From the playbill: Primary Sources

On why we tell scary stories

The old “fight or flight” reaction of our evolutionary heritage once played a major role in the life of every human. Our ancestors lived and died by it. Then someone invented the fascinating game of civilization, and things began to calm down. War, crime and other forms of social violence came with civilization and humans started preying on each other, but by and large daily life calmed down. We began to feel restless, to feel something missing: the excitement of living on the edge, the tension between hunter and hunted. So we told each other stories through the long, dark nights... when the fires burned low, we did our best to scare the daylights out of each other. Our hearts pound, our breath quickens, and we can imagine ourselves on the edge. Yet we also appreciate the insightful aspects of horror. Sometimes a story intends to shock and disgust, but the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of our complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore and challenges preconceptions of all kinds.

Excerpt from Elizabeth Barrette’s essay “Elements of Aversion: What Makes Horror Horrifying,” 1997.

Horror is easier to write than good horror: there is certainly an art, I think, in creating an atmosphere that is truly horrific without relying on the liberal splattering of buckets of blood and gore. One element of true horror in literature... is the notion that somehow we have entered a world which is at once both familiar and yet not quite right, that there’s something amiss about one’s surroundings. It’s that unsettling feeling which produces the discomfort and disquietude of the good ghost/horror tale. As human beings, changes of routine are unsettling and upsetting, apt to disturb one’s equilibrium. A good supernatural story makes use of that, to absorb the reader into the familiar and then tip them into a nightmare scenario. Throw in some hint of the unknown and the terror ensues.

Excerpted from Simon Marshall-Jones’s piece “The History of the Ghost Story and What Makes a Great Tale,” 2013.