How to Tell a Good Scary Story
Telling a good scary story can be tricky. There is a lot to consider and a spooky story which works on one person, might not work on the next. You also don't want to scare people in a way which makes them genuinely frightened of you. Instead, you want to suspend their disbelief and make it an experience where they lose themselves into your story. This way you can scare them and entertain them without breaking any relationships. This is especially the case for children. Young children do start to learn the difference between truth and fiction, but it takes a while. In this respect when you learn how to tell a good scary story, you learn not to scar people for life. Let oneHOWTO walk you through the process.
Know your audience
We already spoke about the audience for your scary story a little, but there is a lot to consider. So, we're going to try to break it down into categories.
These are the best and worst group for telling a scary story. Let's face it, kids are gullible. You can tell them about Santa Claus and they'll believe you for years. It's partly to do with their trust in adults as care providers. This is a trust you can exploit to give the kids a fright. It's also a trust you can abuse which will lead to nightmares and an aversion to whatever you spoke about in your story for years to come.
With young children you can get away with monsters and ghouls. They are more likely to believe it, especially ones which are common in cartoons and movies. You can even tell unoriginal scary ghost stories which older kids and adults are more likely to have heard already.
Don't make the story too complicated. Young kids often lose track of plot. More important is atmosphere and the tone you are setting. Getting this tone right is important. You want them to be scared enough to be spooked, but not to be emotionally damaged. One good way to do this is to laugh after the punchline. The kids get the scare, but are instantly reassured that it was only a story.
Although age ins't the only factor, the older you are the less able you are to be scared. When kids are going through adolescence they often feel a need to be more adult than they are. They will not likely be scared as easily by monster stories, but may be too young to know all the old classics.
Find out the kind of subjects they are interested in and make a story around that. Humans are selfish creatures. We scare more about the things which affect us than those we are disconnected from. You can set the story in a fanciful place, but you have to make your audience imagine they are in it.
With older kids, they will often want to play around or even make fun when you're telling your scary story. You will have to make it worth their while and engage with them (see also below). Use something from their experience to put them into the plot of the scary story.
It can be very difficult to tell a scary story to adults, but it can be done. The main trick is to suspend their disbelief. This highlights the main difference between telling kids and adults a ghost story. It has to be as real as possible.
Certain movies like Alien (1979), Rosemary's Baby (1968) or The Blair Witch Project (1999) are known for being scary without actually seeing the physical terror. Or at least not until it is revealed later in the plot. This same principle works best with adults.
Don't tell them there is a witch and it's coming to get them. Tell the story of an experience which they could see themselves in. Speak of impending horror, but don't tell them what it is exactly. The most successful scary stories keep the listener guessing. Make them think that it could be anything, benign or malign, but never confident which is correct.
We said that children are gullible, but this is the case for many adults also. Many people do believe in spiritual forces which impact on the physical world. They might also believe in ghosts or other supernatural phenomena. It's up to you how much you want to exploit these beliefs. Be wary, however. As they are someone's deeply held belief, you may need to be respectful of them.
Cynical adults also have their own belief system. You may want to use this to your advantage also. They may not believe in ghosts, but you can tell a scary story about something which happened in real life. It doesn't have to be something which has happened to you. Unfortunately there is a long history of genuinely horrific things which have been carried out by humanity, so there is plenty of material to take from. Just remember, you are telling a scary story to entertain, not to offend.
Make it realistic
Some of the best scary stories, as fantastical as they might be, have roots in real life. This is how people connect to them. If you start your story "I was on Venus conducting some research for NASA..." not many people will be able to connect with your story. Keep it as close to real as possible, even (or especially) with kids.
Have you ever been told a story which two separate people claim had happened to them or someone they know. This is how urban legends get started. An urban legend is one where a story is told by a friend of a friend (usually meaning an unreliable source) and seems like it's real, but has no evidence to back it up. It's the modern equivalent of historic folklore.
Unfortunately, because these urban legends get told so often, many people already know them. If you know your audience, you can do a little research to help you out. You don't have to be an incredible writer to tell a good story. Take a story from a scary book or a history of crimes and make it your own. Change the setting and characters to make it more realistic to your audience, but keep the general story the same.
Bring in factors of your audience's lives which will be real to them. If you're audience is rich, you can tell a story which involves someone losing a lot of money. This will prey on real fears and bring them in to the story more. Of course, this is just one example. Any real life fear can be exploited in the story as long as you are comfortable doing it.
Set the mood
Many people get scared while watching a movie. If it's in the cinema, this is partly because the room helps them focus on the story. It's often why you turn the lights off when watching a scary movie at home (or on if you are too scared).
The same technique works when you tell a scary story yourself. Only a master scary story teller will be able to tell a good story in broad daylight. If you want to give yourself more chance of success, tell it at night with the curtains drawn. Have only low lights (candles are ideal) and set the tone. If you want to make the story seem eerie, make the environment the same.
With kids, it's likely to be enough to have Halloween style decorations. Adults will need something more subtle. You can be in a familiar place, but change certain things in the room. Put the TV on the other side, move the furniture, change pictures on the wall, etc. Ideally, you want somewhere which is familiar, but has unsettling elements in it.
Alternatively, you can tell it outside while on a camping trip or a similar trip to the outdoors. The wild is so-called because it has been relatively untouched by humans. This makes us concerned as we are out of our comfort zone. Even the most rational people in a familiar setting can be disturbed out in the unknown wilderness.
The way you look is also important. If you look silly or untrustworthy, this can take away from the impact of the fright. You can dress up as something more sinister or even just serious-looking to give you the aura of authority. If you look believable it can help you make others believe you.
You can't just hit the main story points and think that his will be enough to scare someone. Part of what is scary is being drawn in to the tale. After you set the mood, you have set the audience up for the scary story. Even if they know they are being told something untrue, the way you tell it can make them forget this for a moment (again, suspension of disbelief). Just like telling a joke, timing is an important factor.
If your story goes on too long without anything happening, your audience will get bored. If you tell them too much too quickly, they won't have time to get in the right mood. This is why you should practice your story before you tell it for real. It is a form of performance, so make sure you get it right. You don't need to know it word for word, but you do need to remember where to put all the tags and punchlines.
Stand up comedians often work out their material in front of an audience before committing it to their act. This is because something funny to you on paper might not work the same way in front of a crowd. If you have an important occasion where you have to tell a scary story, practice it one others first. This way you can gauge how they react and make it work for you.
Use of language
The way you say it is as important as what you say sometimes. You may use adjectives to build up the scene, but if you use too much of them, it can distract from the content of what you say. It will also make it sound unbelievable. If you use too many flowery words which your audience might not understand, it will take them out of the story.
Be direct and use sharp punchy descriptions which put the listener into the scene. Talking like you are having a conversation, relaying the story to a friend, will make it more believable and increase the likelihood of it being a successful scary story.
Body language is also important when it comes to telling a good scary story. Use your hands and face to reflect what happens. Contort your face when something gruesome happens or move your body away as if in fear. Acting nervous and scared makes it look like even the memory of the story is horrific to tell.
Act as if you are reluctant to tell the story. Like you want to share it, but it needs to be coerced. This will help the people feel involved and, importantly, to empathize with you. Empathy means to understand from another's frame of reference. If they empathize with you then they will put themselves in your story and increase the likelihood of a scare.
Make it worth their while
Being empathetic can mean a good scary story works. It can also mean the listener will be disappointed if the ending isn't right. If you tell your story and the ending is a let down, they won't only be scared, but annoyed. Make sure the punchline is a corker and you'll ensure a scary story told well is a good one.
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