What happens when the Queen of the Cold-Blooded Tales sees a head in the clouds or watches a ghost glide through a student's locker at school? She starts to write! Roberta Simpson Brown has dedicated her life's work to telling scary stories and teaching children – and adults – how to overcome their fears. Read on as Roberta reveals the memories behind the monsters that bring her bone-chilling tales to life.
Raven: Why are scary stories so important for kids?
Roberta: Well, I think that scary stories are so important because everybody is afraid of something. Fear is something we all have in common. In teaching, especially in middle school, I found out that a lot of the kids don’t want to admit they’re afraid of anything, so they don’t deal with their fears.
Scary stories can serve as kind of a sounding board. Kids can realize that they’re not the only ones afraid, and also that it’s okay to be afraid. Then it helps them identify their fear so they can deal with it. They can find different solutions, or if there is no solution, then at least they can get information about how to deal with it. Fear can be like a chronic pain, you may not be able to get rid of it, but you can learn how to live with it.
Raven: A lot of people say that middle school or the end of elementary school are some of the scariest times in life. Do you find that’s true?
Roberta: We had a guest speaker once for a middle school meeting, and he said, “About all you can hope for in middle school is to get them through it.”
I taught middle school a long time, and you would be absolutely amazed at how many students have paranormal experiences. I don’t get involved with the discussion one-on-one without the parents’ permission because I don’t ever want to influence a child to my way of thinking—that’s the parent’s job.
I will say to them, “Have you told your parents about this?” Sometimes they’ll say no, but sometimes they’ll say, “Yes, they didn’t believe me.” They don’t know where to turn after that, so I really wish there was a counselor out there at school that could at least listen to these kids with an open mind.
The story of “Don’t Open That Locker” is actually based on a true story. I’ve gone to this school every year for fifteen years. They captured a ghostly image on their security camera. It goes right by—and you can see it’s not a shadow or anything else. It goes right by and goes into a locker. I thought, “Mhm, that’s gotta be a story.” And the kids were so excited: “So, you’re gonna tell that story?”
Raven: How many of your stories would you say are actually based on true events?
Roberta: In my fiction, I wouldn’t say there’s a lot, but often something happens that triggers a story. In The Walking Trees, there is a story called “Cloud Cover.” It’s about a head up in the clouds and, of course, it eventually comes down and eats this little girl.
Well, I was driving to school one morning – and I love to look at clouds – I just glanced up and there was the most distinct head I’d ever seen right in the clouds, and I thought, “Well, what if... what if it were real?” So, I made up the story from that.
There’ll be a little something that’ll trigger it, maybe, but my stories mostly just come from my warped mind.
Raven: Where do you get your ideas? From your experiences doing paranormal investigations or just your own raw imagination?
Roberta: Well, it’s really a combination. First of all, I love to use familiar things or places, and then make them turn on people. That’s scarier than writing a story that takes place in Ireland, in a castle. Well, they may go “eehw,” but they’re not going to go to Ireland and sleep in a castle that night most likely... but they will be in their bedroom at home or they will be in their classroom at school.
Here’s one that I tell:
I had a little boy who was coming to school during the summer while construction was going on, and he wasn’t supposed to do that, but he did anyway. One day, he lost his ball. He had thrown it against the side of the building and it went through the window. He went in and crawled right through the wall. While he’s back there getting his ball, they close up the hole so he’s walled up.
Then I’ll see a bookcase against the wall in the school, and I’ll ask them, “Do you know why they keep that bookcase over there?”
There’s another one I like:
This kid is talking through the storyteller’s program. He says, “I’m gonna leave. I don’t like these old stories. As he goes out the door, the teacher says, “Just where do you think you’re going?” “Gonna leave, don’t like these.” She says, “You’re sure?” “Yup, heard all I want to hear.” She says, “Suit yourself,” then she reaches up, rips his ears off, throws them out into the hall and leaves them there right outside the classroom door. The principal will say, “Yeah, come on out here, I’ll show you.”
Raven: Well, that’s one way to get their attention.
Roberta: It’s fun. And then, of course, I do have personal experiences. We are ghost hunters. We just don’t go out as much now that we’re older, and I’ve got a lot of stories from those investigations.
Mostly, I just look at something and say, “What if?... What if that were not like it really looks?” Then I go from there to create a story.
Raven: Do you ever have an odd experience while telling these stories? What is the typical reaction from the kids?
Roberta: Well usually, they’re fine. They’re just, you know, hooked. But this is funny – I went to a town in Tennessee to speak at the local library. They had hired me to tell “very scary stories.”
One of the girls there followed me around all afternoon, and she sat with me at dinner and said, “Oh, I love scary stories! I can hardly wait.”
We started the program. She was sitting right in front of me, and I had started one of my horrors or something. All of a sudden, this girl starts screaming! She stands up and she says, “No, no! Stop!”
I looked at her mother and said, “Well, what do I do?”
She said, “Go ahead. That’s what we paid you for.”
I had been thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if they’ll ever have me back.” Then the mother took her down the hall to the bathroom—we could still hear her screaming down there.
Raven: How old was she?
Roberta: She was about 9 or 10.
Finally, the mother brought her back in, and she sat with her. I was able to finish the story, but, of course, I talked with her afterward and told her this is just a story and I didn’t mean to scare her.
I had cassettes with me to sell, and the father came up and bought a couple. I said, “Now, wait a minute. You know that your daughter is scared of those stories.”
He said, “Ah, well, we’re gonna be up all night, might as well have something to listen to.”
I was thinking oh my goodness. They’ll never have me back and I may not even get out of here.
Raven: I’m curious, do you always tell the kids that you don’t mean to scare them, even though they’re scary stories?
Roberta: I tell them that I want to scare the bejeebers out of them, but I don’t want to cause them to go home and have nightmares.
The very first thing I do, wherever I am, is say to the kids, “These stories are scary. I know I look like somebody’s sweet little, old grandmother... but I’m not. If anybody is afraid, for any reason – if you don’t like scary stories, if they upset you, if your parents don’t want you to hear them – I want you to leave now. There is no disgrace for you to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to hear these stories.’ We will find something else for you to do. I do not want you to be here if you’re going to be scared beyond the program.”
Every now and then one child will leave. I always give them that option.
Some of them think they’re not going to get scared, especially sixth grade or middle school boys. They look up at me, and I can see it in their eyes. They’re thinking, “That old woman can’t scare me.” Then I’ll look at them, and I’ll say, “I know what you’re thinking... but you’re wrong.”
I think most of the kids really do understand that scary stories are for fun. They see these things on TV that make my stories look like Sunday School lessons. I’ve been surprised, but a lot of them don’t really like that kind of gory stuff that’s described in detail. They want to use their imagination. They don’t want to see blood dripping down the wall and eyeballs rolling on the floor. They would rather use their imagination and put in the details on their own.
Raven: So you weave your stories with a familiar background or setting, then they can create their own scary endings?
Roberta: Right, and one thing I want teachers, librarians, and parents to know is I never use obscene language in my stories.
When I was teaching, of course, I worked on stories in class with the kids, and I would tell them you can scare somebody half to death without using all those four-letter words or lurid details. If you’re a good writer, you carefully choose the right words. You use verbs as well as adjectives to describe things.
If you’ve got a spooky setting, and the moon is coming out, shining down – well saying that is not scary. But if you say, “The moon moved slowly out from behind the cloud and glared at the earth with cold, evil eyes,” – it’s a whole different picture that you’ve created.
Raven: Oh yeah, that personification really brings it into your soul!
Roberta: That’s right, just one word can make a big difference.
There are two characters in one of my stories, and you’d think they’re fishermen because they’re sitting on the ground holding their nets. They’re actually ghouls who have come up “fishing” for people. They look at this little light in the cottage, and they know somebody’s gonna come out, and they’re gonna get ‘im. So, they chuckle. But what would it feel like, if I said, they giggled? It’s all part of the general approach.
Raven: What writers have influenced you the most?
Roberta: I follow the advice of two people. Edgar Allan Poe, of course, and he’s the one who said you’ve got to focus on one effect. If you’re going to focus on fear, you’ve got to use everything – the setting, the characters, everything – to make it scary.
Stephen King said something I really love, “I make my characters likeable, and then I turn the monsters loose.” That’s it in a nutshell. If you don’t like the characters, you don’t care if he turns the monsters loose. You create a little kid who’s alone, and you feel sorry for him and you’re concerned for him. Then the monsters come.
Raven: That’s what happens a lot in your stories, especially in the first section of Scariest Stories Ever Told with the “back to school” theme. A lot of the kids, especially those that are in school for the first time, don’t know what to expect, or things aren’t working right for some reason, like with their locker. What other key elements do you use to structure scary stories?
Roberta: I do think that hook at the beginning is very important because you’ve gotta grab ‘em, especially if you’re reading scary stories to a room full of young kids who are squirming around. You’ve gotta grab ‘em with something powerful at the beginning.
When I’m writing, I often start at the ending of my story and work backwards because I know what I want to happen.
For the story of the two figures sitting on the ground, I had a phrase that my sister had found somewhere: “white skulls and green moldy faces.” I always wanted to write a story about that. So when I got the idea for this story, the two figures had white skulls and green moldy faces.
It’s really important, I think, to keep a journal and write down ideas that might fit in the story later. I don’t tell an awful lot of details mainly because I’m a storyteller, and you can’t stand there and tell a lot of details or you’ll lose the audience. I just try to make the character somebody likable, then I start building the foreshadowing.
It’s very important that you do not cheat your reader. I have gotten so angry—and it’s probably happened to you, too—but I’ll be reading something, and I’ll be so hooked, so involved, and then the story ends with, “And then I woke up.”
Raven: Ah! There is actually a law that states we are never allowed to do that in creative writing classes.
Roberta: I’ve had my students get furious about stuff like that. You don’t want to cheat the readers, so you have to put clues in that will give them the idea. It might be ambiguous. It might be a different twist.
For example, with the two guys fishing, I write that two figures are seated on the ground with their nets. One says, “Can we go now?” “No, everything’s rushing into the nets tonight. I wanna catch one more.”
The kids think that they’re catching fish. I didn’t say they were, but they do have the idea that something is going to be caught. Then when I get to the end, and this girl who’s gone out into the woods to search for her brother encounters the two ghouls that have already eaten him. She’s thrashing around trying to get out of the net that they’ve thrown over her.
Then I repeat their conversation: “Can we go now? I think we’ve got enough to eat.” “Yeah, we can go now.” As a writer, you can do that with something you’ve started out with to give it meaning at the end and I close with, “The moonlight was brighter now as it reflected on their white skulls and their green moldy faces as they took their night’s catch and sank slowly back into their graves.”
At the very end of the story, you find out these are not fishermen trying to catch fish. I didn’t lie to them. We can even go back and talk about it. I’ll ask, “Did I say they were fishing for fish?” Nope, but I did tell you they were fishing for something and I like to talk to the kids about that, too.
Basically that’s it. Just follow the usual elements of the story and make sure you don’t ramble off describing a beautiful setting that doesn’t fit the plot. Every element has to be on target for scary stories or it will distract the reader.
Raven: I had always thought that a good mystery or horror story made people concentrate a lot more. Otherwise, if you’re given all the details, you really don’t have that much to figure out. Do you think something similar occurs with child development? Can scary stories help promote comprehension or analytical abilities?
Roberta: Oh, absolutely. I think that scary stories stimulate their imagination more than just about any other genre. It really motivates kids to try things on their own.
I used to check out a book from the library that the kids had access to and read part of it and stop. I’d ask them to write what they thought happened next. Then they’d go to the library and find the actual story to see if what they wrote matched the author’s thinking.
One of the best lesson plans I ever had was when I asked students to have their grandparents, or an older neighbor or anybody they knew, to come to class and tell a story. I was actually amazed at how many came.
We were in an inner city “troubled school.” It was really, really bad with a lot of discipline problems. Some of the grandparents of the kids with behavior issues came and shared stories. Afterwards, the kids felt so proud as they realized that their family stories were important, too.
Raven: What are some tips that you would give to educators about using scary stories in the classroom?
Roberta: The reason that a lot of my stories are short is because I use them at the end of the class when you finish the lesson and you’ve got six minutes left that you didn’t plan for. You tell them a story. That way they’re not fidgeting and running all around the room—they’re interested.
I told stories whenever it seemed appropriate. For example, during Black History Month, there’s a story about a group of slaves who joined hands and walked back into the ocean, and their ghosts would come back. It was a very effective springboard to talk about other subjects.
Raven: Some people seem to think that scary stories need to be saved for the month of October. Would you argue that scary stories are relevant throughout the year?
Roberta: They are! Ghost stories happen all of the time. I used to tell kids that Halloween was not always the traditional time for ghost stories. It used to be Christmas. For example, the most famous ghost story of all is A Christmas Carol.
Raven: Have you noticed that there are similar themes across stories from different cultures?
Roberta: There’s one story that my dad told me when I was growing up about a person who’s afraid to go to the graveyard. They dare her to go because the ghosts are supposed to reach up from their graves and grab whoever disturbed them. To make sure that these people knew that she went to the grave, they made her take a knife to stick it in the grave. Of course, it’s a rainy night, and she has on a raincoat. When she stands up, something pulls. She sinks into the ghost’s grave and dies of fright. When they go to check on her in the morning, there is the knife, sticking through that raincoat.
For me, I thought, “Uh-huh, I think he’s pulling my leg on that one.” Well, I started looking around, and I not only found different versions of the story within this country, but Russia has a version of it, South America has a version of it. I think they use a different kind of knife or they’ll change a detail, but it’s always the same basic idea. A person goes to the cemetery expecting to be grabbed by the ghost, but somehow it sticks through some article of clothing, they think the ghost has them and they die of fright.
Raven: When it comes to kids, could one reason they’re afraid be because they don’t know how to respond to events since their experience is more limited?
Roberta: They have no control. I have a problem like that myself that I have to work on all the time.
All my life I’ve been terrified of lightning. Actually, one of the signature stories of mine is “Storm Walker” because that was my first ghost, and it’s the only true story in The Walking Trees.
Growing up, my mother was afraid of storms, so that kind of passed on to me, I guess. One time I was at a neighbor’s house, and this little cloud came up. One bolt of lightning. I ran across the yard, across the street, down the drive, all the way into our dining room, and I realized I had passed a man in a wheel chair. I was that scared of the lightning. But he would tease me after that saying, “Roberta, think a storm’s comin’ up. Might need some help!” It did make me think that I should do something about my fear.
It’s not just the lightning. Again, it’s the matter of control. I can’t control it. It can hit anywhere and I can’t do a thing about it.
Now, if a child has the same problem that I do, I’ll tell her I do some really silly things to make myself feel better when it’s storming. I actually – and my husband, Lonnie, can vouch for this – get plastic forks and stuff if lightning is striking around me when I’m eating. I also won’t wear jewelry if it’s storming. That’s really pretty far-fetched that it might hit you, but in my mind, I’ve taken a little bit of control, and it makes me feel better.
There are lots of little things you can do. Don’t go outside during a storm. I never carry an umbrella. I refuse because it’s got that little point up there, you know? One of our neighbors was actually knocked down by lightning because she was running across the road with her umbrella. I will wear a rain cap or whatever, but I never carry an umbrella.
I’ll tell the kids things like that. There are small steps you can take to keep the lightning away, and it just makes you feel better, if you feel like you’ve got a little more control over your life.
Raven: Is there anything else that you’d like our readers to know?
Roberta: I never deal with devils and cults or that dark side. My stories are just good old monsters and ghosts. To me there is a big difference.
Raven: Is there a reason for that?
Roberta: For one thing, I just don’t want to get involved with anything that has to do with the devil or those beliefs. I tell kids that there is a dark side, and they will come up and ask me, “Is it okay to use a Ouija board?”
I grew up thinking they were great, that they were toys, but they’re not. They can be very dangerous psychologically. I don’t want to get into that kind of thing and encourage them to try to experiment with anything. I just want them to enjoy good old scary stories. The kind that make them shiver. I don’t want anything to harm them psychologically or to give them nightmares.
I think with these stories, they don’t wimp out on me. They are going to scare the kids and that’s what they want. They hate it when you make it a little simple ending. They want to be scared, but just for a few minutes. They want to have control over that fear.
Another thing I do, I always give the kids my email. If they want to ask me a question, I want the parents to ‘O-K’ it. I want kids to have somebody they can talk to if they need to. Sometimes they’ll send me a story and want to know what I think of it, so I try to keep that open to kids if they want to contact me for feedback about their writing or to ask a question about a story.