"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Monday, October 15, 2007

Scary Stories: Facing Fear When the Lights Go Out

Special thanks to Olympus Chapter members of the Utah Storytelling Guild (left) including quotes from Julie Barnson, Brian J. Fetzer, Suzanne Hudson, Jan C. Smith, and Helen Taylor.

Chilling the bones with scary stories can be a thrill . . .until it is time to go to bed and face the nightmares.

If there is too much fright within a story for certain age groups, a storyteller could confront angry sponsors, teachers or parents. Storyteller Julie Barnson shared, “You can tell scary stories to children as long as you create a safe place for them. Otherwise, you may get moms who call you up and yell, ‘What have you done?’ when their kids come home shaking with fear.” As a caution, storyteller Jan C. Smith said, “Make sure the stories you will share will be okay with whoever hired you.”

So what kind of fears do adults and children share?
Here are a few:

Loss of Control (could be thoughts, actions, urges, etc.)
Loss of Love (could be spouse, family, friends, etc.)
Loss of Health/Strength (could be accidents, illnesses, integrity, etc.)
Loss of Life (could be for yourself, family, friends, pets, etc.)
Loss of Structure (could be organizations, rules, traditions, etc.)

If you were to brainstorm your own fears, you could probably list them in one or more of the above categories. By knowing your own fears from the past to the present, you will already be on your way for telling age-appropriate stories.

Here are some questions to ask:

1. What were you afraid of when you were a kid? What fears do you have now? In what ways, if any, have your fears changed?

2. Why did you have certain fears? Why do you have certain fears now?

3. What kind(s) of nightmares do you have? What sort of embarrassing dreams do you have? What does it feel like to wake up from a nightmare or an embarrassing dream?

4. How do you attempt to forget your fears or nightmares?

After answering the questions, you may want to think about how your potential audience may respond to the types of stories you plan to tell. This may be the first time you have told stories to this group so then it would be guesswork. Think about what violent current events are happening and how your audience may be reacting to these threats such as terrorism, war, school shootings, etc. If it happens to be with a group you have told to before like family or friends, then you may already know that so-and-so is afraid of big dogs, another is afraid of the dark, and so on.

Though nightmares may come regardless of what the storyteller does to try to prevent them, here are some ways to offer comfort when telling scary stories:

1. Remind kids that they are not alone in their fears

2. Encourage kids to seek comfort through people and/or object(s)

3. Know the power of the 5 senses

4. Avoid getting too realistic in the stories unless sponsors want you to cause nightmares

5. End the story session with hope or strength

6. Ask kids what specifically scares them about the stories

Remind kids that they are not alone in their fears
At the beginning and at the end of the performance, you could have audience members look at each other so that they know they are not alone in hearing these scary stories. Perhaps you could have audience members send vibes of courage to each other before walking to their cars.

Encourage kids to seek comfort through people and/or object(s)
Before you delve into the scariness of your stories, let the kids be aware of people, objects, and rituals to calm them. Storyteller Julie Barnson laughingly said, “Before the storytelling starts, the kids are tough. They are not scared. When they still have the courage, I always give them pointers of what they can do to keep away the ghosts and the evil things.”

Most likely, the kids will turn to their parents for comfort after hearing the scary stories. Parents seem to have greater power that could defeat any evil monsters. When parents are not available (or if they refuse for their kids to sleep with them), then kids can find power in objects or talismans like a blankie or a toy. These objects often represent feelings of when they were held or comforted in the past.

Storytellers Julie Barnson and Suzanne Hudson mentioned that they have learned certain tricks to lessen the nightmares through national storytellers like J.J. Reneaux and Kathryn Windham.

The late Reneaux told audiences that evil things are vain to such degree that you must place a mirror outside your bedroom door. The monster will stop to look at itself in the mirror until morning. By this time, the monster will need to hide from the sun’s rays. She also revealed that evil things couldn’t count past 12 so it is best to leave 13 of something outside of your door. The monster will have to count the items, get stuck on what comes after 12, re-count, and get stuck again until morning.

Reneaux and Windham found great power within shoes. You could place your shoes either toe-to-toe or heel-to-heel at the end of your bed. This sets up a perimeter around the bed that is impenetrable as the shoes’ placement discombobulates evilness of all kinds.

Know the power of the 5 senses
A parent giving hugs to a child is one way when there is a connection to the safe/real world and disconnection with the imaginary world. Within a hug combines sight, smell, touch, and sometimes sound (if squeezed hard enough).

Perhaps with the senses in mind, there is a new product called “No Fear Spray”. Some parents already use this idea through a spray bottle filled with water and labeled “Monster Spray”. A storyteller could do the same thing and offer to spray any audience members who may need the extra courage when returning home. Recipients could see, feel, hear and possibly taste their protection.

Avoid getting too realistic in the stories unless sponsors want you to cause nightmares
Adding monsters, ghosts, or witches to a story may actually reduce scariness for some listeners due to the lack of realism. Storyteller and librarian Helen Taylor warned, “The more realistic the scene in the story, the scarier it is for the kids.” Taylor added that you might not know which of the kids have been allowed to watch Freddy Krueger and which ones are new to any gruesomeness. She noted that the presence of a ghost or an alien might not be what is scary. It may be that later on in the story the father gets mad and throws something out the window. The true shivers may come from whatever is more possible to occur.

End the story session with hope or strength
Every story does not have to end happily. Storyteller Brian J. Fetzer could point out how many of the fairy tale Grimm tales actually end in frightful ways. However, if the storyteller has a 30-minute session, then the last story should provide some sort of feeling of peace. Julie Barnson urges storytellers to look at the ending of stories. There may be scary themes within the story, but the ending may suggest that justice has been served for the villains.

Some storytellers prefer to downplay some of the scenes within the story. Jan C. Smith has seen national storyteller Bobby Norfolk perform another version of Hansel and Gretel where there is a scene where the witch kills her own kids in their beds. Norfolk took that scene and, instead of having the kids killed, had pumpkins stabbed under the covers of the beds. This still kept the story dramatic yet took away the heavy-duty emotions behind it. Fetzer added, “You can still get the same point across but not be so violent.”

Humor through jump stories or joke Halloween stories are tools that storyteller Julie Barnson likes best for a mixed-age audience. Regardless of how she pieces her programs she recommended, “You don’t want to end with serious dread.”

Ask kids what specifically scares them about the stories
As an adult, you may find one thing scary in the story that the kids did not even acknowledge. Only when you have a more clear view of what is actually scaring the child can you give some comfort.

As a storyteller, you can linger beyond the story time so to listen to any fears the kids may have. Encourage parents to do the same thing. You might ask questions so to help kids verbalize their fears. Julie Barnson repeatedly said, “Listen to what the kids tell themselves.” She continued to share that when she was three years old, there was a picture of a witch that her mom hung up around Halloween time. Whenever she walked by it, she was scared. If only her mother had know of this fear.

For more inspiration, read “Listening to Fear, Helping Kids Cope, from Nightmares to the Nightly News” by Steven Marans, Ph.D. When immersing into the television or the Internet, the images seen and heard provide enough of a repertoire for scary stories. Marans said, “. . .I wished the world were not so ready to prove that the worst of our children’s nightmares can in fact come true” (p. 2).

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799

Monday, October 01, 2007

Storytelling Games: Never too old to Play

Adults seem to shy away from playing storytelling games to improve their skills as storytellers. Yet, a youth storytelling club would suffer if games were not played. (Some games listed at the end.)

During my days at Brigham Young University, our storytelling club meetings almost always included some sort of game. Games are not reserved for the young.

How Games Help Adults/Kids:
1. Spark imaginations
2. Strengthen improvisation skills
3. Gain insight for in-process stories
4. Build leadership and speaking skills
5. Create a chance to laugh

Spark imaginations
How each person interprets the game will be different. With two or more people playing the games, you may experience reactions not guessed on your own.

For example, you may play the game “Carry On” and a person passes an imaginary lizard to you. Your choice could be to pretend to pet it while another person may pretend to eat it. This could trigger thoughts like “what if someone ate a lizard?” or “who would enjoy eating a lizard?” or “what could convince someone to eat a lizard that they would otherwise not ingest?” The questions could be endless. Any ideas triggered by playing a game would be important to store in some way whether by writing it down, recording the idea on a mp3, etc.

Strengthen improvisation skills
Most storytelling games require some sort of improvisation such as adding the next line of the story, acting out images or emotions that other people may throw into the story, reacting to another person’s actions and so on.

When I was in high school, I competed in storytelling through Forensics (public-speaking contests). There was a certain story that I told almost every week. Then, without warning, my mind went blank. I was not about to let the judge know that the plot and ending had escaped me. To this day, I do not remember how I saved the story. Yet, I finished the story with a different ending and received high marks from the judge. Warming up with storytelling games before the performance built my impromptu skills.

National storyteller Ed Stivender is one of the cleverest ones to use spontaneity to his benefit. First, he asks the audience for a well-known fairy tale like Cinderella or Snow White. Then, he asks for a different setting, a bad habit that a main character has, objects, and anything else that makes the story sound crazy. Finally, on the spot, he creates the story. Audience members are able to walk away from the performance knowing that they co-created a humorous masterpiece.

As for national storyteller Olga Loya, she starts a story, pauses, and calls on someone to shout out anything that comes to their mind for the next adventure in the plot. She continues for a moment and then encourages another audience member to add an object or thought. Somehow she is always able to wrap up the story—no matter how silly it is—and bring out a heartwarming lesson.

Storytelling games can be part of the performance itself with amazing results.

Gain insight for in-process stories
Sometimes you get stuck on a story. Maybe you have an idea for the beginning. Maybe you have an idea for a character. Whatever the case, you are stuck and it seems like the story will never come to full fruition.

If this is so, then call up some people to play some storytelling games. Connecting with the local storytelling guild may be best. Otherwise, round up some of the neighborhood kids. You could choose a game that happens to involve the setting, the characters, or the plot of your in-process story. See how the others respond to the situation. You may have 27 different versions by the time you are done playing the game, but at least you have options.

As a writer can get writer’s block by staring at a blank page, so can a storyteller get storyteller’s block by working on a story with an empty mind.

Build leadership and speaking skills
Once you know some storytelling games, then next you need to explain the directions to the participants in clear and expressive ways.

There has been several times when I thought I was clear in explaining the rules of a game. Afterwards, I would see scrunched faces of confusion or sometimes hear the occasional “Huh?” or “What?” Another sign of miscommunication is when no one does anything after announcing, “Go” or “Begin.” Quickly, I have learned that demonstrating a part of the game improves the understanding of how to play for everyone.

Create a chance to laugh
Above all, play storytelling games for amusement. Technically, there are no “mistakes” that can be made during games—only fun, healthy moments.

I say “healthy” for good reason. You have heard, “laughter is the best medicine?” Whenever you think something is funny or when you laugh, there is certain saliva formed in your mouth. Inside this saliva are bacteria-fighting specimens. As you swallow this saliva, you are able to combat illness and reduce stress.

Laughter is also a good form of exercise. Ten minutes of rigorous laughter equals ten minutes of rowing. After playing 30 minutes or so of games, you may have reached a total of ten minutes of laughter so to qualify for your daily workout.

Some Games to Try:

Carry On
Form a circle, ideally with everyone standing up. One person decides on an imaginary object to pass to the person next to them. This “object” is passed from person to person in the circle. Some examples are a stinky sock, a fragile lamp, a bowling ball, and a lizard. When the “object” is passed back to the leader, then choose a different item.

***Variations: Try this same game with or without sounds. Have the leader rotate so several or all people have a chance to suggest something to pass around the circle.

A Big Yarn
Form a circle. Take a ball of yarn and have it wrapped around each person in the circle one time. Everyone will be connected in this way. The person with the end of the yarn becomes the leader and starts the story. While telling the story, the leader takes the yarn and rewraps the yarn until it is passed to the next person. Then the next person picks up the story from where the other one ended. Continue the story until the yarn is all rolled up.

***To help the leader, ask for suggestions of a setting and some characters from everyone. You may also determine certain code words that trigger a response from everyone in the circle. For example, if ever someone telling a story says “food”, all could respond with “mmmmmmmmm, food!” or whatever reaction tickles your fancy.

Set up four chairs with two chairs behind the other two. These chairs represent a car. All four chairs are filled with “passengers”. Determine who is the driver. Everyone in the car talks to each other to reflect a certain emotion already picked out. A fifth person is the hitchhiker. When the hitchhiker sticks out his thumb, the “driver” slams on the brakes (sound effects are encouraged). The driver is bumped out of the car, everybody rotates a chair, and the hitchhiker occupies the remaining open chair. The hitchhiker puts on a different attitude than the other passengers. As the hitchhiker continues the conversation, the other passengers reflect their speech of whatever emotion the hitchhiker is doing. Eventually, another hitchhiker comes along and sticks out his thumb. The rotation continues.

***Some emotions that may be fun to do: surprise, grumpiness, exuberance, sorrow, etc. This could also be a chance to improve vocabulary. An extra rule may be to add certain words that must be used during the conversation though said in such a way to flow with what the other passengers are saying. These words could change per rotation.

Form a circle, ideally with everyone standing up. Have two people in the center of the circle with each of them in a different position such as being down on one knee, having both arms in the air, hands on hips, etc. The audience suggests a setting. The two people unfreeze from their positions though, at the same time, gaining inspiration of their mood and emotions from each other. The two people act out a scene together until anyone from the audience shouts, “Freeze!” When called, the two people freeze in whatever positions they are in at the moment. Then the caller takes one of the two frozen positions, thus having one person return within the circle of the audience. A new setting is called out. Another scene is acted out and continues until someone else shouts, “Freeze!”

***Some people prefer to have a list of 20 or more ready-made positions. A person could choose a number that would relate to a position.

The Typewriter (or The Computer?)
Someone pretends to type on a typewriter. The typewriter starts the story. For each character or object the typewriter mentions, a person from the audience jumps out and plays the character or object. The characters/objects members listen to the writer’s story and act it out, but the writer must also listen to the characters/objects when they add their own dialogue.

***If you have people who are shy to jump in as a character/object, then have everyone but the writer line up. You could serve as the facilitator and silently point someone on the stage with the writer when you hear a character/object mentioned.

First and Last
Gather 20+ children’s books at the library. Write down the first sentence of each of the books on individual slips of paper. Each slip is placed in hat. Then write down the last sentence of each of the books on individual slips of paper and place in second hat. Have one person draw one “first sentence” and one “last sentence” from each of the hats. Give no more than 10 seconds for the person to tell the impromptu story. Watch them attempt to connect the first and last sentence in a comprehensive story. Be prepared for many laughs!

***You may choose for everyone to know what sentences the person drew or it could be kept a secret.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also want to find more games in my entries "Ancient Civilizations: Story Standards from Then to Now" as well as "Imagination: 2 Ways to Zap Creativity into Kids".

May life be one grand game for you.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799