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Blog | 28 October 2019

The benefits of being scared

Words: Jade Slaughter | Illustrations: Marija Tiurina

Scouts have been telling scary stories at camp since the very beginning. But why do we like being terrified? We delve into why there’s nothing quite like listening to a scary story around the campfire

It’s part and parcel of a successful night away: listening to someone tell a terrifying tale by flickering firelight, or whispering stories to each other in tents, faces lit from beneath with a torch.

With summer camps coming up, it’s the perfect time to look into why we all love being scared. While fewer studies have been carried out on scary stories, lots have been done on horror films — so this was the first port of call.

According to Dr Glenn Walters in the Journal of Media Psychology, the three main factors that make horror films enjoyable are tension (built using suspense, mystery and terror), relevance (the story needs to relate to the viewer’s real fear), and unrealism. Unrealism is particularly interesting; a number of psychological studies have found that horror films give people a sense of control by placing psychological distance between them and the scary things that happen in the story.

Most people who view horror movies understand that the filmed events aren’t real (or are ‘unreal’), which gives them the psychological distance they need to enjoy them.

To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a completely safe environment. Feeling terror, while knowing no actual harm will come of it, is what makes it fun.

This is why camps are perfect for scary storytelling — young people should feel totally safe there. There are other theories too. One, which might date back to ancient Greek philosophy, is the notion of catharsis — that we watch frightening films, or listen to scary stories, as a way of releasing negative emotions. There are also biological explanations. Fear can generate adrenaline, which in turn increases excitement and glucose (which is converted into energy). When scared, the body also releases oxytocin, which can help people feel closer to each other as the brain’s survival instinct is to pair with another human to increase the chances of survival — a perfect way to help young people bond at camp! There are also longer-term benefits: by facing our fears in areas that are limiting us, for example, facing a fear of heights by watching something like Hitchcock’s famous film Vertigo, we can build ourselves up to overcoming these fears in real life — such as by going rock climbing.

So we’re sold on the benefits. To find out how to come up with great scary stories for camp, we spoke to the experts — the Ministry of Stories, a creative writing centre for young people in East London. The Ministry was founded as a magical place where children and young people can get inspired to create their own writing, whether it’s stories, poems, songs, films, or speeches. An example of this kind of inspiration is the Ministry of Stories’ location, through a hidden door in the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies store, which requires a secret password.

The workshops are developed with professional writers, and (funnily enough) focus on conquering certain fears: fear of the blank page, fear of getting it wrong, spelling things incorrectly, messy handwriting, or not being sure of grammar. Instead, they focus on getting young people to think about their ideas. Miriam Nash, Writing Programme Leader for Schools, gives her tips for writing a scary story to share below:

  • The first thing you need to do is set your scene with a strong piece of description. Where is your story going to take place? What does it look, smell and sound like? Next, start building tension. You don’t go in with the scary event all at once; you build up a feeling of uneasiness and move towards it. A really good way to begin is to look around the room that you’re in and choose one object, then think about a spooky thing that object could do. You could create something like a haunted radiator, for example, a telephone that starts calling itself, or a bin that starts burping! You should think about how you could build up to the weird thing that’s going to happen with that object. So with the haunted radiator, is it going to first let out a sigh that you’re going to explain away as the ordinary gurgling of pipes? Then is it going to get louder? Is it going to start moaning, or talking, or getting into the character’s dreams?


  • Next, think about the kind of character who would be interested in that object or would find it. So if we go with the haunted radiator, is it going to be discovered by a plumber? Then you want to ask yourself some questions about your character. Who are they? Why are they interested in the object? And the two most important questions to answer about your character: what do they most want in life, and what are they most afraid of?


  • Young people can use their own fears for inspiration but, while it can be really interesting to write about personal fears, it can also be quite scary. The nice thing about being the author is that you get to be in control of everything. So it can be a fun, empowering thing to do — to write about something you’re afraid of, while staying in control and getting to say how far it goes and when you want it to stop.


  • An effective way to end a scary story is with a cliffhanger. Build up all that tension, so the reader or audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, and then leave them hanging. Another nice idea is to have the story neatly resolved, the monster banished, and then hint that actually, they might just come back…


  • Remember — the most important thing is to just give it a go. Get it all out on paper, and then afterwards you can work out what’s strong and what needs to be cut, because all writers edit their work. It’s often helpful to share your story with someone else at that point too. The most important part, though, is to write it in the first place.

The lady of the lake

Here’s a scary story sent in by Scout leader Neal Quinton… Will this chilling tale of forbidden love and a haunted lake inspire you to write your own?

Our local Scout campsite, Patshull Activity Centre, has a long history. Many a ghost story has been told about it, but on this occasion, I’ll tell you about the lady of the lake.

It was a dark and stormy night, and the master of the house heard a knock at the door. A villager had come to tell him some dreaded news — his only daughter, who he’d hoped to marry into a wealthy family, had been seen kissing the lowly stable lad.

He tore away from the villager and sought out his daughter. To his dismay, instead of dismissing the claims as lies, she burst into tears and admitted she was in love with the boy.

Angry and bitter, the master summoned the stable boy and, ignoring his pleas, threw him into the windswept night. With nowhere to go and no money, he was destined to roam the fields in the cold rain: his chances were as bleak as the night.

The master told his daughter what he’d done, and raged at her for ignoring his wishes. She ran from the house and down the fields, towards the lake. As lightning lashed the water, she ran down the jetty and threw herself in. The lake was full due to the storm, and the water was in full flow. It dragged the lady towards the water wheel, closer and closer. Finally, she was drawn under the wheel and never seen again.

Sometimes, at midnight on certain days of the year, an unlucky person will catch a glimpse of the old millstone. And sometimes, the water runs red.

It may just be the sandstone. But some say it’s the lady of the lake…

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