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How to Decide How Scary a Story Should Be
by Chris King

It is that time of year when those of us who are storytellers are in demand. Why? Because when people think of Halloween, they think of ghosts, goblins, witches and scary stories. Other times of the year, however, we are asked to tell scary stories. How does a storyteller decide how scary a story should be? The answer is, it depends. There are many considerations to take into account when we are asked to tell scary stories. In this article I am going to address some of those considerations.

First and foremost, know the age of your audience. Make sure that your scary stories are appropriate for the age group you will be telling to. I find that between the ages of eight and nine, youngsters begin to enjoy and love scary stories, the spookier the better. They follow the most intricate of plots, ooh and ah in the right places and are generally fearless — old enough to realize that after all, “It is just a story.” There are many fun scary stories that are appropriate for a younger group and are not so scary. One I often tell is a story called the “Mischievous Girl and the Hideous Creature” which is similar to what we used to call “Shaggy Dog Stories.” There are also innocuous pumpkin stories and some silly ghost stories. Once the group reaches Junior High and above in age, the more realistically scary a story is, the better. I often use urban legends to get their attention. You can find all about urban legends and every urban legend imaginable at

Check ahead to find out if there are any topics that are considered “off-limits.” At this time of year, especially, I ask whether they want scary stories, do they have any qualms about ghosts, or any topics that would be offensive. There are groups that do not want ghosts, wizards, witches, and/or magic mentioned, which can be quite limiting. If I feel that none of the stories I usually tell will be appropriate, I will often recommend another teller. It is always a good idea to be prepared ahead. Early in my storytelling career, I volunteered to tell Halloween stories at an event held at a local park center. Little did I know that very young children would be in attendance. I was scheduled to tell two scary stories. The first story elicited a scream from a small girl in the front row, and my second story brought terror to the faces of the parents. Now, I know to check ahead. (Note: I was never invited back to that event.)

Only tell stories with which you are comfortable. I know that many storytellers will be asked to tell spooky stories and we also receive requests for certain stories that the meeting planner has heard before and favors. Don’t ever tell a story that makes you uncomfortable. As a very young child, I was terrified by the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz and even had nightmares about her horrid green face in that crystal ball. That may be why I don’t care for stories that involve witches, unless there is a twist that turns the witch into a good and beautiful witch. I am also very careful about “bloody” stories. One favorite of many is the story of Mary Culhane and the bloody oatmeal. I have heard the story told by the best of tellers, but it isn’t one I would agree to tell. The bloodiest story that intrigues me is the story of Mr. Fox — an English version of Blackbeard. And, I will only tell this if it is a totally adult audience. I also am fascinated by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, but again will only tell them to adult audiences. Personally, I have always been comfortable with ghosts, and in most ghost stories, the ghosts are harmless and even helpful. Most ghosts are just trying to complete some unfinished business here on earth and when the main character helps them out, there is often a happy ending in store for everyone.

Where can I find scary stories? There are many, many spooky stories, especially ghost stories, in books. For example, a woman named Chris Woodyard has written a whole series of Haunted Ohio stories that I enjoy using, because living and telling in Ohio, I can share a well researched story that has happened nearby. She has many that tell of loving and helpful ghosts too. Most of us have heard family stories of ghosts or possibly have lived in a house that we felt was haunted. These are fun to relate. And, the classics are filled with good ghostly stories, most of which are in the “public domain.”

Make use of the power of surprise. Another type of scary story that most groups love is the “jump tale.” This is the story where a creature or person is searching for something — an example is the Golden Arm — with the suspense building and building. “Who has my golden arm? Who has my golden arm? Who has my golden arm?” And, on and on, until the teller comes up close to someone in the front row and shouts, “YOU DO!” making that person jump. It always delights the audience and even the person who jumped.

Remember to have some fun, and do add a few scary stories to your repertoire. They are always welcomed when done with care and proper preparation.


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