‘A 1950s Christmas Ghost Story’
So with a venue worked out, what sort of event were we going to aim for?
The house dictated a lot of that:
- We’d had in our heads the concept of an upstairs/downstairs style event for a while, and the house was perfect for that. So clearly there would be servants and posh people.
- The house is scary. So it was clear we should make use of that and design an event which would scare people. We thought about the concept of ‘horror’ for a while, and came to the conclusion that we wanted to be quite careful about the use of that term. Spooky, chilling, mysterious, all those adjectives felt right; balls-to-the-wall horror (which these days is often tangled up with gore and jump scares) isn’t what we were after; we’d done a gore-based event years ago (Slaght Maand) and didn’t want to repeat ourselves. We wanted an event where people were jumping at shadows and where their own minds were doing the bulk of the work, rather than where people were being chased by ghouls or zombies. So a ghost story felt right, echoing movies such as The Woman in Black or The Awakening.
- The house lent itself to being 20th Century due to the furnishings and props. We thought about 1920s or 30s, but there are an awful lot of events around set in that time period and we wanted to be a bit different. In the end we settled on 1954 for a number of reasons:
- The 1950s is a bit of a vanished decade in popular culture; very little is explored post-WW2 and pre-60s. There’s the just-forgotten horror and desperation of the war, but the shadow and encroaching paranoia of the Cold war. Everything feels grey and a bit bleak.
- 1954 is late enough for us to be able to use some technology as part of the game – notably telephones and radios.
- Most of the characters would have been through all sorts of desperation over the past couple of decades, which gave us a useful character base.
- It’s close enough in time that we can still find real props (including newspapers, books, magazines from the period) and lots and lots of archive material (radio programmes, documents etc.). This proved critical.
- It’s still ‘vintage’ enough to echo a lot of our source inspirations (see below).
- We played around with ‘why would a bunch of people all be in a house together – what would the game reason be’ and in the back of our heads had one of our chief inspirations, the TV adaptation of The Box of Delights. There’s something chilling but also magical about that setting, capturing the atmosphere we were after, and Christmas suddenly became a natural fit. This turned out to be an ideal framework to hang our game from; more on the structural benefits of that in a later post.
So we settled on a family Christmas in 1954 – a relatively rich family, given there would be servants. A chilling ghost story.
We settled very early on a theme for the event – it would be Reconciliation. Everything we wrote was shaped around that theme; the main story, but also lots of the little sub-stories. It’s the first time we’ve been that certain about a theme that early in the game, and we think it really paid off, echoed in all sorts of ways throughout the event.
For ease of design, to give us a variety of effects, and to make things interesting for individual players we very quickly settled on the idea of having multiple ghosts, each from different time periods, with their own stories tying them to specific parts of the house – and that there would be one underlying ghost story that would drive everything else and explain the existence of all the others.
Laying Ghosts To Rest
This was to be a ghost story. But we came to a firm conclusion early on that we didn’t want to use LARP and movie clichés in it; the cliché being that if there is a haunting, you can get rid of it in one of several ways:
- By some sort of ‘ritual’ – probably drawn from an occultist’s book or something.
- By solving a series of codes or puzzles
- By ‘collecting a set’ of items
These tropes are deeply ingrained into the LARP and film-goer psyches and we really didn’t want to do that, because it turns the ghosts from characters with stories into intellectual puzzles where the players are up against the game designers. So we decided that we would duck that completely. It took us a while to figure out what to do. We decided to base the possibility of laying a ghost to rest on successfully resolving their story emotionally. This fed into our character design process. It was an unusual thing to do, and a bit risky; we were quite nervous about it through much of the period prior to the game, but from the player’s reactions we think it really paid off in terms of the emotional effect that the game had.
Here are a few of the sources we drew on for atmosphere and flavour – either for the whole event or for character backgrounds:
- The Box of Delights
- The Children of Green Knowe
- The Others
- Sapphire and Steel
- The Awakening
- The Narnia Series
- The Owl Service
- Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising
- Episodes of Dr Who (Weeping Angels etc)
- 13 Ghosts
- Easy Virtue (and other Noel Coward)
- The Blair Witch Project
- The Shining
- The Company of Wolves
- Sleepy Hollow
- The Archers
- Agatha Christie’s mysteries
- John Le Carré
- Arthur Conan Doyle
- Mrs Henderson Presents
- A Christmas Carol
- Downton Abbey