Friday, October 21, 2011

Horror and storytelling

Good morning, y'all! You know what's awesome? Taking a couple days just to lay around and recharge. Of course, now I'm going "WHY DID I DO THAT I'M SO BEHIND ON REVISIONS/BLOGS/EVERYTHIIIIIING," so there's also that. So I thought I'd get the October Horror Blogfest back on track by talking about the relationship between horror and verbal storytelling.

I've always loved scary stories, but until recently I was hesitant to label myself as a horror fan. The word 'horror' these days makes people think of slasher movies and the Saw franchise, and I'm not big on those at all. But horror, to me, conjures up a different image: a simple story told out loud in a dark, dark room.

Everywhere you go, there's usually some sort of tradition built around telling scary stories. Like many kids in the US, I spent most of my sleepovers listening to stories about Bloody Mary, the girl with the green ribbon around her neck, and other such traumatizing things. When I lived in Tokyo, I learned about a game called Hyaku Monogatari, or One-Hundred Stories. It was traditionally played with one-hundred people, but these days it can be played by a group of any size: the group sits in a dark room with one candle per person, and they tell a ghost story. When each person finishes their story, they blow out their candle. When everyone is finished, the group counts up to however many people in the room... and it's said that another voice will chime in to count itself.

Yeah, I've never played that game. I may be a horror fan, but you won't see me tempting fate!

Those days of telling ghost stories at sleepovers are pretty far behind me, but I've found that a great horror novel is basically a high-concept version of a creepy campfire story - just with more complex characters and plot points. So how can writers capture that same feeling of dread?

I wrote a little about rhythm in horror a while ago, which is a big one, and Hart Johnson made a great observation in the comments about The Shining and "red rum." It reminded me of another great storytelling tool: repetition. One of my creepiest childhood horror stories was about a young girl lying in bed while a disembodied voice comes closer and closer. "Mary, I am coming up the stairs. Mary, I am on the first step. Mary, I am on the second step." Good, creepy repetition works the best when the repeated line ramps up the tension.

The other big one is simplicity. The scariest lines tend to be short and subtle. In Rick Yancey's Monstrumologist series, one of my favorite lines in the third book comes at the end of a creepy, tension-filled scene: "I turned back." The reader knows, at this point, that the protagonist is going to find something terrifying behind him, but this short, ambiguous sentence lets the reader's imagination kick in. And our imaginations paint the scariest picture of all.

And for those of you who don't follow me on Twitter, here's a perfect example of all of the above: Face All Red, a short webcomic by Emily Carroll. The comic uses rhythm, repetition, and simple but powerful sentences to an absolutely chilling effect. It's like a campfire story with illustrations. If you want some Halloween night chills, this is the one for you.

Did you tell scary stories as a kid? What was your favorite?


  1. I was terrified of scary stories. I didn't tell them, but I still remember a bunch that were told to me--like Black Agatha and oh man, I still have nightmares thinking of her! I was afraid of bathroom mirrors for years!

  2. Oh man, for the longest time I thought I was the only one creeped out by bathroom mirrors. Then I found out that almost everyone is! I know people who can't even look at a mirror in the dark.. actually, even I have trouble sometimes!

  3. I'm a wuss when it comes to scary stories. I went to see the remake of "House on Haunted Hill" once with a friend, and spent most of the film hiding behind my diet coke! I don't remember ever telling ghost stories, or anything like that, although my friends and I did have sleepovers where we watched horror movies. I guess there's safety in numbers ;).

  4. Great post! I too am a fan of horror without the grisly bloody stuff. Chilling, creepy stories are so much better. I totally remember bloody Mary and all those kids games. I used to be pretty good at creeping out friends at slumber parties.

  5. C D Meetens - Hey, that movie was pretty freaky in parts. That bit where the ghost was all the way down the hallway and then suddenly it was RIGHT IN THE CHARACTER'S FACE? I jumped so high!

    Shell - So glad someone else likes it! Most of my friends give me the side-eye when I talk about horror, haha. Thank you for the follow! I returned the favor. :D

  6. Ha! I ALSO am behind in getting around, but thank you for the shout! I am a fan of horror but not slasher, too. My favorite horror tends to be psychological or unexplainable events stuff rather than monster stuff (and definitely not serial killer stuff)... I do love ghosts and haunting though.

    As a kid, I loved 'Light as a feather, stiff as a board' and the Ouija board. I'd love to play that story game!

  7. I love horror stories that can really creep me out... except after dark when there's no one else in the house. You should really try barbra erksines books if you like creepy reads, its not y/a but they are fantastic books!

    Also as kids me and my friends would play 'bloody mary' and 'the candy man' to freak ourselves out :)

  8. Becky: Terrific site. I am your newest follower.