By Meghan E. Gattignolo
One of my favorite things to do in the autumn around Halloween is to immerse myself in spooky stories. Edgar Allan Poe was a favorite author of mine as a young teen. Nothing gives me the exciting chill of dread quite like a Poe story.
I know I’m not alone. On television and streaming services, shows themed around spooky stories are easily accessible. This season, I’ve enjoyed The Fall of the House of Usher on Netflix and the new Goosebumps series on Disney+ and Hulu, both which debuted around Friday the 13th this October. If these shows don’t satisfy the spooky story itch, there’s also hundreds of free podcasts and YouTube channels dedicated to true crime, real life horror stories, as well as fictional scary stories. What are these new forms of digital media but the latest manifestations of storytelling and sharing scary stories? What is it about stories – particularly scary stories – that pique our interest so much?
Grimms’ Fairy Tales, originally known as the Children’s and Household Tales (German: Kinder- und Hausmärchen), were often frightening, serving as lessons to children.
Lessons on the Good… and Bad
People have been telling stories to each other since the beginning of human history. Cave drawings provide evidence that early humans were telling stories with pictures. Native Americans handed down creation stories through oral traditions all the way up to their present-day descendants. Sometimes, stories are simply meant to entertain or impart a message. Other times they are meant as warnings. Stories gathered from folklore – such as “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel” – can be quite frightening even by modern standards. Stories like these were often meant to warn children about making bad decisions. In more recent years, Goosebumps books by author R.L. Stine continued this tradition by featuring characters who face dire consequences when they make selfish or thoughtless choices – resulting in some truly scary situations.
A Substitute for Bad Dreams
Much like how our brain creates nightmares to help us prepare for scary situations in real life, hearing or telling a fictional story about a terrifying situation can be a cathartic experience. Reality is full of real danger, but a scary story serves to parody that danger and gives us a way to play out our deepest fears and help us prepare mentally for a fight. The video game series Five Nights at Freddy’s – which incidentally gets its movie-version premiere this weekend – tells a story about animatronic characters from an entertainment venue that come to life and lure children to their deaths. Few things are scarier to a parent than something bad happening to their children in a place meant for kids to play in and have fun. Stories that handle themes of real-life dangers help our brains feel safer by having the opportunity to experience the danger in a safe way.
Edgar Allan Poe is best known his tales of mystery and the macabre. He is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism and Gothic fiction in the United States.
Explore the Unknown from the Comfort of Home
People are naturally curious. Reaching out into the great unknown is a uniquely human trait that marks our time on this planet. Acting out of curiosity is what led human beings to spread across the planet and inhabit every continent, even places with inhospitable climates. Humans love to stare into the abyss of the great unknown, and death is the greatest unknown of all. The short stories of Edgar Allan Poe often delve into the creeping dread of death and what it might be like to experience. Stories like The Masque of the Red Death and The Premature Burial showcase the different ways death can reveal itself. Poe’s stories also probe the human psyche and remind us how frightening our own imagination can be.
Scary Stories Are Just a Lot of Fun
Nothing beats scary stories shared with friends on a dark night gathered around a fire, when there’s a chill in the air and you know you’d be miserable if you were alone. The rush of adrenaline that keeps our blood pumping and mind racing is a lot of fun to experience once in a while – when you know you’re really safe and nothing is actually coming to chase you down… or is it?
How stories are told and shared have changed over the centuries. From local oral traditions like the Bell Witch to video shorts that spread rapidly around the world, the trend of telling scary stories has not faded. As long as people are anxious about the unknowns in life and are curious about the next, scary stories will thrive within our culture.
Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters.