Grim grinning ghosts
Used to be that telling a good ghost story to a kid would elicit screams of horror and week's worth of nightmares. Now that all the good urban legends have been made into movies, it's getting harder and harder to give a really good fright to a naive child. And isn't that what Halloween is all about? Scaring the piss out of the innocent children? Hey, don't look at me like that, that's what my own mother told me!
If you want to give a good scare, it's all in how you tell it. A low, whispering voice. Anticipatory pauses. And the extended silence at the end of your story to give the kiddies a moment to think about the implications of not heeding the warning the story provides.
The first legendary ghost story I remember (aside from Lonesome Ghosts), was the tale of the ghostly hitchhiker. I read that one myself in a collection of ghost stories I took out of the library - a perfect book in that it kept me up at night, yet I couldn't stop reading it.
This was before dead babysitters and microwaved babies became all the rage in scary stories. I liked the ghosts; they were almost benign in that I was pretty sure (just pretty sure, not positive) that the stories were fake. I didn't have to believe in ghosts, because there was no proof that they existed. But deranged strangers slicing and dicing babysitters? Totally believable. There's different levels of being scared, and the new urban legends going around at the time (1970's) served a dual purpose; they scared the living shit out of us and they also made us hesitant to go anywhere or do anything alone.
The first of the madman legends I remember was the date gone awry. Guy picks up girl. Guy and girl drive out to the country. Car runs out of gas. You know the rest. But do you know it from having it told to you or do you know it from seeing it in a movie? Because let me tell you, when you're no more than ten years old and your babysitter is telling you the story, the scare factor is tenfold that of watching some B-class actress scream her way through a scene.
The guy decided to walk to the nearest gas station. The girl waited in the car, because it was too long a walk to make in her high heels. Soon after her boyfriend left, she heard a sound outside the car. Like a scritch...scritch...scritch...she though the boyfriend was tapping at the window, so she unlocked the door and waited for him to get in. No one opened the door and still she heard the scritch...scritch...scritch...so she decided to see what was making the noise....she stepped out the car, looked around and saw nothing. That is, until she looked up. And there, hanging from the tree was her boyfriend. Dead. His lifeless body swayed in the breeze, making his sneakers slide across the roof of the car. That was the sound she had been hearing. Her. Dead. Boyfriend.
I didn't exactly scream, but I do recall the goosebumps that ran up and down my arms. The babysitter asked if I was scared. Not wanting to disappoint her, I told her no. I didn't want her to think I was a baby. Well, that backfired because she launched into another story. And another - the man with the hook, the girl with the ribbon around her neck, the one legged man thumping up the stairs, the call is coming from inside the house - I did build up my scary story portfolio that night, and even if it came at the expense of sleep, it was worth it. For the next few months, I regaled relatives with my repertoire of fear inducing stories.
I missed the real ghost stories. Slice and dice stories are great to an extent, but I missed being scared in the way that leaves you afraid of the dark. Not afraid of masked men with knives or hooks for arms, but afraid of the things you can't see.
I think the first legendary ghost story I read was the one about the guy who picks up a young female hitchiker. She's wearing a party dress. He goes back to her house the next day for some reason, and the parents tell him that the girl has been dead for years. There were thousands of stories like that one, told over and over again, with different settings and different characters but the same basic premise, and I read them all. I loved the thrill of the being chilled. And then there were the classic stories; The Monkey's Paw, Sleepy Hollow - and my mother introduced me to Poe (through Vincent Price movies) and I read The Tell Tale Heart and The Raven over and over again and then scoured the library for more like that and found Algernon Blackwood and hordes of Victorian ghost stories and Shirley Jackson, and expanded from ghosts to demons and vampires and witches and werewolves and creatures with no name that I was sure were hiding under my bed at night.
The best thing about these stories is that they are short, so you can tell them to your friends in the dark of night with only the yellow eye of a dim flashlight for light - being the teller of the tale made them seem less fearful in a way, like you were taking ownership of the story. I learned how to do voices and sound effects and where to pause and where to gasp to emphasize the terror and fright. Still, there's nothing like having a ghost story told to you, especially through a book, in a low lit bedroom, close to midnight, by yourself.
The thrill of being chilled.
As always, there's a survey attached.
What's your favorite ghost story/scary urban legend? Think you have one I haven't heard before? I'm always up for some new scares.