Monday, October 20, 2014

Just In Time For Halloween: Telling Spooky Tales 2.0

(Scary Pumpkin Fellow Photo Credit)

- 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!  Depends upon who is in your audience.

(Hint:  This is not a hardcore audience member!)

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, you could be standing inside the sun, and they would still be scared out of their wits...provided you weren't all burnt 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 may  announce afterwards that they weren't scared, but if you look into those giant, nervous eyes while you are setting up the tale, you will see that they aren't all that anxious to be frightened despite the bravado.  These kids do not want to be scared!  

The Gunny Wolf is a perfect example for kids this age.

2)  From about third grade to fifth grade I tell 'scary stories for kids who just 'think they want a scary story, but not really'.  

This group actually thinks they want to be scared, but beware, for if you actually scare them, you will get phone calls from angry parents, principals, and teachers.  Jump tales are the name of the game with this crowd.

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 concerns.

There are plenty of great ghost type stories for this group.  Many traditional tales will serve.  They can be silly, a little creepy, have a jump or two, but don't do anything exotic...unless you have permission, or you don't mind adults freaking out on you.

Here is some Red, Red, Lips

Borrowed Black

Here are the tales I tell to this group most of the time.  A Little Shiver, not a great big scare.

I am sure you have plenty more!  If you want to share stories you tell in the comments section, it would be helpful for people who are just looking for stories.  You can also head over to Catch the Story Bug and go through Karen Chace's blog for more tales.

3)  Sixth grade is the first year I tell really scary stories.  Using lots of vocal technique and wild facial and body positions can make these stories really creepy, and they can 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 rule I use with this group is that I try very hard to monitor what is happening, and if they get too scared I back off a bit.  They may be in large bodies, but they are still children.  The Boo Hag is a good tale for this group.

My version of The Boo Hag is on my CD Cup Of Blood.  You can download individual tracks if you are of a mind.

Want something scary?  Try Cup Of Blood

4) Once you get into 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, 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.

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?"

The story I told them is called, The Lover's Promise, written by my son when he was just ten.  Here is a retelling of it.  It is a long story, fair warning!

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.

Get behind their eyeballs and they won't even remember whether the lights were on or not.

Happy Spooky Telling!


  1. You tell Taily Po to 3-5 graders??!! Man - you're brave!

    1. Rona,
      Yes indeed. I have a version of it that is both funny and creepy. The kids get to laugh between the jumps. I do run it by the staff before I do it. Many kids have seen the book and tell you it is not scary. I always have a few kids who find it scary, but usually not heart stopping.

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