Penguin Teen Authors Share Their Scariest Real-Life Stories: Part 1!
Happy (almost) Halloween! We can’t resist a good scare here at Penguin Teen, and who’s better at scary stories than…well…authors?!
As it turns out, our authors had some of their own not-so-fictional scary experiences that will have you sleeping with the lights on this Halloween. Prepare to be scared!
First up…the Black Dahlia Selfie from Ginny Myers Sain, author of Dark and Shallow Lies!
I’m Ginny Myers Sain, author of DARK AND SHALLOW LIES, and I have an old Hollywood ghost story to share. In the summer of 2018 I was thrilled to attend my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators national conference in L.A. The event was being held at the Biltmore, which is one of the oldest and most beautiful hotels in the city.
Originally opening in 1923, the Biltmore was a magnet for showbiz elite. Movie stars and directors met there for lunch, Lavish events like the Academy Awards were held in the ballrooms, and there was even a speakeasy in the Gold Room during prohibition.
The hotel is also said to be haunted. What better place to put a convention full of writers than a haunted hotel, right? We were all so thrilled!
According to the stories we were told when we checked in, there were several spirits at the hotel, including the ghost of a nurse and a little girl. The most famous resident ghost, though, was said to be that of Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia.
Early in the morning on January 15, 1947, a mother and child out for a walk stumbled upon a gruesome sight: the body of a young woman, naked, mutilated, and sliced completely in half at the waist.
The body belonged to 22-year-old aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short—later dubbed the “Black Dahlia” by the press. Nobody was ever arrested for the murder, and the case went on to become one of Hollywood’s most infamous unsolved mysteries.
The last place Elizabeth Short was seen alive was the bar at the Biltmore Hotel, and, according to the stories, she never really left. Guests sometimes report a pale lady with dark hair, wearing a sheer or even see-though or black or gray dress in 1940’s style. She is usually seen entering or leaving rooms on the tenth or eleventh floors. Being a lover of ghost stories, I was especially excited to find out I’d been assigned a room on the 10th floor! But I’m a definite skeptic, so I wasn’t really expecting anything to happen.
On the first night, I left my room to head down to the opening session. The hallways were long and totally empty, and with old-fashioned looking carpet and lights, it reminded me of the hallway from The Shining, which was my teenage son’s favorite movie. So I snapped a selfie of me in the totally empty, long and creepy hallway and sent it to him. I also quickly posted it on Facebook with a caption about the long and creepy hallways at my haunted L.A. hotel. Then I turned my phone off to attend the opening session.
When I turned my phone back on a few hours later, that Facebook post had over one hundred comments. Hadn’t I noticed the woman in the background, they all wanted to know. But there hadn’t been any woman in the background. The hall had been empty, and I had no idea who they were talking about. Honestly, I’d only glanced at the picture long enough to make sure my hair looked decent before i posted it. Lol.
So, I zoomed in, and, skeptic or not, I felt a real shiver travel up my spine. I’m still not sure exactly who or what I captured behind me in that totally empty hallway, but you have to admit, the blurry image looks at awful lot like the Black Dahlia.
Next, the story of Harvey the Ghost from Lish McBride, author of Curses!
My aunt Cathy is formidable—all the women in my family are. We’re formidable and just a little too—too loud, too funny, too much. Want to find my family in a crowded room? Look for the group having a little too good of a time. We’re an entertaining bunch and we tell a good story. It might not be appropriate, but it will be good. And though I consider myself to be cut from the same cloth—I come by my storytelling skills honestly—I don’t think I’m as formidable as half of them.
You would be hard-pressed to get me to stay in a haunted house for more than a night, for example.
My aunt lived in one for a couple of years.
When she was in her late twenties, she moved into an old two-story house in Watseka, Illinois, with her two friends, Pam and Jeannie.
“Did you know it was haunted?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah—we knew there was something up with it. The barber, Gary, told us not to live there. The family before moved because they were scared to death. We didn’t know the house was affiliated with the Watseka Wonder, or that they held a bunch of séances there.”
The Watseka Wonder is the name given to Lurancy Vennum, a young girl that was possessed by spirits in the late 19th century.
“How did you know it was haunted?”
“The ghost—we called him Harvey—hated candles. Blew them all out. The porch swing would swing at night sometimes, even if no one was out there. The house had these old peg windows, where you had to take the peg out to open them, then insert it in one of the holes at the top to keep the window up. We’d put the windows up at night, but they’d be closed in the morning.”
At night, there would be noises. Grumbling from the closet, like people were talking, but the closet would be empty. Loud banging noises, like someone building something, but you could only hear them inside the house. If you went outside, it was quiet. One time Pam smelled smoke from the closet, but again, when they opened it, nothing. That same night, my aunt came back into her room and the pajamas she’d left in a pile were shaped into the letter S.
“That’s creepy,” I say, and she just laughs. “Why did you stay?”
“Harvey was mostly nice, just territorial, you know? Didn’t like the windows open, didn’t like candles.”
“What made you decide to leave?”
“One night after dinner, we heard Harvey rattling in the kitchen, followed by this loud noise—a crash. We went in the kitchen and the fridge had been pulled away from the wall. The dishes we’d left in the drainer to dry were back in the sink.” Harvey had finally pushed them too far, and they moved out of the house shortly after.
“I would have left after I heard grumbling in the closet.”
Again, she laughs. “Mostly, it was fine. It’s in a book, you know—the house. About the Watseka Wonder. You should look it up.” The Watseka Wonder did spawn several books and was the subject of an episode of the podcast, Lore, as well as a 2009 film called The Possessed.
I’m not sure what happened to Harvey’s house, but the Roff House where Vennum stayed is up on Airbnb. None of the reviews I read mentioned ghosts, but apparently one of the hosts is an excellent chef.
I could see booking it for a writer’s retreat—Vennum’s story reads like a YA novel to me—but I lack the fortitude to live with a ghost, even if the ghost is mostly friendly.
Harvey will have to find a different roommate.
Next up, Kat Ellis, author of Burden Falls is here to tell you about a staircase you definitely do not want to climb.
I’m Kat Ellis, author of Burden Falls and Harrow Lake. I obviously love writing about creepy things happening to my characters… but I also had a very spooky encounter of my own not so long ago.
It was in Bodelwyddan Castle in North Wales — a turreted stone castle with parts of the building dating back to the fifteenth century, and which has the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in the UK. There have been all kinds of spectral sightings reported there over the years: pale children who’ve been heard playing in the Toy Room and spotted looking out from one of the upstairs windows; a Victorian lady who wanders along the sculpture gallery and disappears through a wall where there was once a doorway; and the Cellar Man — an unfriendly spirit who we were told likes to pinch and tug on the hair of any woman who ventures down into the maze of underground cellars at the castle.
Sounds like the perfect place for a ghost hunt, right? That’s exactly why I was there.
There were a group of us, led by a small team of expert ghost hunters. We spent some time exploring several rooms of the castle, using things like dowsing rods and electronic devices to try to locate any spirits who might be hiding nearby; table-tipping and calling out for the dead to make themselves known to us. All the lights were out to make it easier to spot orbs or other ghostly phenomenon, but all seemed quiet in the castle that night. 1AM rolled around, our group in a parlor next to a grand hallway with a wide, carved staircase, and just starting to talk about calling it quits.
That’s when I heard a sound that sent a cold shiver running through me: footsteps running down the staircase just outside our room.
“Did you hear that?” one of the others asked, wide-eyed. And I definitely had. But with all the lights off, anyone rushing down the stairs would most likely have ended up with a broken neck. We all hurried out to see if anyone — or anything — was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs.
There was nobody there. We turned on the lights to check, but there was no sign that anyone had been on that staircase a moment earlier.
I can’t say for sure that what I heard was a ghost, but I can’t come up with another explanation that makes sense of the sound. So maybe it was the spirit of one of the children, escaped from the Toy Room upstairs. Maybe it was another of the castle’s reported apparitions — a spirit who appears as no more than a pair of disembodied legs wearing white stockings and gold-buckled shoes. Maybe it was just a creaky old building stretching its spine… or maybe I need to go back to Bodelwyddan Castle and try again to catch sight — or sound — of the supernatural.
Next up, The Woman with the Hole in Her Head from Heather M. Herrman, author of The Corpse Queen!
In 1927, my great-great-grandmother Emma was found dead with a small hole in the back of her head. The town doctor decided Emma had likely fallen and hit her head on a key. In those days, skeleton keys were often left sticking out of keyholes.
But there was something the doctor didn’t know. Emma was a psychic and had been foretelling her own death for months. She was also very likely murdered.
In 1894, Emma ran away from her abusive, alcoholic husband. On the streets of St. Louis, she supported herself and her two children by telling fortunes. However, when the opportunity for a better life arose, she took it. The pastor of her German immigrant community had received a letter from a widower in Kansas who was seeking a new wife. Emma answered the letter, taking her two children with her to the widower, Albert’s, farm. There, she got remarried, though she was more than twenty years younger than her new husband and had not met him before the wedding.
Emma quickly became ensconced in her new world. She helped with the farm, became a member of the local women’s societies, and was well-known at church potlucks for her excellent black walnut pie. She even had two more children by her new husband. But through it all, her psychic gift never left her. When her oldest son was hurt from mustard gas in WWI, Emma knew immediately, though they wouldn’t get the telegram for two weeks.
Despite this, Emma’s life was mostly good—except for one thing. Her oldest daughter, Martha, raised in poverty, began to grow greedy with the possibilities of her new life. She vowed to become the richest woman in the county. And she would do whatever it took. Even kill her own mother so that she could receive an early inheritance. You see, her stepfather, who’d passed away of old age, had left a very profitable farm to his wife.
As Emma grew older, she began to be afraid. Someone, she said, was trying to kill her. Her youngest grandson, Albert, named after his grandfather, even swore that he saw a figure in the fields, and when Emma went outside to check, she found a blazing pile of straw placed next to the house. Someone was trying to burn the house down with her in it.
A few days later, Emma was found dead, just as she had foretold.
And she wasn’t the only one. Less than a year later, her daughter’s mother-in-law was also found dead after consuming a box of chocolates gifted to her by Martha.
Coincidence, or murder? No one will ever know, except Emma. And if you ask her, she just might use her psychic gifts, reaching out across the realms of the dead to answer.
Next up, Ash Parsons, author of You’re So Dead, and how she got grounded…forever
I’m Ash Parsons, author of You’re So Dead. This scary story happened when I was in sixth grade.
My family was stationed on Kwajalein Missile Range, a tiny island in the South Pacific. During spend the nights, my friend and I used to sneak out. We’d go to the lagoon, or the playground, we’d skulk around feeling like spies. It was exhilarating.
Before sneaking out, I’d unlock every door. At my friend’s house, she’d open her bedroom window. What if a parent woke up and we got locked out? So, we always had a backup plan.
One night we snuck out and climbed onto the roof of the high school. We swung from the flag pole. We pet the injured sea turtles one guy was rehabilitating in a large cement pool in his front yard.
We were returning to my house when we saw it. There was an old man standing in the middle of the road in the dark space between two street lights. He was completely motionless.
On Kwaj, only the military police and a few others had cars. Everyone else rode bicycles, so while it wasn’t particularly dangerous that the old man was standing in the middle of the road, it was eerie. It was more than that. It was creepy.
We hid under a hibiscus bush. The old man stood there. We got really freaked out. Had he seen us? Was he dangerous? Was he a killer, looking for victims? (I’d recently seen Friday the 13th). Was he a ghost? The island was significant during WWII; maybe he was the ghost of a dead soldier? He didn’t look particularly ghostly, or like a soldier, but he also didn’t look real. It wasn’t normal, how he was just standing there.
The old man turned and started shambling in the opposite direction. We took the opportunity and raced across the road. We ran behind the public pool, crouching behind the fence. The ocean and reef was on one side of us, the pool fence on the other.
Between the public pool and my house there was an empty field where only sharp grass grew. There was a fire hydrant surrounded by a low cement wall. We made a break for it, throwing ourselves down behind the wall. Horrifyingly, almost like slow motion, the old man turned in our direction.
Then he started towards us. It was the single most terrifying moment of my life so far. He moved out of the light from the streetlamp, and became a looming silhouette. He started crushing the dry grass underfoot. He started moving faster.
“Run!” I yelped.
We raced across the field to my house, got in the kitchen, and locked the door. I was so relieved I wanted to collapse. We kept the lights off. The old man wouldn’t know we stopped here, we might have kept running.
The door knob twisted; the door rattled. My friend let out a cry.
With dawning terror, I remembered that I had unlocked every door in the house.
I turned to rush to the front door.
A key slid into the kitchen door. It opened. My dad stood there. “You, young lady, are in a a lot of trouble!” he said.
Of course, the old man had been my dad all along. The darkness and orange-yellow street lights had made him look completely different. My imagination had taken care of the rest. He’d woken up, found every door unlocked, checked my room, and realized what had happened.
I was grounded forever, but it was a bit of a relief to be honest. And I totally deserved it.