Classic Columbus Ghost Stories: How to Spin a Scary Story Like a Pro

Emily Thompson

The key to storytelling is the delivery. Sure, you need a compelling story to tell in the first place-but your success hinges on how you tell it. We asked two members of Storytellers of Central Ohio, an organization that promotes the art of storytelling, to school us on sharing spooky stories. Here, Cathy Jo Smith, the group's president, and Frank McGarvey give tips and techniques for scaring the living daylights out of everyone sitting around the

Find a story.If you want to write your own, start with an idea. "R.L. Stine said, think of a situation, and then think of the scariest thing that could happen at that particular time and work from there," McGarvey says. Then figure out what kind of story it is. "Most true ghost stories are more sad or tragic," Smith says. "They're about somebody who's had an unexpected loss of life or love, or ghosts that go back to the last place they lived in the world."

Learn the story.Whether you choose a classic tale or write your own, learn the story-don't recite it. "If you're memorizing a story and someone does something in the back of the room and distracts you, you have a problem getting back into the swing of the story," McGarvey says. Once you have it down, practice in front of friends or family before taking your presentation to a larger audience.

Know your audience."You always have to take into account what kind of audience you have, because you do not terrify little kids," Smith says. "Everybody likes to be scared a little bit, as long as they know that they're safe, as long as they have an out." Says McGarvey, "I rarely, if ever, tell a story two times the same way, because your audience is different each time."

Differentiate between characters.You can use different voices or accents, but don't force it. "You don't have to get cartoonish," Smith says. "Just lowering your voice a little bit can help distinguish between characters. Or you turn your head one way or another for dialogue."

Keep it short."Don't overstay your welcome," Smith says. "Keep the stories short until you know your skill level. We had a rule for a long time in SOCO that stories were kept to, like, eight minutes. And it really helped you learn how to cut down what you're doing and get to the bones of the story. Watch your audience. If they're bored, you'll know it. And then change it or quit."

Create suspense."You build it with your voice," Smith says, "maybe by starting low and soft and slowly getting louder." Says McGarvey, "A pause can be a very effective way to signal something scary is about to happen."

Let the story live on."Build the tension and then pause, long pause," Smith says. "And then continue with something like, 'No one knows exactly what happened that night. No one who was there ever talks about it.' Because if you're telling a scary story, mystery and uncertainty are at the heart of it. And it means the story could be not over quite yet."