"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

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