Aaron was dead. Only, he refused to accept it. He strolls casually into his funeral, sits next to his widow and says “Looks like somebody dead. Who dead?” His widow says “You dead.” Aaron replies “Me dead. I don’t feeeeel dead.” Thus, begins the story of Dead Aaron.
I knew I had finally found a scary story I could tell.
There was a time in my storytelling career when I didn’t tell ghost stories, or scary stories. I felt that the spirit world was nothing to mess around with. However, I was presented with two opportunities that made me begin to reconsider. It was time to come to terms with the reasons I didn’t want to tell scary stories. Why did the idea make me so uncomfortable?
Personally, I find Halloween to be a frivolous and materialistic occasion (like most holidays in the U.S.). But while I still I don’t celebrate it; I decided to accept the challenge and learn to tell ghost stories. I could explore the historical significance of Halloween and search for stories that resonate with my spirit as well as entertain my audience.
My first spooky assignment was a storyteller on the “Ghost Bus” for Eastern State Penitentiary’s annual haunted house. That turned out to be a fun and interesting, yet, unfulfilling experience. The historic penitentiary is one of Philadelphia’s coolest and creepiest places, complete with crumbling ceilings, rusty bars that creaked and wild vegetation growing through every crack in the floors and walls. It was a little difficult, though, to reconcile the fact that this attraction was the site of so much misery for its former residents (the presence of which I swear I could feel in the chill air). It was fun working with so many actors and storytellers, most plastered in varying degrees of horror. Not so much fun: long hours in the cold, wind, rain and even snow; telling pre-scripted stories, ten times fast, using the bus driver’s mic, to die-hard “bet you can’t scare me” fright fanatics.
My second assignment, the Chestnut Hill Ghost Walk, a fundraising event for Teenagers, Inc., was infinitely more rewarding. The setting: Victorian-era mansions and a church graveyard. The audience was made up of adorable trick-or-treaters, from tots to teens, and their grown-ups. Most importantly, I had the freedom to choose my own tales. And, I scared the crap out of those little kiddies, without resorting to blood and guts. Well, maybe just a little.
I chilled ghost walkers to the bone with a telling of Dead Aaron. I first read the story, a traditional folktale, in the book Raw head, bloody bones : African-American tales of the supernatural, by Mary E Lyons (New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ©1991). Later, I was inspired by a version recorded by my friend, storyteller Glynis Brooks.
I had so much fun researching, adapting and telling these stories. I now have a repertoire of scary stories I love to tell, that I call the Witch of Wopsy Mountain & Other Ghostly Lore. It’s a collection of spine-tingling tales from the Deep South, Appalachia, the Caribbean, and even some local haunts.
My favorite scary stories include:
- the terrifying Battle of Baba Yaga and Booomangani (adapted from Aja and the enchanted beast, West African Folktales edited by Richard Spears and Story Nory’s Baba Yaga)
- I got a notion to make a potion (adapted for children from a story I told at my mother’s wedding, Love potion No. 9)
- The Woman Who Scared Herself to Death
- Bru Nansi and The Flying Jumbi
- The Ghost of General Meade
- John Brown’s Ghost
- Nexxxxt of Kin
- When Genevieve Ruled the World
- anything from The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe
They say, Baba Yaga flies in a giant mortar, using a pestle as her rudder.
She lives in a house on dancing chicken legs, with eyeballs for windows.
What do you think? What are some of your favorite ghost stories?