Episode 119: Boo! Halloween Special

On October 31, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on Halloween stories, horror, and scary tales in general. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Halloween Special: The Origins of Scary Stories


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • Happy Halloween
  • What makes a story scary?
  • Why do we write them? Read them?
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Link to the podcast.

Segment 1

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So this is Rex’s wheelhouse, the “scary story” genre. He’s a horror writer. But I’m going to give it my best shot. I have the classics — Poe, James, etc. And some kids’ books. I do want to talk about how we go from The Raven to Room on the Broom.

Let’s start with this resource from AmericanLiterature.com on Halloween stories.

So why do we write scary stories? This blogger offers a list (yay!):

  • For the adrenaline rush — the fake fight or flight instinct triggered by a spooky tale
  • Familiarity — someone else did it and you liked it, so you give it a try
  • Visceral reaction — a desire to feel something, to write a piece that will tug at some basic instinct or earn an uninhibited reaction
  • To feel alive — pulse throbbing, breath stifled, all the near-death senses firing
  • Take on the demons — we all have something that frightens us, scary stories give us the means by which to approach those fears
  • The unknown — do you believe in ghosts? Mythical creatures? Magic? 
  • Prove we can — survival is sweeter on the other side of adversity
  • Prove that dragons exist and can be defeated — we want to win, right? Vanquish the enemy, the fear, the threat

It’s just fun, right? To feel afraid and then realize everything’s okay. To feel in danger and then rescue ourselves. 

Segment 2

This writer says there’s a stigma around horror. That some writers start there and then indicate they’ve “moved on” or evolved out of it. Care to weigh in on that, Rex?

He also defends horror as a legitimate fiction genre in the literary canon and I would say, given the list above, some of the best in the business have tried their hand at it — Twain, James, Poe.

Can we talk about the shift from attempting to awe to the inevitable result of disgust? 

Says Ramsey Campbell (Writer’s Digest): “If I can’t approach awe, I’d rather try for the other quality I value most in dark fiction, not exclusively in generic horror—a lingering disquiet. Good art makes you look again at things you’ve taken for granted, and that can certainly be true of horror.”

What kinds of things inspire awe?

This LiteraryTerms.com link explains horror as focusing on topics, fears, and curiosities of humans, things that have preoccupied us for centuries. The dark. Strange creatures. Mysticism or the occult. Types include:

  • Gothic — combining horror and romanticism, a sense of the ideal in morality or faith disrupted by the truth of human nature, the brutality of weather or environment; examples include Dracula and Frankenstein
  • Supernatural — consisting of ghosts, monsters, and other beings that are outside of our regular experience in life and existence; examples would include vampires, werewolves, other creatures that stalk us as humans and put our own existence at risk
  • Non-Supernatural — things that could exist in real life: murderers, predators, cannibals, devastating injury, abuse, or disfiguration; examples would include Hitchcock and might border more on thriller depending on the level of horror. Dean Koontz comes to mind.

Segment 3

Why would writers conceive of Halloween or scary stories for kids? And how much scary is too much scary?

Here’s a list of “kids” stories from such beloved children’s authors as Lewis Carroll and Charles Schultz. But, really, is The Great Pumpkin about scaring the kid? Not like Hansel and Gretel which would seem to be a behavior-modification tale, right?

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow makes a reappearance on this list and we have such classic Disney versions of it as Goofy playing Ichabod Crane and the Halloween episode of The House of Mouse. In kids stories, people (like parents and friends) are transformed into creatures like cats and frogs and snakes. 

Hollie had a book called Room on the Broom that rhymed its way through a witch’s flight and added animal characters to the journey. Why did it need to be a witch? For the broom rhyme of course. Was it scary? Not at all. So why normalize things like witches?

Maybe this is about moving the pendulum back from the disgusting, the vomit-inducing and toward the tingly jump-scare startle for which the stakes are rather low.

I’ve asked before what horror has to offer if the ultimate stakes — death — cannot be achieved. What are we risking? Madness? Disfigurement? Disappearing? The world as we know it? What’s at stake, really?

Segment 4

So, how do you do it? How do you write a scary story?

Beside the Dying Fire, a YouTube channel with 9k subscribers, has this video explaining how to do this. He offers five tips to overcome creator’s block, not to turn you into Stephen King:

  1. Write something you are into — a topic you have knowledge about, want to learn about, or are personally scared by; this will make your work more personal and more likely to resonate with your readers
  2. Avoid superfluous details — quality is more important than quantity; don’t pad the story, just give us what we need
  3. Visualize what you’re writing — can you see the dark basement, foggy swamp, or moonlit path in the woods? Think of it like a movie scene, visualize and write what you see.
  4. Scary doesn’t have to mean gory — while we’re all afraid of being hacked to pieces, the true fear is about the looming realization that you’re no longer safe, it’s a vibe, a slow burn, not a violent encounter
  5. Know Chekov’s Gun and use it — every element in the story must be relevant and used, if the gun won’t be fired, it shouldn’t be in the story. Space the detail out so far that the reader almost forgets it’s there. Then when it comes back around, it will give the reader a little startle or surprise.

This video by ServiceScape offers 8 tips. Let’s see how many are new:

  1. Let your reader get to know the characters, then the risk for the character will be real for the reader (the Gotham Characters Questionnaire)
  2. Establish the familiar so we know what’s usual and can see what’s unusual
  3. Try a little subtle foreshadowing — the hint at something unusual that will come out later
  4. Pacing matters — sentence length specifically, but also the scene length
  5. Reader’s imagination is your friend — leave some things left unsaid so they can fill in the details
  6. Closed-in spaces are an innate phobia. Use the tight space to make the reader more uncomfortable.
  7. Children are effective for getting to basic fears, even if you don’t have a child in the story, imagine the scene from a child’s perspective to get at the most elemental and universal fears
  8. Disorient reality with a construct like a mental institution, a prison, or another unusual place that the characters are both fascinated and scared of (like Rex’s abandoned building in What Hell May Come)

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