When I was a kid, I hated being scared. I distinctly remember my mom taking my brother and me to the haunted house at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis one year. We paid for our tickets and waited in the long, long line to get in, all the while listening to spooky sounds. We finally got to the entrance, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go in. What was I afraid would happen at a children’s museum haunted house? Beats me. But I sat by the door and waited. At the same time, I would devour books on ghost stories–every child of the ’90s remembers the horrifying Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series–and then spend sleepless nights waiting for my head to fall off. What was the difference?
Scary stories allow us to feel fear without experiencing it. That might seem like a fine distinction, but in a haunted house, there is direct interaction. There is a possibility, however remote, that that mild-mannered Children’s Museum volunteer is actually a serial killer clown. With a story, we see fear secondhand, and the primary concern is paper cuts (or today, I guess, Kindle electrocution). We get the salacious thrill without the risk.
Storytelling Arts of Indiana’s annual Ghost Stories at Crown Hill event combines the two. Yes, there’s the storytelling component that’s still secondhand and removed from true fear, but you’re watching all of this at night. In a graveyard. A graveyard full of 200,000 men, women, babies, soldiers, wives, fathers and every other kind of person imaginable, any one of whom might take offense to a story and grab your ankle on your way back to your car.
The best stories at the event took advantage of the graveyard setting and the first fear: fear of death. From tales of a man crawling through tunnels under the tombstones, pursued both by a vengeful ghosts and by rats (“Pull your feet a little closer to your body,” the teller advised) to a fantastic modern update on classic campfire tale “The Golden Arm” where the greedy husband gets his comeuppance with an embrace from the grave, these stories let us wonder what was lurking out there in the dark. Waiting. For us.
A tale of haunted chewing gum eschewed the graveyard but embraced the same “it could be out there right now!” fear and will probably have a few kids scrutinizing their trick-or-treat bags a bit more closely than usual, while a story of some super smelly sneakers certainly encourages better podiatric hygiene.
Other stories strayed a bit further, relying on our humanity and empathy for others to make us feel that fear. A variant on Bluebeard’s Wives (always a favorite of mine) plays not so much on the horror of finding a closet full of blood, bones and flesh, but rather the horrible helplessness of not being able to help someone in need. A pair of Japanese folktales from the work of Lafcadio Hearn–thanks for letting me put my Asian Studies minor to work–play on duty, honor and more fear of rats. Two more folktales, one from Scotland and one from Zimbabwe, were perhaps a bit divorced from their cultural roots to be readily understandable, but featured nice gross-out moments nonetheless.
Over time, I’ve learned the pleasures of experiencing fear, rather than feeling it by proxy. Ghost Stories at Crown Hill combines the two just enough to be spine tinglingly fun instead of truly terrifying. If you come to this event next year–and you should–do spend some time wandering the beautiful, peaceful cemetery. Knowing the place is so lovely and so calm, it’s hard to imagine any vengeful spirits out and about.
Though there probably totally are some. And do watch out for the rats, won’t you?