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October 2005

Tell a Great Ghost Story: How to Scare People and Win Friends

Wouldn't it be cool if you could turn your friends into mewling, terrified--I mean, wouldn't it be cool to be able to tell a great ghost story on your next camping trip? Here's how.
pumpkins(Photo by Anthony Cerretani)

1. PICK A GOOD TALE Does it creep you out? Would your friends object if you told it to their 11-year-old kid? Yes? Then you’ve got a winner. Still unsure where to find the perfect tale? Ask every person you know who’s ever been to summer camp what the scariest story he or she has ever heard. Then make it your own.

2. TELL A TRUE STORY “This is a true story” is okay. “This is a true story and the person who it happened to is in the Maine hospital for the criminally insane now, a total vegetable” is better. “Cable news hadn’t been invented then, but you can look it up on microfilm at the Mendocino Public Library” is the best. When’s the last time anyone actually looked up something on microfilm?

3. KEEP IT SUBTLE
When the story gets to the really, really, really scary part, clam up. You don’t want to go on. Your voice gets softer. You’d prefer not to talk about what happened next. You don’t even want to think about it. But you will. You owe it to your audience.

4. USE VISUAL AIDS
Your appendectomy scar? Who’s to say Neville Flange, the machete-wielding marauder of the Smoky Mountains, didn’t cut you there? Hold on to bandanas with camp names: They’re priceless.

5.BE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO Scary stories are fun, and thrilling, but told to the wrong person, at the wrong time—well, sometimes that can have tragic consequences. I was telling the story of the Mendocino Moaner a few years ago to friends on a weekend trip to Yosemite. Everyone was pretty freaked out—especially because it was a true story—but nothing happened that night, and we all woke up the next day refreshed and ready to hike. All except for my friend Jack. Who knows how it affected him, or why? All I know is that Jack wouldn’t say a word that morning. All he would do was hum and shake his head and wave his arms, which was really a drag, because we had to drive all the way to Reno, where we were going to catch a plane. They wouldn’t let Jack on the plane back to New York City, though. He was grunting and waving his arms. We had to take him to the Fresno County Hospital. Eventually they transferred him. To the Nevada State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s been five years and Jack’s still at the asylum. I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t even like to think about it.

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