Possession stories drift in and out of fashion. Currently J and K Horror, as represented by films like The Grudge and The Red Shoes are exploring this kind of tale and doing it very well, but it has been represented in the past by gothics like Stoker's The Judge's House and Jackson's Haunting of Hill House. In these narratives the protagonist - perhaps a social worker (Grudge), student (Judge's House), recent divorcee (Red Shoes) or an impulsive romantic (Hill House) - leaves their comfort zone, and trespasses somewhere they shouldn't. They fall under the influence of malign forces, often far too powerful for them to handle, which then either back them into a metaphorical corner or force them to do harm to themselves. Suicide is a recurring theme. In western stories this is often death by hanging, and The Judge's House is fairly typical of the type. In all probability this is because hanging was a common form of punishment, not just throughout the United Kingdom but also in Europe and America. It also helps that hanging is something that can be done by an individual without too many complicated props; death by guillotine would be a more technically challenging way to go. Whereas in, say, The Grudge or Red Shoes, the final moments are much less clear-cut, and usually extract the maximum of isolation and terror before the end.
However the Japanese stories have a very traditional background. Lafcadio Hearn recorded many of these tales in his collection Kwaidan, and in the story Diplomacy he writes:
If any person be killed while feeling strong resentment, the ghost of that person will be able to take vengeance on the killer.
Whereas the opening title sequence for Ju-On states:
Ju-on is a curse of those who die in the grip of a powerful rage.
The main difference being in Hearn's version the ghost resents only his killer, whereas Ju-On assumes that the spirit is lashing out at anyone who comes near. In each case the story has it that those who die while in the throes of wrath will gain supernatural ability, and seek to harm the living.
Western stories aren't quite as traditional, and it would be difficult to imagine a modern filmmaker trying to recreate The Judge's House, or anything like it. Apart from anything else there's no real reason given for the haunting in Stoker's tale, except that the Judge was a bad man and that sort tend to cause trouble even after death.
As to what there was against the house she could not tell. She had often asked, but no one could inform her, but there was a general feeling that there was something, and for her own part she would not take all the money in Drinkwater's Bank and stay in the house an hour by herself.
Even the old prejudice against suicides, that led to their bodies being buried at cross-roads, being denied the solace of Christian burial, or interred just outside the churchyard wall, has been forgotten, and the sorrow of the Yew Tree, so often found in churchyards, is of interest only to folklorists.
Broadly speaking, there are several themes here that are useful in roleplaying scenarios.
The protagonists in these tales are often either weak-willed, or whatever willpower they possess is no match for the thing they face. Red Shoes also hints that one character may deserve what's coming to them, because they have committed crimes (murder, in that instance) that warrant punishment. Weakness is the key here. Perhaps there is something that the haunting exploits; something in the character's past, or even guilt over a crime they committed. A possession story is perfect for a game in which the character has something in their backstory that they really don't want to be made public. The story almost writes itself: the haunting's history mirrors the protagonist's own crimes.
Another key point to take away is that the haunting entity can be extremely powerful, under a certain narrow set of circumstances. In The Judge's House, the victim had to actually stay in the house; perhaps if he had left it there would have been no harm done. Whereas in Ju-On the sequence of events affects anyone who has ever been inside the house, even people like Hitomi who was only there for a few minutes and who is later attacked in her own apartment building. Not unlike radiation poisoning, even a brief exposure has long-lasting effects.
Possession hauntings work by turning the victim against themselves, usually so that they do themselves harm. Though the victim may well see things differently, as with the student in the Judge's House, the way the haunting operates is by forcing the victim to become part of the ongoing cycle of violence.
The thing that the victims face is caught in its own obsessions. The Judge in Stoker's tale doesn't want anything other than a hanging; the creatures in Ju-On are tied forever to the murder-suicide that spawned them, just as the Red Shoes is all about the footwear. There is no mind here, no guiding force, no elaborate plan. Only death. The presumption is that it has to be a certain kind of death; the Judge probably wouldn't get the same satisfaction out of someone breaking their neck on the stairs, any more than the Red Shoes would have ended with Sun-jae jumping from a rooftop.
There may be a way to break the cycle of death, but if there is the means of doing so is obscure and can be misunderstood. The Red Shoes has Sun-jae discover the secret history of the shoes and attempt to resolve the tragedy in her own way, but this attempt isn't completely successful. In game the characters ought to be presented with at least one potential resolution, but it shouldn't be as easy as 'rebury the unquiet dead and all shall be well.'
With all that in mind, an example using the Bookhounds setting is called for.
The Three Bucks, Stepney Green
This elaborate Edwardian building resembles an Italian palace gone slightly awry, complete with statues of saints and a copper-clad cupola roof. It was built on the site of an old Georgian traveller's inn, as a speculative venture by Gregory Harris in 1908. The big breweries were on the lookout for pubs to buy, and many pub owners, Harris among them, sunk their fortunes into making the building as elaborate as possible to attract the brewers' attention. The Three Bucks has three stories, one of which is devoted entirely to a massive ballroom dancing floor, while the very upper and smallest story is where the landlord has his rooms. The Three Bucks takes its name from the heraldic device of the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers, though the pub has no connection with that livery company now, if it ever did in the past. The Three Bucks is currently owned by Ploughman Brewers, Shepway, in Kent.
The landlord of the Three Bucks doesn't live on the premises and nobody has ever tried to. According to popular rumour the upper rooms are unlivable, possibly because the building was poorly constructed. In winter it is very expensive to heat, and on the coldest days the pub is an icebox no matter how much coal is loaded into the fireplaces. On very rainy days buckets have to be put out on the ballroom floor to catch the drips, which suggests that the landlord's rooms above must be in pretty poor shape.
Ploughman's does not encourage speculation of any kind about the upper rooms, and the landlord is under strict instruction not to let anyone into the top floor apartment.
- Cop Talk: There are more fights in the Three Bucks on a Friday night than any two other pubs in Stepney. Maybe the brew's too strong, but it doesn't help that the ones who start all the trouble always seem to be fond of knives and razors. There have been times when the public rooms resemble abbatoirs, and more than one missing ear or severed nose has been found the next morning outside the Bucks' front door. The landlord, Paddy Green, does his best to keep order and his son Mike is one of the toughest brawlers in the district, so keeping the peace oughtn't to be a problem. Yet time and again there's a call-out to the Bucks, with some poor sod in a welter of blood on the floor.
- The Knowledge: The old travelling inn that used to be on this site before Harris knocked it down wasn't particularly famous for anything. Popular legend had it that the pirate Captain Kidd stayed there when he was sent back to England for trial, and there were even those who believed that Kidd's treasure map was hidden somewhere on the premises. The fact that Kidd swung for his crimes a good eighty years before the traveller's inn was built, or that he spent his time in London incarcerated at Newgate, never put a stop to that legend. Nobody ever found a treasure map either, when the inn was knocked down, and the old gold coin that had been nailed into the joist just above the public bar allegedly because Kidd had used it to pay for his last meal has long since vanished. However there's an odd bunch of thrill-seekers and ghost story lovers who still turn up to the Bucks now and again, on the trail of the old Captain. They say that on cold winter nights a seafaring man, drenched in salt water from head to foot, can be seen in the upper rooms, by anyone brave enough to spend the night there. That said, they've never been able to bribe Paddy Green sufficiently to let them try the experiment.
- Architecture: The Bucks has a surprising number of faults, for a bulding not thirty years old. The leaks in the roof must be pretty serious if they keep dripping through to the second floor ballroom. Looking from the outside it's clear that the guttering hasn't been cleared in years, if ever, so perhaps that's the cause of the problem. Yet the Bucks makes enough money, and the other rooms are in fairly good shape, so you'd think that sending someone up on the roof to clean out the gutters wouldn't be a problem. To get to the roof you'd have to go through the landlord's apartments on the upper floor, or put up scaffolding or a ladder outside.
- Assess Honesty/Oral History: Paddy Green reacts like a bear with a sore head if anyone asks him about the upper rooms. No, they're not to be used. No, nobody's allowed up there, for any reason. No, he doesn't know why. Persistent questions get the questioner thrown out, courtesy of Mike's strong arm. Paddy's scared of something, that's plain; but what? It's interesting that, of all the pubs in the district, this one keeps closing time sacred. There are no lock-ins at the Bucks, nor are late drinkers given time to finish up. As soon as the clock strikes eleven, it's pints down and everyone out. Paddy locks up the Bucks himself at midnight, and the place is completely uninhabited until eight in the morning the next day.
Abilities: Scuffling 12, Weapons 12
Weapon: -1 (knife)
Arnour: special; cannot be harmed by physical attacks.
Special: Uses Domination, as per Rough Magicks p. 19.
Description: Either a man in his 40s, wearing vest and braces, dripping blood from a slashed throat, or an impenetrable blackness that absorbs and extinguishes all light sources.
Notes: Harris was cheated in the Ploughmans buy-out, and lost all the money he'd invested as well as what little was left of his savings. The shock of his downfall may have deranged him. He took his own life, and his body was found in the upper apartment on an exceptionally cold December evening, 1908. After a nasty incident that resulted in serious injury to his replacement, Ploughmans instructed that nobody be allowed to stay in the upper apartments, and for the sake of the business any rumours about Harris have been hushed up. Paddy Green has taken these instructions a few steps further, which is why nobody is ever allowed in the upper rooms even for a short time, nor is anyone allowed to stay on the premises after midnight. This haunting is obsessed with blood and violence, particularly cutting. While its main attack is Domination, causing the victim to cut themselves, the target sees this as Harris coming at him with a knife or straight razor, which is why the haunting has Scuffling and Weapons pools. Typically the haunting softens up a victim by reducing Stability either with hallucinations (2 loss) involving blood and cutting, or by recreating the suicide scene (3 loss) before attempting Domination. Each hallucination costs 1 Magic point, and Harris' Domination has a difficulty of 4 normally, or 3 if a target has lost 2 or more points of Stability as a result of hallucinations. When the Domination takes place, the victim seems to observers to be swallowed up in unnatural darkness; only the victim will ever see Harris in human form. Once a target has been Dominated he can't hope to beat Harris, but he can be saved if he's carried out of the upper apartments. The haunting is much weaker in the ballroom and the ground floor and cannot Dominate there, though it can still cause hallucinations. Very weak-willed people can be provoked to violence and attack others if they fail a Stabilty-versus-Magic contest, which is why the Bucks gets so rowdy on a Friday night.
Though this haunting is restricted to the upper floor of the Bucks, it can be encountered off the premises. Harris' personal belongings, in particular his shaving mirror, razor and leather strop, carry the taint, and anyone who owns these can encounter the haunting. These were disposed of soon after the body was found, and nobody knows where they are now. Occult may suggest that if these items are brought back to the Bucks and a ritual of cleansing performed, the haunting could be destroyed.