The Ultimate Guide to Telling Scary Stories
Do you like telling scary stories? Want to become better at it? I wrote this guide for you, chockful of helpful tips and great scary stories you also can tell.
As a professional storyteller, I regularly tell scary stories. I included my most valuable tips and links to scary stories online that are good for telling in this guide.
Let’s start with the basics.
Use the Table of Contents below to skip ahead to the sections you are most interested in.
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7 Essential ingredients for telling scary stories
Telling scary stories (or ghost stories) is not rocket science. You will quickly get better at telling scary stories when you pay attention to these seven essential ingredients. Let’s go.
1. Set a haunting atmosphere
You want it to be a bit dark. No distractions. Preferably sitting around a campfire or in a place lighted with some dim lights.
You are reluctant to tell the story. Feel the fear and dread in yourself, and your listeners will feel it too. So don’t start too eager. This is a story that scares you.
2. Choose a story that hooks
When you start, you want their attention. So within the first five sentences, something should invite them to listen. Something strange. Something weird. Something interesting.
To hook your listeners, you need the right story. So think about them. What is their age? Why are they there? What is their interest?
➡ Skip to the sections for children, teens, adults, senior adults.
3. Build up bloodcurling tension
Between the hook of your story and the end, you need to build up the tension. It needs to get scarier and scarier.
Often this is done by the main character coming closer and closer to (the object of) their fear. When you prepare for telling the story, make sure that you note these progressions down.
- a voice speaks from outside
- a voice speaks from behind the bedroom door
- a voice speaks from under the bed
It is not always about the distance to fear, though. The object of fear can also become more immense. One big black cat becomes two, and two black cats become three.
4. Lure and hammer with your voice
Talk too loud, and you will destroy the atmosphere. Talk too soft, and nobody will hear you.
How do you talk when you are scared? You can choose to feel this, and it will show in how you speak.
However, most scary stories also do well when the storyteller speaks neutrally. Not too loud, not too fast, not too many emotions. Just quietly chipping away at the listeners’ nerves.
5. Set their imagination aflame
With your words, you paint the pictures that your listeners will see. Be specific (but not too detailed). Give them sensory information, like this:
Jessica stood before the solid door of the slaughterhouse. She heard the humming sounds of the meat freezers. Something smelled rotten. She took the door handle with her left hand. It was ice cold, and she shivered.
Think of the story as scenes of a movie (with image, sound, taste, smell, touch). You take your listeners from scene to scene.
Avoid commenting on your story unless you plan it or are very confident that you can return to the story.
Avoid telling your listeners how the characters in the story feel. For example, compare ‘She rolled up like a ball in the far corner of the cupboard’ to ‘She was very scared.’ The first variant makes your listeners feel things; the second doesn’t.
6. Pace yourself like a zombie
Nothing can build tension like well-used pauses.
Start as a zombie that awakes. Slow.
With a growl, the hunt begins. The zombie comes after you. Not too fast, solid, rhythmic pacing.
At this point, my zombie analogy comes to a bone-wrenching, zombie-killing halt.
Because going towards the end of your story, you will want to slow down even more. So stretch it as much as you can while still experiencing the story with your listeners.
7. Know your dramatic ending
The ending is what people remember and take home.
Now there are many ways to end a scary story. Which way you choose will depend on your story and your listeners. Here I will discuss three common endings: the Jumpscare, the Twist, and the Lingering Creepiness.
Ending your scary story: the Jumpscare
We all have experienced them as kids. You listen to a ghost story, leaning forward as the teller speaks softer and slower. Suddenly she reaches out, and you find yourself screaming and jumping up from your bench.
Congratulations, you experienced a jumpscare. Jumpscares work best with children and young teens.
➡ Here I tell you exactly how to do a jumpscare:
How to do a Jump Scare when Telling a Scary Story
Ending your scary story: the Twist
I love it when the story’s ending is both logical and surprising. A twist, something I did not see coming but still seems in line with the story when looking back.
Scary stories with a funny twist are especially popular. What better way to release your scared-witless tension than laughing until your belly hurts?
➡ Here you can find seven of those scary stories with a funny twist:
7 Short Scary Stories with a Funny Twist [for Telling]
Ending your scary story: the Lingering Creepiness
Adults love it when not everything is resolved at the end of the story.
To be clear: the story needs an ending, always. However, there is often room to leave things a bit vague in the ending. Give your listeners some space to draw their conclusions about what happened. Don’t resolve every little thing.
You will see people leaving with some creeps and jibbers. Certainly, they will be talking with each other about the ending and their thoughts on the story.
How to prepare for telling a scary story?
Preparation is crucial when it comes to storytelling. You do need to know the story you want to tell.
To get to know the story, it can help to do some basic storytelling exercises:
- write the story down in max. 7 sentences to pin down the structure of the story
- visualize key scenes of the story, paying special attention to the senses: what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch
- think about where the scariness in the story touches your own fears
💡 However, I want to stress that another form of preparation is even more important: the best way to learn how to tell a story is to tell it often.
The success of scary stories depends a lot on how you deliver them. This is the part that is missing when you practice on your own. You need listeners to feel whether you need to change your structure, details, or pacing.
I suggest you start telling the scary story as often as possible, to everybody who wants to listen. Begin with safe spaces: friends, partners, maybe a storytelling club. Then, branch out and continue growing the story.
You will find that your telling of the scary story develops and matures. Your timing will become better. You will know the story so well that you can listen to the listeners and give them precisely what is needed.
Telling scary stories to children
Children love scary stories when they are not too scared.
Parents and educators sometimes wonder whether scary stories are suitable for children. In short, scary stories help children feel their fears and deal with them. Provided that the stories are not too frightening and told in a supportive environment.
➡ I answered this question in detail in this blog:
Are Scary Stories Good or Bad for Children?
It is helpful to divide children into three groups:
- babies and toddlers (0-4 years old)
- younger children (4-8 years old)
- older children (8-12 years old)
Babies and toddlers (0-4 years old)
The first group, babies and toddlers, have no fundamental concept of a story yet. Everything for them is now. This is not a group to tell scary stories to.
Younger children (4-8 years old)
The second group, younger children, understand past, present, and future. They understand the concept of a story. They have fears related to the past and the future.
One thing to keep in mind while telling for this age group is that for them, the ‘imagined world’ and the ‘real world’ are still mostly the same. So any monster or scary thing that is not resolved at the end of the story lives on in their world.
💡 When the wolf does not die at the end of Little Red Riding Hood, he could be hiding under their bed. So make sure that the scary thing is dealt with at the end of your story.
For this age group, many fairy tales and older stories are already scary enough. You don’t necessarily need a scary story to tell a scary story!
If you want to tell a scary story, scary stories with a funny twist work well for this group. For example:
Stay away from stories with a lot of blood, gore, and other elements that are not suitable for kids. Remember, you don’t want to shock, you want to have a good time together. As a storyteller, you are always responsible for the stories you choose and how you tell them.
What to do when younger children get too scared
You can do a couple of things when you are telling a scary story to younger children, and you feel some of them are getting too scared. Maybe they look at you in horror; maybe they run to the teacher; maybe you see their lips quivering.
These three things all work:
- Tell something funny that makes them laugh. Laughter and scary stories are a good combination for this age group.
- Step out of your story and talk to them directly. You can say something like: “Wow, that’s a bit scary. Don’t worry, it will end well.” It acknowledges their feeling and reassures them that things will be ok.
- Practice a movement related to the story with them. Moving helps to release the tension in their body and takes the focus away from the scary story.
Older children (8-12 years old)
The third group, older children, are more familiar with the concept of a ‘scary story.’ Contrary to younger children, for them, the ‘imagined world’ and ‘real world’ are two different worlds. As a result, they will often ask ‘whether it really happened.’
There is a lot of variety in this group. Some children are still easily scared, and others seem afraid of nothing. So stay attentive to the group.
Don’t make the mistake of treating them as teens or adults. Better they come up to you afterward to tell you that the story was not scary at all than they are afraid later when they are alone in their bed.
Jump scares work very well for this age group. Even when they see them coming, they will still be scared. The collection of ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ appeals to this group. Give your own slant to the stories, though, because they might already know some of them.
Other good stories to start with are these scary stories with a funny twist.
Telling scary stories to teens
Most teens love scary stories. They have some experience and can often handle more scariness than adults.
Unlike children, they do not need a story to have a good ending. They are old enough to know from experience that not everything in life has a good ending. A bad ending and an ending with some lingering creepiness (see before) are also very welcome.
You will need to give them something good, though. If you don’t provide them with something worth listening to, they will tune you out within a couple of minutes.
Two things are critical: get to the scariness quickly and be yourself. Don’t play a storyteller with a ‘storyteller’s voice.’
You will need to get to the scariness quickly, but that does not mean you can’t give them longer, more profound stories. They expect more from you than the short scary stories they heard as children. Jumpscares work less well. If they are too obvious, they will even be called childish.
💡 Tip: take a look at some YouTube channels with scary stories (example: CreepsMcPasta). Teens love to listen and watch the scary stories you’ll find on YouTube.
Teens might want to be treated as adults, but that doesn’t mean that you tell them adult stories. More blood and gore is ok, but some topics are still off-limits.
Telling scary stories to adults
Some adults love scary stories, and some don’t like them. Who will be your listeners?
An audience that comes to your festival tent to hear scary stories is a very different audience than one that is there because it is a company event.
There are always people who want it scarier and darker. There will also always be people who want it less scary and less bloody. It’s your job to find the middle.
For adults, you need adult stories. Give them something longer they can chew on. Keep in mind that most of the scariness is not in what you say but in what they imagine in their heads.
Adults have a longer attention span than teens. Therefore, you have more time to build up your story. It does not have to be scary immediately.
Tell them the folktales and dark fairy tales. Give them some Edgar Allen Poe (link to Amazon), some H. P. Lovecraft (link to Amazon). Tell them your own personal scariest moments.
Telling scary stories to senior adults
Senior adults are adults. They have been so for quite some time! So the same things that can be said for adults apply to them.
Keep in mind that it might be more challenging for some of them to listen to longer stories. On average, it is more difficult for them to maintain concentration, and they are more easily tired.
Some of them will have more difficulty hearing you. Do a soundcheck beforehand and also ask at the beginning of your telling if everybody can hear you.
There is something else that you might consider. For many of them, death is a genuine part of life. They have more and more funerals and know their own time is coming. Keep that in the back of your mind, and it will subtly change the telling of stories in which death plays a part.
Why we love telling scary stories
Humanity has been telling scary stories for as long as we can remember. No wonder because the world is a frightening place. Scary stories offer us a way to train ourselves for dangerous situations and process our feelings.
And when the world feels safe? Then scary stories can give us some much-needed adrenaline rush. We enjoy the rollercoaster ride of being deeply scared and breathing relief.
➡ Here you can read more about why storytellers tell scary stories:
Why do Storytellers Tell Scary Stories? (5 Reasons)
Is it ok not to like scary stories?
It is ok not to like scary stories. It is just a matter of taste. Not everybody likes romantic stories, not everybody likes science-fiction stories, and not everybody likes scary stories. Besides that, some people are also more sensitive to scary stories than others.
The article ‘This Is the Real Reason You Hate Scary Movies‘ (link to Reader’s Digest) explains how this works in the brain.
Be aware that when your audience did not choose to come and listen to your scary story, not all of them might like scary stories. Examples of this might be a company Halloween event or a performance at a primary school.
Scary stories vs. ghost stories vs. horror stories
Is this a scary story? A ghost story? Or a horror story? Sometimes it’s a bit confusing.
Let’s start with the definition of a ghost story:
A ghost story is any piece of fiction, or drama, that includes a ghost or simply takes as a premise the possibility of ghosts or characters’ belief in them. (source: Wikipedia)
That gives some clarity, yes? Well, not really. Because the term ‘ghost stories’ is still very much in use as a synonym for ‘scary stories.’
What about horror stories?
Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defined the horror story as “a piece of fiction in prose of variable length… which shocks, or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing”. (Source: Wikipedia)
You can say that all horror stories are scary stories, but not all scary stories are horror stories. Horror stories are generally speaking more offensive, more shocking, more gross. Many people that like scary stories are not comfortable with horror stories.
Real horror stories are only suitable for adults.
5 Tips for telling scary stories around the campfire
- First, work to get all attention focussed on you and the story. Drop hints. Comment on sounds you heard in the forest. Only start telling when everybody wants to hear your story.
- Be reluctant to share the story. It scares even you. Feel the fear going through your own body. It’s ok to be nervous, including a nervous laugh here and there. Stay in this mood throughout the story.
- Location, location, location. Always connect the scary story to the place where you are. Or even better: find a local scary legend you can tell.
- Make use of the sounds of the environment. Snapping twigs in the forest, an owl calling in the distance, etc. Listen, react nervously.
- Make the story super creepy by having a helper somewhere in the forest. He can make sounds: branches breaking, vague screams or haunting sound effects
💡 Want to make a frightening sound effect yourself? I often use one of these thunder tubes (link to Amazon).
Where to find scary stories to tell?
Scary stories can be found in all kinds of dark places. Before you start searching, however, try to answer these questions:
- What is the age group you will be telling to?
- What are some of the things they would find scary?
- What genre of story would fit them best?
- What is the ideal length of the story you are looking for?
Answering these questions will help you to focus your search. Others will also be better able to help you in your search.
Scary stories you remembered
Let’s start with the scary stories you remember. Maybe from your childhood, perhaps a fragment of some movie you once saw. Why were they scary to you? Perhaps you can retell one of them?
Fairy tales? Yes, some of them are really scary. Don’t go watching Disney movies, though. ➡ Read some of these:
The 9 Scariest Grimm Fairy Tales (I read all 200!)
Folktales and Legends
Every country and culture has its folktales and legends.
➡ Here I discuss a great source of folktales about fear:
Outfoxing Fear: Scary Folktales from Around the World
It’s always great when you can tell a local legend. You will find many folktales and legends that you can adapt to your location at American Folklore.
I made some thematic collections of scary stories for you to start with—primarily short stories selected for ease of telling.
Halloween Storytelling: 7 Stories You Can Tell [+ Videos]
9 Scary Spider Stories You Can Tell
9 Scary Stories and Legends About Black Dogs
7 Short Scary Christmas Stories to Tell
5 Scary Clown Stories You Can Tell
YouTube: channels with scary stories
YouTube is an endless treasure trove of scary stories. Here are three channels that include a lot of stories that are excellent for telling:
Reddit: famous collection of 2 sentence stories
On the subreddit r/2SentenceHorror, people write horror stories in only two sentences. As you might have guessed from the name. 😉
Some of them make your blood run cold and give you shivers. Consider learning a few and using them to build up tension before telling your story. Some of my favorites:
All my life, my parents have told me not to open the basement door, but I got curious and disobeyed them. What is that glowing ball in the sky and why does it hurt my eyes?u/DayerethDdraigson
My blind date texted that he’d finally arrived and was sorry for being fifteen minutes late to pick me up. But we’d already been driving for ten.u/lurker1125
They say once you become a murderer, you can tell who else has murdered.“He’s innocent,” I announce with the bang of my Gavel dismissing the court.u/Jebbsterboy
Creating your own scary stories for telling
So, you want to create your own scary story?
Let me be blunt. I recommend you start by telling some older scary stories that have already proven to work overtime. While it is easy to craft a story, it is not so easy to prepare a good story for telling.
Are you still here? Ok, let’s go.
What scares you?
Telling scary stories works best when they connect to fears in the teller and fears in the listeners. Find out what scares you in the idea you have for a story.
How to structure your scary story
There needs to be a progression in your story. Imagine three or four scenes in which the story gets progressively scarier. Tip: quickly sketch them.
Craft the ending
Remember the three endings I mentioned earlier? The jumpscare, the Twist, the lingering creepiness? Think about how you want your scary story to end.
Shape it in telling it often
Written stories are rewritten and rewritten. Each oral telling is like a rewriting of the story. Tell your crafted story often. Mentally note where people lean forward to catch all the words you say. Does it scare them? Does your ending work?
Telling Scary Stories: worthwhile sources
I love books. While it is incredible that there is so much information online, like this guide, I understand you want a book in your hands.
There are a few books I can recommend to you.
One of the best books about telling scary stories is ‘Prepare to Scare’ by Elizabeth Ellis. Although I told my scary stories, she is far more experienced. A great book with a wide selection of folktales around fear is ‘Outfoxing fear’ by Kathleen Ragan.
Book Review: Prepare to Scare – Elizabeth Ellis
Outfoxing Fear: Scary Folktales from Around the World
There are some other books I can recommend:
- Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, A. Schwartz.
A must-have classic set of three books with short, well-known scary stories.
- Scottish Ghost Stories, E. O’Donnell
The author was fascinated by ghost stories. He wrote them and collected them. Spine-chilling.
- American Folklore: a great treasure trove of scary folktales and legends
- Scary for Kids: an big collection of short scary stories for kids (but not all of them suitable for kids!)
- Wikihow: useful how to for telling scary stories, for those of you who like drawings with the text 😉
- The Kennedy Center: excellent article ‘The Skeleton of a Scary Story’ which gives some other perspectives on telling scary stories.
- Have you found a great resource online that should be added here? Please contact me here!
💡 Pssst.: Have you ever listened to Alexa, Siri or Google telling you scary stories?
💡 Once a month, I send out an email with new writings on storytelling and fairy tales.