Posted in Tabletop Poetry (and Other Artforms), Tabletop Teacher

Why We Tell Scary Stories

When I was small, I would wake sometimes in the middle of the night and look down the dark hallway, imagining the monsters that lurked in the shadows. Most nights, the fear would get the better of me. I would imagine something coming out of the darkness and attacking me. I would run, sometimes screaming, back to my bed because everyone knows monsters can’t attack you if you are in your bed, especially if you are under the covers. But if I did it just right, the hairs on my arms and on the back of my neck would stand upright, one by one, like metal shavings being called to attention by a magnet. It’s an interesting feeling. And it’s pretty cool to watch… if you can remain calm enough to get back to bed and switch off the light when the show is over.

I have been afraid of the dark all my life. Literally. I am still afraid of the dark. Some nights, I sleep with the kitchen light on, I always have a security teddy bear at hand and I never watch horror movies… at night. Once upon a time, I didn’t watch them at all. I insisted I scared easily, which was true enough. Films that have kept me up at night include Rear Window, Jane Eyre, and one particular episode of BBC Mystery! about… Miss Marple. But as an adult (with a little help from the documentary Nightmare in Red White and Blue) I discovered the truth. I don’t like gore and violence, but I love horror. So while I have no intention of watching Saw anytime ever, I will rarely turn down an opportunity to watch Housebound, The Sixth Sense, or Pontypool. Also, I love Hitchcock, Jane Eyre is on my top ten classics list, and that episode of Mystery! is the only one I ever recorded and re-watched. Because when done right, a good horror movie has the same effect as staring down the hall at night. It is literally hair-raising without completely eliminating your sense of safety. Once I figured this out, I went in search of that feeling. I started chasing PG-13 horror films–guaranteed by rating to be within my violence threshold, but still with the potential to be sufficiently spooky. And this was how, Saturday night, I found myself convincing another friend who scares easily that we should absolutely watch Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark… at 10pm.

Watching the opening scenes of Scary Stories was a little like being on a roller coaster–another thing that scares me so much I’ve only done it a handful of times. I knew that I was about to do something scary, and that I couldn’t turn back now. I mean, we’d bought the tickets. The movie was beginning. I was in this for the long haul. I also didn’t know exactly what twists and turns were going to come or when. And I knew that more or less, everything was going to be okay in the end. I mean, obviously I would be fine. But another benefit of PG-13 horror is that the protagonist usually defeats the bad guy in the end. But the scariest part of a horror movie, similar to other scary things like roller coasters and flu shots, is the anticipation. It’s the part where you know it’s coming, but it hasn’t happened yet. Several times during Scary Stories, I clung to Fiance’s arm, muttering, “waiting for the jump scare…” And once it was over, I was okay… until the next scary story rolled around. 

But I have also found that the bigger your imagination is, the scarier scary things are. This is probably why adults have less trouble with horror movies and roller coasters and flu shots than children do. When you’re a child, you can imagine the pain of the needle before it stabs you. You can imagine the roller coaster never slowing or stopping. You can imagine the monster waiting down the hallway, just beyond the edge of the light. And you don’t have the sense to tell yourself it’s all in your head. I have that sense. But I have also spent nearly three decades honing my imagination for use in storytelling. Which means that when the movie gets out at midnight (the scariest time of night), there’s a good chance I will have difficulty sleeping. But wait… I was the one who persuaded my friend to go see this in the first place. She wanted to see Toy Story 4, which instead would have filled me with warm fuzzies and had me dreaming sweet dreams as soon as my head hit the pillow. Which begs the question… why do we like scary stories?

I suppose I have already answered this question. We like to scare ourselves because it’s a thrill. It feels good to have the hairs on the back of your neck raise up. Or to get a shot of adrenaline, as long as it’s in a controlled dose, which you get from a controlled scare, like a roller coaster or a horror flick. Maybe scary things help us to feel alive, or remind us that we are safe, or that being afraid is perfectly acceptable, as long as you don’t let it paralyze you. This is, in fact, why I have slowly been trying to ride more roller coasters. But roller coasters as just scary. They’re not stories. And stories can do so much than frighten. They can get in our heads and stick. They can utterly change the way we see the world. A good story, scary or not, is almost always more than just a story. Which means the real question here is not why do we read scary stories, but why do we write them?

This is an important question for me, as the setting of my classroom RPG is a ghost story. And I’ve never been particularly good at telling scary stories. So if I have any intention of making a decent campaign out of my curriculum this year, I should probably explore this topic. My friend suggested they’re there to tell us that the monster can be defeated. But while PG-13 horror usually ends this way, R rated horror doesn’t always. So I think there’s more going on here.

Humans have a long tradition of telling scary stories. Several centuries ago, they were used as morality tales and warnings for children. Consider Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood–both stories that warn against venturing into the woods by yourself. Now, maybe these don’t seem scary today, but there is a reason they are so pervasive in our society. These are constantly being retold, re-written, and referenced in new literature. For example, that episode of Mystery! that kept me up at night included both a red cloak and a cottage in the woods. And though, being a white American woman, the traditions of Europe are those I am most familiar with, these traditions occur all over the world. Consider the story of La Llarona, which is popular in most Latin American countries. This is was also probably a warning for children–not to wander alone along rivers, where they might fall in and drown.

But these days, while such stories can still give us chills, but they are not necessarily told for the purpose of maintaining children’s safety. So let’s fast forward a bit to the gothic era, especially seeing as my classroom RPG is intended to be a bit of a gothic story. From what I understand, in gothic fiction, the ghostly elements are often connected either literally or metaphorically to the sexuality of the characters. This is because sex was a taboo topic in the society where many of these stories were written. People were, in a sense, afraid to talk about it. Thus, talking about it manifested in horror. Fast-forward again to today. What are so many of our current horror films about? Home attacks and senseless violence. I mean, how many “purge” movies have there been? And what kind of things are people in our society afraid of? Home invasion. Mass shootings. Acts of terrorism. In the United States, we fear both the escalating violence of our country and our inability to stop it. This can be seen in the never-ending arguments over gun control. But it has also been made manifest in our horror movies.

So why do we like scary stories? Because they give us an outlet to express the things we are afraid to talk about, be that the fear of losing a child, being shot, or being sexually attracted to someone you can’t have. Scary stories allow us both to be frightened and to openly discuss what frightens us. And where does my ghost story fit into all of this? Well, it stars a villain who is so bent on revenge he is ready to take down his entire school. But his greatest threat is not killing people, it’s revealing all the deep-held secrets of his classmates. Sharing my fears and vulnerabilities has always been something that frightens me. It frightens a lot of us, especially teenagers. But if we can’t find a way to open up, we risk turning into the villain, who is consumed by his emotions, a bit like me, running blindly back to my bed because I couldn’t contain my fear. Thus, the story is literally about having the courage to admit your fears to others. Because sharing that fear? That’s how we defeat the monster.


I am a poet, linguist, and ESL teacher who loves to play games.

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