Part of a series about monsters and other scary things happening here through Halloween.
What makes for a very scary story? It helps to be a child when you're hearing the tale, because you're already terrified of everything after dark. It's also a good idea to be at home alone while you're reading, so that every burp of the water pipes or cough from the weird neighbor in the next apartment sounds like the foretelling of your horrifically slow murder at the hands of THE DERELICT CLOWN. This is due to the power of The Devil, who creates suspense.
Without suspense, the glaring holes in most ghost stories become apparent. This became clear to me recently when I tried and failed to scare the bejesus out of my young children with a very chilling "true story" my Cajun grandmother once told me and the neighbor kids. Her actual circumstances were already so awful that any hint of the supernatural was accepted, by my young mind, as just another chunk of impossibly sad luck: She and her half-dozen siblings were orphans, and lived without adult supervision in some crumbling bayou house far from the nearest town. (If I knew how to weave a weird but charming regional narrative out of this golden thread, an agent would tell me, "It's an awful lot like Swamplandia! How about something in the snow, or a coming-of-age story with a Mexican family?")
It was after supper one night when the Cajun orphans were gathered on the saggy wooden porch, listening to a battery-powered radio for entertainment. Imagine trying to listen—no seeing!—to a program or sports game without even being able to tweet about it. Even worse, a flickering light appeared in the upper window of the old barn on the property. And through the dangling Spanish moss and the fog of fear, the orphans saw the shadow of a diabolical winged entity through that barn window.
"It was an angel," said my grandmother, who we all called Ma-De, believing it to be French for "grandmother."
"Sounds a lot more like a devil," I said. My best friend noted that it could have been Dracula.
"It was an angel," she repeated sternly. I was used to angels being papier-mâché cherubs on Mardi Gras floats or cutesy paintings on Merry Go Rounds, but her angels were a more Old Testament affair, the kinds of powerful Olympians who wrestled you to the desert floor or fought you on ladders to Heaven or tricked you (?) into impregnating your wife in a shepherd's tent. (OR, exactly like those evil "weeping angels" from the Doctor Who program. It would have been a lot better if the weeping angels just tore Amy and Rory to bits, wouldn't it? STUPID STUPID LAST EPISODE. Anyway.)
I can still remember the gnawing terror from hearing my grandmother's story, but I can't remember why I felt it. The swamp orphans supposedly watched the shadowy figure all night, until it faded away in the first light of dawn. From her other stories of life on the bayou, I knew they had a small arsenal of shotguns and rifles and pistols and crab traps in that old house. That's how they ate! Why didn't the biggest kid, who was already 6'4" in his teens, just load up on guns and shoot first and ask questions later. You know, like an American?
Why didn't anyone think it was maybe a hobo of some kind? It was the Great Depression, after all. Would it not be "more realistic" if an itinerant worker with his railroad lantern spent the night in the barn's loft, away from the many poisonous snakes that traveled the swampy ground? My own grandfather, who married the very woman who told this story, spent years during the Depression riding the rails of Texas and the southern states, working here and there, maybe at the circus or on a chain gang. So, I failed at re-telling this story, because in retrospect it was dumb.
This is what separates most writers from a yarn-spinning master like Stephen King. (I am also wealthier than Stephen King.) The scaremaster does not care if the story is dumb. Of course the story is dumb! If anybody really thinks about it, they know there's not an Impossible Evil lurking in the sewers in the form of a clown. That's really just Tim Curry, living in the sewers. Times are tough. That car isn't possessed, it's just a shitty car and teen-agers are bad drivers. The dead baby who crawled out of its makeshift grave is… well, that is awful, but only because Bush Junior didn't let the children have health insurance. And also you don't want a dead baby standing in your home office because you could lose your home office deduction!
Another questionably scary story involved my Uncle Tommy, a bus driver in New Orleans. If you've been there, I hope you spent a lot of money, and not at the Marriott or whatever corporate vulture tourist business! Also, you may have noticed there are cemeteries everywhere. Those weird above-ground graves and crypts (because of the sodden below-sea-level ground) make for lots of easy ghost stories. And people really love going to the cemeteries, so they can endlessly talk and weep and complain about their dead relatives, which is the only exercise most people in New Orleans will ever get.
Uncle Tommy was on the graveyard shift, and also driving the graveyard bus route. (Is there another city with a streetcar line named Cemeteries?) Around four in the morning, he saw a beautiful young woman standing unsteadily at the bus stop, which would suggest he was actually near Tulane. But he was at the cemetery, this is part of the story. So she got on the bus and asked if he'd take her not to another bus stop, but to her house in the Garden District, probably where Anne Rice lives now. And, because city employees do whatever they want in New Orleans, he drove the city bus to this spooky old mansion and knocked on the door and…
Of course you know the end, because every kid has heard some variation of this story, and also there is the Internet now, and the Urban Legends books and Twitter and all that. The father answers the door, probably in a smoking jacket, and says that his daughter died in a terrible accident (alligators?) years ago, but she still flags down buses and asks for a ride home now and then, because the rich are so entitled.
Let me tell you what works, if you want to terrify, say, your own impressionable children: Talk a lot about ghosts, at night, but in a postmodern "eh, maybe they're real, maybe they're not" kind of way, and then quietly hang a pillowcase or a sheet in a weird spot in the back room, and insist that they go in there "just to make sure" ghosts aren't real. The shrieks are incredible.
Previously in series: We, The People, Against The Zombies
And you may also enjoy: "I Met A Ghost!" Five Chilling Real-Life Tales!
Photos from a recent stay at the Le Pavillion Hotel in New Orleans, which is supposedly haunted and also made my iPad ghost meter go nuts.