This is the print version of a post that appeared on Psychobabble in audio form as my one and only podcast five years ago today. It was part of my long dormant series Things that Scare Me, in which I evaluated whether or not I was justified in being terrified of the many, many things that terrified me when I was an overly terrified kid. Enjoy!
My experience with scary stories began when I was four or five years old. My sister was having a slumber party for her birthday and my prankster parents decided this would be a terrific opportunity to traumatize their kids and a gang of neighborhood kids. The evening began with everyone gathered in the living room and perched on their sleeping bags, the lights dimmed, and my mother hovering over us with an arsenal of classic ghost stories. The first one she read was based on an old Washington Irving story called “The Adventure of the German Student”. Irving’s tale is about a college boy who encounters a forlorn young woman in Paris during the French revolution. She wears a black ribbon around her neck, which she refuses to remove under any circumstances. The terrifying denouement of the story reveals her to be a victim of the guillotine who wears the ribbon to tether her severed head to her severed neck. This print story was later simplified for its oral version, re-titled and re-tinted and passed from person to person as “The Green Ribbon”. This was the version of the story my mother told at that slumber party.
The next story was less dependent on plot and more on the way it was told. It was a story called “The Golden Arm”, which tells of a man who marries a woman with a golden arm, an object he covets till the day she dies. At that point, he sneaks out into the night, digs up her body, and swipes it. Creeping home in the night, he begins hearing a ghostly voice calling “Who stole my golden arm?” The phrase is repeated over and over with mounting intensity until, finally, the storyteller grabs the nearest listener and screams “You did!” Everyone jumps and everyone pees.
So, at this point in the evening, I was well terrified and well pee-soaked, but the horrors were not over yet. Rattled, all the kids got into their sleeping bags and vainly attempted to drift off to nightmareless sleep. That’s when we heard…coming from way upstairs…way up in the darkness…chains rattling. That could only mean one of two things: someone was locking their bike to the toilet in the upstairs bathroom or there was a ghost in the house. The groans that followed confirmed the latter to be true. Then, at the top of the stairs, appeared a grotesque apparition draped in chains and a death shroud, it’s face lifeless, its hair wild and desperately needing a good conditioner. The screams and the pee flowed like wine. I was traumatized.
The ghostly figure turned out to be my dad. He’d wrapped a sheet around himself and was wearing my sister’s life-sized Barbie Doll make-up bust on his head. So, in my four or five year old brain, ghost stories were not only scary in and of themselves, but they inspired ones parents to do really disturbing shit to their kids.
At the time, I was too freaked out to have any perspective on the experience. In retrospect, I kind of love the fact that my parents went to such trouble to scare the shit out of us kids. This wasn’t some sort of corny attempt to terrify us with rubber spiders. This was a finely calibrated experience in which they set the tone with stories about scary stuff followed by a real life horror show in which scary stuff happened right there in our living room. Bravo, mom and dad. I have you to thank for a childhood of being overly horrified by ghost stories and countless nightmares in which severed heads played starring roles. More importantly, I also have you to thank for my lifelong love of horror.
Perhaps I’m making too much of the rattling chains and the Barbie doll head. Really, a ghost story doesn’t need some sort of song and dance to terrify. Oral storytelling is the best of all worlds in terms of being frightening. It has the brevity of a short story…and as it is with wit, brevity is the soul of being scary. It’s really hard to sustain terror, which is one reason why few horror movies are longer than 90 minutes and why it’s much harder to write a genuinely scary novel than a scary short story. The voice is also a really important tool in being scary too. Something like “The Golden Arm”—and similar stories of that sort, many of which have been collected in the anthologies of Alvin Schwartz— doesn’t work at all on the page. Having such a story read to you in a creepy voice, in a darkened room, and finished off with a scream and a grab, makes it something else entirely— something kind of beautiful.