When I think of haunted houses, I frequently think of this Eddie Murphy skit. He’s just so sensible. White people do stick around too long in these stories. As viewers we're all silently shouting at the screens--just get out!
But as writers we know that if we have our characters “just get out” there will be no story at all. It’s fine for a comedy skit, but not the blockbuster novel we’re dreaming of writing.
Q. Why would a person stay in a haunted house?
As I read Elaine Mercado’s Graves End: A True Ghost Story, I kept thinking about the similarities of her experience in that home to an abusive relationship. Sometimes it’s just not a simple matter to extricate ourselves from the situations we humans find ourselves in.
Here are the ways that I felt Elaine Mercado’s experience mirrored an abusive relationship:
Whether an abusive relationship takes the form of physical or emotional abuse, the victim of the abuse suffers from low self-esteem. They have been repeatedly made to feel worthless and like there’s no better option.
The abusive cycle. Instances of abusive behavior are often followed by sincere apologies and promises that it will never happen again. Then there is usually a honeymoon period of extreme solicitousness.
Societal pressure. There is less of this these days than in the past, but there can be a lot of pressure--especially from family--to stay together for the kids, or to stick it out through a bad patch, because it will get better.
Gaslighting. Abusers are often adept at making their victims feel as though all of their problems as a couple are the fault of the victim.
Maybe they’ll change. A lot of people in these situations live on the hope that their partner will change.
Dependency. Often people can’t just leave an abusive relationship because they have children with their abuser or they may be inextricably tied financially to them with shared accounts and properties.
We’ve all read stories with thin premises. As writers it’s important to consider real-world reasons for our character’s motivations so that they make sense to the reader and are believable. While this story is a memoir of a real individual’s experience, I think that we can learn a lot by examining the nature of her reasoning and thought processes and how they may parallel other situations that we may be more familiar with—and bring those ideas with us into the writer’s room.