Reading Rituals: Scary Stories

the witches

Thanks, Quentin Blake, for an image that has been permanently seared into my memory. (Illustration from Roald Dahl’s “The Witches.”)

I have never been good with suspense. Perhaps I was scarred for all time after my second grade teacher decided that it would be a “fun treat” to show “Poltergeist” to a class of seven- and eight-year-olds. I’ve always had an active imagination, but even 15 minutes of watching bloody children whipped around in a paranormal frenzy was enough to kick it into overdrive. I fled the room and swore off scary movies forever.

Cut to a decade later. I’m watching “Prince of Egypt” with a group of college friends. I already know how the slaughter of first-born sons goes down–I didn’t go to Sunday School for nothing. But when the Egyptians are portrayed, only in shadow, raising weapons that look like meat cleavers, I can’t help myself. I scream and duck behind a pillow.

“Babe,” laughed my best guy friend at the time. “It’s a cartoon.”

My attitude about all things scary/suspenseful wasn’t much different for works of literature. Although a class I took later in college–“Tragedy and Horror” (I know, it just screams “Jenny,” doesn’t it?)–exposed me to enough truly terrifying fiction, and the philosophy behind it, that I began to find I could handle a little more of the suspenseful stuff.

In small doses. With the lights on. With my blankie by my side.

OK, I’m kidding about the blankie. But there are certain rituals that accompany my reading of scary or suspenseful books. Today, I still steer clear of most stories high in the creepy factor. Every once-in-a-while, though, when I’m in the mood for a small, carefully-calibrated adrenaline rush, I’ll pick one up–and commence with:

Reading Rituals, Part 2: Scary Stories

Ritual #1: Do not read after 5pm. Just DON’T. Yes, I am a wuss, and I wholeheartedly embrace my wussiness. I’ll read my scary stories, thankyouverymuch, but just don’t expect me to do it when it’s dark outside…or close to the time when I’m trying to fall asleep.

Ritual #2: Read another book at the same time. A happy book, full of ponies and sunshine. OK, scrap the ponies, but I’ve got to have another title that I can switch over to at a moment’s notice–just in case things get too intense. Ramona Quimby books work well for this purpose. Or any book on my favorites list.

Ritual #3: If it gets too scary, flip to the end. I know, I know. Here I am, one of literature’s great champions, actively advocating for spoiling a story. For some people, knowing how a book turns out ruins all the fun. For me, it makes the read more fun. My heart rate slows considerably when I can go back to Chapter 4 knowing that so-and-so dies, but that someone else doesn’t. I used to try to soldier through–to enjoy the feeling that the escalating suspense left in my chest. But I couldn’t enjoy it. So now I spoil stories for myself and have a merry old time going back to the beginning afterward.

Ritual #4: Don’t end on the scary book. I just can’t. No matter how busy I am, once I set down the tome of terror, I have to find something else to read–even if it’s a few pages of a food magazine, or a series of blog posts from one of my favorite sites. Whatever my final exposure to the written word that day, it better be cheery and suspense-free. After all, I’ll have plenty of time for my imagination to run away with me…later.

What will you be reading this weekend?

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