There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you probably ought not tell young children. There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you probably ought not tell in the dark.
There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you probably ought not tell in certain religious settings.
There are lots and lots of wonderful spooky tales that you should tell every chance you get.
How do you pick which is which and when you should do what? Easy, that depends on your audience.
When choosing a scary story, you have to know what scares people. If you can work out what will frighten an audience, you can figure out how far you can go, what will work, what will not work and what will be over the top. As a performer who has taken it over the top more than once, I have had to learn this lesson the hard way.
For starters, you can guarantee that most children between second and tenth grade think that what makes a story scary is telling it in the dark. This is not actually true. What makes a story scary is how well you get inside your audience's head. If you can freak them out behind their own eyeballs, then you could all be standing inside the sun itself and they would still be scared out of their wits...provided you weren't all burned alive. Here are some quick rules of thumb I use when choosing ghost stories for audiences.
1) When dealing with really little kids, the stories should be way more funny than scary. Usually, it is enough to tell the group that you are going to tell them a scary story. Their imaginations will do the rest. They will see 'scary' written in each element of the story right up until the time you make it funny. They will announce afterwards that they weren't scared, but if you look into those giant, nervous eyes while you are setting up the tale and they are certain something really scary is about to happen, you will see that they aren't all that anxious to be frightened despite the bravado. The Gunny Wolf is a perfect example for kids this age.
2) From about third grade to fifth grade the stories are much more suspenseful. There is less certainty that things are going to work out and sometimes they do not. These stories are much more visual than the stories for the little ones and they revolve around a kid who is often facing the same kinds of fears these kids face. I always ask a series of questions before I begin them. The sequence goes as follows
1 - Is there anyone here who is afraid of the dark?
2 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like a night light?
3 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like the closet light on?
4 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like the hall light on?
5 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but they like the bathroom light on?
6 - Is there anyone here who is not afraid of the dark but the stuff in the dark makes them a little nervous?
These kids are on the precipice that leads from the fears of young childhood i.e. monsters in the closet, things under the bed, creepy creatures waiting to spring out and grab them, and the beginnings of peer pressure fears about being teased, left out, and other more real world fears. Ghost stories for this group are usually about the hobgoblins that accompany us from our earliest years. Red Red Lips is a good example of a fun tale for this group. Taily Po, The Big Spooky House, The Habbiyas and many others will appeal to this group.
3) Sixth grade is the first year I tell stories that would be good to tell in the dark. Using lots of vocal technique and wild facial and body positions make these stories really creepy and they benefit from some lighting. This is the first group of kids who will probably not wake their parents and demand to sleep in their bed so it is safe to scare them. The Boo Hag is a great example for that.
4) Once you get into later middle school and high school, anything goes and you can tell those stories that are not fit for man nor beast. Scare 'em. Tell those stories that will peel the skin off of their hides and make them look both ways when it gets dark. Pull out your worst stuff and let it rip...unless you are in a school that makes a point of telling you how sheltered and innocent their students are. If you get that song and dance from the person booking it then pull everything back a notch. No matter how into the stories the kids might be, the grown ups will be in a faint and clutching their pearls if they think you've exposed their precious charges to something inappropriate and they may never invite you back. Appeal to your audience but remember who is paying your way.
5) Intergenerational audiences should probably stay in the 3 - 5th grade range unless you don't have any really young members of the group, then you can go with the sixth grade tales. If you have an all adult audience let the blood drip, I say.
Spooky stories require us to walk a fine line between what is appropriate and what is too much. For some listeners, anything is too much and for others, nothing is too much. You can't please everyone, but these stories should also be fun, not just hair raising.
One of my favorite stories about a scary story set was one I did in upstate New York. The guidance counselor took these two very big, somewhat disrespectful, tough looking boys out of the main body of the audience and made them sit with her. After the telling of The Lover's Promise, the guidance counselor came up to me trying not to laugh. She said, "Did you see those two boys I had sitting with me?" I nodded. "When you asked if there was anybody who wasn't scared of anything they raised their hands. After the story was over, one turned to the other and said, "I only jumped twice, how many times did you jump?"
Get behind their eyeballs and they won't even remember whether the lights were on or not.