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These Were The Scary Movies, You Know…Before There Were Scary Movies

October 27, 2015

The audience sat in rapt attention, as the little boy nervously made his way through the dark and cramped tunnel. They listened to the plop, plop, plop of his feet  through the water as his flashlight winked out, only the moonlight streaming through the overhead sewer grate up ahead. The shivered in delicious fear as the voice from the dark whispered

You’re not supposed to be here.

Yesterday I got to participate in one of my favorite annual events. I joined an audience of of about 150 people gathered in the Orem Public Library, of all places. Six storytellers took turns trying to scare the audience and us the judges with their tales of suspense and fright. I was a judge for the Timpanogos Storytelling Hauntings contest. 

I wasn’t even supposed to be there. Well, I was, but just as a participant. But, a last minute cancellation meant I found myself at the judges table with the nearly impossible task of deciding who’s story was the best told. 

Storytelling, like any art has a particular form to it. There are some people who are natural storytellers; who seem to innately know how to tell a good story. But, for most of us, it’s a process. And fortunately, it’s a process that can be learned. And the benefits of it are not just to entertain groups of people around a campfire, although that has it’s place as well. 

The tradition of the modern storyteller can be, in many ways, traced back to Mark Twain. Before he became a renowned author, he was a storyteller. As a young man seeking his fortune, he left his home on the Mississippi and  traveled west. He travelled to my state of Utah and met with Brigham Young, one of the early leaders of the Mormon church. He travelled to Virginia City, NV and was a silver miner for a while. Eventually, he made his way back home and considered how he might make a living based on his travels. He rented a hall and put up posters announcing that he would be holding lectures describing his adventures in the West. 

Twain admits he had no idea if people would come or not. They came. They came and packed the theater where he was speaking. And they continued to come. And his course was set. He eventually wrote the stories down and published them in a book called Roughing It

But, what makes a good story? Let me answer that by talking about the judging criteria for our contest. 


Stories can be about anything, really. Last night be heard about a couple on their honeymoon to Iceland, young lovers exchanging a ring and a mirror, a walk through the cemetery, Little Orphan Annie, fishing and of course, the boy in the sewer. The trick is to find the uniqueness, and since these were scary stories, to find the chill factor. Some where tales that had been told before. Some were original works. But, the story needs to have a reason for people to listen. 


Theere is a diffence between writing a story and telling a story. And there’s even a difference with writing a story designed to be told. the art of storytelling is not just the elements of the story itself, but the telling of it. The most effective storytellers use their voice like a musical instrument. They can draw the crowd in with a whisper and set them back in their chairs gasping with a well timed exclamation. Using no props, no movement, just a teller at the microphone, they can take you on a journey of your imagination. The story is important, the telling of it is critical.


What seperates storytelling from some other performance art forms is that you are right there with your audeince. As judges we had to gauge the effectiveness of the story. Storytellers make themselves a part of the audience and by extension make the audience a part of the story. It’s less a speech and more a conversation. It’s just a conversation where one side is actively talking and the other side is actively listening. And the tellers who did the best connected with teh audience in the telling.

Chill Factor

You might think that a scary storytelling competition would feature lots of blood and gore and disembowled ghouls. This wasn’t that type of competition. Scary stories should be scary, of course. But, there’s a difference between scary and gory. When Steven Spielberg went to make the movie Jaws, he had a problem. The shark looked fake. So, he had to shoot most scenes with just a hint of the shark in them. He actively worked at hiding his fake looking shark, and in the process he scared us all out of the water. It’s our imaginations that provide the move fertile ground for terror. We can scare ourselves much better, with just a hint, than a bloddy gore-fest. 

It would be easy to describe storytelling as a lost or a dying art. After all, we don’t really listen to professional storytellers much anymore. Well, not outside of election season. But, it’s there if you want to find it. Utah is blessed with a rich and story storytelling tradition. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with both the Hauntings contest and the Utah’s Biggest Liar competition that happens in the spring. 

Take the opportunity to tell stories when you can. They can even make you a better employee, salesman or business owner. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

  1. I love this Rodney! Thanks for posting. How did I miss this last Fall? Can I have it re-posted it on the Timpanogos Festival blog page? I appreciate your thoughts and your contest help!

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