Bourbon Penn 12

How to Host a Haunted House Murder Mystery Party

by A.C. Wise

Choose Your Setting

Find a large house with lots of rooms. One where the light switches are far enough away from each door that your guests will have to step into the room to turn them on. If possible, find a house where the electricity is fragile. (Keep an eye on the weather report and schedule accordingly.) A basement and an attic are essential, the former with a woodpile and a cast iron stove, the latter with dress forms, an old hobby horse, dolls no one has thought about in years, and at least one antique steamer trunk large enough to hold a body.

There should be mirrors in odd and unexpected places. Let your guests catch their reflections as they’re groping for the light in a darkened room and feel for a moment that they are not alone. Eventually, they will realize it’s only a mirror, but that moment of pure terror is enough to set the mood. From that point on, they will continue to glance in the direction of the glass, wondering whether the reflection in the corner of their eye could really be them.

There should be plenty of bedrooms, but few bathrooms. Of these bathrooms, one should contain a claw-foot tub deep enough that you cannot see the bottom of it while standing in the door. Showers should have their curtains pulled tightly closed before the evening begins.

The kitchen should be incongruously bright, a break in the tension, a place where your guests will feel they may be safe for a while.

A dining room table to seat at least thirteen. Chandeliers. Narrow staircases requiring guests to ascend and descend one at a time. That one room you never go in, no matter what, even though the door has never been locked.

Ideally, your house is already haunted and only minimal preparation will be required.

Creating Your Invitations

Use thick, good quality paper. Consider a scent — nothing crass like lilac or vanilla. Use something subtle, like wood smoke, reminding your guests of tales told around a campfire, or more obscure still, the scent of old books, that one book in particular with the gruesome illustrations their parents warned would give them nightmare, but which they could never resist. The book they returned to again and again for the awful, delicious and terrible thrill, reading it by flashlight under the covers, and later waking screaming, betrayed by those same covers meant to keep them safe. That smell.

The invitations should be done in calligraphy to add a touch of class. Deliver the invitations by hand. No postmark. No return address.

Invite extra guests. Invite at least one person liable to turn up late. Provide at least one guest with the wrong address so they become lost along the way. They will consider themselves lucky, once all is said and done. Every tale needs a survivor.

Don’t be concerned if you don’t have thirteen close friends. The evening will work better if your guests are unacquainted with each other (at least on the surface). Do not be concerned that your guests will refuse. There is no doubt they will attend. They always do.

Not for the secrets you know about them, and you do, but for what they have come to know about themselves in the long, lonely years they have spent waiting for just such an invitation to arrive. When the invitation comes, it will be a relief. They will be able to let go of the sense of dread, the one they have never been able to name. They will breathe out and say, Ah, yes, here it is at last.

Most of them are long past thinking they can be forgiven. Some are even past believing they deserve this. No, they need this. A ghost to give shape to their pain, a physical manifestation of their loss and guilt. They will come because the ghosts you can offer them are the only way they can make sense of their worlds.

(A better question to ask before your evening begins: Why are you compelled to invite strangers to participate in your game? Do you still believe you can be forgiven? Do you believe ghosts are a communicable thing, able to be passed off to an unwitting individual stepping through your door?)

Making the Introductions

No real names will be used.

The first guest shall be called Madame Edamame — the near palindrome delicious, yet slightly unsettling. It will show your guests you have a sense of fun, there’s no real harm to be had here.

Next will be Miss Foster. Not Mrs. Not Ms. Miss. It is old fashioned and infantilizing. It is also cruel. None of this is without intent. Where Madame Edamame’s name is meant to put your guests at ease, Miss Foster’s is meant to pull the rug out from beneath them. Everything is uncertain here. They are on dangerous ground.

Miss Foster has been in and out of homes where she was never entirely welcome her entire life, always the changeling, never the adopted child. For all intents and purposes, she is still a child, hungry for acceptance and love, desperate to fit in. Did her families hurt her? Did she hurt them? Does she smell faintly of ash and the ghost of old fires? A little mystery in the guests adds to the mystery in the game.

Some names will be more common. This is Mr. Evans. Just that. Nothing less, nothing more.

There is also Mr. Espadrille, Young Mister Cleeves, Mrs. Hanover, Father Crispin, Elizabeth — no last name given — Mr. James, Mr. Otterly, and Captain Frank. There must always be a military officer invited to such affairs, though Captain Frank prefers her given name of Jane. She’s put the war behind her, after all, even though she will show up to your party wearing every medal she’s earned.

Don’t forget to count yourself. You are a part of the game as well.

Cocktails to Set the Mood

Start with the classics — Old Fashioneds, Sidecars, Manhattans. These will give the party a timeless air, and help disconnect your guests from place and time. Strengthen the illusion that they have been lifted from the world they know and set adrift in some past. But not their past, mind you. It is still safe here. Still fun.

Even those guests who do not usually partake, or who have been known to imbibe too much and therefore have sworn to abstain, may feel compelled to accept your hospitality on this particular night. One drink, so as not to be rude. One drink to ease the pressure of being among strangers in an uncertain situation. Drinks to loosen tongues and smooth the way. It is easier to mingle with a drink in your hand. A drink, or two, or many, will allow your guests to leave their baggage behind. At least for as long as it takes them to reach the bottom of each glass.

Dinner is Served

Dinner will be tense, despite the alcohol, or perhaps because of it. At this point, your guests will begin to questions their decision to play along. They have always known they would, yet self-doubt will leave them restless. Do not be concerned. All is going according to plan.

There will be wine brought up from cellars the house doesn’t have. Scotch, whiskey, brandy, and vodka in well-chilled glasses.

This is when the first ghost will appear. It will be no more than a flicker of movement at the corner of the eye. Perhaps Mrs. Hanover will be the one to spot it, and her hand will fly to her mouth. Perhaps it will be Mr. James; he will start, jerking his chair back from the table as though pulled by some unseen hand. A fork will be dropped, or a glass may break. If you are especially fortuitous, the power will choose this moment to blink, but it will remain on.

Nervous laughter will follow. Dear me, aren’t we all so silly here? Jumping at shadows. Tsk, tsk. None of your guests will admit to the ghost they’ve seen, the one they’ve always known to be waiting for them here. One can only outrun their past for so long.

Smile. Get through the meal despite the tightness in all throats, the lack of appetite, the sense of some worse blow about to fall. Everything will be fine.

The Late Arrival (aka The Thirteenth Guest)

He’s a motorist whose car has broken down. Or perhaps you invited him. Who can be sure? Let’s call him Mr. Perkins. His name is not important. Now your quota of thirteen guests is complete.

Rain will drip from the hem of his coat, and his over-shoes will leave puddles on your floor. His arrival is heralded by a crash of thunder. Maybe one of the other guests lets out an involuntary gasp. Despite the lingering sense of unease, the other guests — consciously or not — have come to think of your party as their own. There is a proprietary sense, they are survivors thrown together to persevere against all odds. Mr. Perkins is an outsider. They have been in this together since the beginning. He has not. How can they trust him? He does not belong.

Your party is going swimmingly so far.

Dealing with Potential Pitfalls

The problem is, your house is actually haunted. This was never a game. There is a strong likelihood someone will die in earnest before the evening is done. There is no known solution to this pitfall. Do not be concerned. This is a feature, not a bug.

Entertainment (Variant #1) - The Séance

After dinner, bring out the Ouija board. There is no need to procure one beforehand. There are many closets in your house of many doors. One of them has a board; it is wrapped in your great-aunt’s favorite table cloth, tucked away on a top shelf behind a pair of boots no one has ever worn.

Ask your guests to join hands. Dim the lights. (Perhaps the power is already off by now.) Light candles, either out of necessity or to set the atmosphere.

Before the game begins, ensure no one is touching the planchette. It will move regardless. It will spell a name, which none of your guests claim to recognize, though at least two of them do. Mr. Otterly, or perhaps Elizabeth-with-no-last-name, will leave the table in disgust. They will consider departing the house all together, but something will compel them to stay.

There is a pressure, not visible but certainly tangible, standing just before the front door. To pass through it is to drown. To pass through it is to have all your worst experiences dredged up from the bottom of your soul and wrapped around you like a second skin. No one ever notices it coming into the house. Everyone notices when they try to leave. You have ceased to notice it at all.

Entertainment (Variant #2) - Blind Man’s Bluff

This game is traditionally played outdoors, however your sitting room is more than large enough to serve. (Perhaps it was once a ballroom?)

Draw the curtains against the lightning. Madame Edamame will wear the blindfold. Have your guests stand around her in a circle and spin her until she is dizzy and nearly falling down. (The alcohol will help in this regard.) As she reaches to steady herself, your guests will scatter and hide themselves away — beneath the grand piano, behind the tight-drawn curtains, inside the curio cabinet where the good china and glass figurines used to be displayed, the one with the shelves taken out long ago.

Madame Edamame will stumble. She will call a name, possibly the name of one of your guests, but not the name they have been given for the game.

Inside the curio cabinet, where shelves used to be, there will be one heartbeat and two sets of breath. Behind the curtains, a stifled laugh. Beneath the piano, two sets of eyes peer out at the game, even though the guest hiding there hid alone.

Madame Edamame will pretend not to be afraid. She will feel someone touch her hand. By the time your other guests think to help her, it will be too late. She will already have left bloody gouges on her cheeks tearing the blindfold away.

Entertainment (Variant #3) - Exploration

This is the most popular variant. It always comes down to exploration and isolation in the end. A ghost for every guest, and each to their own.

Divide the party into pairs and send them out in different directions. Your guests may be reluctant, there is safety in numbers, after all. Remind them that none of them will be alone. If this isn’t exactly comforting, remind them that they came here of their own free will. What happens from here on out is out of your hands.

First Exploration Team: The Library

Miss Foster and Young Mister Cleeves will proceed to the library. Young Mister Cleeves will grope his way toward the light, or where he believes the light ought to be. He will trip over a pile of books, cursing softly. He will lose track of Miss Foster right away. He will be terrified simultaneously that he is alone and no longer alone.

Something will break. Don’t worry. Material things can always be replaced.

When Young Mister Cleeves finds the light, it will illuminate Miss Foster standing in front of one of the floor to ceiling bookshelves. In all her un-rooted childhood, books were her constant. Her sole anchor in the dark. Her lips will move, but Young Mister Cleeves won’t be able to make out the words. He will be profoundly grateful for this fact. Blood, a single drop, will fall from Miss Foster’s palm.

She will not turn when Young Mister Cleeves calls her name. He will be profoundly grateful for this as well. The idea of seeing her face fills him with blank dread. He has begun to suspect she is not so young as she seems. At the same time, the fear that she is unable to move, will never move again, haunts him. He cannot leave her here, but he cannot bring himself to touch her shoulder either, as if a haunting could be passed along like a disease.

He will be forced to admit to himself that he was hoping for something more, exploring a dimly-lit house with a lovely and fragile young woman (girl). He will feel small, seeing his impulse to chivalry for the base thing it is. His pulse will slow. It will slow continually, each beat more distant from the next. Paradoxically, his breath will speed with the waiting, which will seem interminable, waiting to see whether the distance between one beat and the next becomes too vast and they stop.

Second Exploration Team: The Basement

Mr. James and Captain Frank will make their way to the basement. They will reach the bottom of the steps before they find the light. The basement smells of dust and the memory of rain, something sweet and sharp and long buried underlying both.

The woodpile and the glowering pot-bellied stove will greet them. Mr. James will be reminded inexplicably of his father.

He will pick up the ax, even though the blade is sunk deep into one of the logs, abandoned mid-chop, and it will require a great amount of effort to pull it free. He will not understand why he does these things, but he will be compelled.

The blade is rusty; the handle fits his grip like an old friend. Mr. James will swing the ax, just once (in his mind) to test the heft, but his arms will ache as though he swung it again and again.

Captain Frank, Jane, as she prefers to be called, will think, fuck, no, I am not dying this way. I did not survive two wars to buy it in a moldy basement. She will see, again, buildings torn apart, hear the screams following an IED explosion, every IED explosion. She will taste plaster and cement blown to dust as her mind struggles to rearrange a puzzle of scattered limbs. She will think, yes, this is familiar. This I know. And she will do what needs to be done.

Captain Frank will limp when she climbs the stairs back into the light. She will be alone. Her hair will be disheveled, and one of her medals missing. Behind her, the basement will be dark. Even if she did look back, she wouldn’t be able to see a thing.

Third Exploration Team: The Garden

Father Crispin and Mr. Evans will take the brick path to the shed at the end of yard, a straight line from the house’s back door. There is no light in the shed, which is scarcely bigger than a tomb, and why should there be? Most people don’t garden in the dark.

Father Crispin will prop the door open with a brick. It will take a moment for his eyes to adjust, and a moment longer to realize he is alone. Mr. Evans vanished somewhere between the shed and the back door.

Or perhaps he has always been alone.

Father Crispin will breathe in the scent of turned earth and old clay. Trowels, rakes, and clawed instruments hang from the walls. Bottles of fertilizers and weed killer and rat poison line the shelves. Everything in the shed can be used to kill.

Even though he isn’t a man of the cloth, not outside of this evening and the role you have assigned him, Father Crispin will whisper a prayer. As he does, he will suddenly remember the monastery where he took his vows, a place he has surely never been. Yet he will know how his days there smelled of earth, and how he spent long hours in the garden, weeding rows of tomato and cucumber plants by hand.

Water will drip from the hem of Father Crispin’s cassock. A voice at the back of his head will suggest he kneel. Not to pray, but to see better into the corners of the shed.

He will find a bundle wrapped in burlap and tied with twine. He will not want to open it. He will dread opening it with all his soul. And he will open it all the same.

The bones inside are too small, too light to be human, yet too perfect to be anything else.

He will know, he has always known, this was waiting for him here. Father Crispin will cradle the bones close against his chest, murmuring the words of a long-forgotten lullaby, weeping softly the whole while.

Evaluating Your Party’s Success

There are more rooms and more pairings. There is no need to enumerate them all. Some things are better left unseen, as Father Crispin well knows. Besides, it would take all the fun out of your party to know every detail in advance.

As the evening unwinds, there are several ways it might go. You could find yourself with a house full of final girls, or a house full of final boys. You could find yourself with a mix of both, or neither. You might find yourself all alone.

It has happened many times before.

Ideally, this is the part of the evening when you gather your guests to reveal how and where and who and why. However, it seems there is no one left to gather. You aren’t even certain anyone has been murdered, or whether there is any crime to reveal. There are human remains in your house, to be sure, but it is highly like those have been there all along.

All that remains is your own exploration, a foray through the empty rooms of your house to take stock of the evening’s game. You may delay, hesitate, hem and haw, but sooner or later you’ll have to climb the attic stairs and throw open the steamer trunk that is large enough to fit a body inside. You will have to descend to the basement, return the ax to its place, and use your fingernails to pry up the floorboards. You will have to go to the library, and the garden shed, the kitchen and the conservatory. You will have to stand on your tiptoes in the bathroom door and hope that just this once you’ll be able to see inside the claw-foot tub without entering the room.

As the host, it is your duty to search every last nook and cranny to be sure. But to be sure of what? That you are alone? That you have never been alone?

Sooner or later, you’ll have to go into the room you swore you’d never enter again. The door stands an inch ajar, waiting for you. You will stand in the hallway for as long as you can, then you’ll grope for the light and there will be a moment of panic before you remember — all the switches are far away from all the doors. You must step into the dark.

This darkness is physical, like dropping into a pool. It closes over your head, and maybe this time, just this once, you really will drown. Maybe it’s better not to reach for the light. If you do, you’ll know the faceless thing in the corner isn’t just a shadow. You’ll know that in the closet, there’s a hanged girl. Someone is waiting in the corner, by the crib, by the old hobby horse, by the rocking chair where no one has sat for years. They were in the room a moment before you. They just left. They must have passed you in the hall, close enough to touch.

If you reach for the light now, a hand will reach back for you. Fingers will brush across your skin. But if you wait long enough, if you refuse to act, the decision will be made for you. Your eyes will adjust; the shadows in the corner, in the closet, under the bed, by the chair, will coalesce. You will see, even if your eyes are closed.

There are so many ways to host a haunted house murder mystery party, but there is only one way this can end.

This room, this house, your life, have all the hallmarks of a haunting. You should know by now — you cannot be forgiven. By now, you should no longer need a ghost to make your pain real. But standing paralyzed in the door, counting the space between one heartbeat and the next, you can’t help but ask yourself over and over again — what did you do to deserve this?

A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Uncanny, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2015, among other places. Her collections, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, and The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, are both available from Lethe Press. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and contributes a monthly review column to Apex Magazine. Find her online at and on twitter as @ac_wise.