It was a great idea to offer that last frightening “boo” to this month’s introduction. I’m sure it was the cause of Joaquin’s decision to stay away from the North-East coast.
This is largely about words, written words, and so we should acquire a few definitions before we begin.
Terror -The feeling of fear and dread in anticipation of a horrifying experience.
Horror -The feeling of revulsion and fright upon experiencing a frightening experience, often proceeding from terror.
Ann Radcliffe, the matriarch of Gothic writing, wrote that terror aimed to stimulate readers through imagination of perceived evils while horror closed off the imagination through fear and threat of physical danger.
During a written discussion comparing the two words/concepts, Stephen King, in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, adds the concept ‘revulsion.’ Revulsion is a ‘gross-out,’ an appeal to being disgusted through gore.
Films benefit from having several approaches (e.g. sound and visual effects) available to evoke those three concepts. Often, people differentiate ‘scary’ movies by how suspenseful they are (their ability to create terror,) how horrifying they are (split by genuine visual horror of aberrations or ‘cheap jump scares’), and how ‘gore-y’ they are (the use of gore to evoke revulsion.)
Now that we’ve finished that brief discussion, I present Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark – or I present the scariest portion of that book for many of my friends and me, the original cover art.
While sitting with friends and reading from these scary stories, it was generally agreed that this picture was the most frightening portion of book. It was also decided that the new illustrations, when judged on their ability to create visual unease, are child’s play next the pipe smoking head-tree of our youth. We all remembered this terrifying head but no one remembered just how literal the title of the book was. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is exactly that.
Many stories within the book are designed to be read out-loud and acted out with the aid of stage directions within parentheses. For example,
“The head turned and stared at the boy. Slowly it opened its mouth, and-
(Turn to one of your friends and scream:)
AAAAAAAAAAAH!” – Me Tie Dough-ty Walker, pg 14-16
Mr. Schwartz included a section of source descriptions for the tales – the quoted tale was originally transcribed from Mrs. Otis Milby Melcher in 1940, a woman from Kentucky. She suggested expansions to the story for the benefit of further retellings. Alvin changed the ending of the story by the suggestion of several 13 year old boys who thought the ending was not scary enough. Originally there was no stage direction or scream, only a single “Boo.”
Since these tales are designed to be told out-loud and directly to potentially willing people in the dark, the terror that is generated is really up to the dramatic ability of the story teller. The horror generated is reliant on the story teller to properly time and perform a scream or in one case “…,pounce on one of your friends.” There are tales in the book that don’t have stage direction and can function when read alone but nothing in the book is very scary without being a child or having another child jump at you in the dark. The classic tale that every kid knew when I was growing up, The Viper, is not popular because it was particularly scary but kids were able to do their best Eastern-European accent attempt at the end. The tales are short and the suspense is formed by quickly establishing a setting, which maybe normal but otherwise in a spooky atmosphere and adding something bizarre or supernatural after the first 3 sentences of establishment. The reveal of the bizarre creature occurs in some stories just before the storyteller must frighten the audience or the reveal doesn’t occur at all before the storyteller frightens the audience.
While Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has been a pleasure to go back to, read aloud, and explore, I’m not doing this to learn how to write short stories that only scary if performed for you in an off-putting environment. I’m also not looking to write specifically for children. However, it would be a wasted effort if I didn’t try to write my own Schwartz-like short story.
Spooky Story to Scream at Someone in A Sewer
Young Paulie Fitz skipped through orange and red leaves on the sidewalk of Pittsington Avenue. Skip-crunch skip-crunch.
“Hey Paulie,” said an old woman whose bench sat on the porch of an old house. The old woman was almost entirely covered in black cloth and a light grey fabric for her head shawl. Her creased face, large nose, and long fingers were all that showed of her. Paulie stopped and stood by the mailbox away from the house.
“I don’t think I’ve met you before. What is your name?” asked Paulie.
“I knew you since you were a baby and I have to tell you something. Please Paulie, come closer.”
Paulie took a couple of step forward and said, “I don’t remember you though. I should be getting home.”
“It is because you were very little, Paulie. What I must tell you is important and I am too old to keep shouting. Please, come closer.”
Paulie walked up to the edge of the porch.
“It is getting late and my mom might come looking,” Paulie said.
The old woman beckoned him closer with a long bony finger.
“It is a secret Paulie. I must tell you, please come closer,” said the old woman.
Paulie climbed the 3 steps and walked up next to the old woman who leaned in and said…
(Lean in close to your friend and fire a gun into the ceiling.)