Roundtable: Our Scary Stories

Ah, it’s that time of year. The air is turning crisper. The leaves are changing. The dark is creeping upon the light a bit sooner with each passing day. Fall is here. Halloween is right around the corner.

Here at Speculative Chic, you may have notice a theme: we’ve been digging into the scary side of things and talking about horror for our regular posts. This is no accident, but it’s not the same as gathering together and discussing, campfire-style, about the speculative thing that scared us the most.

That’s right: this month, for our Speculative Chic Roundtable, we’re going to share our scary stories.

So gather around and listen to what has scarred us for life (or for a little while). Hear what indelible horror has left its footprints on our psyche, and instead of laughing or shaking your heads, please comment and share your own scary stories!

J.L. Gribble: I don’t consider myself a horror fan because I consume entertainment as a form of escapism, and intentionally seeking out things that fill me with dread seems like the opposite of a good time. But while I avoid horror movies no matter how good the reviews are, I was always willing to pick up a horror book based on the recommendation of a friend. And a few years ago, everyone raved about Max Brooks’ nontraditional novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

The reviews by people that I trusted were so good that I even picked up a hardcover version, despite my constant battle for more bookshelf space. I started reading it that same evening.

I made it through approximately one-third of the book. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.

I literally returned the book to the store the next day. I couldn’t imagine a day when I’d ever finish it, and I couldn’t even bear the idea of keeping it in my house.

To this day, I tell people that zombies just aren’t my thing. But I’ll let you in on a secret: it wasn’t the zombies that scared me. It wasn’t even the post-apocalyptic world presented, because world-ending disasters are one of my absolute favorite forms of escapism.

It was the survivors in Brooks’ world. For some reason, zombie stories seem to bring out the worst in people, and Brooks found my hard line. And crossed it. Perhaps I’d have been able to stick with the novel if it had been a more traditional story, following a single group of heroes through a zombie-filled nightmare. Instead, the book’s conceit of touching upon many stories, many experiences broke me. The journalistic format showed the very worst of humanity in a way that was all too imaginable and realistic. First, I couldn’t put the book down. Then, I absolutely had to.

(Seriously, why is it always the zombie stories that lead to cannibalism? Or worse?)

I haven’t bothered seeing the film “version” because I already know it wouldn’t live up to the breath-taking horror of the book itself.

And unfortunately, I am actually in a position to finish World War Z one day. Because it was one of the few books my husband brought with him when he moved in with me. It’s in my house again.

Barbara: I’m hard to scare — something I can be quite smug about. When I’m watching a horror movie with someone and they jump or scream, I’m that terrible friend who laughs at them. Yet a haunted house in Canada of all places (isn’t scaring people impolite?) succeeded where so many others have failed.

Senior year of high school, I was in Niagara Falls on a band and chorus trip. We had some free time one afternoon, so my friends and I decided to check out a haunted house around the block from our hotel. This was over twenty years ago, but after some Googling, I’m pretty damned sure it was this place: Nightmares Fear Factory, Niagara Falls Canada.

I was expecting the usual carnival-style cheesefest. But instead of cheap-looking animatronic monsters and crappy sound effects, we walked into complete darkness. We couldn’t see a damned thing, so we formed a human chain with me in the lead. I knew something would happen eventually, but there was absolutely no way to tell what it would be. All I could do was focus on trying not to trip as I felt our way forward with my hands. I applaud this place for some damned fine tension-building, because when something finally did jump out at us, I screamed. It helped that the jumping thing wasn’t some shitty plastic mummy, but an actual person rattling chains, there and gone so quickly that I could barely register them. I was too busy recovering from the minor heart attack they had induced.

At some point near the end, we had to walk through something dangling from the ceiling. I don’t know what that something was due to the aforementioned pitch frickin’ blackness. All I know is that, for the first and only time in my life, I totally noped out during a haunted house visit. I forced someone behind me to switch places, because I was not going through that shit first.

Afterwards, we recommended the hell out of that place to the other people on our trip, with my friends exclaiming, “Even Barb was scared!” Which I think might have actually swayed a few people not to go.

While I remain smug about being hard to scare, that experience helped me realize why some people enjoy it. It’s a hell of an adrenaline rush, for one thing. Unfortunately, all the screaming left me with a raspy voice the next day, when our chorus had to perform and I had to sing a solo with the jazz band. But it was totally worth it. Well played, Canada.

Screencap from Movie Screencaps

Merrin: It will probably not surprise anyone who reads the next few sentences here when I tell you I’m not really a fan of the horror genre. I don’t watch horror films; I really rarely read horror books. When stuff gets too gory or scary I check out entirely. So believe me when I tell you that if I’m being 100% honest with you right now, the piece of speculative fiction that probably scared me the most in this life is actually The Princess Bride. You read that right, and yes, I’m aware that this is an inherently ridiculous statement. But please bear with me here and I will explain.

The Princess Bride was released in 1987, when I was 6 years old. At that time, the scariest thing I’d watched was the original Ghostbusters, and I honestly think I might have stopped watching that after the ghost in the library. The Princess Bride isn’t actually a children’s movie, I didn’t really understand it, and even though I’ve replaced these memories now, I can still remember being absolutely terrified when Westley screamed in the Pit of Despair. That was the first time I’d ever heard someone scream from pain, and y’all, it scared the shit out of me.

It scared me so much that I did not watch that movie again for almost a decade. People would tell me it’s their favorite movie, and I’d automatically stop trusting their judgement. I thought it was a horror film. That’s right, young Merrin thought The Princess Bride was a horror film based solely on the Fire Swamp and Westley screaming.

Then my brother gave me the soundtrack for Christmas, and my parents went out several days later and bought me the videotape and I watched it until it literally wore out, because that’s how much I love that movie now. But I still remember being pants-wetting scared of it.

Lane: Usually horror doesn’t scare me. Disturbs me, grosses me out, makes me unhappy, or unsettles me. Rarely do things make me afraid.

But when they do, they’re dumb. The random picture of “Jeff the Killer” from creepypasta? Oh yeah, that freaked me right out. For days. Or rather, nights. Made me twitchy to sleep next to the open closet — I have cats, therefore all closets are open closets.

A random blurry “monster” from some barely remembered show on the History channel — a Halloween special on the Haunted Houses of Great Britain. Yup! Blurry, cheesy special effect. Unnoted at the time, other than the vague thought that “Hey, that kind of looks like my mom’s dog in a rat suit, standing on her hind legs.” Later that night? EEEEEK!

Random serial nightmares that I’ve had since I was 8? Sure. Tell me more about the wolf and the witch who are out to get me. Wait, please don’t. I like sleeping.

So out of all of the many (dumb) things that scare me, there are two legitimate ones.

Naturally, they’re both books.

My sophomore dorm was old-school. Four floors of cinder block walls that nonetheless let noise travel through. A dank, dark basement. People behind every slamming steel door. Echoing stairwells. It took some getting used to. Into that setting, I brought a book. The Nightmare People by Lawrence Watt-Evans. At that time, Lawrence Watt-Evans was known primarily for his adventurous fantasy novels. I knew this book was horror yet… did not expect what I got. It’s about a man who just happens to be awake when monsters descend upon his apartment block and, well, eat everyone from the inside out and start wandering around in their skins, making the protagonist half-mad with doubt and terror. Whatever. No biggie. Oh, and if he sleeps, they’ll eat him, too.

I woke to unusual silence in the dorm, and promptly freaked out, convinced my fellow students were being eaten up. Spent the next two nights unwilling to sleep, and side-eying my classmates like whoa.

But the hands down winner for Scary Shit has to be a children’s picture book. I’ve mentioned my terror of Joanna Galdone’s The Tailypo before. It’s a cautionary tale not to shoot (or eat!) things you find in the woods and do not recognize. They might come back to haunt you. For me, the terror was three-fold. 1) It’s a scary book for kids! Something might stalk you and then eat you! In your bed! 2) I had Burmese cats. Slinky, sable Burmese cats with big gold eyes that loved to swarm onto my bed in the middle of the night. 3) The book betrayed my trust! I was a kid! I thought books were nice!!! And then it told me scary things.  Welcome to the world of horror, Kid Me. Hope you liked the heart attack.

Copyright 1991: Stephen Gammell

Kelly: If you’re part of the in-between generation that is a little too young to feel part of Generation X but too old to really be a Millennial, you will probably remember the most terrifying children’s books of all time — Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones by Alvin Schwartz. The book series was based on folktales and urban legends, which made them slightly educational, although they were mostly just straight-up nightmare fuel. I was surprised to learn that the first book was published in 1981 because they were incredibly popular in the early 1990s. I distinctly recall going to a Halloween event at the local library before trick-or-treating and the librarian reading to us from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

If you’re wondering, “How scary could a kid’s book actually be?” one of the tales is about a butcher who grinds up people and serves his customers human flesh. It’s been more than twenty years and I still remember many of the stories — nursing students play a prank with a cadaver hand and frighten their friend to death, a family finds a Chihuahua in Mexico only to discover that it’s actually a giant rat, and spiders burst out of a boil on a woman’s face. The story that frightened me the most was “Harold,” about two farmers who make a scarecrow that comes to life. They abandon their farm in terror but realize they’ve left their milking stools behind. They draw straws to see who has to return. The winning farmer looks back to see the scarecrow placing his friend’s bloody skin out to dry on the roof.

Schwartz’s stories were frightening on their own, but Stephen Gammell’s illustrations will haunt you for the rest of your life. His black-and-white sketches look like what would happen if Salvador Dali and Wes Craven took a bad acid trip together and then collaborated on a children’s book. The horrifying images are why the Scary Stories series were number one on the American Library Association’s list of banned/challenged books of the 1990s. Even though Gammel’s drawings frighten me far more than anything Stephen King ever wrote and probably scarred me for life, I am still outraged that the 30th anniversary edition of the books replaced his grotesque art with different, less creepy pictures. I still have a copy of Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones if anyone needs to properly traumatize their children.

Nicole: I’m a moron. Why? Because every movie that has ever really freaked me out has been based on a Stephen King novel. I realized this one year when trying to think of movies that actually made me shiver in discomfort. Carrie’s hand coming out of the grave at the end of the movie. Those two freaky little girls standing in the hallway in The Shining. And then for reasons unknown, I decided to be ballsy (or something) and watch The Mist. In my room. Alone. In the dark.

Yeah. Good job, me.

Every now and again I decide I want to see a scary movie. I don’t do scary movies very often, but the desire does randomly appear. (Warning: (spoiler alert for a ten-year-old movie!) The Mist intrigued me because I wanted to know where the mist came from. Where the creatures in it came from. If anyone in that grocery store was going to get out alive. So I grabbed it from the library and made my dumb alone-in-the-dark decision and watched as the mist appeared, as people freaked out. As creatures killed them in awful, terrible ways — eating, poison, and… worse — and as they turned on one another and eventually discovered the source of the mist. And then the worst possible outcome for the characters that were left.

I was freaked out. I didn’t like anything that was happening. I might have cried at some point. I don’t really remember — maybe I wiped it all out of my memory. But possibly not for reasons you might think. Yes, the scene with the drugstore and the spider-creatures with their insta-slicing webs and reproduction methods was the absolute WORST THING EVER right alongside chestbursters, and I never want to see it again, but the thing that really freaked me right out about this movie was the simplest concept.

It’s theoretically possible.

Granted, the concept that there are parallel universes to ours and that it may be possible in the far future to figure out a way to skip on over to them is slim, but it still exists. In The Mist, scientists opened a portal to another dimension. That’s it. And the mist with all its native creatures just strolled on through. They weren’t inherently evil. They weren’t demons. They were just doing what they do with the new environment they had.

Yeah, how about we don’t? That’s a Pandora’s Box that shouldn’t be opened unless you can figure out a way to make a window to peek through first before straight-up opening a damned door. It just really bothered me that this portal was open, and people were confused and scared and dying in horrendous ways. They didn’t know if this was the end of the world or what. It’s just sad. And super freaky.

I did go on to read the novella to find out what the original ending was (the complete opposite of the movie), but I am never watching The Mist again. If it’s playing on TV, I will leave the room until it’s gone.

Ronya: There is no dark like cavedark, which is an absolute, all-encompassing darkness. And once you’ve been stuck in it, even for five minutes, there is nothing worse than watching a movie set in a cave system. And that’s why I watched The Descent at 2 pm on a sunny weekday afternoon. Why did I watch The Descent at all, after my cavedark experience? Because a library patron recommended it for a good scare, I really wanted a good scare, and it had been three years since my cave mishap, so maybe I wanted to prove something to myself.

The Descent was directed by Neil Marshall, who had helmed another horror film I like called Dog Soldiers (you should go watch that). Anyway — The Descent looked intriguing; it’s rare to find a horror movie whose protagonists are all women. A year after the adventurous Sarah survives a horrific car accident that took the lives of her husband and daughter, she joins five friends on a caving expedition in the Appalachian Mountains. The trip is supposed to be both a bonding experience and a nudge to get the emotionally numb Sarah back to enjoying the things she used to love to do.

BUT! Not only do they get trapped in the cave, right from the beginning one of the women admits she led them to an unmapped cave system, reasoning that they all thrive on adventure. Right about that time, the group realizes they’re being picked off, one by one, by a previously unknown and very hungry humanoid species that calls the cave system home. And then, when they’re not getting lost, they end up fighting each other, revealing shattering secrets and personal weaknesses in their struggle to find an exit and get away from the bloodthirsty madness.

I watched this movie in the middle of the day in my “cave” of a living room, and it was still terrifying and tense and brutal. Horror tropes were on display, but they were given a refreshing twist, and the scenes were well-acted. The darkness was portrayed as oppressive at times, and at others, as an empty void — both of which are terrible feelings even without the subterranean predator angle. The whole thing was gloriously and emotionally claustrophobic. I hated it and loved it all at the same time. The Descent is pretty clever for a horror movie. Especially the cliffhanger ending.

Does that mean I’ve seen Descent 2? Hahahaha, no, not yet.

Still recovering from the first one, thanks.

P.S. Whoever designed that movie poster was a genius.

Shara: Back in college, I had a friend who insisted on going to see movies opening weekend. I didn’t see what the big deal was, but I followed along, and one of those opening weekends was the horror movie The Ring. Now, I can’t tell you how scared I was or wasn’t during the actual watching of the film. I’m sure I was glued to my seat, and I’m sure I jumped a little, but I left the theater my usual peppy (for me) twenty-two year-old self and returned to my dorm.

Let me tell you about my dorm. It was one of the original buildings built in 1842, had its own share of ghost stories, and I had a room all to myself. That night I tinkered away on my computer, toiling away at my delightfully derivative portal fantasy of elves and chosen ones and one true loves when I realized it was something like two in the morning and damn, it sure was quiet in my dorm! I decided to go to bed, so I got ready, being really quiet because it was the kind of quiet you don’t want to disturb, turned out the lights, and crawled under the covers.

And then I stared into the face of my dark television screen.

In my mind’s eye, I remembered The Ring, and — spoiler alert!  I kept picturing Samara, from the movie, crawling out of those damned television screens, dripping well-water from her pale, water-soaked and emaciated corpse. The quiet of the dorm screamed in my ears, and I’m not sure how I ever, ever got to sleep that night.

Because the genius of the film’s premise is the only way to keep Samara coming after you is to copy her tape so that someone else has to watch it, so by watching the movie, you’re that someone else.

So kudos to The Ring. It didn’t get to me in theaters, but it lingered, as all good horror should, and got me when it counted: when I was alone, in the dark, staring at the face of my own television, and suddenly too afraid to shut my eyes, because I didn’t know what I might miss.

Featured Image: copyright Stephen Gammell


  • J.L. Gribble October 13, 2017 at 9:45 am

    I’m creeped out after just reading some of these…

  • Lane Robins October 13, 2017 at 10:45 am

    So many scary things! Merrin, I guess I see your point about the Princess Bride. There were moments of genuine horror in there! And the cast acted the hell out of the whole thing. Kelly, I heard there was so much outrage that Gammell’s illustrations were replaced (By a perfectly competent artist, mind you) by parents who wanted their own children to feel the same traumas they did, that they are now putting Gammell back in!

  • Barbara A. Barnett October 13, 2017 at 11:36 am

    The Tailypo! I had forgotten all about that book, and now I don’t know how, because I loved the hell out of that one as a kid.

  • Kelly McCarty October 13, 2017 at 6:07 pm

    I know I shouldn’t judge because I startle way too easily but nothing makes me laugh like the video of the looks on people’s faces at the scariest points in the haunted house. I also feel bad for thinking that Merrin being scared of The Princess Bride is funny.

    I didn’t really find World War Z or The Ring to be all that frightening. I read the novella The Mist but I never saw the movie, although the novella was scary. Even the movie poster for The Descent is freaking me out.

    • Shara White October 13, 2017 at 6:50 pm

      I wouldn’t have found The Ring to be that frightening either…. if not for the circumstances that came after. 🙂

      And The Descent is awesome. We’ve watched it multiple times!

      • Kelly McCarty October 13, 2017 at 8:04 pm

        Hollins just seems like it should be haunted but the only paranormal experiences I’ve ever had happened…in a gym. The movie that came out when we were in college that did scare me was The Others.

        • Shara White October 14, 2017 at 9:53 am

          Okay, you have to tell the gym story.

    • Merrin October 17, 2017 at 8:34 am

      Don’t feel bad, it’s ridiculous and that’s why I shared it. :p

  • Nicole Taft October 14, 2017 at 12:28 am

    WWZ – Good book, shit movie (has NOTHING to do with the book aside from zombies). I liked it because of how it different it was. But you’re right, people always end up cannibalizing during zombie apocalypses and it’s the weirdest thing that I, too, do not understand.

    Princess Bride – You were 6. Totally understandable.

    Scary Stories – Guess what guys? They actually did finally realize that changing the covers was a super stupid move and the originals are ALL BACK. We ordered a ton of them at work and people are buying them up – including the box sets!

    The Descent – I cheated and looked up the summaries of 1 and 2 online. Yeah right I’m gonna watch those.

    The Mist – Funny that the gap to another dimension freaks me out here but not for Stranger Things. I think it’s because the context is waaaay different. In the Mist no one can really fight back and they’re all just….dying. The novella was pretty on par with the movie, actually, aside from a bit of this and that. I do distinctly remember one description that you can even see in the trailer when they pull back the line they tied to the guy – it came back “barn door red.”

    The Ring – I kind of cheated here too. It was on HBO or something one day while I was at college so I half watched it and half did laundry the entire time so I didn’t ever sit down and let it immerse me, which I believe was the smart thing for me to do otherwise I’m fairly certain I would have had the same “Omgomgomgomg” issues at night as you, Shara.


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