"Telling Scary Stories" a personal essay by A.C. Wise
When I was young and my friends and I would have sleepovers, we would tell each other ghost stories. Huddled in our sleeping bags with the lights out, we would invoke Bloody Mary, swap tales of killers hiding inside the house, ghostly red eyes floating in the dark, and murderous dolls making the sound “drip, drip, drag” as they slowly crept closer and closer down the hall.
In third grade, my teacher read a story to the class from Alvin Schwartz’s collection Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I had no idea back then that there existed a rich tradition of oral folklore and urban legends. All I knew was my teacher was telling us a story about ghosts, and that was my jam. I was hooked. There’s something primal about the act of telling ghost stories.
If you can capture the big bad in a tale while you stay safe inside the circle of firelight, it gives you a measure of control over the things that go bump in the night. Tell enough cautionary tales about picking up hitchhikers, or wandering around graveyards in the dark, and maybe you’ll get better at protecting yourself. Or so the theory goes.
Sometimes the tale in itself is the end, not the means; the delicious thrill justifies itself. Sometimes you just want a good, terrifying story. Horror fiction fills that role, and podcasts like Pseudopod tap into that age-old tradition of sharing eerie tales around the campfire, or flashlight, or candle’s flickering glow. There’s something special about having a story read to you, particularly a scary one.
When you read words on a page, you conjure your own mental images, and give the characters a voice. When you listen to a tale, you’re at the mercy of the narrator. They control the story; you’re simply along for the ride. There’s an art to the jump scare in oral form, the way the teller drops their voice, makes the audience lean in close, then BAM! The tone, the rhythm of the storyteller’s voice weaves a spell, sets the mood. Done right, the storyteller can take you out of yourself to a space where you find yourself starting to believe that maybe ghosts are real.
Did you hear that sound? Probably just the cat. You don’t have a cat? Then it must have been the wind. Pull the blankets tighter. Hope the flashlight batteries hold out just a little bit longer. It’s alright. You’re perfectly safe here. Gather close, settle in, and listen . . .
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Clarkesworld, Pseudopod, Liminal, and Tor.com. Her collections The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, and The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories [ed: which includes her stunning Final Girl Theory], are both available from Lethe Press. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and contributes a monthly review column, Words for Thought, to Apex Magazine. Find her online at www.acwise.net.