By CHRIS COPLEY
5:14 PM EDT, October 27, 2011
Their story ideas came at odd times. David Hills of Smithsburg was brushing his teeth when inspiration struck. Rebecca Cohen of Hagerstown drew inspiration from a yard sale. Zoe Decker of Chambersburg, Pa., was looking over a poem she had written earlier. And Izzy Prenger glanced at a clock in her family's home in Sharpsburg.
But their ideas worked. The stories of these four writers were selected from 169 entries as winners in The Herald-Mail's 2011 Scary Story Contest.
Sixteen-year-old David Hills' story, "Gehenna," was named the grand-prize winner. He wins the top prize of $50.
Izzy Prenger, 10, won the children's division for ages 12 and younger with her story, "The Chime's Rapture." Zoe Decker, 14, won the teen division for ages 13 to 18 with "Halloween Story." Rebecca Cohen, 43, won the adult division with "The Witch's Grimoire." They will receive certificates.
Actor faces loss of childhood
David Hills is a student at Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, but he's not in the school's writing program.
"I'm actually an actor," he said. David has acted in several BISFA productions, including "A Christmas Carol" and "Phantom of the Opera."
When it comes to writing, David said he writes contemporary fiction.
"I actually don't write in the horror genre very much," he said, "but I like a good, scary story."
He likes to write poetry and plays exploring issues teens face — relationships, teen pregnancy, family conflict, issues of self-identity.
The title of his story is a biblical reference to a place outside Jerusalem where idol-worshippers were said to sacrifice their children. David said the theme of sacrificing one's own childhood seemed to fit his story.
"I like to read stuff that is deep," he said. "Originally, I had a different sort of ending to my story, but I thought, 'What would be more interesting. ... What if (the main character) woke up and there was an evil face, and it was their face?'"
Rebecca Cohen works as a civilian for the U.S. Army in biodefense. She said she reads scientific journals all day, and at night she tackles heavy reading to study for her doctorate. So her life is filled with thick books and dense text.
Her imagination brings her a bit of relief.
"You let your mind wander," Cohen said. "At any given moment, I have all these snippets of stories going through my head. But this is the first time I've written something down and sent it off."
Cohen's entry in the scary story contest, "The Witch's Grimoire," takes an antique book and inhabits it with evil. Cohen said the story made use of several "snippets" — yard sales, a new word (grimoire: a witch's spell book) and the concept that one person's trash is another person's treasure.
"Your mind will combine things," she said. "If you go to a yard sale, you might look at something and think, 'Why do I want this? It's only junk.'"
Horror is not Cohen's usual genre. When she reads for pleasure, Cohen likes escapist romances.
"Everyone has a happy ending. What's not to like about that?" she said. "I work in biodefense. So, often, things don't turn out well."
Scared of horror
Zoe Decker's story evolved from a poem she had written. She said she had a back story in mind, about a young woman who loved a young man, but her father didn't approve. When the young woman told her father the young man had hurt her, the young man was imprisoned and tortured. Zoe's story picks up when the young woman regrets being the cause of her lover's imprisonment.
The story incorporates traditional mythological themes, Zoe said.
"I read fantasy stories and young adult books and Greek and Roman and Egyptian mythology. I've always got a book with me," she said. "As I wrote my story, more ideas came up. It just sort of popped into my head."
Zoe said she wants a career as a writer. She writes free-verse poetry and short stories, and she's considering writing a play.
But she's not generally a fan of scary stories.
"My friend's really into the horror stories, but I'm scared of them," she said. "I could write it, but I just don't read it or watch it."
Voracious reader tries writing
Izzy Prenger's story, "The Chime's Rapture," almost didn't make it into the contest. One judge read the story and thought it was too well written and used a vocabulary too advanced for a 10-year-old.
When she heard that, Izzy laughed.
"I did write it," she said. "I was at dinner and I really wanted to write a story for the contest. I said, 'Mom, how do I make a story scary?'"
Izzy's mother, Sarah Prenger, told her to take an ordinary object and give it an evil or creepy twist — "Like a chair that moves when you aren't looking," Izzy said.
So Izzy looked in her house for an object to inspire her, and her eyes fell on a clock in the living room. Inspiration hit her.
"I crammed in my room, writing for a long time," she said. "I asked my grandma to count the words. It was 411! So I had to take some words out."
Izzy said she likes to read a variety of books, including Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Japanese manga and fantasy. She's currently working her way through "Brave Story," an 800-page young-adult novel by Miyuki Miyabe.
Izzy said she wants to be a writer or artist when she grows up, but she's had a hard time completing stories.
"I've tried to write stories several times, but I never get further than the second page, sadly," she said.
Picking the winners
There were more than 169 entries judged in The Herald-Mail's 2011 Scary Story Contest. Judges evaluated 26 adult entries, 14 teen entries and 129 children's entries.
Judges for the contest were John Poniske, English teacher at Washington County Public Schools' Antietam Academy; Scott Slaby, lead literary arts teacher at Barbara Ingram School for the Arts in Hagerstown; local authors Robin Murphy of Sharpsburg and Leigh Cooper of Middletown, Md.; and Hagerstown resident Yolanda DiFabio, who coordinates DiCoplio Writing Weekends, and is the wife of Lifestyle assistant editor Chris Copley.
Judges divided the entries and evaluated stories in two rounds. In the first round, judges assessed entries in one of the age divisions and selected the top three entries in that division.
To avoid potentially reading stories of their high school-age students, Poniske and Slaby judged the children's entries.
Nine stories advanced to the final round, three stories from each age division. These stories were by authors aged 9 to 84. In this round, each judge read each story and scored it on originality, writing mechanics and scariness. Scores were tallied to determine the four winners.
Judges said they found some common themes and common characters in contest entries.
Cooper, who judged the teen entries, said she saw a lot of zombies. Slaby was surprised at what he didn't find — vampires — given the popularity of vampire fiction. Murphy said the adult entries tended toward mystery and macabre themes.
Poniske said many children's entries ended with a common final line: "It was all a dream."
DiFabio highlighted one story, "The Jackolantern Eats the Vampire," that didn't advance but deserved notice. She liked the unexpected turnabout at the story's end.
Slaby agreed: "That story deserves special treatment."
Poniske said he liked another story that didn't advance.
"How can you not like a story that includes the sentence 'The flying, dancing tacos all sadly danced away'?" he said.
By David Hills
I feel the soft hands touch me as I lay awake in bed. I feel the coolness of each finger tip as it strokes my collarbone and the cold, damp skin of my exposed stomach. They are baby hands. Delicate. Unmarred by life's cruel toils. Innocent. Lingering. The hands explore my pale skin, glowing in the suffocating blackness.
Outside, rain kisses the blacktop of the lightless street creating a sound like the pitter patter of kittens' steps: quiet but with an icy presence that tickles your skin, sending shivers down your spine and causing goosebumps to break out across your arms. Almost like a whisper. Very much like the touch of the creature that lives in my room.
It talks to me sometimes, in the high pitched tone of an undeveloped voice. It only speaks when it wants to —; when it's angry or sad.
Once in a while I catch a glimpse of its face. I'll roll over in bed and find it staring at me those wide, unforgiving eyes. It has a face like a baby boy, with damp curls matted to its round, ugly head. I try to scream but it closes its fingers around my throat and I cannot breathe. It sees the terror in my own eyes and it smiles, gnashing its sharp, little teeth. It lies on my stomach, pressing into my chest. It breathes its warm, sticky breath on my face and whispers things in my ear.
It has come every night since I was six, when I first started sleeping alone.
Tomorrow I will be moving to a new home.
That is why it speaks to me tonight. It is angry.
"I will find you," It whispers, "I will follow you wherever you go." Then it kisses my cheek, wet with tears, and presses is fingers into my throat. I am dying to call out for help but fear has stolen my voice.
I look up at the mirror affixed upon my ceiling but all I can see is my own face — grinning wickedly back at me.
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