I’m lucky — I have the advantage of living in Ireland. Left spellbound by Celtic enchantments, this is a country where time stands still… where the darkness at the edge of town pulsates with eerie magic… where westerly winds carry the fading whisper of otherworldly voices.
Notice how I’m button-pushing? Spellbound… eerie magic… otherworldly voices. When writing scary stories, the dictionary is full of glorious words that help conjure up that shivery atmosphere you’re trying to convey.
*** Ideas for Opening Your Article
For example, here’s how I opened “Season of the Witch: Walpurgisnacht in Germany’s Harz Mountains.” Published by “The World & I,” the article tells of the area’s reputation for mythic weirdness. Goethe set the witches’ sabbat scene in Faust on the Brocken, a mountain where witches are still rumored to meet on May Eve.
“Wandering through Germany’s Harz Mountains, it’s impossible not to realize that you have entered a domain of enchantment, a place where landscape conspires with legend to create a sense of lurking mystery… “
But you have plenty of other shots in your armory when writing these kinds of articles. For example, you could open with a quote, or an old wives’ tale. Here’s how I did it for “Twilight Places: Ireland’s Enduring Fairy Lore” (again published by “The World and I”):
“In the 1940s, Irish writer Sean O’Faolain recounted a Cork woman being asked if she believed in fairies. ‘I do not,’ she replied after pondering the question, ‘but they’re there.'”
Or consider starting your story mid-action. There you are, quaking in a four-poster bed in an ancient hotel in the heart of England. It’s the witching hour… the wind is moaning… window frames are creaking and groaning. Is it really a tree branch tapping on the glass or is the headless highwayman putting in an appearance?
*** How to Gather Material Close to Home
Voodoo queens in New Orleans… native American burial grounds… witch persecutions in New England.
You certainly don’t have to travel outside the U.S. to find spooky stories.
The easiest place to uncover supernatural shenanigans is obviously your own home town or state. Are any special Halloween events on the town’s Events Calendar? Does any inn, hotel, or street have a reputation for being haunted? Do old-timers or shop-owners know any ghost stories? (If there’s a New Age-type store in town, this could be a great source.)
And what weird tales lurk in library folklore sections? The more research you do, the more interesting your article is likely to be. I’ve found the further back in time I delve, the stranger the yarns I uncover.
For instance, most people have heard of Irish banshees and leprechauns — not so many know of the Fear Gorta (Hungry Man). In the 1840s, this emaciated spirit was said to stalk the blighted potato fields. The harbinger of famine, he arises from the Hungry Grass — patches of land where an unshriven corpse has lain. Tread on such land, and you too may be stricken with insatiable and everlasting hunger.
Victorian writings can be a treasure trove. For that “Twilight Places” article (a major essay of around 5,000 words), my main resource books were W.B. Yeats’ “Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry” and Lady Wilde’s “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland.” But in a dusty corner of the local library, I came across a lesser-known 19th-century folklorist called Crofton Croker. In a story about kidnapping and changelings, he recounts how a “bit of a shriveled-up fairy” replaces a bonny baby boy. A wise-woman instructs the grieving mother to “take the red-hot poker and cram it down his ugly throat.” Great stuff!
*** Don’t Miss Grave Digging
Most importantly of all, don’t neglect the local graveyard — if you can go at night, so much the better. (Again, think of the atmosphere!) Even if you’re traveling overseas, don’t be fazed by foreign inscriptions. Explain you’re a writer and someone is usually only too happy to translate for you.
Here’s one of my favorites. In Schierke village in Germany’s Harz Mountains, there’s a very spooky inscription on the grave of an apothecary called Willi Druber. Back in 1908, he concocted Schierke Feuerstein, an intensely alcoholic brew made from herbs and bitters. “O Wanderer eile fort von hier, sonst kommt er ‘raus und trinkt mit Dir!” The words warn you to hurry away before Willi rises from his tomb and joins you for a drink.
[About the Author: Born in England of Latvian and English parents, Steenie Harvey moved to Ireland in 1988 with her Scottish husband Michael and their daughter Magdalen. Though she has no formal training as a writer, Steenie discovered she had a knack for it when, on a whim, she sent an article about her search for an Irish cottage to a British newspaper… and got a check in return. That was the start of an impressive career.
An accomplished and proven freelancer today, Steenie is “International Living’s” roving Euro-editor and also writes about travel, folklore, and real estate for publications both at home and abroad, among them “The Daily Telegraph ,” “The Independent,” The World of Hibernia,” “The World & I,” and “Spotlight.”
Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]