Storyteller, poet, TV show host Danica Horror talks today about researching scary tales to tell and captivating your audience. From Canada, here’s Danica for Women in Horror Month.
The first time I told a story in front of a burlesque audience I was terrified. New audiences always make me nervous, but this was different; this time I didn’t have the option of picturing them naked. In moments, they would be seeing the performers stripping off almost everything! It was a Menagerie Burlesque Company show called “Dirty Birds, Dirty Words” and they booked dancers and spoken word poets and storytellers. I was scared; this audience was there for the skin, I was offering raw words instead of bare flesh and keeping my clothes on. I soon learned that burlesque audiences are some of the best for story. They are vibrating with anticipation, they are fully engaged in what is going on in front of them, and they are ready to follow you wherever you take them.
The Rosebud Burlesque Club also invites variety acts to perform with them. They put out calls for their theme shows throughout the year. When they advertised for their Peek-A-Boo Halloween show in 2016 I pitched a ghost story. The venue is a desanctified church now serving as a dance studio. It was perfect—what’s better than a creepy little white church with a bright red door to serve as a home for a lost soul? Out of respect I asked the owner if the church was haunted and when she said it wasn’t my imagination took over. “The Bride Wore Black” is a story with creepy sensory revelations rooted in the teenage date night memories of boys taking girls out into the country and stopping at little churches and graveyards to frighten them into their arms. As I told it to the crowd I could see the audience members’ eyes shine, the shivers, and the wariness. I played with words, appealed to the sense of nostalgia, and offered a facepaint reveal at the end.
Once you’ve scared or even unsettled an audience, they begin to expect something more. The next year I began researching local ghost stories. The Saskatoon (Canada) Storytelling Guild was moving its monthly circles from a Unitarian Centre to a downtown pub. Our first night in the new place was near the end of October and the host had chosen the theme “Spirits.” It made perfect sense. We had been meeting in a spiritual centre, we were moving into a place known for its liquid spirits, and I was pretty sure the place could be haunted. I thought about the tales friends had told about their experiences at the city’s oldest hotels and did a little research about the historic Senator Hotel. I knew that the basement, where we would be meeting, had recently been opened after years of being sealed closed. Again, the setting for the gathering made its way into the story. The basement is dank and dark, the walls are crumbling brick, there are rooms and tunnels, and strange hisses and clanks. I found out a little about Jimmy Flanagan, the hotel’s first owner and how he died young and had been very popular. I was delighted to find out he was reputed to be a storyteller himself. My google search revealed that a paranormal investigation team had spent an uncomfortable and eventful night filming in one of the rooms for their TV program. I also had a foggy memory of friends stopping over for breakfast after staying in the hotel and telling me how disturbing their night had been. I texted both of them independently to find out more. She replied that they had felt “bad vibes” in room 22, that her normally calm and loving partner woke up angry and yelling with no recollection of it the next day. “That room does not make me feel comfortable or safe,” she said. When I asked him if he had ever experienced anything spooky there, he replied, “Nope. Some evil hangovers.” I had a story for the guild and the location couldn’t be more perfect for the telling.
When the Rosebud’s put out a call for their next Peek-A-Boo burlesque show subtitled “Scared Shirtless” I knew what I wanted to do. I’ve always been fascinated by creepy dolls. I’ve always been fascinated by creepy dolls. My daughter had a toy doll that talked, sometimes in the middle of the night when no one was around. It had to be moved from the toy box to the backyard. I had seen many staring at me while visiting historical museums, and I could barely touch them in thrift stores. I decided to write a story bringing together the misplaced doll with the hotel themes. There was enough truth about our downtown core in the story that it connected immediately to the audience. I know dozens of people who are terrified of dolls and to make things even creepier I found a previously loved vintage curly-haired baby to set at the back of the performance space. I was told later that she kept several people from sitting in her section and that her eyes seemed to follow them throughout the space. I chose to dress as a creepy doll and finished the story staring ahead with a soft and high “Mama.”
It is incredibly satisfying to share something scary with a live audience, with low lights, and the naturally creepy sounds that seem to amplify when you let the silences creep in and you listen a little closer. I bring my own fears intensified by the audience, the space we’re in, and the shared contagious energy that flows through a group focused on one voice. I love to imagine how readers will react to what I put down on the page, but I adore the rush of seeing their instant reaction from the stage as we experience the story together. Storytelling isn’t just for kids and horror is an incredible genre for the art form.
Happy Creepy Women in Horror Month to you all!
Danica Lorer has spent the past twenty years as a professional storyteller. She has been struck by lightning, a moose, a rogue semi-tire, vehicles, and the odd strange idea. She is a freelance writer, workshop facilitator, face and body painter, poet, and the host of Shaw’s literary arts program “Lit Happens.” She has been published in untethered, Poetry All Over the Floor, Grain, release any words stuck inside of you, and Alice Unbound: Beyond Wonderland.