It’s time for scary stories

Last modified: 2/29/2016 5:29:32 PM


The floorboards gave a shrill creak as a heavy booted foot landed upon them. From his hiding place under the bed, the young boy watched as the second foot followed and a hulking figure entered his bedroom.

Shaking, he tried to remain silent, but a slight whimper escaped his lips as the figure rounded the bed. It was enough to give him up, and he screamed in terror as a hand grasped his leg and tore him out from underneath, a bloodied ax flashed in the dim light from the doorway, held high in the air and poised to strike.

Sound familiar? It’s a scene that’s found its way into more than one hacker-slasher film, and it’s a familiar sight on plenty of television channels this time of year. Whether you’re looking to have your pants scared off by a ghoul popping out of a closet or just a quick adrenaline rush from watching someone chased through the woods by a chain saw-wielding psychopath, there’s a good chance the horror movie industry — which according to entertainment industry research firm Nash Information Services has grossed about $320 million this year — has something for you.

But what if you’re not an expert person-scarer? What if you just want to tell a spooky story around the campfire, or give the neighborhood kids a quick fright on Halloween? Spinning a good story on the spot that can keep an audience captivated is often easier said then done.

Well, John Porcino, a professional storyteller from Amherst with decades of experience telling all sorts of tales to live audiences, has some tips to make your Halloween horror go off without a hitch. Most people don’t realize it, he said, but all of us are already pretty good at telling stories: we do it every single day out of necessity.

“We are all storytellers. By virtue of being human, we tell stories,” Porcino said. “You have a bad day and you come home to tell your family about the bad day, you go to a good movie and you’re in the office the next day and you tell your coworkers about it.”

Like most performance arts, Porcino said becoming a good storyteller takes practice and preparation.

For Porcino, the ability to be mentally present while delivering a story is one of the most important aspects of the craft. That’s what keeps the audience engaged throughout the telling. The way a particular passage is delivered is what keeps them on the edge of their seat and builds tension to give them a sudden jolt of surprise or releases it with a laugh of relief, depending on which way the tale’s plot goes.

“Craft comes from knowing a story in such a way that you know it so well that you’re present when telling it,” he said.

Becoming well-versed enough in a story to deliver in such manner, Porcino said, is an entire process in its own right, and he’s developed a series of exercises and techniques through his three decades of experience that help immerse him in the fine details of a particular tale.

Unless he’s penning his own story, he starts by finding a popular or famous Halloween story or folktale in a book or online, then strips it down to its bones — no pun intended.

Pulling away the details allows him to read the story and grasp its core ideas and theme. For instance, he said, there’s a story he tells about a haunted house in the middle of the woods. A schoolteacher walks past it every day, and his children think it is haunted. He doesn’t believe it, but a series of odd happenings see him quickly change his tune. The story ends with an unexpected twist to teach a lesson about facing one’s fears.

That’s the core, despite all the details he weaves into the work when he’s telling it. (To see a video of Porcino performing this story, go to: 
http://bit.ly/1PaBE0h)

Once he’s learned the structure of the story and has an organic feel for it, he starts adding his own details back in where appropriate. He starts by using a technique he calls “free research,” where he repeats the core story out loud, but from the point of view of a different character each time. He plays around with the narrative, attempting to enter the mind of that character as he believes it would be in real life: the father, skeptical, doesn’t believe in the paranormal, chalking the old house up to nothing more than rotting boards and wood. His young son, by contrast, is convinced of the existence of ghosts and petrified of the house.

He demonstrates the process by jumping first into character as the father, then as his son.

“‘I know there’s no such thing as ghosts. Who’d ever believe in ghosts? There ain’t nothing in that old house,’ he said, taking on the father’s role. He shifted to the son’s perspective and started over: “‘My daddy’s a big, strong man and doesn’t think that ol’ house is haunted, but us kids — we know better. We’re never going near that house!’

“That’s me doing the first person telling of the story,” he said. “And when I tell that story, even if I do thirty seconds through the eyes of all the characters in the story, I get that out — what’s happening and what the characters are feeling. Some of the learning I do is conscious learning, and some of it is unconscious. But either way I’m learning about the story.”

Eventually, he comes to enjoy a character enough to tell the story through their eyes. For the haunted house story, he decided to narrate most of it as the son.

Another exercise works Porcino’s imagination to make the story’s setting more vivid. He’ll take a specific scene from the story, such as the haunted house out in the woods and pretend he’s flying above it, looking down. He begins to form the scene and notices details, such as the house’s old shingles or a hole in the roof.

“It’s in the middle of all these woods and there’s pretty colors in the leaves, so maybe it’s autumn,” he said.

Next, he goes a degree closer to the ground and envisions one of the characters, observing how he or she interacts with the scene or the things they might see — a deer darting into the foliage, an old brick well that hasn’t been used in a century or some tall grass that scratches his legs, for instance.

“What I’m fishing for are any details that I might brush-stroke into the story,” Porcino said. “I’m not going to use every detail, because the story would get bogged down, but you’ve got to keep it moving along. I’m feeding my story, and again, I’m researching.”

He adds additional details that would make being in such a scene unsettling: all the wildlife suddenly goes silent, leaves stop rustling, it becomes colder. Then, the wind picks up before a ghostly voice calls out.

The finished product is the original story, but with Porcino’s personal details in place of those provided by the original author. That allows him to own the story in delivery and give an animated performance in character.

Being present in both the story and in the act of telling it in such an intimate way while delivering can improve one’s storytelling in and of itself, Porcino said. When he’s in the moment on stage and really feeling a story to the point where he gets the audience to react the way he intends them to or participate in the delivery themselves, he said a sort of feedback loop can emerge.

“Every once in a while I’ll be so present and I’m surprised what comes out,” he said of such situations. “If the audience is responding, I just get ... better in that telling. They feed off me, and a bunch of ripples come out.”

Though he doesn’t consider memorizing a story necessary, he said repetition certainly helps improve it over time. After he’s told a story 40 or 50 times, he begins to smooth out the rough spots and strip away any superfluous detail, keeping only the parts that he knows made an audience laugh, sigh, or moan.

Once you’ve got presence down, Porcino said, it’s time to work on delivery. As far as the chop-’em-up slasher films mentioned earlier, those aren’t really Porcino’s cup of tea. His goal in storytelling is to help people face adversity in their lives through lessons learned from his stories, not to terrify children and give them nightmares for weeks on end.

“I haven’t found a way to value a story like that in my life,” he said. “I don’t like what they teach, I don’t like what they say. I think in some cases it has caused people to get into this kind of dark, violent sense of the world that’s really not good for them. I don’t like the spirit from whence they came.”

To that end, he said it’s important to tailor a story to the audience when relaying a scary story. Telling a story to a group of 5-year-olds as opposed to a group of 11-year-olds will see him pull details out that might be too unsettling, or add some in to increase the scare factor of the tale. Some shows, he’ll start with tame stories and take a break at the halfway point. When he starts again, he’ll invite anyone who wants a scarier story into another room.

“When a story is well told, our emotions are wide awake,” Porcino said. “It’s almost, but not exactly, as having lived through something. But you are, in a way, when you’re fully engaged in a story, living it with the storyteller. It helps them think about issues that are maybe more difficult to think about when you’re in the middle of them, but when they’re off to the side they can reflect back.”

Occasionally, Porcino will see the outcome of his efforts. Once, a women told him how a story about seeing small bits of good in every situation, as relayed through a story called “The Cellist” helped her work through a tough spot in her relationship with her father. The haunted house tale described for this story holds a moral of facing your fears, because not everything is as scary as it initially seems.

“When people call and ask me to come out and do a Halloween show, I tell them I’m not in the business of giving people nightmares, I’m in the business of helping people face their nightmares,” Porcino said. “A scary story or a ghost story told at the right level, for the right people, I think does that. It helps us process those things that we think are difficult.”



Tom Relihan started at The Recorder in 2014, where he covers business and the towns of Conway, Deerfield, Whately and Sunderland. He can be reached at 413-772-0261 x 264 or at trelihan@recorder.com.




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