And then her head fell off.

Ghost stories and other scary tales have been a part of Halloween long before candy and fake blood were necessary. You don’t need sugar and theatrics to be properly scared if the mood is right and the words themselves are eerie enough to raise your hair without any help. The classic spooky story is short and told in a voice just above a whisper (except when a shout to surprise is necessary, of course). They don’t need to be complicated or detailed in any way—in fact, the simpler they are, the scarier with lots of room for the imagination to run wild and fill up all the left over space.

I remember being petrified of “The Girl with the Green Ribbon,” though for what reason, I couldn’t say. Locally, the tale of the Jersey Devil haunted me far longer than I care to admit, and thinking about it for too long too late at night still gives me chills.

Classic ghost stories stick through the generations and eventually, everyone knows what the outcome of a particular tale will be right from the very first “It was a dark and stormy night.” The scare comes then from the atmosphere, excitement and anticipation rather than from the story itself. Over at The Morning News, readers were asked recently to submit alternate endings to “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, which is a story I am sure I read in every English class every year until I graduated high school. It’s not just scary—it’s grotesque. Some of the new endings are equally (if not more) horrifying, while others take a different, more humorous route.

Whatever the change may be, it got me thinking about how difficult it is to write something that’s actually scary as opposed to campy and overdone. While Halloween often is all about camp, there’s nothing scarier than the quiet, creeping suspense that a good ghost story can offer. Goosebumps, bated breath and a look over the shoulder are the hallmarks of a true spooky tale. What are your favorites? What is it about them that makes them so scary?

2 Responses to And then her head fell off.

  1. Donn says:

    I remember reading The Turn of the Screw in an empty house and being properly chilled by its climax.

    To me what’s most scary is the idea of something inexplicably Other managing to come right up close to you. For example: Realising someone is downstairs intending to rob you? Scary.
    Realising someone is downstairs intending to kill you? Scarier.
    Realising someone is downstairs alright, but with no discernable intentions at all? Terrifying.

  2. Simone says:

    “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson has some really creepy moments. Also, in the same vein, “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters is QUITE creepy, even though I’m not really sure what happened in the end. Haunted house stories are the best, in my opinion. :)

    I’ve been looking for a copy of “The Woman in Black” by Susan Hill, since I heard about the upcoming movie:

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