How to Make Something Scary

Cat PumpkinSo, Wanderers, it’s that time of year. Whether we’re trick-or-treating or curling up on (or behind!) the sofa to watch a film, scare is in the air. But how do you tell a really good scary story, or create a truly spooky work of art? It’s not an exact science, but here are our tips! Add your own in the comments if you have any suggestions, or just practice your scary stories on us…

  • Make it relevant. Yeah, scary ghosts in crumbling Scottish castles are terrifying, but there’s no immediate danger implied unless your audience is in a crumbling Scottish castle. How about setting your story in a normal house just like the one they’re sitting in, or a supermarket in the middle of the day? It can be more of a challenge to make those settings creepy, but it’s worth it for the shiver in your audience’s spine next time they make that lunchtime dash to the shops.
  • Make it believable. You can make something spooky without the merest hint of the supernatural, of course, but that’s a big challenge and sometimes, the old failsafes are just perfect for your purpose. But a story involving werewolves, long-dead pirates, or headless horsemen can still be believable if everything else about it sounds realistic. Little details – like the protagonist of your story switching off Countdown to investigate a noise, or grabbing a cordless phone and wondering when they last changed the batteries – can help to make a story far more believable.
  • Suggestion is spooky. This is going to sound like a contradiction of the previous point, but try not to give too much information about the actual spooky aspect of your story. The scariest things are the ones we conjure up in our own minds, because let’s face it, we know what’s scary to us. If your audience never gets a clear view of the supernatural element, they’re forced to fill in the gaps for themselves, and they’ll think of whatever frightens them most. Harry Potter fans, you’ll understand when we say the best spooky stories are like Boggarts. Just…
  • Don’t make it ridiculous. There’s a certain limit people reach where they’re good and scared and then the storyteller takes it one step too far… and it’s not scary any more, it’s just silly. It can be hard to judge where that point is – especially if you’re writing, rather than sitting in a dark room holding a torch under your face – but if you get it right, you’ll stop just before your audience stops screaming and starts howling with laughter.
  • Tailor it to your audience. If you know who’s going to be on the receiving end of a story, try to get under their skin a bit. The simplest example of this is the stories people tell each other while on Scout camps in the woods. How many Cub Scout scary stories start with “There were three Cub Scouts in a tent in the woods…”? A few, I can tell you that. And those are the ones that tend to keep those poor Cub Scouts awake at night.
  • Don’t scare yourself! Don’t forget that you’re making up the story you’re telling, it’s completely fabricated, and the man with the hook for a hand is not hiding under anyone’s bed. It sounds obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget in the dead of night. Let someone else scare you instead…
  • Don’t overdo it. If you are talking to people alone in a house with a torch under your face, and one of them starts really panicking – be a dear and back off, alright? The point is to give people an enjoyable thrill of fear, not reduce them to quivering wrecks. That kind of thing can ruin someone’s Hallowe’en.
  • Have fun!

Eleanor Musgrove (ain’t afraid of no ghost)

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