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?