There’s only one way to elicit a good jump scare.  You have to interrupt the mental flow somehow with fear.  You can do it in movies pretty easily, of course.  Build up sympathy for the character, increase the suspense…then release it by having someone pop out of nowhere and strike or startle the character.

Empathy.  Suspense.  Release.  Bang.

Our plan was simple.  Wait for Friday the thirteenth of October.  Invite everyone over for a séance.  And then scare the ever-living shit out of them.

We have a big old house that used to be my grandfather’s, on the small acreage that remains from the sale of most of the farm.  It came with a table that can seat twenty at a stretch…we adjusted the insertable leaves until there was only room for thirteen, with an empty chair at the head of the table.

The medium we hired from halfway across the state.  She worked in a college town, reading fortunes.  We warned her.  “Neither of us has much of an opinion about the supernatural or ghosts.  In fact we think they’re a mix—some real ghosts mixed in with a lot of fakes.  We don’t even care whether you’re a real medium or not, or some kind of mix where on the good days it’s real and the bad days you stumble through it as best you can.  We just want you to hold everyone’s attention.  Got it?”

She seemed to have reservations, but she was young.  And broke.  And we were paying expenses.

“Make sure,” we told her, “that the members of the séance can relate to you.  Tell them about yourself.  We have a couple of real cynics coming over…they’re sure to heckle you all the way through unless you get them on your side.”

She finally agreed.

Margie was twenty-two and pretty and about five-foot-nothing with these enormous blue eyes that always seemed on the verge of tears.  She had come from a bad family, not awful but the rigid kind of place where her parents beat her to try to get her to shut up about playing with the spirit of a dead dog that the mom had hit with the car, then went into denial about.  Her roommate had kicked her out of the house after the ghost of a murder victim from the trailer park had come to the house, trying to fine someone, anyone, who would come rescue her pet finches before they starved to death, and Margie had woke up screaming, then raced over to the trailer—barefoot and in the snow—to rescue those birds.  Then refused to turn them over to the animal shelter and kept them in the apartment for six months…

It turned out that she really didn’t have a lot of ethical qualms about pulling the wool over on a group of humans.  Animals, that’s what she cared about.

When she first arrived at the house, she walked around the farm and checked with our dogs to make sure we were on the up-and-up.

Well, dogs.  It’s had to get them to say a bad word about anybody.  She decided we were reliable enough (for humans, that was) and that she’d do it.

The night of the thirteenth our friends came over in dribs and drabs.  A light dusting of snow was coming down, and for a moment I almost bundled up to go outside and take care of the horses.  But they’d been gone for years, after my grandfather died, most of them sold but an old broke-back gelding named Star that had been Grandpa’s favorite, who had been petted and spoiled beyond all reason by my Uncle Ted, even though Uncle Ted had never been a big fan of horses until Grandpa died of a heart attack, back in the late Eighties.

We served up pumpkin spiced cider and pumpkin bread and pork roast with bloody red cranberry sauce, and each guest had their own tiny pink gelatin brain-mold at their seat.  And other things, too.  It was a big spread.

Finally, the table was cleared and wiped, the dishes done, the candles lit, cell phones confiscated, smart watches likewise, the curtains drawn, and the electric lights put out.

Margie was put at the head of the table, a crystal ball about the size of a bowling ball on a brass stand under her chin.  We’d introduced her during supper, and she was personable and friendly with all the guests, asking the kind of insightful questions that people love to answer in far more detail than was necessary.  In short she was charming and pumped everyone for information.

So when she finally started chanting over the crystal ball in what sounded like pig-Latin Latin, everyone basically wanted her to succeed, if not in summoning up spirits from beyond the veil, then at least to fool everyone convincingly.  (Although of course they themselves were too smart to be so fooled.)

The crystal ball flickered, then shifted colors.

While everyone else tried to figure out how it was done, I kept an eye on the wall behind her head.

The darkness behind her bulged…stretching.  Pushing out of the wall was a shape about five and three-quarters feet tall.

As it stretched further, it became obvious that the figure was hunched and balancing itself over a cane.

Margie’s head lolled from one side to the other, the light in the crystal ball flickering over her face.  Someone at the table across from me gasped as Margie exhaled, her breath releasing a faintly luminescent mist.  Not quite glowing…more like it was silver, and catching the glow from the crystal ball.

My wife squeezed my hand tight.

The dark shape pointed at Margie at the head of the table and shook its finger, as if it were giving Margie a soundless talking-to, then reached for her shoulder and shook her.

Margie’s head bounced on her shoulders, her whole upper body jerking around.

Everyone at the table gasped or said a soft curse, it seemed, but not because of the dark shape behind her.

A ghostly shape was forming in her breath.  The shape of a horse.

At first it was about small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  Then it began to grow.

The dark shape behind Margie’s chair let go of her.  She went limp.

My wife squeezed my hand even tighter.  Her shoulders were up around her ears and her eyes were squeezed shut.  Her head was half-turned away, too.

“Look,” I whispered.

The shape raised its cane, unsteadily, over Margie’s head.

“I can’t look,” she whispered back.


The horse’s legs had stretched all the way through the table to the floor.  It snorted—without making a sound, that is, but you could see the look on its face—spun around, and kicked straight through Margie’s chest.


Chairs flew, candles tipped, someone’s hair started on fire.  Every single window in the dining room was cracked, and the table had been reduced to kindling.  Splinters everywhere.

Old Grandpa, he never did like anyone sitting in his chair at the head of the table.  And he was so damned mean and stubborn that he stayed sitting there through every meal, even decades after his death.

We knew it would take a real doozy of a plan to get him out of the house.  And we knew that there must have been a reason Uncle Ted loved that horse Star so much…

I never did believe the story about Grandpa dying of a heart attack.

Ran a bit long that time 🙂  If you liked this one, check out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz.  In a number of the stories, you’re supposed to reach out and grab one of the people you’re telling a story to, of scream in their ears…