clearly a haunted house, and God only knew what horrors we had brought upon ourselves by trespassing upon its benighted grounds.
None of us had a clue who owned the property, what its history was or whether it had any kind of reputation for supernatural occurrences, but that didn’t stop us from coming up with stories all by ourselves: we decided this house had once been owned by two old spinsters, sisters, who inherited the building and the land around it from their mad scientist father who died under suspicious circumstances. The two women were really witches, and spent the hours of daylight down in the basement of the property, weaving sorceries and waiting for darkness to fall so they could creep forth to wreak havoc.
We eventually scared ourselves so badly we changed the subject.
Weeks passed without any of us mentioning The House or its terrifying occupants, but we were secretly thinking about it. While we were all too scared to revisit the place, it gradually crept into our speech and stories, attaining mythological status within our little group, and the witches, whom we christened the Dolly Sisters (I don’t know where the name came from), became our favourite bogeywomen. We came up with little rituals to protect ourselves from them (and one or two to summon them, which we of course never performed) and we invented all sorts of tales about their exploits. The one we loved and feared most involved a fictitious young boy who lived a couple of estates over (if asked, we would have all sworn we knew people who played football with him or had cousins who went to the same school) who wandered accidentally onto the grounds of the witches’ home just as the sun was setting. He realised his mistake, but too late, and as he fled towards the cover of the trees, one of the sisters, bat-like, swooped from the sky and took him. If you happened to be in the woods at night, we would whisper in hushed tones, particularly when the moon was full, you could hear him crying.
What particularly interests me is that this children’s ghost story (which we created in an attempt to understand part of our physical world we found frightening), moved beyond the confines of our group – somehow, it spread. Years later I found myself seated next to a youngster from another part of Co Wexford on my first day of secondary school. The school building was an old Victorian structure, and as we walked to the lunch hall, we wondered aloud if it was haunted.
“You could just imagine walking right into The Dolly Sisters here, that’s for sure,” my new friend mused.
Taken aback, I asked him what he was talking about – and he told me the story of a kid who had gone to school with his brother who, one evening, was out walking in the woods as the sun was going down.
It wasn’t difficult for me to prove to my student that her fear of the Slender Man was unfounded – she was a bright girl who had simply been taken in by a complex and layered mix of fantasy and myth. What the experience drove home to me (and as a writer I take comfort from this) is just how important stories are for us.
We crave them, and we want to believe in their magic. Even if that magic scares us, sometimes.
If She Returned by SA Dunphy is published on February 7th by Hachette Ireland, trade paperback, £13.99