The Paste Bonfire 2017: Our Favorite Storytellers Reveal Their Chilling Halloween Stories

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The Paste Bonfire 2017: Our Favorite Storytellers Reveal Their Chilling Halloween Stories

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.

Also check our last year’s bonfire, featuring Paul Bae, Vera Brosgol, Cullen Bunn, Mike Dougherty, Aaron Mahnke, Terry Miles, Nicolas Pesce and Ti West.

Chelsea Cain on The Easter Bunny
When I was a kid, I was afraid of two monsters: the Green River Killer and the Easter Bunny. The Green River Killer was caught in 2001. The Easter Bunny is still at large. Both terrorized my childhood. The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, murdered at least 49 women. Most of them were found in the 1980s within an hour and a half of my home town. For a few years there it seemed like anyone who went for a walk in the woods in the Greater Seattle metropolitan area tripped over a dead body. Ridgway targeted sex workers, runaways, hitchhikers. I could take precautions to protect myself. Avoid walking alone. Avoid men with mustaches.

But the Easter Bunny, he didn’t target hookers. He targeted kids.

I was four years old when my mother told me about her run-in with the Bunny. She had felt something brush past her the night before, she said, and opened her eyes. My skin went cold. “What did he look like?” I asked. She told me he had thick brown fur, wasn’t wearing clothes, and was “the size of a man.” When he saw that she was awake, he put his finger to his lips to tell her to stay quiet.

Well, this was a lot of new information. The Easter Bunny had fingers?… The paisley-vested white bunny of my imagination was replaced by a creeping, hairy upright naked man-rabbit.

The picture I formed that day in my head? It still gives me the willies.

I believed in that hairy upright naked man-rabbit long after I outgrew Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But I didn’t tell anyone my mother’s story. The tale was too terrifying, too earth-shaking in its implications. Besides, by remaining silent when the Bunny lifted his finger to his lips, hadn’t my mother agreed to his tacit non-disclosure agreement? I wanted to respect their confidence.

Now I am a mother myself. And yes, the Easter Bunny brings our daughter an Easter Basket every year. He leaves it just outside her closed bedroom door.

Chelsea Cain is a New York Times bestselling thriller writer and an Eisner-nominated comic book scribe whose most recent works include the novel One Kick and the Marvel comic series Mockingbird with artist Kate Niemczyk.

Mike Flanagan on The Goatman

I moved around a fair bit as a kid, as my father was in the Coast Guard. But we settled for quite a while in Bowie, Maryland, where I spent most of my formative years. There was a local story there that absolutely terrified me growing up. There were some very old train tracks that ran through town, out in the woods. They were pretty close to where I attended Boy Scout meetings for a few years, and all of the older kids would tell stories about the Goatman. There were different accounts of what he was meant to look like. The one I remember the most said that he appeared to be a normal man from a distance, but if he got close enough you would see that he had the head and hindquarters of a goat. One embellishment that really stuck with me was that his eyes would glow so bright that, from a distance, it would appear to be the light of an approaching train on the tracks… and if you saw that light, but didn’t hear the train, you should run for your life.

It was said he’d move silently through the woods, and if he got close enough he would move so fast that you’d never be able to escape. Stories of unlucky scouts being dragged screaming down the length of the train tracks, only to be found in pieces, days later and miles away, kept us awake many nights after the campfires had died down. Once, on a campout, I remember sitting and listening to a newly embellished version of the Goatman tale. And later, as we got ready for bed, we actually saw it… a bright light, on the train tracks, way in the distance, moving silently through the woods and toward the camp. My stomach dropped to my feet, and even though I’d been hearing those stories for years, my cynicism dropped away and was replaced by a searing, electric terror.

It turned out that the light was one of the older scouts, carrying a powerful flashlight, and running up the tracks. He got us good, and he’d been planning it for a while, but for a few seconds there I was convinced that the damn thing was real, and it was coming for us. My concepts of reality and safety were shattered by a simple flashlight… and some effective exposition.

We all laughed pretty hard by the end of it, and we even tried to recreate the prank for younger scouts down the line, but I learned an amazing lesson that day… if you provide someone with the proper ingredients, give them all of the pieces, you can use their imagination against them. With the right set-up, all you need to terrify someone is a flashlight and a few silent steps down the tracks. They’ll do the rest. That has remained my philosophy for making films ever since.

Mike Flanagan is the director of horror films including Gerald’s Game, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Hush and Oculus. He’s currently directing a new Netflix series based on Shirley McClaine’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Alex Hirsch on Getting Ouija Bored

The first time I remember learning about Ouija Boards was when I was 10 years old. My twin sister and I found a used one at a local estate sale and my eyes immediately darted to the words “Mystifying Oracle” on the box. I demanded an explanation from my mom, who was pretty casual about the whole thing. “Oh yeah, that’s this ancient game used by the living to contact the dead. It’s made by Parker Brothers. Four Dollars.”

I knew I needed it in my life. Immediately we bought it and raced home—I couldn’t wait to be the first kid on my block to open a portal to Hell and I got my Capri Sun and Yak Bak ready. I’d done enough paranormal research (i.e.: I’d seen the movie Casper) to know that this was about to be the adventure of a lifetime, possibly involving early CGI and Christina Ricci.

The next thing I remember was crushing disappointment. The planchette just sat there like a dead fish while my sister and I argued over who was scaring the ghosts away. A few minutes of arguing later and the pointer began to move…M….I….R…. We looked at each other with giddy anticipation until we got “MIRRORR.” We couldn’t figure out what that meant. Maybe mirror? But misspelled? I wondered if the ghost was drunk. Or having a stroke. Do ghosts get strokes?

We were ready to write the whole thing off when my mom’s expression turned serious. She had bought one other thing at the estate sale and hadn’t shown us yet—a 100-year-old dust-caked mirror from an old farm-house. Settlers weren’t known for their spelling. My sister and I went pale: this wasn’t a random word. This was a warning. About my mom’s creepy ancient mirror, possibly owned by a serial-killer farmer who specialized in murdering twins. Like most Ouija boards, this one immediately went into the closet and didn’t come out for a decade. I heckled my mom for an explanation. Knowing I was spooked, she hit me with some hippie talk about the collective unconscious—the “ghost” was really just my sister and I, slightly, subconsciously daring each other with each little move. This comforted me enough to get through the night, but I always avoided that mirror.

Alex Hirsch is the creator of the Disney cartoon Gravity Falls. He also served as a writer and storyboard artist on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and Fish Hooks.

Josh Malerman on the Mean Mask

Riding the bus home one night, I heard a lady tell another lady this story:

“It used to be there was a little girl in the neighborhood who was too poor to afford a Halloween costume and too proud to ask for help and too bad with crafts to make her own. But she wasn’t unimaginative. She had a solution, see. Every year she’d deform her actual face to look like a mask and then form it back together again on the morning of November the first. She used her hands, mostly, jabbing her thumbs into her cheeks until they were punctured in like divots, see, and then she’d pull down on the skin ‘neath her eyes ‘till her eyes looked twice their usual size. She’d fold up her ears and flatten her nose and shave her head up the middle like a monk. She’d pop a few teeth out her gums, using string and a door, and she’d paint those remaining black with chocolate. Scratched her skin till she bled. Then she’d leave the house like that, in a usual dress, all alone, with a brown paper bag or a plastic bag, sometimes with kitty litter still in it, sometimes just empty and flapping beside her as she walked ‘neath the big trees and kept close to the sides of the houses and brick buildings. She’d kinda pop out of the dark, just as some other boys and girls were turning away from a house, having just received their candy, the front door still closing behind them. She’d pop out and say, ‘Hey.’ And every time she did, all the other kids in proper costumes recoiled or cried out or just stared, slack-jawed, at what looked to be the greatest Halloween face that’d ever been made. Even some of her fingers were bent unnatural from all the jabbing and would stay so ‘till the morning of November the first. ‘Hey,’ she’d say, and say no more, almost like she knew how powerful just one syllable could be. And after the other kids got past her (giving her a wide berth, every time), the little girl would clop up the steps and ring the bell herself. All alone with a grocery bag on the porch.

“Now, there wasn’t a one adult who didn’t look twice at her, perhaps wondering where the tape was that held her eyes like so. Perhaps searching her mouth for any evidence of teeth. Perhaps getting a little hot and wondering if they ought to call someone, the police, child services, someone in the name of assistance. Because that little girl didn’t look so happy-natural as them other kids. But then again, she looked more natural than them other kids… and of course that’s what scared the adults the most.

“But one man, an one old man living at Penobscot and Pryne, wearing a simple plastic Snoopy mask… he understood that what he was seeing on his front porch was the truth. And he did something about it straight away. ‘Come inside, little girl,’ he said, stepping out of the way, showing her a short hall that led to a small kitchen table. And on that table was black plastic bowl, big enough to house a thousand pieces of candy. The man didn’t try to coax her any further. He kept silent, those black dead Snoopy eyes fixed on her painfully deformed face. Then, suddenly, she nodded and up the steps and into the house she went. The old man followed her to the kitchen, cause that’s straight where she went. He got there just in time to take her wrist as she was reaching a mangled hand into the bowl. ‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘A word first.’ He sat at the table so that his head was the same height as hers and he told her: ‘I know you gone and ruined your own face. I know you’re gonna put it back together again tomorrow morning. I know you did this and do this because you’re too poor to buy a mask, too proud to ask for help and too bad with crafts to make anything on your own. But I also know it aint any good for you. One day…’ here he removed the Snoopy mask. His face was twice as terrible as her own. ‘One day you won’t be able to put it back together again. One day your hands,’ he lifted his, liver-spotted and boney, ‘won’t be strong enough to do the job. Do you get what I’m saying?’ The little girl nodded. ‘Good,’ the old man said, his one eye half the distance down his face, half his lower lip stretching up to his nose. ‘Now I’ll give you this whole big bowl of candy if you promise never to do this again. And better than that,’ he handed her the Snoopy mask. ‘I’ll give you a real mask, to boot.’ The little girl stared at the plastic thing a long time before taking it. The man smiled but the way his mouth bent it looked more like he was crying, and either way there was nobody to see it as the little girl was plum fixed on the black bowl by then. ‘Go on,’ the old man said. ‘Take it.’

“And so she took it. She wore the mask, both arms hugging the bowl ‘cause it was too big for only one. And when she got home, she ate what she could before feeling sick, then fell asleep, then woke up and put her face back together again.”

“Jesus,” the other woman on the bus said. “She keep her promise? She leave her face alone from then on?”

The first woman nodded. “Yep. She did. She wore that Snoopy mask every year after. And she was the only little girl in all the city who knew that the scary old man who answered his door at the corner of Penobscot and Pryne wasn’t such a scary old man at all. Just a man who had played dress up one too many times, made a mean mask, before he got too old and weak to take it off again.”

Josh Malerman is the writer of novels including Bird Box (whose infamous pregnancy scene may have kept a Paste editor up till 4 a.m.), Black Mad Wheel and the upcoming Unbury Carol. He is also the lead singer for The High Strung.

Molly Ostertag on The Haunted Summer Camp

When I was a shy and nerdy teenager in upstate New York, I stumbled on something that changed my life—a live-action roleplaying summer camp. There, I could be a part of the kind of stories that existed only in the books I loved, and, perhaps an even greater fantasy, I could actually make friends.

We would get deep into the magical worlds we wove, an act of escapism built on costumes and dimly lit sets and the simple magic of being out in the woods at night, under the stars and the lush trees. The business couldn’t afford to buy land, so we traveled in between different camp sites, acting out different stories each week.

Camp Epworth was one of our locations. It consists of a scattering of buildings, a wide lawn, thick forest on every side, and a lazy, winding river. I first went when I was 14, and it didn’t take long for me to hear rumors that it was haunted.

Everyone had a story. A radio turned itself on when people came into a room, even though it didn’t have batteries inside. The fridge would open and chocolate bars would fall out of the freezer. The piano would play itself. Once a group of us went to swim in the river, and a friend coming down the bank to join us said that from far away, we all glowed with bright golden light. Nothing ominous—in fact, rather friendly—but it was certainly strange.

The land itself seemed imbued with something magical, something that took suggestions. At the beginning of a scary adventure game, great waves of fog rolled across the field—very unseasonable for summer in New York. When we fought an epic battle, everyone saw the full moon turn blood red as we acted out dramatic deaths on the field. I remember my character dying, looking glassy-eyed up at the sky, and seeing a shower of falling stars directly overhead.

The other thing I remember seeing during a game was a woman with long hair who stood on the porch outside the main hall. She was definitely too old to attend the camp, and she looked very sad. When I asked people later who she might have been, I heard other stories of her, always in that spot, never talking, sometimes with a sad smile. Every time I’ve told this story in the past 11 years, more people from camp have brought her up to me.

Imagination has power, and the imagination of a group, of several dozen teenagers throwing their hearts and minds into a shared fantasy—that seems like it must be very powerful indeed. We wanted magic to be real, and just for the space of those long nights in the woods, on the wide field, gathered together on the porch, it was.

Molly Ostertag is the artist behind Shattered Warrior and cartoonist of the graphic novel The Witch Boy.

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