The Fear Factor
For as long as I can recall, I have been unable to resist the lure of a scary story. I relish a good haunting or case of demonic possession. I’m captivated by descents into madness and enthralled by dystopian futures. While I have no memory for practical details, the stuff of nightmares tends to permanently embed itself in my brain. By way of example, I can to this day hear my sixth-grade teacher’s voice as she intoned the final line of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.
‘Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart!’
I remember well that teacher’s description of the repellent milky blue eye that pushed Poe’s narrator over the edge; I have, however, long since forgotten her name, or what she looked like. Apparently she wasn’t scary enough.
Early spring may not seem like the obvious season for reflection on the horror genre. We’re just emerging from the cold, dark days of winter, and Halloween—official holiday of ghosts, ghouls and goblins–is a full six months away. The longer stretches of daylight somehow make cobwebbed basements less ominous and bumps in the night easier to explain away. The sight of leaves reappearing on trees and sounds of birdsong helps jolt our senses out of an unwitting hibernation. It’s a time of optimism and renewal. And I’d argue it’s also the perfect time for immersion in a truly chilling tale. Why let your guard down now? There’s no reason specters can’t lurk in broad daylight just as easily as in shadow.
Herewith, a few of the stories that have cost me sleep over my years as a reader:
Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak
When Ida isn’t watching, creepy hooded goblins kidnap her baby sister and leave a replacement made of ice. To rescue her sister, Ida must travel to the underworld and outwit the goblins.
The House With a Clock in Its Walls, by John Bellairs
Newly orphaned, Louis Barnavelt goes to live with his Uncle Jonathan in an enormous house filled with intrigue. He soon discovers his uncle is actually a warlock working with his next-door neighbor–a witch–to find and destroy an enchanted clock ticking within the walls of his house before it triggers Doomsday.
Down a Dark Hall, by Lois Duncan
Kit Gordy is accepted to an extremely selective girls’ boarding school—so selective that she is one of only four students enrolled. But from the moment she arrives at Blackwood, she can’t shake the feeling that she is surrounded by evil. Before long, Kit and her fellow students realize they all possess psychic abilities…and as it turns out, the school’s director is taking advantage of their powers to channel dead artists.
‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King
Writer Ben Mears returns to the small Maine town where he spent part of his childhood, unaware it’s in the throes of a vampire takeover. He soon finds himself in the role of vampire hunter, fighting a terrifying and unwinnable battle against the undead.
The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson
Residents of a small town assemble for a yearly ritual in which they draw names to determine the random victim of a human sacrifice. Wife and mother Tessie Hutchinson is the unlucky chosen one and is subsequently surrounded by rock-wielding friends and neighbors and stoned to death.
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Sarah Hall oversees digital outreach and social media for Walden Media.