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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.

Comments

I've always been partial to the "dog under the bed licking the old woman's hand to reassure her that she's safe from the escaped madman" story. Why? I'm not sure (hopefully, it's not some subconscious fetish on my part).

Punchline for those not familiar with it:

She finds her dog, hung dead in the shower stall the next morning.

Eeek I love that story!

When I was younger, I came across a book called "Tales for the Midnight Hour". There was a story in it about a woman who bought a jigsaw puzzle at a second-hand store. The picture had long since worn off the box, so she didn't know what it would look like when she finished. So she started assembling it on her kitchen table. As she started fitting the pieces together, she noticed the picture bore a resemblence to her kitchen. The further she got, the more it became apparent that the picture was of her kitchen. She got down to the final piece, an ugly face staring in through the window. Try as she might, though, the piece would not fit. She turned to look at her window, and saw that the shade was drawn. With a shaking hand she raised the shade. The face was there.

The earliest of this type of story I remember is the call to the babysitter, the one that ends with "Lady, get out of there, he's in the house!"

Though in those days of single landlines, I have no idea how one could call from one phone in a house to another.

I used to creep people out with the story of the purple cow, though it wasn't told to me as a scary story. A farmer looks out one day and sees a purple cow grazing on the hillside among his other cows. It's otherwise normal, just purple. So he goes about his work and finally has a few minutes to go check it out. Up close, it still looks normal, and acts normal. So he reaches out to touch it, to see if it's painted.

When he doesn't come home for lunch, his wife looks out and sees two purple cows on the hillside...

BTW, long before Snopes there was this guy, if you're interested in urban legends:

Jan Harold Brunvand

I never got into scary stories. However, when we went camping with several other church groups of boys, one would tell the story of the lady in the white dress. Basically, they tailor made up a scary story for this campground, where a lady had been murdered in her house years ago (arson) on that property, and the anniversary happened to be that weekend. Strange stuff happens on the anniversary. Well, they would dress one of the guys up in a dress, send everyone out on an expedition to look for the house, and then scare the crap out of the newcomers. I got to come along for this one year, it was quite fun. We had to scatter and hide to keep our preperations from being seen on multiple occasions. They let the newcomers in on the secret later on. They also have the Lady's sister, in a different color dress, "haunt" the pond during the day. She's supposed to be warning her sister of impending doom.

Also, for the summer camp I work at, they do something similar - they tell the kids on the long drive up about the man with the gangrene hand, who has escaped from jail with murderous intent. Well, at some point, he shows up at camp, complete with a green glowing hand. (Glowsticks work wonders, do they not?)

Many years ago, I went camping with my cousins and my uncle.

The camp site was next to a small pond, but there was a much larger lake nearby. My incle told us youngsters a story about a boy scout leader who went nuts and killed all the boy scouts in his troop with a ax. He then tossed all the bodies and parts in the pond, then set off in a canoe across the lake. What he did not know was that the pond and the lake were connected by an underground stream. The body parts floated up in the lake and pulled the canoe down. On nights when the moon was full, sometimes you could see a ghostly canoe on the lake, being pulled under by the arms of those dead boys.

None of us kids slept at all that night.

Check out this blog for real life ghost/psychic experiences....

The Shortest Horror Story Ever Written

The last person on Earth was alone in a room. There was a knock on the door...

-Fredrick Brown

Okay, I'll bite: what is this "one legged man thumping up the stairs" story? I can't seem to find it on Google or Snopes.

It was a variation of the "caller is inside the house" story. In this one, the babysitter grabs the children and runs into a bedroom. They keep hearing a sound - thump, scrape, thump, scrape - and it turns out it's the one legged man going up the stairs to get them.

It makes absolutey no sense, but it was scary at ten.

Actually, there's a short horror story that predates the Fredrick Brown one, and is simply the story of a man sleeping alone in a locked room.

"He woke up frightened and reached for a match, and a match was put into his hand."

Those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books used to scare the shit out of me as a kid.
Half of it had to do with those damn illustrations though. Those stories themselves were scary, but when provided with a visual like this, it creeped me out and put me right in the middle of the story.

Check out Roald Dahl's "adult" stories (heh heh) - as scary for adults as these are for children. My favorite is the guy who wasn't sure whether he was sleeping with the wife or the daughter - until it was time for him to leave and he was introduced to the other, leprous, daughter.

Fredric Brown has some good ones too (and funny stories - short-shorts ending with a horrific pun) he has just been anthologized after being hard to find for a long time.