Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Makes a Scary Story Scary?

Sally Cooper thought the lake was picture postcard perfect, something a city girl like her had only imagined. She didn’t know the lake held secrets beneath that quiet water, secrets needing to come to the surface. The past doesn’t stay buried.

That’s the description of a short story I’ve put up on my website (for free) for anyone who likes old-fashioned ghost stories. My family and I spend a few weeks every summer at a lake, and almost every night we sit around a campfire enjoying the evening. And of course we need ghost stories in such a setting. I love lakes, but as a child, I could scare myself silly by thinking about what might be under the surface of the lake. Think about that. What could be a hundred feet down in the darkest, deepest part of the lake, where no one can see? *shiver*

This summer while we were there I got inspired to write a ghost story about that very fear. If you’d like to read it, or print it out for reading or telling aloud around a campfire, click on this link to go to a page on my website. Once there, there is another link to click to get up a printable pdf:  Beneath the Lake  I hope you enjoy!

Over the past few days I’ve done an informal survey of people to find what makes certain stories very scary for them. Here’s what I heard:

1. A storyline that involves something they were very afraid of as young children. I do think residual fear can affect us very rational adults. We can tell ourselves that of course we don’t believe in ghosts any more, but some of us (me) still can’t watch a scary movie like THE WOMAN IN BLACK or easily forget a particularly scary story like THE TURN OF THE SCREW. A confession - I am particularly freaked out by ghostly children. I don’t know where this fear came from, but it’s certainly there, even though I DON’T BELIEVE IN GHOSTS.

2. Knowing there is something bad that’s going to happen before the characters do. This builds an incredible amount of tension as the reader wants to scream at the main character, “Don’t open the closet door!” I’m reading ‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King, and he uses this technique. The story starts with the characters who have escaped the town, and we, the readers, know something very bad happened there, even if we don’t know what. When the story shifts back to the time the troubles started, readers are able to pick up on the clues before the townspeople do.

3. Having the characters trapped in a situation where they will have to face whatever it is, and it will be bad when they do. Stephen King used that to great effect in THE SHINING with his characters snowed in at an empty haunted hotel. The movie ALIEN also fits into this category. There’s certainly no easy way off that spaceship.

4. Horrific images that get stuck in your head. I don’t like this kind of scary story, because I have a hard time forgetting certain images once they are imagined. And for middle grade writers, relying on horrific images isn’t going to work well. Our goal is not to encourage reoccurring nightmares!

The best scary opening chapter in a middle grade novel I’ve read is Margaret Peterson Haddix’s first book in The Missing series, FOUND. She does a terrific job of building up the tension as the character begins to notice odd things, trying to rationalize them, and then realizes there is something very, very wrong.

So what scares you in a scary story? And can you recommend other truly frightening books?

~ Dee Garretson


  1. Great post, Dee. I just read Holly Black's Doll Bones, and realize I'm terrified of possessed dolls!

    1. Michael, I know several people who find possessed dolls very creepy, I think I grew up with so many of them (regular dolls, not possessed,) that particular fear escaped me.

  2. Ack! I can't handle scary stories. I'm still shaking from Girl Scout camp late night stories 30 years ago. :)

    1. Caroline, somehow putting a group of kids together for scary stories multiples the fear factor. I still remember a sleepover where we watched the original Frankenstein movie at a girl's house on the grounds of a mental institution-her father was chief psychiatrist there. By the end of it we were all shrieking hysterically.

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  4. I'm such a wimp that it doesn't take much to scare me! Psychological thrillers are the worst. Movies and books like that give me really creepy, bizarre dreams. I agree that something you feared when you were a kid and when you know something's going to happen before the character does are two of the scariest elements!

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

  5. Oh, I agree that something that scared you as a child has a residual effect on you as an adult. Something you never get over. For me, it was the urban legend about looking into a mirror in the dark and summoning Bloody Mary, who would claw your eyes out. That's why I chose that topic when asked to write a dark retelling of a legend for an anthology.

    And I'm guessing that's why you wrote a story about a lake!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!