Sometimes, it's childhood memories that are most scary. A feeling of helplessness at the doctor's office. A scary portrait on the wall that seems to watch as you pass.
These were two of the inspirations of winning authors in The Herald-Mail's 2012 Scary Story Contest.
Looking for something to do this weekend? Find what you need in our Weekend Entertainment Guide newsletter.
Ashley Hutson, 29, of Sharpsburg, is the grand-prize winner of the Scary Story Contest. She wins the top prize of $50.
Ethan Fulton of Hagerstown is the winner in the children's division with his story, "The Thing in the Woods." Elizabeth Chaney of Falling Waters, W.Va., is the winner in the teen division for ages 13 to 18 with "Haunting Spirits." Kathy Thomas of Big Pool is the winner in the adult division, with "Portrait of Death." They will receive certificates.
There were 130 entries submitted — 31 adult entries, 17 teen entries and 82 children's stories. Stories were limited to 350 words and could not include explicit violence or sex. Judges evaluated entries on creativity, writing mechanics and, of course, scariness.
Leaving space for the reader
Ashley Hutson, 29, is the grand-prize winner of the Scary Story Contest. Since Hutson has been active with her husband, Steve Shives, in creating two movies in the horror genre in the past 18 months, you might think she is bubbling with story ideas for horror fiction.
Well, not so much.
"That's not where my interest lies. I don't read a lot of horror, so I don't know if I'm drawn to the genre," she said. "I think what interests me more than the blood and guts is what lies within us. And the terror of the unknown."
After Hutson decided she wanted to enter the contest, she cast about for a story idea. Instead of chasing down an idea, she let it come to her.
"I like to sit quietly and think. I think there's great value in that," she said. "So I was sitting on my couch, and I started thinking about the human body, and organs and how the lungs appear translucent, like wings. I ran with that idea."
Her story, "Husk," about an old man who believes there is something living inside him, is an understated story of escalating terror. The story unfolds without hurry, but within 350 words.
"I used every one of those 350 words," Hutson said. "I like writing flash fiction with an economy of words. I call it 'I can't write anything too long.'"
Hutson said she hasn't thought of how to spend her $50 prize money.
"I don't have any plans," she said. "But I'm going to glory in my winnings."
Here is Ashley's story, "Husk."
Night is falling. The nurse has left. He is sitting at the window as the evening chill comes on, watching the woods, the field as they darken.
Scritch, scritch. A pull in his breathing now. His hand rises to his chest.
This is how the episodes begin. A desperate scritch-scritching in his lungs that ignites an itch from the inside, chasing his air up and out of him and his fingers toward his chest to grab at the flesh there, then claw, then angrily scratch, scratch, scratch until his breathing calms.
When the doctors asked him to explain the scratch marks, he blamed new wool shirts.
Because the truth — a skittering in the chest, like something wants to get out, out! — must never be spoken aloud. Some truths one cannot, must not tell. Especially to doctors, especially as an old man.
And yet: he believed. Secretly.
Fluttering now in his chest. Scritch, scritch! Alone, of course he is alone. He adjusts his oxygen, like the doctors say. He takes the pill the nurse left, like the doctors say. The doctors say, the doctors say. The doctors say many things but they are not here now and just outside the window the field has grown shadowy, it is inky under the trees, and peering into the darkness his eyes catch something, but as he leans toward the window his lungs are suddenly seized with a Scritch-scritch! Scritch! Like a man drowning, yet on fire, tearing at his pajama shirt to get at the skin inside. Scratching, panting, he pauses. Watchful.
The sound inside, now outside. Far away, at the treeline.
He stumbles from his chair to shut the window, but before he can his chest answers the call with its own, and he is racked with a new fit of gasping, choking, and as he clutches his chest with frantic hands he realizes the time for scratching is past, the thing inside is burrowing out, and by the time the nurse returns with the groceries the great winged creature inside of him will have flown out into utter blackness.
Frightened as a child
Kathy Thomas, 46, likes mysteries, but not horror stories. She doesn't watch horror movies. She doesn't even watch TV.
"I'm a cozy mystery reader. And historical fiction," she said. "So when I decided to enter the scary story contest, I thought of something that actually happened to me. And then I tried to think of what could happen to make it scarier."
Thomas recalled a childhood fright of hers about a picture in her grandparents' house.
"When I was small, my grandparents lived in a small two-story house," she said. "The only bathroom was upstairs. To get to it, you had to go up a tall oak stairway. There was a photo of a man with a gun. The eyes followed me as I walked by. It terrified me. I never found out who it was."
That grim-faced photo portrait became the centerpiece in her story, "Portrait of Death." She added other elements of scary stories — a dark night and tempestuous storm — but the word limit was a challenge.
"It was difficult to put the story into 350 words. But that was also a tool that helped me," she said. "Being a Facebook user helped me be concise."
Thomas is a GED teacher for Hagers-town Community College. Because she works with students on their writing skills, she decided to get her students involved in the scary story contest.
"Between two class, I have about 12 students," she said. "My students have to write an essay to pass GED. So we write an essay every class. This (contest assignment) was more creative writing. My students really got into that."
Following is Thomas' story, "Portrait of Death."
Even as a child, there was something about the portrait that made her fell uneasy. The image of a man with scowling face indicating he was either discontent with his life's portion, or ill at ease in his dressy clothes, or both. A scattering of gray hair and a suit from two generations back were in conformity with the antique rifle perched across his lap.
She hadn't known him, but Cara's great Uncle Victor's photograph had hung above the archway dividing her grandmother's vintage kitchen and dining room for the duration of her childhood. When Cara had recently inherited the house and its contents, she discovered that the portrait still disturbed her. The man's eyes seemed to follow her as she moved about the rooms, as if they weren't as dead as the rest of him.
Tonight, the radio played as she unpacked the last of her boxes. The song was interrupted with blaring alarm tones followed by the announcement of a strong storm fast approaching. Warning of the impending tempest seemed to make Great Uncle Victor's eyes assume an even more sinister appearance. Unnerved, Cara resolved to rid herself of the scowling face in the vexing photo once and for all. She retrieved a rickety ladder from the shed and situated it against the archway. Shakily, she began climbing the ancient rungs, positioning her feet carefully on each step until she reached the top rung.
The instant she reached out to seize the portrait, lightening filled the sky. A deafening crack of thunder shattered the silence, startling Cara. Her screams died as she slipped from the ladder and plunged toward the concrete floor in slow motion.
Emergency workers found a small bullet hole in her right temple, yet police found no sign of an intruder. Wrapping up the crime scene, Officer Malone commented, "It's ironic that a murder occurred below the portrait of a smiling man."
He locked the door and pulled it closed behind him. Only then, did a wisp of smoke begin to rise from the barrel of the antique rifle in the portrait ...
Seeing things from the inside
Elizabeth Chaney, 15, is a freshman at Hedgesville High School in Hedgesville, W.Va. She has been a writer for years, but not a horror-fiction writer.
"I have written on my own stories since fourth or fifth grade," she said. "I tend to stick to subjects like mythology or the Victorian era. Lately I've been writing a lot of fan fiction. Then my mom saw the (contest) notice in the paper and said, 'You should do this.'"
Elizabeth's story, "Haunted Spirits," explores the chilling world of a child trapped and abused by controlling "spirits." To write the story, she said, she needed to see the world through the child's eyes.
"I've always been an introvert, so it's easier for me to go with an inward perspective," she said. "I have a vivid imagination, and I can picture what they would be thinking and how they would react to certain situations."
Elizabeth's main character embodied one of Elizabeth's own fears — going to the doctor. She expanded that into the sadistic, faceless antagonists in her story.
But what would it be like to be their victim? How might that warp a child's mind? Elizabeth said she likes figuring out people are warped by their environment.
"I love watching those TV shows where there is some kind of messed up or interesting person," she said. "I like figuring out about the way they think. I want to become a psychologist. I wanted to find out what could make someone go crazy."
Elizabeth wrote the following story, "Haunting Spirits."
His shallow breaths and his heartbeat were the only things he had anymore. He had been stripped of his name and identity. He lived in the dark. He fed on the small scraps they pushed under the door.
He had lost his sanity the first time they performed their experiments. The room, in which he lived, if you could call it that, was stained with his dried blood. The experiments were gruesome, they were ungodly cruel.
The spirits, that's what he called them, hid in the shadows, but they controlled everything he did. They made his room colder than anyone could stand. They woke him up and forced him to participate in their studies.
He watched as they did the same to the younger children. He was five, much older than the rest. Sometimes they would use him to go get the new test subjects. Outside there was a light in the sky. It was too bright; his little blue eyes couldn't take it.
He would bring the others back quickly. He would listen to them howl and he would watch, they made him watch, as they performed the initiation ceremony. Sometimes they wouldn't make it, and he was forced to help them bury the thing, as they put it.
Then one day he ran. He ran and he hid. He hid from the strange light in the sky and from all the other little children. He hid from the world. He didn't belong there.
Then he found himself back in a small cold room filled with darkness. Solitary, the uniformed people called it; home he replied.
Sitting there in the darkness with just him and his body's natural rhythm, he began to hear a voice. It was a snicker of pure evil through the darkness. He realized it was Death teasing him with the fact that he was alive. He began to regress even further into himself dying inside every day, but never completing the process.
The spirits of that house on the hill had taken a toll on the poor boy, and nothing would taste sweeter than death.
A comic twist at the end
Ethan Fulton, 10, is the winner in the children's division of the Scary Story Contest. Ethan, a fifth-grader at Maugansville Elementary School, said he's well-versed with scary stories.
"I like reading the Goosebumps books, and I like the Spooksville series, and there's the series Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark," he said.
Ethan is also an experienced writer. He said he sometimes writes stories at home with his brothers, and also writes and draws mini-graphic novels by himself.
So when Ethan's teacher, Mr. Dingle, suggested students write a scary story, Ethan wanted to write something, but he didn't know what to write.
"I asked my mom for a brain boost," he said, "and she said that I should write the story where something is dangerous at first but it's revealed at the end not to be scary at all."
After all, The Herald-Mail's contest description said stories should not contain graphic violence.
So Ethan started writing.
"I started with a first draft, wrote down what I thought," he said. "Then brought it to school and shared it with my teacher. Then mom gave me some edits."
Ethan revised and submitted his story. And judges liked his suspenseful story with the unexpected twist at the end.
Ethan's story, "The Thing in the Woods," follows.
Pete's family recently moved into an old farmhouse, and this meant walking alone through the woods to get to school. Pete was walking along the dark path one morning when suddenly one of the bushes nearby started to rustle, not the rustle of wind but the rustle of something living. Pete imagined all the things it could be. A monster? A grizzly bear? Pete did not want to find out so he ran through the woods without stopping until he got to school.
School was completely boring and uneventful until recess.
Pete asked his friend, Nathan, "Have you ever heard of wild animals being spotted in the woods by my house?"
Nathan said, "No, nothing bigger than raccoons or squirrels. My grandfather tells me of a legend in this area, though. A beast, half werewolf and half mountain lion, is said to live in those woods. It preys on travelers passing through its domain. Many travelers have vanished without a trace."
Pete gulped. The thought of returning to those woods to walk home sent chills down his spine.
Pete thought about the beast all day. On the walk home, Pete did his best to sneak carefully through the woods so he wouldn't disturb what lay in hiding. With each step, he walked deeper into the woods.
Suddenly, his foot snapped a twig. It wasn't but a few seconds before he heard the sound of something large running towards him. The beast had come for him! He started running as fast as his legs could move, but he tripped over a tree root and fell hard to the ground.
Too injured to get up, he covered his head with his hands and listened as the beast got closer and closer and his breathing louder and louder. The beast jumped on him pinning him down, and Pete screamed as he felt the beast's breath and slimy face on his neck.
Terrified, Pete slowly turned his head towards the beast and saw ... the neighbors' huge, smelly Saint Bernard!
Seven judges read through the entries to select the top four entries. It was a tough job in more than one way. Many stories were well-written, and many were scary.
"Some of these are pretty creepy," said Ryan Wakefield, an English teacher at South Hagers-town High. He read the teen entries. "There were a lot of stalker stories, and three of the teens had doppelgangers."
Amanda England, a student at University of Maryland University College and a writer, said a couple of the finalists stood out for her.
"It's traditional, but I liked ‘Portrait of Death,'" she said. "And I liked 'What's for Dinner?' It was about cannibalism, but I laughed. I couldn't help it."
"'Husk' — I could have kept reading that," said Robin Murphy of Sharpsburg, author of the Sullivan's Island Paranormal Society series of murder mysteries.
Pat Wishard, public relations and program librarian with Washington County Public Library, praised "The Thing in the Woods."
"The author created tension throughout the story and it was very descriptive," she noted on her judge's form. "Then there was a twist at the end."
Al Gardner, a finalist in the 2011 Herald-Mail Scary Story Contest, served as a judge in this year's contest. He gave high marks to Elizabeth Chaney's "Haunted Spirits."
"Excellent, dark story," Gardner wrote. "Very morbid."
The other two judges were Julia Brugh of Hagerstown, a fan of horror and gothic fiction and an occasional writer; and Byron Ferguson of Smithsburg, a young-adult author.
Judges were divided up and read 15 to 20 stories in the contest's first round. Fifteen stories were selected to advance to the second round. All judges read all 15 finalists, and awarded points for creativity, writing quality and scariness.
The top point winners were declared winners.