Those looking for year-round quality chills aren’t at a loss; we’ve entered a golden age of the macabre, where horror isn’t relegated to shoe-string film budgets or mass market paperbacks. The genre thrives in all manner of media from auteurs whose storytelling prowess is, to put it bluntly, scary good. Just look at the cross-section of podcasters, comic writers and filmmakers below. These storytellers never left the bonfire, perpetually exploring what fear, monsters and mortality reflect about humanity. But what lore sent shivers up these folks’ spines in their formative years? What tales could be harrowing enough to disturb artists who professionally tell disturbing tales? In celebration of Halloween weekend, some of Paste’s favorite storytellers were (in alphabetical order) kind enough to relay their favorite scary stories and lore.
Paul Bae is the co-creator and producer of The Black Tapes podcast.
My favorite Halloween story is something told to me by a friend back in elementary school. We were in the sixth grade and just edging toward that age when we were getting a bit too big to go trick-or-treating. We realized this so we wanted to make the most of it that year, so each came equipped with two black garbage bags for our evening haul.
There were five of us, so we split up to cover more ground with the agreement to meet back at the local corner store to share intel on which houses gave the most candy. I was in a group of three, while the other two went off on their own.
An hour later, my trio was at the store waiting for the other pair. They showed up 15 minutes late, breathless.
They told us that about halfway into their round, a little kid in a gorilla mask started following them. At first, they didn’t notice because there were so many kids out in the neighborhood that it was common for a half dozen kids who don’t know each other to congregate around every door for candy. But a few more houses into it, one of my friends, Kent, noticed that the kid in the gorilla mask kept tailing them. Kent asked him his name. It was Danny. He was a small kid with a fancy plastic gorilla mask that had a moving jaw. But that was it for his costume. He wore a thick black parka with the hood pulled up around the mask. Kent said it was barely a costume. He figured the kid had no crew of his own so asked Danny if he wanted to join them. Danny nodded yes.
So everything was going fine until they reached this one house and Danny remained on the sidewalk. He wouldn’t enter the front gate. Kent tried to urge him along to the door, but he refused. So Kent and our other friend, Steve, rang the doorbell and this kid opened the door. They recognized him as a quiet boy in the grade above us named Mike. At first, it struck my friends as odd that someone near our age would be giving out candy instead of being out there getting some. But then they remembered that his little brother had died in a car accident the year before while trick-or-treating. (I remembered this, too, since our school made us sit through another street safety presentation in the aftermath.) So it made sense that his family wouldn’t be celebrating this time of year.
When Kent and Steve returned to the sidewalk, the little kid was nowhere to be seen. My friends figured he was past curfew so headed home on his own. And it was on their way to the next house that they both remembered the name of Mike’s little brother who had died: Danny.
He had been wearing a gorilla mask at the time he was hit.
To this day, I have no clue if my friends made it up or if they believed this happened to them. Given that it was Kent’s idea for us to split up, I’m guessing that it was his idea to make up this story for our terrifying amusement.
But you never know.
Vera Brosgol is the cartoonist of Anya’s Ghost and the author/illustrator of Leave Me Alone!, as well as a veteran of the animation studio Laika, where she worked on films including Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.
I grew up in upstate New York, and we’d often pass through Tarrytown, so I was very aware of the legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s the story of a jittery schoolteacher who stumbles upon a ghostly headless rider on a dark night, and disappears never to be seen again. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of fall in New England, as well as the chilly sense of history you get in that part of the country, with its old barns, rickety bridges and traces of the Revolutionary War. I live on the West Coast now, but reading the story transports me back home, to my favorite time of year.
Cullen Bunn is the writer of comic books Harrow County, The Damned, The Sixth Gun and Uncanny X-Men.
I grew up in North Carolina, and my dad was a natural-born storyteller. He used to spin yarns about all manner of ghosts—haints, as I call them—and many haunted places.
There was this one spot he told me about, a kind of famous haunt in rural North Carolina, nestled back in the deep woods not far from Harper’s Crossroads, called the Devil’s Tramping Ground. This is a circular patch of dirt in the middle of the woods, several yards across. While trees and brush grow right up to the edge of the patch, not even a weed can be found within the barren circle. Try to plant something there, and it will not take root. Take a living plant and transplant it to the Tramping Ground, and it will quickly wither. Animals refuse to enter the area. They’ll flee from it, in fact. If you’re brave enough to visit the area and leave some object there overnight, you’ll find it far from the patch of dirt come morning.
Over the years, I’ve heard a number of explanations for the peculiar site. I’ve heard that it was the site of a bloody battle between two tribes of American Indians. I’ve heard some sort of toxic chemical was dumped in the spot. I’ve heard that a UFO landed in the area once.
It always struck me as odd and a little chilling that people would rather the site be caused by hazardous sludge or extraterrestrials than the most popular legend. What my dad told me—and this is the legend I think most people accept as “the truth”—is that the Tramping Ground is in a nice, quiet, dark, secluded spot. And that’s where the Devil goes at night to pace in a lonely circle as he contemplates his woes. His hooves are so hot from walking in the flames of perdition all day that it burns any plantlife away. And he’s so frustrated by his plight that he angrily kicks any object left in his path aside. And why would the Devil need to come to Earth to dwell on his torments? Simple, my dad would say.
“Because Hell is so, so crowded.”
Mike Dougherty is the writer and director of Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus and their comic book spinoffs, as well as the scribe on the upcoming Godzilla sequel with co-writer Zach Shields
Here’s the thing: I can’t pick just one. There are so many different ones; I get excited when I think about different aspects of all these different stories. The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury—that one got me as a kid, and I fell in love with it because it was the first time I was introduced to the history of the holiday. The story takes kids through time going all the way back through Egypt and other periods, exploring the reasons why we celebrate Halloween. To me, it gave the day a depth and soul that I didn’t know existed until then.
It becomes this weird season where we’re introduced to the idea that magic is real. When I was putting up decorations with my 5-year-old nephew, out of nowhere he says, “Halloween is magic.” From the mouth of babes. That sums it up for me. Whether you want to talk about it meaning legit hocus-pocus magic, or whether it’s the time when we start to slow down and spend more time with friends and family. It’s this time of year when the seasons start to change and we start to enter the winter months, with Halloween being the first holiday up. It becomes this period when we’re encouraged to take on traditions, rituals or whatever you’d want to call it, where we’re spending more time with friends and family.
I like to think that yes, it is magic, and these stories touch upon those ideas. What I really like about my favorite Halloween stories is that they aren’t just about scaring you. Those aren’t my favorite stories. Horror movies are great for that, of course, but if you look at The Halloween Tree or Something Wicked This Way Comes, even the Charlie Brown specials, there are themes of finding more meaning in life by confronting death. It’s mythic. The holiday does leave this candy trail, that if you choose to follow it, takes you down this really amazing path of history, culture, mythology and folklore.
It reaffirms life by embracing a holiday that celebrates death and everything ghoulish and frightening. But instead of cowering in fear of it—which our culture usually does—this holiday acknowledges those who have passed before us, acknowledges our own mortality, and by doing so, I think helps us to embrace our own life, by spending that time with friends and family. We get to laugh in the face of death by participating in it, dressing up like these monsters, skeletons, zombies and witches. It’s laughing in the face of the grim reaper.
Aaron Mahnke is the creator, producer and host of the Lore podcast, which will also debut as a 10-episode TV series on Amazon next year.
One of my favorite spooky stories involves a colonial village and a witch, something that I think is pretty fitting for this time of the year here in New England. Back in the late 1600s, in western Massachusetts, there was a woman named Mary Webster who wasn’t very loved in her village. She was cranky, she spoke her mind, she wasn’t religious and she was poor. She ticked all the boxes that people wanted to avoid, and that turned her into a social pariah.
They got so tired of her that they actually accused her of witchcraft just to get rid of her. She was arrested and transported to Boston over 100 miles away, but she was acquitted and defiantly returned home. A year later, when the village elder became deathly ill, they blamed her for his decline. She’d cursed him, they said. They reportedly witnessed odd things in or near the man’s bed, and believed she was trying to kill him. So a handful of young men decided to skip the court and take justice into their own hands.
They went to Mary’s house and dragged her out into the snow. Then they tied a rope into one of her trees, and hanged her right there. When she stopped moving, they cut her down and went home. But Mary didn’t die. In the morning, she stood up, dusted herself off and went back to work in her house.
Someone did die that night, though: the town elder.
As a side note: Mary’s descendants moved to Canada, and the legendary author Margaret Atwood is one of them. If you want an extra chill this Halloween season, go find her poem entitled Half-Hanged Mary and give it a read. It’s fantastic.
Terry Miles is the co-creator and producer of The Black Tapes and Tanis podcasts as well as the writer/director of films including Even Lambs Have Teeth and A Night for Dying Tigers.
There was a house in my neighborhood growing up. We all knew that somebody had died there. It was on a bit of a hill, and it was always dark, curtains always closed. Somebody moved in and lived there for about nine months or so. If they had any kids, they didn’t go to our school. We saw a couple, probably in their 30s, very thin and pale (or perhaps I’m romanticizing) around the house on occasion. One year, out of nowhere, on the day before Halloween, the couple or whoever was living there, had created a haunted house, skeletons, foam grave markers, spiders and the rest. Soon, rumors began spreading that whoever lived there was getting ready to move…and now, on Halloween, like they’d done in all the other towns they’d lived in, they were opening the house to murder the children in the neighborhood. We were teenagers, and considered these rumors nothing more than cheesy tales to scare the younger kids.
On Halloween, my friends and I were playing D&D and one of us, I don’t remember which one, decided we were going to go to that house and see if anything was happening, maybe scare some of the younger kids ourselves.
We went up the hill, ready to confront whatever strangeness was happening, but the haunted house stuff was gone. The lights were out, and there were no trick or treaters to be found. It was extremely creepy…
A few months later, a new family moved in and painted the house. They were a military couple around my parents’ age with two kids.
Both of the kids complained about strange things happening in their house, and the rest of us avoided going there as much as possible.
About nine months later they moved without any warning, right in the middle of the school year.
The house remained empty for years, and was still empty when my family moved away.
Nicolas Pesce is the writer and director of The Eyes of My Mother.
I grew up in a small suburb outside of New York City. For a child with a sweet tooth like mine and a penchant for the macabre, trick-or-treating was the highlight of the Halloween season. But I grew up at a time of stranger danger and fear of all white vans. Even in my small town, where trick-or-treating consisted of frequenting the same 13 houses year after year, there’s one tale of folklore that I genuinely feared.
Of course, the houses giving out full-sized candy bars were of the highest priority. Second, those distributing the traditional “fun” size. But the lowest class of treat sent a shiver up my spine. The unwrapped candy. Chocolates, and other sweets, removed from their packages by the homeowner and put into small cellophane bags sporting pumpkin clip art. The other children would grab at the packs with glee. But I knew better.
I knew the stories of the children who’d died from poisoned candy. The murderers who’d soak the candy in rat poison before repackaging the treats into that little baggie of death. The thought was terrifyingly real. Because it was so simple.
I didn’t fear the dead rising for just one night. Ghosts able to be seen like a one-night theatrical engagement. There were no bullies stealing candy or ne’er-do-wells hiding in the bushes. But the idea of the poisoned candy seemed exactly like something some child-hating serial killer would do on Halloween night. And really, what’s worse: being spooked by the sight of a ghost, or killed by a serial killer? I’ve since looked into the urban legend to see if there really were any kids who died from poisoned candy, or if it was just my mother’s anxiety rattling through my young mind. Turns out that in the ‘50s, some dentist gave out laxative-coated candy. And then in the ‘60s, some crazy lady gave kids things like steal wool instead of candy. But no one died. And of course there were the Tylenol Murders in 1982, but that was weeks before Halloween, and had nothing to do with candy.
I was trick-or-treating in the ‘90s, and it seems like all the reports my mom had heard, if they did in fact exist, were about 40 years old, and not entirely accurate. Looking back on it, what was scarier than the idea of the poisoned candy was the idea that you couldn’t trust your neighbors. The people you see every day, every year. That maybe these people weren’t who you thought they were. Hiding things behind closed doors. I find even now, I’m still preoccupied by that notion. It seeps into all the stories I tell.
Mistrust the smiling man who’s trying to give you unwrapped candy. He isn’t who you think he is.
Ti West is the writer and director behind such horror films as The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, The Sacrament and recent Western In a Valley of Violence.
I always thought the idea of razor blades in candy was a pretty wild urban legend—mostly because if you are afraid of that, and therefore don’t eat Halloween candy, then ironically you end up living a much safer and healthier life. It seems like a scary evil plot that totally backfires and ends up helping children make better choices in the end.