That’s not how that story works.
One of the problems with being a writer is that you find yourself taking stories apart to see how they work. Sometimes while you’re watching/reading the story. Once you learn how particular kinds of stories work this can lead to irrational rages whenever you catch someone doing it wrong.
I shall now tell you a cautionary tale of completely spoiling a mindless SyFy movie-of-the-week for myself because the writers clearly did not understand how to tell a revenge ghost story. Seriously, 1 hour and 27 minutes of angst and rage because THAT’S NOW HOW THAT STORY WORKS.
Spoiler Warning: Beyond this point I’m going to be discussing the plots of The Fog (1980 version), Ringu (1998) and Ghost Shark (2013). This will probably also include spoilers for The Ring (2002, the American re-make). I don’t know if there will be spoilers for the re-make of The Fog. Yes I did just mention Ghost Shark in the same sentence as Ringu. It’s my blog and I’ll do what the fuck I want.
A couple of years ago I sat down to watch a very silly movie with my husband and one of my best friends and minutes into it I was apoplectic with rage. The movie was Ghost Shark and the problem hit at roughly the same time as the opening titles. Please excuse me if I get any of the details below wrong but I am never watching that fucking movie again.
Before the titles we are treated to the sight of unpleasant drunken red-necks mortally wounding a great white shark. The dead, or possibly dying, shark is washed into some voodoo/native american cave shrine and comes back as a powerful revenge ghost. It then hunts and kills all the people responsible for its death. Roll titles. Cue me blowing my top.
Why? Because, THAT’S NOT HOW THAT STORY WORKS.
The whole point of a revenge ghost is that it’s seeking revenge. If it gets it revenge before the opening titles then what is the point of the entire rest of the film? Some of you, who’ve watched too many horror films, are probably already pointing out that there are many different kinds of revenge ghosts and they all have different rules. Well, you’re not wrong. But you’re also not exactly right.
The Fog is one of the best known revenge ghost stories in western cinema. If you haven’t seen it already then you should stop reading this now, go and watch it, come back, thank me, then read on. It’s the story of vengeful zombie ghosts (technically revenants, I think) using a supernatural fog to wreak terrible vengeance on the town of Antonio Bay on the 100th anniversary of it’s founding.
At first the terrible deaths caused by the zombie ghosts make no sense but then it’s revealed that the town was founded using blood money stolen from a ship full of lepers who were deliberately wrecked on the headland. The revenge ghosts are the lepers and they are seeking vengeance by killing the descendants of the original conspirators. One descendant for each conspirator.
Like a lot of great revenge ghost stories the current victims are mostly blameless. They’ve done nothing wrong, though they have benefited from the prosperity of the town, and once they know why there are killer ghosts in the fog they try to find a way to mollify the ghosts without having to sacrifice anyone. They discover that most of the gold was hidden by a penitent conspirator. The survivors uncover the gold, melted down and cast into a cross and hidden inside the walls of the church. As the ghosts breach the church the priest, a direct descendant of the penitent conspirator, takes the cross to the leader of the ghosts and begs forgiveness. This ends the vengeance, the fog rolls back, the survivors breath a sigh of relief all except the priest who has worked out that the ghosts are still short one kill. I’m sure you remember how that ends.
You’ll notice that the entire point of the story is that the ghosts have a kind of plan. When they get what they want they stop. This is not what happens in Ghost Shark. The shark kills its tormentors and then just starts killing everyone it can find in a series of actually fairly inventive ways.
“But,” I hear you say oh imaginary reader, “What about those revenge ghosts that just don’t stop?”
Ringu (or The Ring if you want to watch the American version) is one of those cultural phenomena where you’ll probably recognize parts of it even if you’ve never seen it. It starts with a cursed video. If you watch the video then you will die inexplicably unless you make a copy of the video and have someone else watch it before 7 days is up. Thus the only way to escape the curse is to pass it on.
The first half of the film is eerie but a little slow. It takes a while before it becomes clear that the video is full of clues pointing to a terrible crime. The innocent victim in this story is a journalist and single mother researching the mysterious death of her niece with the help of her ex-husband. She watched the film so she has 7 days to uncover the truth. Her ex watched it the next day against her objections. The urgency of her research increases when her young son finds the video and watches it. Now he has only 7 days to live if she can’t break the curse.
The journalist and her ex use clues in the video to uncover the story of Sadako, the unnerving psychic child of a traditional seer and the academic investigating her. The mother was accused of faking her powers and committed suicide leaving Sadako with her father who is so terrified by her that he kills her and throws her body down a well.
The two find the well and excavate it by hand, finding Sadako’s skeleton and at last revealing the terrible story of her death with just minutes to spare. The journalists time is up but she’s fine so they believe that the curse is broken. However the next day Sadako comes for the journalist’s ex. They hadn’t broken the curse at all. The journalist had merely passed it on. In the end, to save her son, the journalist has him make a copy of the tape and give it to her own father. The curse then presumably dies with him.
So what about Sadako? She keeps on killing long after she’s had her revenge. Everyone involved in her life and death are long gone by the start of the film. She continues to kill even after her story is told and her body has been properly laid to rest. Surely she’s on the same kind of blood thirsty mega-revenge as the Ghost Shark. Not exactly. Sadako’s revenge is that her story keeps circulating. The point is not that people keep dying it’s that they keep making new videos and passing them on. Her behavior is entirely consistent throughout the movie.
Ghost Shark, on the other hand, just keeps making up new rules. It quickly becomes clear that the ghost doesn’t have to move between point A and point B it can just manifest anywhere in the sea. Then it abandons salt water entirely and starts turning up in fresh water. Then in swimming pools. Then in a bucket of soapy water at a bikini car wash. You will notice that you can’t actually fit a great white shark into a bucket but that does not stop the film makers. It manifests in the spray of water on a slip n slide.
In the most inventive, and ridiculous, scene of the film it manifests in a cup full of water after a guy has swallowed the water. No, there is no reason why the shark would be after that guy in particular. There’s no internal logic at all about why the shark would bisect a fat kid on a slip n slide but then only injure a hot girl in a soapy bath. The only logic is the logic of exploitative film making.
Eventually there’s some hand-waving about how the spooky cave shrine thing (remember that) is super cursed and the ghost’s hunger for vengeance will only increase but by then it’s too late. By then I was already making plans to torture the scriptwriters while showing them a selection of competent revenge ghost films.
Stories have rules. I’m not saying you should never break those rules. I’m saying that you should understand them and that If you’re going to break them then you need a good narrative reason and you shouldn’t make your audience wait an hour to find out what that reason is. Or you could ignore this advice and just hope that you’re never hunted down by an enraged writer demanding an hour and twenty seven minutes of their life back.
So what about you, oh constant reader? What story blunders make your blood boil? What makes you want to hunt a writer down and explain a narrative tradition using diagrams made out of their entrails?