Finding the horror hidden in childhood memories
|Full version: "Horror/Scary Newsletter (October 21, 2015)"
Finally, I am writing about a subject that I truly love! I always have been a big fan of horror literature and movies. Even as a child, it was fascinating, and the fact that I grew up in Maine, where so much horror fiction seems to take place, made me that much more interested. Not everyone has such obvious horror fodder surrounding them as a child, but everyone has something in their past that could serve them well in a scary story.
Using reality as the basis for horror is not a new concept by any means. Some of the best-known and most-loved stories in the genre were based on specific moments, settings, and people from the authors' lives. Those that resonate most are often the memories and stories from childhood that made us afraid to go to sleep at night. Even those who had no personal horrors in their young lives can find horror elements to make their stories pop if they think back on all of the weird things they saw and heard as children. A pleasant upbringing can never really shield a child from ever being scared or worried or shocked, after all.
When I was a kid, lots of the most horrifying stories and rumors came straight from my parents and other adult family members. They did not know that I was listening or did not think I would understand what they were talking about, but I did. I am sure that you all had at least one of these sorts of overheard scary news stories or rumors. No? Well, here are a few of mine that might help you jog your memory about those you might have heard:
A school friend's father went to prison for manslaughter while driving under the influence. Not frightening in and of itself. However, this was not the first time. I overheard my mother on the phone saying that she hoped they kept him there because this was the third time it had happened. His third manslaughter-DUI. It scared me to know that a friend's dad had killed multiple people and could possibly do it again. Today, I can envision a horror story about someone exacting revenge on the man or perhaps even a ghost story.
Another school friend's little brother (who was the same age as my brother) died on Christmas day. He wanted a snowboard and actually got one! He was so excited that he took it outside without even opening the rest of his presents. While the whole family watched, he went down the driveway on his new board... and was hit by a van. A few years later, I saw the sister go nuts at a basketball game because the coach was holding her earrings and lost them. It turned out those were her brother's gift to her that Christmas. I imagine that this could be either a crazy YA thriller about her going nuts or a ghost story or maybe even a revenge story.
Murders never happened where I grew up, but there was one in the next town when I was a kid. I didn't know the person. However, I overheard my parents and neighbors talking about how it was my other neighbor, Larry, who did it. They showed a police artist's sketch of the man who committed the crime, and they all recognized the drawing as Larry, who had always been nice to me. I was horrified! I asked if they called the police, and they all said no. That scared me even more. Ten years later, he did go to prison for murder... someone else's murder in another state. I guess it was not a very far-fetched rumor.
I am sure that you can all think of at least one story you heard as a child that stuck with you for all the wrong reasons. Heartbreak, paranoia, violence, tragedy... they can all be good starting points for horror stories. But the characters and settings from childhood could be just as influential and inspiring. They might not have related to horror at all... but they could.
Think back on the people you met as a child but did not really "know". A friend's parent who you saw pick them up after school one time. That woman who worked at the grocery store for a few years. The crossing guard who helped you cross the street each day. What might their backstories have been? It helps to connect a character to a face. If you have seen them and know the way the moved and spoke, it will feel more real as you write. Children are also very observant when it comes to anything amiss. A slight limp, a missing tooth, a pair of ratty mittens, constant runs in an old lady's stockings... what weird things do you remember? What horrifying story might have led to them?
For example, I was terrified by my neighbor Terri when she first moved into the house next door. I was about four years old, and I remember hiding behind my mother and wishing we could just go home. Terri was a perfectly nice woman, so why was I so afraid? She wore thick glasses that made her eyes seem very very small. One of her teeth was stained in the front (from years of smoking). She was very loud when she spoke. Her laugh was sort of like a cackle... high-pitched and loud. Her hair was long and black but graying. It was like a real life witch walked out of the house next door. Could I change her name and write her into a horror story? In a heartbeat.
Finding horror settings in Maine is super easy. Old hunting cabins, creaky 100-year-old buildings, ghost stories all over the place... but surely there were settings from your own childhood that you remember clearly because of a sense of foreboding. Or perhaps you were just curious about this one building or business? An abandoned house or a meat-packing plant? A field just outside of town? Perhaps a tree or railroad crossing where occasionally a pile of flowers and candles popped up? Any place where you were not allowed to play is a good place to start as well.
The town dump was the first place that came to mind for me here. It was desolate and smelled bad, and there was something inherently freaky about walking on "ground" that was actually garbage. Obviously, I was never allowed to play there. Nor would I have ever gone there alone for any reason. I also recall one day, as we were driving away from the dump, I saw a teddy bear sitting on a stump beside the road. It was in the woods and only visible to someone who was really looking. It was raining, and there was that teddy bear, sitting on a stump in the rain. I asked my mother if we could turn around and get it, but she insisted that it probably belonged to "Sarah"... a little girl my age who lived nearby who I was supposed to have known as a toddler. She didn't go to my school, which was strange. I remembered being creeped out by the whole affair, not to mention the poor teddy bear abandoned out in the rain.
Where's the Story?
These random elements from childhood can work together to create a vivid tale of terror. This newsletter has been sort of like a brainstorming session for me as well. Could I write a story using the above examples? Sure I could. Terri's daughter was hit by a drunk driver on Christmas day many years ago. She becomes an eccentric woman, living alone in an old hunting shack by the junkyard, and she decides to use a teddy bear to lure a child to her home so that she wont be lonely anymore. I think it could work quite well now that I think about it. I imagine that you could come up with similar. Just start writing down those odd bits and pieces from your childhood and give them a little twist. You might be surprised at how spooky the consequences are.