What is a scary story? In it’s essence, a scary story is a tale told that creates fright or alarm in the listener. A scary story is meant to frighten one, to startle them by introducing a different object into an otherwise normal world. A scary story is one that tells an audience that the world is not as safe or real as it seems. A scary story can be full of the wrath of gods or a simple jump story.
The intent of scary stories can be varied. Scary stories may be told to teach a lesson such as the consequences of bad behavior in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Scary stores can be told to caution a group to be more aware of their surroundings such as in urban tales in the way that stories about parking in an empty parking lot lead to bad endings. Stories may be told just to entertain, to give the audience a quick and happy little thrill. Scary stories may serve a deeper purpose as well because in the process of being scared, the audience may confront their fears; by then facing the fears they may garner a better sense of safety.
The essay will address the several different types of scary stories and attempt to place them in historical context. The author will also attempt to look for the meaning of scary stories, to place them in context and to discuss the nature of fear in a scary story. While scary stories exist in many cultures, due to the constraints of time the essay will deal with primarily Western European and American stories.
Why do we tell stories? What are these stories we tell?
We come together with our stories. We tell each other stories and then others tell the same stories only a little bit different and then more tell our stories. We bind our stories into books and memories and we offer them up as history or creation myths.
Stories have been told from time immemorial. One story is told about a place for finding nuts, another tells about a wooly mammoth that nearly attacked, perhaps another to talk about a tribal victory. Based on the cave paintings at the Cave of El Castillo in northern Spain, there are theories that stories have been told as far back as 40,000 years ago. (Wikipedia 2013).
While all early stories started off in oral form, there are few records of them. However, literature began to capture the words for humanity about four thousand years ago. In the world of literature, Indian literature is the oldest in the world, dating some four thousand years. The oldest written story, the Epic of Gilgamesh told the story of rebuilding the walls of Uruk. The Qur’an, the best-regarded writing of literature in the Arabic language gave stories of the prophet Muhammad. The bible, while less than 2000 years old, rang with stories of the tribulations of heroes and demons. However, according to Orality and Literacy, storytelling and oral culture from which it sprang, still dominated as late as the 1100s. (Ong, 1982)
Stories were passed down orally and communicated all of a community’s history in their telling. Though as the word became print and the print became more common, fewer stories were told and the ones that were told were based on the decisions of reigning powers. (Ong,1982)
Stories were developed to train, to teach, to scold and coerce humans into moral behavior. They were used to describe the difference between good and evil for a society. Stories were told to frighten in order to intimidate.
This was where the stories that scare came in. The mighty influence of the morality plays of the Catholic Church terrorized audiences. Who could forget the story of Adam and Eve, thrown out of paradise for tasting from the fruit of the forbidden tree or the image of Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt for turning around to catch a glimpse of her home? Surely the story of Christ, bloodied and dragged on a cross quickens the imagination. Even as the stories of Mohammed instructed and guided Islam, and the Buddha’s wisdom garnered followers, the images of floods, droughts, fire and mighty catastrophes moved throughout stories of old.
Story telling was recognized in English literature around 1500, but there are older documents that seem to refer to storytellers who were gifted poets and singers. Storytellers did not have the same function as stories handed down.
According to Anne Pellowski the earliest evidence of story telling suggests that story telling:
- Grew out of the playful, self-entertainment needs of humans.
- That it satisfied the need to explain the surrounding physical world.
- That it came about because of an intrinsic religious need in humans to honor or propitiate the supernatural forces believed to be present in the world.
- That it evolved from the human need to communicate experience to other humans.
- That it fulfilled an aesthetic need for beauty, regularity, and form through expressive language and music.
- That it stemmed from the desire to record the actions or qualities of one’s ancestor, in the hope that this would give them a kind of immortality.
Mankind fears the unknown and scary stories exploit that fear. H.P. Lovecraft, a noted author of the macabre talks about what scares us in scary stories: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. (Lovecraft, 1927) Stephen King a prodigious master of the scary story is a master because he’s able to take a normal situation and then push it into the realm of that darkness. A girl who is teased in school blows up the school in Carrie, but it’s not that that scares us. It’s the power of the moment before she blows up – when, thinking she is accepted, she is instead, horribly publicly humiliated. (King 1974). That’s horror. Another example, from Pet Sematary – a child, four years old, runs out on a street and is killed. King took the realization of the horror of that moment and based the book on those three seconds of realization. The horrifying novel was predicated on that initial loss – trying every conceivable method to return to the moment before that loss, even if it meant death, destruction, and breaking all natural law.(King,1983)
What is it about a story that scares one? How does the process work? What is the feeling of scared? According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, fear is the painful agitation in the presence or anticipation of danger. Fear, according to the dictionary implies anxiety and loss of courage, while dread, like aversion is the idea of intense reluctance to face or meet a situation or person. Of the feelings that a scary story can bring, alarm suggests a sudden and intense awareness of immediate danger, while terror implies the most intense fear. (Merriam-Webster, 2013) In a wunderkind of brevity, Dictionary.com reports “Terror is stronger than horror though it usually lasts for a shorter time.” (Dictionary.com 2013). Fear causes ones heart to beat faster, eye pupils contract, breathing to change all in a flight or fight response. Fear, or one of its friends creates the sensation of the heart contracting and the stomach tensing and sweating skin. (About.com 2013)
So why would someone want to be afraid? Why listen to a scary story? Elizabeth Barrette suggests that we are essentially bored. Daily life is calmed down by civilization so we seek the edge of the cliff in a safer way. (Barrette 1997). A scary tale, well told, brings a rhythm to which we respond. Initially there is sense of helplessness, according to Barrette, a fear of an inability to keep control. There is a sense of urgency and of a pressure as well, to make things all right. Children especially, know that they must resolve the situation. Witness children telling Little Red Riding Hood not to go into grandmothers house in the beloved Grimm’s fairy tale. (Grimm 1876) The emotion gets more intense as the story goes. The action according to Barrette brings a heightened awareness to the story audience. Everything seems a little more hyper, more exciting. A good storyteller varies the intensity, building hope for the hero or heroine against the dismay and dread of the outcome. Also known as suspense this varying rhythm keeps one on the edge of their seat. Too much horror or scariness and the neural system shuts down. Vary the pace and the system stays attuned. The promise of the resolution according to Barrette is what “offers a refuge from the …stress of everyday life.” The good thing about a scary story is that while the world may be frightening and terrifying for a while, resolution, whether life is returned to normal or changed forever is always promised. (Barrette 1997).
What is scary storytelling?
Scary stories range in definition from urban legends told in the dark by a group of friends to professional storytellers telling tales to alarm and frighten to religious groups talking of hellfire. For the purpose of this essay, folklore and supernatural stories meant to entertain will be discussed.
According to Julie Perry, there are three types of stories. “Myths are sacred narratives, explaining how the world and mankind came to be, folktales are fictional narratives, and the third category, legend, consists of narratives, believed and or told as true set in the post-creation time period” (Bennett IX in Perry). Scary stories, told by storytellers can roughly be divided into two categories, supernatural and logical (Lu, Lui & Chen).
Myths, or legends also deal with the supernatural. They contain situations that are past normal experience. Supernatural stories “focus on situations that are past the realm of humanity” so the supernatural being or situation is scary because the hero of the story doesn’t know how to combat the evil, and the evil is usually more powerful than the protagonist. Vampires, monsters, and ghosts fall in this area.
An excellent source of vampire stories can be found at http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/vampire/
The next types of stories are considered narrative folktales, interpreted as fake talks or folktales. Robin Moore is a master of the tall tale. A tall tale teller can tell a marvelous scary story because of their ability to push the bounds of reality. A short story of “The Ghost of the Maple Tree”, performed by Robin Moore can be found at his site at http://wmd.slrc.info/oldepfl/www.epfl.net/kids/estories/ESTORIES_archive_list.cfm%3Ftrad=American.html
The Ghost of the Maple Tree is a story best performed for children. It’s comical and light hearted but it does concern a ghost who is just a little bit scary, good for younger children.
Amber, a Texas Ghost Story exerted from Spooky Texas and retold by S.E. Schlosser qualifies as a scary folktale. The story can be found at http://americanfolklore.net/folklore/2011/06/amber.html
The Grimm brothers collected folktales and fairy stories and have brought some of our most scary and endearing stories. The story of Red Riding Hood, of Cinderella, and the Frog Prince all qualify for scary stories when told in the original version.
Other scary stories collected by the Grimm Brothers were stories such as of Hansel and Gretel, a story that even a lighthearted telling could not relieve of anxiety. In the story two children were left by their parents to starve in a great forest. They wandered for days until finding a witches house. The witch imprisoned the boy fatten him up to eat him. When the witch decided it was time to boil the boy and bake the girl, she started a fire in her oven. The girl tricked her into looking in the oven and then pushed her in, burning her to death. An excellent rendition of the story can be found at http://www.storynory.com/2006/01/12/hansel-and-gretel-2/
The rat catcher of Hamelin is another good fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm. It is based on the possible history of the disappearance or death of a great number of children. The story was handed down until the version of it as it appears today as told by Amanda NiCastro at http://www.cmlibrary.org/bookhive/zingertales/default.asp?storyid=36
A final group of stories are legends, consisting of narratives, believed and or told as true set in the post-creation time period” (Perry). These are the groups of tales told as urban legends. They tell the stories of today, stories told around the campfire, or late at night in a closed room. Tim Jennings of Jennings and Ponder said “that scholars had pretty much given up on finding new folktales in America or even finding evidence of old ones being told at all and then Jan Brunvald stumbled onto the stories girls told each other after curfew in women’s dormitories. These are urban legends.” (Jennings, 2013) Urban legends have a gothic sensibility to them. Edgar Allen Poe could be considered the father of the urban legend with the masterful use of anxiety his story of The Tale Tell Heart. The story, told in present time, offers up the worst of human behavior. It concerns a man, quite mad whom meticulously plans an old mans murder and carries it out. The story is told in sequence, the wildness of the killer, the crazed reasoning, the helplessness of the old man and then the suspense of listening to the killer make his way across the room, bit by bit as the old man listens in fear. The old man is killed and the killer hides the body but the intensity doesn’t end there. The police come in and the man, now nearly completely insane, shows them through the house proving there is no one there. By now the killer is on the edge of madness – he begins to hear the old man’s heart beating until he screams and points out the floorboards where the body is. Storytellers everywhere have done the story but perhaps one of the best versions is by jordanslannan on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AauiEGH99Lo
Barrette reminds us that “Horror reminds us that the world is not always as safe as it seems, which exercises our mental muscles and reminds us to keep a little healthy caution close at hand.” Urban legends generally are short in length and involve dark elements, the story is retold on behalf of the original witness so there is a possible degree of plausibility, and there is often a lesson involved in the story according to Jan Brunvand. (Brunvand). A series of tales often told as urban legends are about Bloody Mary. A set of Bloody Mary stories can be found in sequence at http://www.americanfolklore.net/spooky-stories.html
Scary stories for children can be divided into two general types:
There are scary stories, told as an entertaining escape. They’re meant to send chills, make a quick scream, which then garners a laugh about as well. Also known as jump tales, these stories build up tension, break on an abrupt sound and usually have humor imbedded. Some well known jump tales can be found at http://www.story-lovers.com/listsjumptales.html A favorite story, that of Talipo can be found on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qQW-NLOvFQ
There are also fairy stories and fables.
Children have been the best recipients of scary folktales. In an interview with Bobbi Miller, Eric Kimmel said, “Folktales present the reality of the world that children sense, although they might not have directly experienced it. That reality is that the world can be an evil place, with bad creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to devour you…You have to be tough, smart, brave, and clever enough to know who your real friends are. And you have to be ruthless, when need be. Hansel and Gretel don’t haul the witch out of the oven”. (Kimmel in Miller 2013). A superb list of Grimm fairy stories and folk tales can be found at http://www.worldoftales.com/fairy_tales/Grimm_fairy_tales.html
All scary stories address real issues. Using these stories help children deal with the very real problems from moving to different cities, fears of the dark, divorce or death.
In conclusion, we have a full and varied history of scary stories The history of stories probably began around campfires of ancient civilizations or started as wall paintings. Scary stories were handed down from fearsome tales taught by the church and religious groups, to the tales told by folklorists intended to scare and entertain. There are gothic horror stories and easier, lighter children’s tales to jump stories and finally urban legends. What is a scary story? A scary story is made to scare, to teach, to inform, to entertain and to enliven. Scary stories have been around as long as we needed to symbolically address our personal demons. They stay with humanity because they serve a purpose, whether to question our limitations, caution or intimidate us or purely to entertain.