One of the best parts of fall is that unmistakable chill in the air. This is especially true of October with the approach of Halloween. And for the storytellers, that most certainly includes scary stories.
Whether you’re looking for something filled with ghosts and demons or just a cautionary tale about humans, scary stories share a few elements of their genre that leave readers and listeners alike unsettled.
Tension is a strong part of any story, but doubly so in scary stories. Most stories end with a resolution that alleviates that tension. Good kings depose the bad, couples get married, all the standard resolutions apply. Truly memorable scary stories however, leave that tension untouched. The Monkey’s Paw is a good example of this. At the end, the third wish is made but having been warned and twice seen horrible consequences of using the paw, the Whites are now left to await the consequences of their third wish. More importantly, it leaves an unresolved conflict between Mr. and Mrs. White about their son—the paw grants each person three wishes, leaving the wide possibility that Mrs. White could still use paw. The tension remains.
Tone is deliberately used within scary stories to evoke the sense of fear and unease. This is directly related to how things are described. Wind by itself isn’t too bad and can feature in any story, but wind that screams and howls brings along the uneasy feeling we’ve all felt when home alone in bad weather. Edgar Allen Poe is a classic example of this. Within his poem Annabel Lee he talks of how a cold wind blew out of a cloud at night. The description of that wind certainly changes the tone of the poem.
Suspense, and suspense alone, is what truly marks a scary story. Suspense is the ongoing threat of a story. This might be the threat of the unknown, or of a horrible violence. The classic urban legend of a babysitter facing off a potential killer is amplified when she learns that the threat of the killer is coming from inside the house. Some of the best examples of suspense are in Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark (by which I mean the original short stories). In many of these, the threat is entirely imaginary but the fear and uncertainty of how imaginary that threat grips readers, viewers and listeners alike.
What are some of your favorite stories? Let me know in the comments below!