Terrifying Tales

A storyteller’s scary secrets

Monday, October 21, 2013

A few years ago, Doug Banner had a woman come up to to him after a scary storytelling event and tell him that, sorry, but the tale he’d just told wasn’t in the least bit frightening.

When he saw the same woman again the next day, however, she marched directly up to Banner and punched him in the arm. The reason for the assault? She told him she didn’t think she was scared—until she drove home and then spent a half-hour in her car frozen with fear while trying to get the courage to go up to the front porch and enter her darkened house.

Banner, a longtime member of the Bellingham Storytellers Guild, says he and the professional yarn-spinners he combines his talents with now use the harrowing experience as a meter to gauge their audience’s fear factor.

“It’s an indicator of how scary your story is by how long it stays in your head, and if they punch you afterward,” he says with a laugh.

When asked if it takes most people a while to realize they’ve been seriously spooked, Banner says plenty of listeners react directly to the stories at hand. In addition to the aforementioned arm-puncher, members of the Guild have witnessed lots of onsite screaming and gasping. People have also leapt out of their seats, gotten their arms bruised by terrified girlfriends clutching them hard enough to hurt and, in one case, a librarian sprung out of her front-row seat to turn the lights back on.

Banner posits that those who are brave enough to sit through all the stories without bolting or outwardly reacting are still getting a thrill—or at least elevating their heart rates.

“Humans get an adrenaline rush when they’re scared,” he says. “When you go to an event like this, you can be scared, but you’re still safe. There’s no risk—except for the deep psychological damage. It’s a rush—like eating chocolate or riding down Alabama hill on a bike.” 

To set the mood, Banner says he and his creative cohorts typically dim the lights, turn on a few electric candles and draw the listeners in through careful connections with them. They must also learn to improvise as needed and figure out when to hold back and when to lean in for the kill. As for costumes, Banner thinks they’re unnecessary.

“We just really use the art of language and word,” he says.” Tone, pacing, volume—it’s all part of our performance art delivery technique. Telling a vampire story while dressed up as a vampire isn’t scary.”
By working with basic fears that a lot of people have—whether they’re afraid of spiders, don’t like to spend time in the dark or truly believe in ghosts—Bellingham Storytellers Guild members then build on those suspicions to craft their tales of horror.

Banner won’t divulge what particular stories will be told at the annual Scary Storytelling for Adults gathering happening Halloween night at the Fairhaven Library, but he will let it be known that all of the tales are true (or at least partially true).

And, when the spook-night stories are over, Banner and the rest of the Guild members will be watching to see who heads for the door and who wants to stick around a little longer. If the crowd isn’t’ quick to disperse, they’ll know they did something right.

“You can tell how well you scared the audience by how long they hang out after the lights come back on,” Banner says. “Oftentimes, they really don’t want to go back outside.”

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