The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Spooky stories
How to keep it creepy around the campfire this summer
Even if you don't believe in ghosts, a good scary story can haunt you. It can bubble to the surface years later because you find yourself alone near a lake. It can make you think way too long about that knock you think you heard in your car trunk. Even if we don't remember the exact plot, the stories that scared us as children lurk in our unconscious adult hearts. In other words, the ability to tell a truly chilling tale is a kind of supernatural power. You can become the ghost.
With campfire season upon us, we sat down with David Demchuk, one of Canada's leading purveyors of scary stories, and asked him how to spin an unnerving yarn. Demchuk's first novel, The Bone Mother, was the first horror-themed novel to be nominated for The Giller Prize. He gave us some background on the key elements of a good spooky story and how to make them land with your audience.
The tradition of gathering around a campfire and trying to scare each other out of a good night's sleep may be one of humanity's most ancient. Demchuk told us that "some of our earliest recorded stories focus on ghosts and monsters, and were part of an oral tradition before they were ever written down." Homer's Odyssey involves a journey to the underworld, and the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is full of tales of corpses revenants and spirits. It also has a famous haunted house story called "Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad." In Japan, the 11th century Tale of Genji has stories about spirit possession.
Though ancient, spooky stories are not timeless. They evolve with history as our collective fears and anxieties transform. "Some of our fears are timeless, and near-universal," Demchuk says. "Others are specific to our time and place." What scares us depends on who, where and when we are.
The overlap between science fiction and scary stories illustrate this point. "Changing technology has also had an effect on our fears," said Demchuk. "As our culture changes, and as we change within our culture, our values and norms change, and so do our anxieties. The stories we tell also change to reflect this." Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818, was inspired by the recent scientific advances in galvanism (the contraction of muscles stimulated by electric currents). Science and technology is mysterious to most of us and can therefore play a similar role in stories as supernatural phenomena. Stories like those on television's Black Mirror continue to use technology to explore the eerie and uncanny.
What you need to know to get started
The main thing you need to know is a spooky story. You can use one you've heard before, invent your own, or go searching for new ones.
To choose an appropriate story, Demchuk told us you also have to know your audience. "The stories you tell to an audience of eight-year-olds at summer camp will be very different from those you tell to a group of 22-year-olds down by the shore outside their rented beach house, or a gathering of 45-year-old neighbours by the pool in a suburban backyard, and will be different again for audiences in various parts of the world." Most importantly, you have to know what kinds of things might scare them and their tolerance for disturbing details and violence.
If you haven't got a stored bank of spooky stories, Demchuk recommends checking out Ultimate Camp Resource for younger audiences. Some truly chilling tales more appropriate for mature audiences can also be found on the "nosleep" reddit.
What you need to have to get started
Telling stories doesn't demand a lot of equipment. You need at least one storyteller and an audience (preferably of two or more). You also need a suitable setting. A campfire or fire pit or tent are classic locations. But a cellar or attic work equally well. Optional gear includes candles, snacks, or an under-the-chin flashlight. If you have some artefact around which your tale can be spun ("and the only thing they found in spot where he disappeared was the very….. tree/book/tooth…"), all the better.
What do you need to do to get started
For maximum effect, set up a spooky setting for your stories. Campfires are effective because they're intimate, but are also usually surrounded by dark spaces where unknown things might lurk. Wherever you're going to gather, dim light is ideal, with lots of unpredictable shadows. Storytelling works best when you have people's full attention so try to avoid places where you might be disturbed and if possible get people to turn off their phones. Snacks are also usually welcome, so make sure all of that is prepared before you start your story. Once you have everyone in place and your audience's attention, it's time to start your tale.
Keep it tight: Demchuk told us that five-ten minutes is the normal length of a campfire story. During that time you need to set the stage, introduce the characters, and maintain a sense of momentum. In order to make sure you hold your audience's attention during this time, cut out any extra details or events that don't add to the narrative or effect.
Choose the details you do include wisely: Storytelling is most effective when the audience can really picture what's going on. However, long and detailed descriptions are one of the best ways to lose the attention of your audience. Think Grandpa Simpson. Demchuk recommends choosing a few dramatic details instead of giving long descriptions.
Anchor the story in something immediate: Audiences tend to be more interested when the story is close enough to them that they can identify with the characters. To strike your audience close to home, Demchuk recommend using the first-person or a framing device that links the storyteller to the events of the story. Try saying, "Last time I was up at this lake, the guy who runs the diner told me this story" or setting the story near a local landmark that your audience has seen. This will give your story a spooky immediacy that tales of distant times and places don't have.
Practice: Practice telling your story a few times to make sure you know the plot and how you will make the dramatic moments land. Telling a spooky story out of order can be like saying a punch line before the joke: it kills the effect.
Props and special effects: It may be a cheap trick, but the campfire is not high theatre. Demchuk says he sometimes puts a twig under his foot so he can step down and crack it at the right moment, providing a fun jump-scare to spice up the story.
Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.