Who Me…Scared?

Leah St. JamesLeah St. James is a worrier, a self-described neurotic who tends to imagine the worst-case scenario in response to brewing troubles. She hasn’t decided if this leaning toward the dark side is what draws her to write edgy, gritty stories, or if the suspenseful mysteries and Gothic romances that filled her childhood bookshelves somehow imprinted their shadows on her psyche. Despite (or maybe because of) this propensity for infusing her fiction with murder and mayhem, she still craves those happily-ever-after endings and the romance of everlasting love. A native of the Central Jersey Shore, Leah now lives happily (Jersey Devil free) with her husband in southeastern Virginia.

You can read more about Leah at www.leahstjames.com

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Tomorrow is Halloween, either the second- or third-favorite holiday of the year for most Americans…at least according to my very unscientific Google search of the topic. Either way, it’s clear most of us love Halloween. And judging by the popularity of Halloween-ish stories, it’s clear we love being scared…at least in fiction.

Curious about this phenomenon (why people like being scared), I went to Google and found some interesting theories.

According to a few articles I read, you have to know that you’re not in any real danger to enjoy the feeling of fright. Like when you go through a haunted house at an amusement park, you know it’s all staged, so even when that monster jumps out at you from behind a door, you can laugh it off. (Although the haunted house I went through as a kid felt VERY REAL. I could have sworn those were real rats nibbling on my toes as I walked down the rat corridor. Ugh.)

Anyway, the enjoyment apparently comes from the kick of the flight-or-fight hormones, followed by that almost instantaneous comprehension that you’re not in any real danger.

Another article I read speculated that we need that come-down effect on a psychological level, not just physical. That we push ourselves to experience fear so we can have an accompanying sense of satisfaction at having survived and vanquished that fear. … Um, really? I’m not sure I buy that one.

All I know is that I like scary books and movies. (I’m not counting slasher films. Those aren’t scary to me, just gross.)

I know that when I read a book, or watch a movie, and I find myself holding my breath, motionless, or the hairs on the back of my neck lift, or my skin starts to prickle, I’m hooked. And when the story is over, I wish I could stay in that make-believe world—scary and all—just a bit longer.

That’s the joy of story-telling isn’t it—to forget who and where we are, even for a short spell.

So in honor of those great scary/suspenseful story-crafters, I thought I’d share a few that have impacted me most.


Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier

If you haven’t read this classic Gothic novel, go to your library and grab a copy, read the first line, and tell me you aren’t sucked right in. The dark and mournful tone throughout. The imagery. It’s just perfect. Here’s one of my favorite quotes: “The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.” Love it.

The Taking by Dean Koontz

I have to preface this by telling you my sister recommended this book to me. My sister who likes light, comedic mysteries, like the Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, recommended this terrifying book filled with dark and disturbing visions that kept my eyes glued to the pages for several nights…so much so I could not close them long after putting the book down. Thanks so much, sis.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Another epic novel that kept me turning pages as I read one horrifying scene after another, and decided that the world could indeed be overrun by vampire creatures. I haven’t had the guts to try the sequel yet.


The Terminator (the original from 1984) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton. Every time I watch this movie, no matter how much my logical brain tells me I’m watching 30-year-old fiction, I’m transported to that city with poor Sarah Connor who is running for her life from this…this… merciless, relentless, killing machine that looks like a man. The ending few minutes where the machine’s red-eyed endoskeleton is hunting Sarah through the flames—every time I see it, I try to scrunch myself into the couch….back, back, back so the monster can’t get me. (I’m scaring myself just thinking of it!)

The Wizard of Oz

Admittedly, the doesn’t have the same effect on me now as it did when I was in pre-school, but that Wicked Witch of the West and those horrible flying monkeys…..I shiver just thinking about them! You know what I’m talking about, right?

The Birds

Many people say Psycho is Hitchcock’s scariest movie, but for me, it was The Birds. Again, it might have been because of my age when I first saw it, but there is something so disturbing about a bunch of seemingly harmless birds sunning themselves on an overhead wire, then suddenly start circling overhead, then gathering and swarming, then attacking. For days after I saw that movie I ran inside the house with my arms over my head and face…fearful the neighborhood sparrows would peck my eyes out!

Mysteries of the MacabreLegend

There’s only one that truly scares me – the Jersey Devil. This mythical hoofed, leather-winged monster has been terrorizing residents of the New Jersey Pine Barrens for … well, as long as I remember.

The legend tells of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Leeds who lived in what is now Atlantic County in the mid-1700s. Upon the birth of their 13th child, Mrs. Leeds shouted, “He’ll be the devil,” or words to that effect, at which point the newborn turned into the creature that to this day haunts the woods in the area. It is cruel and heartless…and relentless, like the Terminator. Or think of the velociraptor chasing the kids in the lab in Jurassic Park….which would have been a fourth in my movie list!

Historians claim the whole thing started as a political prank, by Benjamin Franklin of all people. But those of us from Jersey who grew up hearing the stories…we believe.

What are your favorite scary stories and legends?


25 thoughts on “Who Me…Scared?

  1. Since I don’t like to be scared, I don’t watch scary movies or read scary books. That being said, I loved Rebecca (book & movies). I’ll rewatch most of Hitchcock’s movies, but not The Birds. That movies freaked me out.


    • I remember hiding my face in my mother’s lap watching The Wizard of Oz, Marissa. I usually do the hand-peek thing for images that gross me out — like medical procedures, even when I know they’re faked, or ugly insects. I know, I know….beauty is in the eye, but some of them, ugh.


  2. Favorite scary books…I have to go with Stephen King. At least I liked them when I was younger and my heart could take that kind of fright! Great post, Leah!


  3. Leah, you sound like my twin: I also adore Rebecca! I live in the Jersey Devil region, and yes, the piece of folklore has been published in many news paper during the early 1900s; people in my region actually try to get scared by searching the Pine Barrens. I could write more, but I am also related to the Leeds family via marriage ( my cousin’s mother was married to a Leeds). In addition, many movies ( Friday the 13th and Fallen were filmed relatively close by).


    • Skyecaitlin — t’s great to “meet” a fellow Jerseyan! (I miss my home state.) I lived in Central Jersey, in the shore area, but have vivid memories of Girl Scout camping in Ocean County, out in the woods, awake most of the night for fear of the Jersey Devil! That’s so cool about your relationship to the Leeds family. But I have to ask…do you believe? 🙂


      • Waving hi to you, Leah! I am in Burlington County: chuckle, Leah–Central? Mercer >>:? you need to tell me whether or not you followed the NYC teams or those from Philadelphia? Do I believe in the Jersey Devil, per se? Not really, but I know we have witches and ghosties in this region; and for Lelia: the television show The Doctors highlighted real life vampires and interviewed them on Monday!!!! Do you believe in the Jersey Devil, Leah?


  4. REBECCA is also an all-time fave of mine–a classic! I love writing Gothics because the South is so full of angst. Conflict always brewing below the “gracious” Southern surface! Thanks for a very cool post!


    • Rebecca is one of my all -time favorite novels; Southern Gothic; sounds wonderful; Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner!!!!!!!!!!!!!Amazing writers that DO detail what you have written above.


    • Thanks, Susan, for stopping by. I hadn’t thought about Rebecca until I started thinking about my favorite “scary” books. I’m going to have to re-read it. And yes, there’s that whole “Southern magnolia” thing I’m starting to understand, now that I live in the South! (We’re not deep south here but it didn’t take long for me to be called a “yankee” by a friend at work!)


  5. Ah, love this post! And, of course, I love scary books and movies. I adored Rebecca, the movie and the book. Very creepy and moody. Excellent. I love Koontz and King. Have not read The Taking, but apparently I should. I can’t think of my fave scary books or movies, but I know that Halloween and IT are right there at the top. I still say, you should see the first Halloween movie. It’s not gross, but it is scary! I enjoyed being part of the Halloween anthology. Blood Moon is a fabulous story!


  6. Very well thought out, well written post! I have to read that REBECCA. I’ve heard so many people mention it as one of their favorites. And I agree, THE BIRDS was terrifying. I think, though, like you, I was exposed to it at too young an age. My parents were at a grownup gathering at someone’s house and all of the kids, of all ages, were playing together. I was probably, at the oldest, in first grade. I also remember a time when I was cornered by a rooster in a petting zoo and he kept rushing me! And geese are scary, too. With all that hissing!

    I think that you are right in that people who like to be scared actually like the feeling of the adrenaline rush AFTER they realize everything is okay. To me, the payoff is not worth it. I’d just rather not be scared. Thanks for sharing this, Leah!


    • M.J., I saw The Birds when I was about 10 years old, maybe? Terrified me. When you get the chance, definitely read Rebecca though. The writing style is not modern of course, but it’s so good, I don’t notice.


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