Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Two innocent teenagers go for a late-night drive. Hear a mysterious scratching sound under their car. Realize the scratching sound belongs to the skeleton at the center of an 1845 ghost legend.
Ah, the lure of a scary story.
Halloween makes me reflect on the tales, a genre that held my attention in young adulthood and eventually gave way to a scarier set of reading materials: relationship manuals.
But when scary stories were hot, they were terrifyingly hot.
In junior high, I signed my name on many library waiting lists in hopes of securing an installment of R.L. Stine’s “Fear Street” series.
Stine is still widely regarded as king of the young-adult horror genre. His name accompanies so many young-adult series — books like “Goosebumps” and “Fear Street” — that until recently I assumed the name was a pseudonym for multiple authors.
Not true. Stine, born in 1943, is alive and well. You can also call him Bob, the name he says he had during childhood.
Of course, most of us have memories of trying to craft our own ghost stories as well.
Those experiences — which usually take place at a sleepover our camping excursion — teach us how difficult it is to make a tale scary.
You must get to the story’s heart without too many complicated plot twists or new characters. You must resist an urge to let your vocal inflection give away the final scene’s terrifying conclusion.
I’ll never forget a scene from the 1989 film “Troop Beverly Hills,” when the young girls have a ghost story session with their troop leader (played by Shelley Long).
She describes meeting a mysterious stylist at the beauty salon. The girls scream when Long’s character utters the story’s horrific conclusion: “He permed me!”
See, the term “scary story” is hardly confined to sheer terror. The genre encompasses many varieties, ranging from scary-scary to scary-silly to scary-stupid.
What’s more, the current rise of vampire fiction has turned readers’ attention to a new brand of horror fiction: tales where traditionally terrifying figures captivate our attention with their ability to feel, rather than scare.
When crafted well, a scary story has potential to even hook fans who have an aversion to other scary scenes in pop culture.
That’s because the tales leave the reader’s imagination responsible for the extent of terror.
And when you really embrace that approach, those mental images often become more permanent than the ones created for us.
So mark Halloween by telling a scary story tonight. Just don’t be too disappointed if your listeners don’t buy your “creative” skeleton-under-car plot.
Sonya Sorich, reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-571-8516.