Wednesday, May 22, 2013

S is for... scary

Every storyteller needs to have a scary story or two in their back pocket. I wrote this post several years ago and thought it would make an excellent S entry. Over on my organizational storytelling blog I've written S is for storytelling, check that out if you're interested.
One of the fun things I get to write about is how to tell specific kinds of stories. We've looked at personal storieshero stories, fairytales/myths and tall tales. Today we’ll look at scary stories. 

In the context of this blog post scary story means a story with some kind of supernatural or horrific element (haunted house, movie-style killer) rather than a story of real-life horror (bank foreclosure, natural disaster, real-life murder). These stories are meant to give your listeners a delightful chill, not a lingering dread.

Whenever I tell stories with kids and ask them what they'd like to hear, they always ask for a scary story. It seems to be what kids are most familiar with in a "storytelling" context, maybe from camp or from other media sources. Because these stories have such deep appeal for children I'd recommend that you have several in your repertoire that are appropriate for younger people. You can always tweak details to make them more appropriate for adults.

The single most important element in telling a scary story is you, just as it is in all storytelling. You have to believe what you're saying; it's even better if you think the story is creepy. If you are insincere your listeners will know and won't be drawn into their own imaginations. You can increase the intimacy and believability of scary stories by lowering your voice, lowering the lights, looking around as if you're nervous and telling your listeners that you don't usually tell this one, because it scares you.

Some other common elements in effective scary storytelling are:
  • Locale. It really helps if you can include regional details your listeners will recognize. It will make the story more believable. Yes, this means changing the story. As long as you're telling a traditional story (more on where to find these momentarily) or making it up yourself, that's okay. If you're telling someone else's story then you have already gotten permission and discussed the alteration with them. If you are a region you don't know, so can't make the story local, then make it local to you. It happened in your neighborhood, near your school or at your summer camp. If it's a traditional story where the locale must remain distant, make sure you set that context appropriately. "This is a story from ancient Japan. People still tell it around campfires and they know it's real."
  • Eye-witness accounts. If appropriate, for example when telling an urban legend, tell them you heard the story from the person it happened to. This increases believability. If it's something that happened to you, tell them.
  • Vocal control. If you're telling a jump-tale (a story that ends with a bang so your audience jumps) make sure you don't broadcast it ahead of time. Keep your voice at the same volume right up to the yelling part.
  • Select the right story for your audience. Remember who you are and who they are. This goes back to basic storytelling technique. If you can't do an accent well, don't do it, your listeners will be distracted. If you're a white, middle-aged man don't pretend to be a young black woman if you're telling about a haunted place in the 'hood. You can always say you heard the story from a student. Additionally, select the right level of creepiness for your audience. Kindergartners don't need to know all of the horrible details, while college students might revel in them.
  • Internal logic. Be aware of logical holes in the story, especially when telling with kids. If everyone dies in the story then how did you hear it? Kids will ask you about it.
  • Practice. You will be a better storyteller if you practice your craft and approach it as work worth investing yourself in.
So where can you find some good scary stories to tell? Folklore is rife with scary stories. This is a good resource as is the urban legend database. Remember to tweak those details to make it local. I tell a version of the vanishing hitch-hiker that I always change to include wherever I am: In the Northeast you're never far from a cemetery, I bet wherever you are you can find something spooky nearby. 

Folklorist Alvin Schwartz has collected many American folktales in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Boxed Set. Another good book is The Ghost & I: Scary Stories for Paticipatory Telling; I especially like this one because it includes both telling tips and stories for adults as well as kids. Additionally, the authors have given permission for storytellers to tell these tales. 

I'm sure you can find many more good resources at your local library or bookstore. Just remember to ask permission to tell other people's stories. For those in the Kansas City area, I'll be teaching a storytelling class at Communiversity starting in June. I'd love it if you came and told with me!

Have fun telling these tales. Scary stories are among the most dramatic and playful of stories you can tell. I'm sure you'll enjoy experimenting with them. Next time we'll take a look at tall tales. See you soon!

(c)2013 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. Loved the post - changing the locale is a good tip. The best comedians use the technique all the time, using a few local details to make their tour jokes even funnier.


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