How to tell the perfect ghost story at the cottage

ghost-story-image Photo by arda savasciogullari/Shutterstock

Want a way to keep your guests entertained from dusk till dawn? Read on … if you dare…

Imagine if you will, the following: A desolate beach in the dead of night. Its sandy shores — once busied by daytime footsteps and guileless laughter — now abandoned, save for a small group of faceless guests gathered around a makeshift fire. The flames dance and crackle, giving life to the darkness that surrounds them. The waters beyond the shore are eerily still, as a full-bellied moon punctures a mass of ominous-looking clouds. With a flashlight turned upwards to illuminate their features, someone begins to speak. You could hear them read off their grocery list at this point and you’d be paralyzed with fear. Instead, they tell a story of a different sort. And it’s a night their guests — and you — will never forget.

This, dear reader, is the cottage experience you’ve been waiting for — the experience of sharing the perfect ghost story. But before you go busting out your best Stephen King impression, it’s important to know a few simple (but crucial details) so that you don’t send your guests running for the nearest motel.


Like the common real estate saying goes, it’s all about location, location, location. In fact, most ghost stories rely on this one common element in order to scare / entertain an audience. Hearing a creepy tale told to you in the luxury of your downtown condominium or by the office water cooler is one thing, but hearing it in a location that’s miles from the nearest strip mall or coffee shop, and you’d be forgiven for sleeping with the night light on.

Find a space to create your campfire with a view of either the surrounding woods, the lake (if you’ve got one) and somewhere far enough from the cottage so that no one’s tempted to dash inside. If you can’t light a fire because of safety regulations (i.e. a drought) or are too afraid of getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, find a room in your cottage that limits distractions. This means no spaces where big screen TVs can easily block your guest’s window-lit view of the night sky. And if you can stomach it, turn off the ubiquitous Wi-Fi that keeps guests glued to their devices. In fact, instituting the “no cell phone rule” is a must if you want to pull this off right.


Knowing how and when to strike the fine balance between tales of the fun, spooky variety and those that are downright disturbing depends on your audience. If you’ve got kids joining you for the weekend, stay away from stories with mature themes. With that said, make sure you pick stories that relate to the space you are in; if you’ve got a lake close by, recounting the legend of the Swamp Creature who rises every year to claim his long-deceased bride (who just happens to be buried in the open field adjacent to your property) is storytelling gold. Stay away from stories that your audience can’t relate their surroundings to, and stick to those who tropes and locations that can be referenced throughout your tale. Legends — especially ones tied to your area’s history — are also a great way to add that extra “bump” in your guest’s night. Try reminding them of that long, winding road they drove down in order to get to your place — because it’s said to be haunted by ghostly hitchhikers. Good thing they drove with their windows up… right?


Just like popcorn is to movies, snacks are an essential part of any fireside storytelling experience. After all, nothing quite beats the smell of sweet, browning marshmallows over a crackling fire while listening to a spooky story. If you’re planning to bring hotdogs, try transforming them into “spider dogs” by slicing through the ends of each before roasting them.

Tales as old as time

Storytelling (especially of the ghostly variety) can help build a bond with that special someone you’ve invited up for the weekend and want to get to know better, endear your children that much closer to you by creating fun memories that will last a lifetime, and act as the perfect ice breakers — especially between you and the strangers you’ve only met hours ago, but will be soon be sharing four walls with for the weekend.

After all, stories are the glue that bind us; they bond us to a common humanity, engage our imaginations and creativity, and ground us in the present moment. What could be a better cottage activity than that?

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