A paranormal performance requires more than a campfire to gather ’round. These tips from Dave Hooley and Wynn Montgomery, two storytellers with Spellbinders, a Carbondale nonprofit dedicated to keeping the oral tradition alive, will have your audience screaming loud enough to wake the dead this scary season.

1. To keep your listeners engaged choose a spooky spiel (americanfolklore.net has plenty) that’s five to seven minutes long. Telling it in first person will give it more credibility.

2. Memorizing each line will create a stilted performance. Instead, only practice the beginning and end and have a clear idea of how you’ll get from one to the other. Repeating key words or phrases—such as footsteps coming ever closer—will produce a hypnotic effect.

3. Waiting until it’s dark won’t just set the mood; it will limit distractions and help your audience’s imagination run wild.

4. Increase the tension by tweaking the setting so the tale takes place nearby. “If it’s a Colorado story,” Hooley says, “then the audience is thinking, I should know something about this. You’ve brought the ‘facts’ a little closer to home.”

5. End with a jump scare, where you lunge at the audience or scream suddenly, or both, usually while revealing that someone (or something) was inside the house the whole time!

This article was originally published in 5280 October 2023.
Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas Hunt
Nicholas writes and edits the Compass, Adventure, and Culture sections of 5280 and writes for 5280.com.