I got a call from a friend a couple days ago, and he wanted to know how to tell a story that would scare the heck out of a few friends who were coming over to his place for Halloween.
“No problem.” I told him. “I’ve got the perfect advice for telling a spine-chilling story. We’ll get ‘em good and scared.” He came over a few hours later and I proceeded to horrify him with a story of my own…
Before we get to the tips, I want to tell you about something that happened to me as a child. It’s the story I shared with my friend, but for the sake of the length of this post it’s an abridged version.
It’s a true story. I wish it weren’t.
We all have stories we wish weren’t true.
Warning: The following story may give you the willies.
The man in the window
I was 10 years old when it happened.
My bed was directly below my window. I used to sit up in bed and look out trying to see into the dark forest.
The forest was just beyond our backyard, it was deceptively beautiful and I had lots of fun exploring it during the day, but never, never at night.
One night I awoke startled by the squeaks of what sounded like old, rusty hinges and I felt a cold breeze of air rush by above me.
It took a while to see anything as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. When I finally could see, there was a man above me coming through my window upside down.
I froze in terror.
I wanted to scream, but there was a heavy weight pressing down on my chest. I couldn’t even breathe.
As he continued to enter, he slowly turned his head to look down at me. He smiled. It was a frightening, evil smile.
There was something entirely strange about this experience. I knew it. But I couldn’t figure it out.
It was when the man was almost in all the way that I caught a glimpse of something silver and gleaming in his hand as it slashed towards my chest.
In horror and complete desperation I frantically gasped for air and I finally screamed!
In the instant that my scream pierced the night I was drenched.
And then it was over…
Always tell the truth
– even if it’s a nightmare.
Always tell the truth – even if it’s a nightmare. (Tweet)
When I finished the story my friend demanded that I had to tell him what happened next. His is eyes were wide open and he was as white as a sheet (totally cliché, I know, but totally true), and I could tell he was astonished that I was still alive to tell the tale.
I laughed at his reaction. The story was a true story I repeated, but I also clarified that it was a true story about one of my most terrifying nightmares, ever. I woke in a pool of sweat when I screamed, so that was the end of the story.
I could see the relief wash over him.
I explained that I had watched the movie Dracula (staring Frank Langella) a few days before the incident. There was a scene in the movie when Dracula crawls down the side of a building and while upside down he claws open a window.
That scene freaked me out so much that it stuck in my subconscious and eventually resulted in the ultimate bloody nightmare.
The truth will set you free
– but more importantly it will scare ’em half to death.
So here’s the advice I gave my friend:
Find a story from your past that’s true and terrifies you, and if you’re comfortable sharing it, tell your friends that story. You can tweak it as needed, but at the core of the story stay as close to the truth as possible.
Nightmares work wonders for eerie storytelling, but avoid using true traumatic events that are too close to you. You want to create a spooky, but fun event, and not more trauma to deal with later.
9 tips for telling a terrifying story:
1 – Use the basis of a true story. (It doesn’t have to be your own personal story.) Stories based in reality have a certain authenticity that make them so compelling we can never get enough.
Take movies about axe murderers for example, they are popular and continue to unnerve us because they do happen (and we know it). One of the most famous axe murders in history is the parents of Lizzie Borden:
Fact: Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted in 1892 for the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts. The commonwealth of Massachusetts elected to charge no one else with the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden. Speculation about the crimes still continues more than 100 years later.
Stories about Lizzie Borden’s house being one of the most haunted in the world has circulated for years. (Source) Ghost stories, TV shows, movies, including the recent 2014 made for TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax staring Christina Ricci, are based on the murders.
The murders are also memorialized in a popular, if morbid, skipping-rope rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
2 – Lizzie Borden aside, it’s usually best to avoid urban legends or other popular spooky tales your listeners might have already heard. It’s always a downer when someone says, “Oh yeah, I heard this one before…”
3 – To make it scarier than merely a story from the distant past, make the timeframe as recent as possible and locate it close by. Are you in an apartment building? Make the location in one of the apartments (1a or 2b), or perhaps place it a couple houses down the road.
4 – The “event” is supposed to have scared you, so act anxious while telling it. But don’t get corny and overdo it or you’ll lose the affect. Holding a flashlight under your chin isn’t the most convincing prop. But it might be funny!
5 – It’s a good idea to practice in front of the mirror and repeat it a few times so you don’t forget key points. If you forget elements of your story your listeners will become confused, lose interest and might even throw squishy tomatoes at you.
6 – A few days before the main event plant seeds of trust by talking about local crime stories everyone knows to be true. The more your friends trust your knowledge of the area the more likely you will scare ‘em silly.
7 – Be patient, take your time and let the story unfold slowly as to heighten the suspense.
8 – End with a cliff hanger or a riddle. It’s not as much fun if you end the story by announcing the killer is now in police custody. In the story I shared with my friend I ended with a riddle:
“In the instant that my scream pierced the night I was drenched.”
Was I stabbed and thus drenched in my own blood? Or, as I revealed shortly thereafter, since the ending had the desired effect, did I wake up from a dream in a pool of sweat?
Hair-raising tales have a more profound effect when you don’t give everything away, so don’t put a bow on it for your listeners. With that said…
9 – Remember it’s supposed to be fun so don’t let your friends leave believing there’s an axe murderer living next door. Actually, if they believe it, they’re not likely to leave and go outside any time soon. Would you?
Bonus: Of course, it would help a lot if you could tell your frightening story in an isolated cabin in the woods. But, hey, that’s optional.
Good fiction is the truth inside the lie
As Stephen King said:
Fiction is a lie. The good fiction is the truth inside the lie. (Click to Tweet)
You know, that quote coming from Stephen King kind of scares me about him a little. Doesn’t it make you wonder about him a little, too?
With that in mind, here’s another quote from King:
People want to know why I do this, why I write such gross stuff. I like to tell them I have the heart of a small boy… and I keep it in a jar on my desk.
Happy Halloween Everyone!
How about sharing your scariest (true) story with us in the comments.