We love horror authors because the frightening stories they weave keep us turning the pages, long after 'lights out.' The truths they tell about humanity through the monsters they create, well, it's like Frankenstein assembling his creature. The best horror authors are the ones who unsettle us, who make us question the status quo, who make us want to know what's on the other side of that door. Masters of storytelling, their words get under our skin and haunt us long after we've finished the final page.
But what about when the stories they tell ... are true? We asked eight horror authors—including Stephen Graham Jones, Cina Pelayo, Gwendolyn Kiste, and Josh Malerman—to divulge their scariest true stories—and they delivered.
Queen of Teeth
"I heard a noise at my apartment's front door while coming out of the bedroom one early morning this September. A kind of floorboard creaking. You can't see the front door from the hall; the coat closet has a back wall that blocks sight of the only entrance/exit, and you have to turn a corner from the living room to see the alcove to leave.
"At first I thought the creaking noise had to be coming from outside, but I got closer and realized it was coming from inside the apartment, like someone was bouncing up and down in front of the coat closet. I got a chill, but I kept walking because I always assume it'll end up being something simple. Except I turned the corner from the living room, and there was nothing between the coat closet and the front door. The creaking cut out then.
"I went to the front door to see if it could've been someone outside, but there was no one. There are no pipes underneath, and the apartment below is separated by a thicker floor than what's inside ours. It was unnerving, and I stood staring at the floor like it would give me an obvious answer before I finally tore myself away. I'm not willing to agree it was anything supernatural, but I also have no idea what made that bouncing-creaking noise. I probably never will." — Hailey Piper
In the Shadow of the Mountain
"Me and a friend were waiting on the side of the road, next to an overpass. We parked, got out, and sat on the rise heading down to the road that went under the overpass. It was a moonless night so it was pretty dark under the overpass, but only a few yards away, across from where we were sitting, was a street light illuminating the general area. Beyond that was another drop that fell into a 'krick', which was heavily forested. From where we sat, we could see a little ways under the overpass. The other side didn’t have a street light, so it was hard to see very far.
"At the edge of sight, we both saw a jogger heading towards us, from down the street, on the side of the road that would pass the light post and the forested area. Within a few minutes, the jogger would run right under the light, and we’d get a good look at him. This is important because there seemed to be something off about the jogger. I remember saying 'Is that someone running this way?' to which my friend just agreed that it was.
"However, we both noted it was impossible to focus on the jogger, like the harder I looked at him, the harder he was to see. If I looked just off to the side, I could see his form more clearly, bobbing as he ran. My friend noted, this was a common trick of the light, so we waited patiently for the jogger to pop out on our side of the overpass, and run under the light. As the jogger drew near, he became harder to see. As he approached the light, he simply faded and vanished, as though the light had somehow rendered him invisible. Then he was just gone." — Reed Alexander
All You Need is Love and a Strong Electric Current
"My husband (fiance at the time) and I were renting a craftsman close to campus. When I did the preliminary walk-through, it was still cluttered with the last tenants’ stuff. There were childproof locks on all the doors (so many doors! Three for the hallway, one separating the dining room from the living room and both of those rooms had more doors separating them from a breakfast nook and the bedrooms) and the windows were shut and covered with floppy black drapes. While it was oppressive, there was still this warmth about it? Like I was being hugged in relief. It was a little out of our price range, but that feeling? I couldn’t shake it and convinced my almost-husband we needed to live there. Upon moving in, we quickly realized that if certain doors were closed, we would get goosebumps and feel generally uneasy. We started propping some doors open. Others would close by themselves. There was a certain set of dining room doors Charlotte hated closed. 'Charlotte'—what we named the presence we felt.
"We only leased for a year because we rescued a dog and our landlords were very firm on their no-dog policy. Upon moving out, my husband and I both started to feel extremely nauseous. The nausea and severe sense of vertigo would alleviate the moment we stepped outside. So, to move, we would tag team going into the house, packing as much as we could before going out to the pouch to tag the other person in.
"The final day we went back, it felt like Charlotte was sleeping. Everything was quiet and we had the strong inclination to only tip-toe. We did a quick final check of the rooms. I went to the window seats because I’d forgotten wrapping paper I’d put under the seats for storage. Window seats, they open like a trunk, so before, I must have just opened it, stuffed wrapping paper in without looking, and left. But upon pulling the wrapping paper out, I noticed the cloth that lined the inside of the window seat was coming off, and it had been concealing a dark black goopy stain.
"I pulled the thin material back, exposing more and more of this stain that now looked like it had definitely been red at some point, and I yelled for my almost-husband and started sobbing.
"'This is it. This is it. I’m so sorry, Charlotte. I’m so, so sorry.' I remember peeling the cloth back and just apologizing to that small space again and again and again.
"My almost-husband knelt next to me.
“'Look.' He was pointing to grooves that ran along the edges of the lid and clustered at the corners. All on the underside of the seat. Something or someone had been trapped in there and scratched and scratched at the places where daylight had leaked in." — Mackenzie Kiera
"After I got my first car, me and my friends drove down Sara Jane Road in Port Neches, TX. From the Groves side of the road, there is a bridge where Sara Jane supposedly lost her baby. The stories differ from person to person, and there’s some variation of the tale that pops up all over the world. Basically, Sara Jane’s baby drowned in the creek. Distraught and depressed after the death of her child, she then hung herself under the bridge. Grisly stuff. Once you drive over the bridge, the road is surrounded by trees on both sides. It is extremely dark at night, of course much darker without headlights. The older more sensible folks cautioned against driving down the road, said homeless people hung out there. Lots of drug deals and criminal activity. It’s a rite of passage to drive as far down the road as you can with your headlights off.
"Me and three friends drove down Sara Jane Road on a Friday night at dusk. Alcohol was involved, and my cousin was with us. It was our first time on Sara Jane Road at night. I pulled the car over to the shoulder on the bridge and killed the engine. When we got out of the car, we started yelling for Sara Jane to reveal herself. My cousin, slightly drunk, taunted her strongly, screaming 'Come out, you bitch!', which was very funny at the time. Aside from our yelling and screaming, it was totally silent. No wind, no noise, just us kids screaming at a ghost.
"After a few minutes we saw something on the water. It was a subtle glow that moved from one side of the creek to the other. We all quit yelling when it happened. The air was still, very quiet, then we heard a moaning sound, almost like a wail, or a cry. It sounded like it was coming from under the bridge. My cousin was quite shaken up after this. He got in the car and refused to come out. I then drove down Sara Jane Road with the headlights off, pitch black with zero visibility. There was no wind by the bridge, but as we went down the road, the breeze kicked up quite a bit, casting shifting shadows of the trees on both sides of the road. I didn’t make it very far before having to turn on my headlights, and when I did, we saw something run across in the high beams. Could have been a possum, or a cat or a dog, but honestly, I’m sure it was none of those things. Whatever it was, it moved on two legs, very low to the ground. That was the first and last time I drove down the road without my headlights on, and I do my best to avoid Sara Jane Road to this day." — Bob Pastorella
Children of Chicago
"In keeping with the Halloween spirit, I wanted to talk about something supernatural/paranormal that didn’t happen to me but happened because of me.
"I was nine-years old. I was in my bedroom trying to fall asleep. I had the door open. I can’t remember why it was I was afraid of closing my door that night, but I remember I kept peeking out from under my sheets towards the door. My bedroom was right outside of the living room, and I could see the lights were off.
"The kitchen was just to my left, and out of view, and I could hear my mother there washing dishes. She often caught up on chores late at night after work.
"I heard the water stop and a dish crash in the sink, then she called my name:
"I looked up and said 'Yeah.'
"She was standing right outside my bedroom door with her yellow rubber gloves on, soap suds dripping down her fingers. She had this stunned look on her face.
"'Were you just in the kitchen?'
"I was like 'No, I’ve been here.'
"She said 'I saw you. You were in the kitchen, and you were wearing a white dress, but you didn’t say anything.'
"I promised her I’d been in my room. She went back, finished up the dishes and went to bed.
"For many years after my mother kept prayer candles lit in the living room outside of my bedroom." — Cynthia Pelayo
"Back in college, I got it in my head that the Devil might be attracted to a guy like me. I was just falling in love with art, just starting to get serious about writing, and I’d recently read in an old dusty book in an old dusty bookstore aisle that the Devil approaches “sensitive” people, especially the artistically bent, as those men and women are the most susceptible to his charms. First off, the imaginative might be more likely to believe in him. And second, there’s a lot of ambition to be found in a brand-new artist.
"Who knows what kind of deal might be struck?
"With thoughts like these in mind, I found myself on the front porch of a raging house party. Plastic cup in hand, I’d needed some air, the opposite of the kind found in the packed basement where people pounded beers, snorted powder, smoked joints, and sucked nitrous from red balloons, the latter of which was supplied by a known dealer named Kevin, a fella we all assumed had lost his mind on his own supply, as he took a balloon for every one he sold. He hugged that tank like some do their dogs, and it was Kevin himself who broke my delusion that I was outside alone on that front porch, the night I might have met the Devil and turned his offer down.
"For, none of us had ever seen Kevin coherent, certainly not long enough to hold a conversation, and if the eyes are the windows to the soul, his were in need of deep cleaning. Yet, when I spotted him perched on the couch on that porch, he half in shadows, I was surprised to see not life, but light in those eyes, white light, two bright spheres tracking me as I took in the fresh air. And as I made to walk to the other end of the porch, to be alone after all, the man who I’d never seen converse with anything other than his tank, said to me:
"'Whatever you want… I can make it happen.'
"I smiled and told him I was okay, I wasn’t into that stuff, but thank you for saying so.
"He shook his head no. He repeated:
“'Whatever you want… I can make it happen.'
"Was it the strength in his voice that had me considering this wasn’t Kevin? Was it the crystal-clear look in his eyes?
"'Anything,' he said. 'Money, fame, women, men. I’m not talking about the petty things found in this basement.'
"I felt chilled, then, as any self-respecting free-thinking 'sensitive' artistic type might. I recalled the pages of that stuffy book and I felt I was in the presence of something much bigger than either the nitrous salesmen or myself.
"I believed then that the Devil had temporarily taken possession of the body of a passed-out man, and was attempting to strike a deal with a new artist.
“'No thank you,' I said, not without considering what yes might feel like. I had the sense from him one gets when examining the hairs upon the legs of spiders. I felt he was crawling all over me, despite the space between us.
"He offered again and I said no again. And then I said:
“'I’m new to this, but I’m not scared of the work. I’m not scared of the toil. I’m gonna go this alone.'
"I felt years of potential ease slip from my grasp.
"And one might think that, if this was indeed the man he looked to be, he would’ve asked what the hell I was going on about. But, of course, he didn’t. Instead, he said:
“'Alright. That’s your answer. But if you change your mind…'
"And I passed him then, re-entered the house, the basement, and the party, not giving myself a chance to do that: not giving myself a chance to change my mind.
"Because you asked the scariest experience I’ve ever had, and the answer is that I almost did. I almost went looking for him again. I almost changed my mind." — Josh Malerman
Boneset and Feathers
"So this might not be the scariest thing to ever happen to me, but it was definitely among the scariest things to happen to me as a child. It was on the night I watched John Carpenter's The Fog for the first time. I was probably about five or six, and for the most part, I could completely handle horror movies with no problem. However, something about The Fog really got to me. It might have been the fact that up until that point, I had never actually seen fog in real life. Well, that all changed very soon after.
"In the dead of night that very evening, I woke suddenly from an intense nightmare, only to peer out my second-floor bedroom window at an impenetrable bank of gray fog. To this day, I don't think I've ever seen fog as thick as it was that night. I of course did what every brave kid does: I started screaming until my throat was raw. Half asleep, my mom rushed into the room, as I screeched, 'The fog is going to get me! It's going to get me!' I still remember the exasperated look my mother gave the window, as if to say 'Really, fog? You had to do this tonight?' I'm not sure how I got back to sleep afterward, but somehow, I managed. It took a few years for me to be able to watch The Fog again, and to this day, it still holds a special place in my terror-loving heart."
Stephen Graham Jones
My Heart is a Chainsaw
"Few years ago I'm out walking the dog about midnight. I like walking then because we don't run into other dogs, other people. We have the neighborhood to ourselves, and also the elementary school grounds that kind of border the park. Just a lot of fields for soccer and baseball.
"So we're trucking along, her—my dog—and me, and she's pulling like she's never learned not to, and I'm not plugged into any music or audiobook, mostly because I'm paranoid about being sneaked up on at night, and then . . . I start looking around, at all the shadows. I'm populating them with my imagination, I know, that's what I do, it's what I can't help doing, the same as my dog can't help pulling against the leash. But I'm more nervous than usual.
"I stage a reason to stop, check my backpath for if some lowslung car's pacing me, headlights off, or if some other dogwalker's eased in behind, but I'm still alone. But, I'm now that kind of alone where I can't watch three-sixty around me—know that feeling? Like, wherever you're not looking, that's exactly where you should be looking. And we're pretty far from the house, by now, and the only way back's exactly the way we came, but I don't want to about-face, because I'm sure someone's watching, that they're going to know this about me now, that I make arbitrary turnarounds, that I'm this kind of spooky, so we keep moving forward, and I keep finding reasons to case the darkness, and each time it's empty, or, I can't see far enough into it, anyway, so I have to just keep moving, keep moving.
"Until the feeling of not being alone really reaches kind of a frenzy in my head, and on my skin. Almost like a flinch, I turn halfway around all at once, and . . . you know in The Breakfast Club, when everybody's stoned and they're up on that thick railing in the library, doing that dance where they're sideways and front-to-back, so that when the front person steps forward, the middle person does too, and also the third? Like they're in each other's footsteps before the other's even all the way out of those footsteps? That's the best way I have to explain this: when I turn around, there's someone in my footsteps, bodied right up against me, his face so close to mine, and I don't even remember jerking back from this, I just remember wondering how long he's been there. And that's where that night stops for me." — Stephen Graham Jones
Featured photo: Giuseppe Famiani / Unsplash