Why do we tell ghost stories? Since ancient times, cultures around the world have shared tales of terror in an effort to explain the bizarre and to deal with death.
Modern ghost stories, such as the tales of England in the 19th century or America during the Cold War, often reflect the societal fears of a particular time period. Victorian society may have been viewed as well-to-do, but its ghost stories reveal a collective anxiety about class and gender issues. Our culture, too, has a wealth of ghost stories that reveals our past. In the 20th century, UFO sightings and alien abductions were increasingly reported, revealing Americans’ suspicions of the government, and apprehension about shaky relations with other countries.
Though ghost stories play upon fears, they also play upon the imagination, and can be a wonderful form of entertainment and inspiraton for a child. Halloween is a perfect time to share with you child the magic of stories.
Looking for thrilling material this Halloween? You can choose from an endless number of ghost stories, fit for three-year-olds, adults, and all ages in between; many are compiled in anthologies like Coast to Coast Ghosts: True Stories of Haunting Across America or Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories. Oftentimes, the best stories are simply told and not long – a page or two can cause quite the scare.
In addition to reading stories from books, parents can adapt their own from classics, such as the Headless Horseman and the Telltale Heart. Do you have what it takes to tell such stories to a group of kids? There are a few essential elements to storytelling: Small, intimate groups are best for telling ghost stories. Pacing is crucial – talking fast won’t build suspense. Facial expressions are also key – if you want to wow children around a campfire, for instance, you must practice animated faces in the mirror. The most valuable bit of advice, however, is you must suspend your own disbelief. If you don’t believe your own tale, kids certainly won’t!
Here are more tips on how to recount a mesmerizing Halloween tale:
Darken the atmosphere, literally and figuratively. “Ghost stories are best told in the dark with the light of a single candle,” says Karen Tinsley, a mother from Toronto, Canada, who threw countless Halloween parties when her kids were little ones. “If possible, use eerie music or a recording of a howling wind to set the tone.” And don't expect younger children to sit still or stay silent. The squirming and excitement, however, adds to the ambience.
Emphasize your gift of voice. Play with volume from soft to loud, accents and dialects, enunciation and emphasis, suggests says Bob Kalsey, a writer and filmmaker in the San Francisco Bay Area and president of Bravura Films. Tinsley also suggests giving different characters distinct voices. Use whispers, louder tones, and sound effects: moan instead of saying "he moaned," says Tinsley, or growl or hiss – acting as the character – rather than resort to narration. “Start off in a hushed tone of voice” she says,”and build to a crescendo as the plot twist and turns.” An oral storyteller benefits from tools such as expression and gesture, which suck the audience into the action and make it convincing, adds Kalsey.
Create and build tension. “Tension is the essence of a good ghost story,” says Kalsey. Use pacing, dialogue, foreshadowing, diversions, and detours, and convey clear and present danger or conflict. “Something must always be at stake,” he says. Storytellers also rely on vivid, precise description, sensory details – smells, textures, and sounds – and figurative expressions like similes, metaphors, and exaggeration. Build the story up to a surprise ending.
Use first-person perspective. “It's often effective to convey stories in the first person. Even the most fantastical tale takes on a reality, almost a believability, when I put myself in a leading or supporting role as though I were really there to witness the strange occurrences,” says Kalsey. For instance, he has told a story of his encounters with a Giant Talking Clam of Borneo many times. “It's an old and silly story and it's been told many ways, but it is more engaging when I swear to my listeners that it's a true tale of my own unbelievable experience.” Storytelling is heightened when a child has a desire to believe an absurd story – a tug between doubt and acceptance that makes a story – and the experience – effective.
Excited to sift through a book of ghost stories and select one to tell this Halloween? The world of the paranormal is vast – you’ll have fun reading and finding the perfect piece.