distraction no.99

Nova Ren Suma | On Writing & Writing Distractions

Not an Author Newsletter… something else.

What Scares ME? Time to Tell You

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

The book that terrified me when I was twelve years old isn’t a ghost story. It’s not a horror novel, either (though I did read all of my stepfather’s Stephen King novels—I basically read anything in the house that had words on it, including all my mom’s Atwood, Walker, Piercy, Jong, Zimmer Bradley, and Auel novels as well as cereal boxes and shampoo bottles).

No, the book that scared me back then isn’t fiction at all, and I think that’s why the lasting terror. Because this book was TRUE. A doctor said so. It certainly wasn’t published to haunt an unwitting twelve-year-old girl.

The book had a rust-red hardcover spine. The book jacket was long-lost, so all I remember is catching sight of the naked spine on my parents’ bookshelves in the living room.

In black block letters the spine said:


I was curious. And I was lonely and bored. We’d moved into a new house, in a new state, and I’d just started the seventh grade in a new school. I had an unflattering layered haircut, fingerless lace gloves, a weird name, a shy streak that kept me from speaking up in front of people, and a secret interest in dark and twisted things.

The house we were renting was down a dead-end dirt road, up a steep dirt driveway, and set at the top of a hill, overlooking a great expanse of nothing full of trees. The internet did not yet exist, but even so… We did not have TV reception. We had no visible neighbors. There was nothing but the house itself, wood-colored so it blended in with the trees.

We were renting this house from former revolutionaries (a whole other story I’ll write about one day), and it often unearthed some interesting finds. Pieces of buried political history. A jar of unwanted pennies under the sink. Easter-colored dishes with chips on the sides as if rescued from a food fight. So I don’t know if I thought this book belonged to the mysterious people who owned the house or if it was ours, and had been all along.

All I know is I’d never seen the book before we moved in.

I carried the book to my room and began reading. Sybil wasn’t a novel, I read, it was a psychological case study. A woman—in the book she’s known as Sybil Dorsett, to protect her privacy—has a whole host of people living inside her, many of them still children. They have names and separate personalities. They look different. They are different. She’s one body for sixteen different people.

I didn’t know this could be possible… Multiple Personality Disorder, as it was called then. I didn’t know you could carry this possibility inside you and then, when you got older than twelve… say, when you turned into a teenager (as this illness was often first shown to emerge in teenagers) it could split you apart into different people.

The book had drawings. Drawings Sybil made as her other personalities. Each in their own distinctive style, as if actually drawn by different hands. I remember them: Vicky and the Peggys and more. I remember wondering about the personalities… were they always listening? Where did they hide inside Sybil’s head… and in my head, who was hiding in there? How many of there were me?

Now I see that this book has controversy—maybe the story of all her personalities was made-up… by “Sybil” herself, or even her doctor. But at the time, it was deeply real. And entirely possible. It terrified me to think this could happen to me, or to someone I knew. And it made an awful kind of sense—due to some adults I knew. (I think this is why Nina LaCour’s scary true story that she shared for this blog series unsettled me so much. That, there: my childhood fear.)

Sybil was the first book that ever truly scared me to my core, but there’s another book I read far more recently that got under my skin. And that was its intention.

It’s a book about a house.

I guess you should know that I’m wary of houses, especially old ones with layers of history. Especially ones in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by trees. I can admit that because I don’t live in one—I live in a blessed apartment without any stairs to run up in terror while a cold finger claws at my back. In the apartment building where I live, at every hour of every day, I can hear other human occupants on the other side of the walls, or above or below me, or out in the courtyard playing beer pong (I hate them! But they don’t scare me), and I feel safe. Living in cramped and crowded Manhattan makes me feel safer than I ever felt living in that house off the dirt road that we moved into when I was twelve.

We’ve since considered that the house could have been haunted, as there were some questionable events involving a Ouija board that I’m not sure how to explain away, and a frightening part of the basement no one would enter, but I believed many things to be haunted back then… I was easily susceptible.

I still am. So of course I’m drawn to haunted-house stories. And here is the mother of them all.

Anyone else read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson?

The house in question is a haunted mansion where a paranormal investigator goes to live with two guests who’ve agreed to stay there with him to see if they can witness any strange occurrences. One of those guests is Eleanor, who begins to witness some frightening sights inside that house—and I don’t know if we can believe what Eleanor tells us she sees. We’re meant to wonder. To question what’s real and what’s not, all of which plays into our fears. Well, certainly my fears.

I vividly remember reading this book in my living room. I was alone. The lights were all out except for a single lamp above my head. I came to a scene, a spine-tingling section involving a series of phantom knocks coming from out in the hallways, pounding pounding on a bedroom door, and when the lights in my living room dimmed for a moment as they sometimes do (nothing supernatural; our building often has brownouts), I shrieked loudly, and forgot that I was only reading a book. That it wasn’t real.

What gave me such chills is the unseen. When, in some stories and movies, the big scary monster is revealed in all its glory, it loses its power for me. Not so with The Haunting of Hill House. The not-knowing, the never-being-sure, the imagination let loose and running down the hallway pounding menacingly on doors… that, for me, is true fear.

Sometime later I was brought back to that heart-pounding moment in the book again.

I’d found myself in a single-room cabin in the woods (this during my latest visit to the MacDowell Colony, far away from home in rural New Hampshire where the dark nights were so full of… nothing else to call it but complete darkness… that after dinner when I went back to my studio alone I’d chatter to myself inanely as I walked the paths at night with my skittering flashlight—“just make it to the door you can do it no one’s out there just make it to the door look there’s the door you’re fine you’re fine you’re fine get your key out there’s your key you’re almost there” etc.) and I was reminded again of this book.

I was writing at my desk, at night, with my back to the door that led to the screened-in porch. I never went out out there because it was winter, and snow had swept in through the screens, piling up and making it impossible to use as a second entrance.

So there I was, writing, alone, in the quiet, at night. Then in the deep silence surrounding my tiny little house in the woods, I heard three sharp knocks.

From the door behind me, the one connected to the screened-in porch.

I remember turning very slowly to face the door. I’d heard nothing, I told myself. I’d made it up.

Uh, no. Because it knocked again.

Immediately where did my mind go? To The Haunting of Hill House, of course. Something had knocked on the door in that book… and something was knocking on the door in my studio in the woods right then.

Did I open the door?

Did I open the door to discover it was only the wind coming through the screened-in porch, and it had thrown a stick from the woodpile against the door, so it sounded like something knocking?

I did.

But before I opened that door, I don’t even want to admit here all of what I was thinking.

You see, my imagination gets away from me. Ask me (or my poor other half) sometime about the ceiling nightmares that plagued me for years when we had the loft bed.

There is that moment—spine-tingling, fear rising—when I’m convinced beyond rights or reason that it is REAL.

The strangers in my head…

The frantic knocks on the back door…

The thing crawling on the ceiling…

Books bring it all to life. And who am I to explain it away and open the door?

I want to thank everyone for being involved in this What Scares You? blog series—the authors who wrote guest blogs for me, the authors who donated their own books to give away, Penguin Teen for generously donating so many books for the giveaway, Robert Roxby for the amazing design and illustrations, and YOU, for reading.

On Halloween, there will be two exciting final things to end the series:

 1) A guest post by the scarily brilliant Libba Bray—on horror! 


2) A big book giveaway—I’m giving away more than 20 books!

If you want to get a jump on the Halloween giveaway, this is just a reminder that every guest blog you comment on will give you an extra entry. I’ll randomly choose the winners of the prize packs, so you could win a stash of creepy books if you never comment or you could win a stash of creepy books if you comment thirty times, who knows, it’s random and I might ask a ghost to pick the winners.

(Please note: The giveaway will be US-only due to shipping costs. Sorry.)

You can read all the “What Scares You?” guest blogs with this tag.

41 responses to “What Scares ME? Time to Tell You”

  1. This actually explains a lot about Imaginary Girls, that terrifying moment of endless possibility right before a thing makes sense. Or, as in the book, sometimes doesn’t, so we coast along on that frisson of fear.

    This is such an amazing blog series, thank you!


  2. SYBIL—I loved it, but I don’t think it scared me as much as intrigued me so completely that it still to this day impacts the way complexity of my characters.
    And yes, anything by Shirley Jackson is a huge win!

  3. So true, so true…the things unseen, unexplained, inexplicable…I had years and years of bad dreams growing up, some of them repetitive, almost hauntings. I never once thought about writing about them….until just now. So thanks?

  4. I was always terrified by the House on Haunted Hill movies, no matter how silly at times, still scary. I’ll have to check out the book!

    I’ve been loving the guest posts, Nina LaCour’s was pretty darn scary, and now I have a whole host of movies and books to get. Imaginary Girls is one of my favorite books of the year as well!

    Thanks for writing,


  5. Oh dear. My mom’s nickname for my little sister was Sybil growing up. She is prone to exaggeration 🙂

    I remember being frightened by psychological disorders when I was a kid. I blame it on Lifetime original movies :O)


  6. Just added The Haunting of Hill House to my Amazon shopping list, thanks. A book that chilled me to the bone when I was junior high age was The Grounding of Group Six by Julian Thompson. Think it’s out of print, but I would love to get my hands on a copy again.

  7. I read Sybil and watched the movie in high school psychology… I think, on that one, watching it was even worse… especially when you find out what she went through to spark all the personalities. That is one thing that has always stuck with me. And while I haven’t read The Haunting of Hill House, I have seen the movie based on it, which didn’t get to me nearly as much… but perhaps that just means I really need to read the book. =)

  8. I’ve always been fascinated by SYBIL, even with the probability of it being a big sham, and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is one of the best horror stories ever, partly because (as you say) it’s all about subtlety, the thing which can’t be seen, and our innate capacity to create horrors within our own minds. Another great post, Nova!

  9. The original “The Haunting” movie is my favorite scary movie of all time. I’ve been meaning to read the book for ages, I think I have to go get it now 🙂

    We just bought our first house and it’s definitely haunted. Old man ghost messing with our tools and such, nothing too scary lol. I blame my husband, he is a magnet for these things. :p

  10. Hey Nova! I loved (in a scared-to-death way) The Haunting of Hill House! I read a bunch of Shirley Jackson when I was around 12. And – when I was in my late twenties, I got to play Eleanor in the play of the same name! Yeah… it was even kind of scary playing her!

  11. Thanks for sharing your own story! I can imagine reading SYBIL as a young child would be scary! I used to read an author called Christopher Pike who wrote teenage killer type stories. I read them in sixth grade and creeped myself out…I thought all highschools had students who came back to seek their revenge!

  12. OMG, I just read through each post in this series — twice. Am now so deliciously scared that I might insist all four kids sleep in bed with me. (Husband can fend for himself, right?) All said, nothing freaks me out more than evil children — and Stephen King. Just to be sure, I read every book at least twice!

  13. I’ve heard of Sybil but never read it. Sounds too intense. I’ve enjoyed the posts so fun and I’ve found new books to check out!!

  14. I LOVE this series, Nova. 🙂

    I’m rarely by myself (married with three kids’ll do that to ya). But a few months ago, my husband took the kids away for the weekend and I was alone. I blogged about what my imagination did to me those two nights I was alone. The imagination is a wonderful and crazy thing. LOL.

  15. When I was a little bit older then twelve, I read Reviving Ophelia. There is a chapter about rape, and how it affects teen girls, and it TERRIFIED me. When I’m caught walking home after dark, I’m still afraid something like those stories in that book will happen to me. The real life stories are the scariest.

  16. The Haunting of Hill House is one of the few books to give me chills that nearly made my hair stand up. It’s one of the few books that I had to set down and take a “time out” when things got too scary. (The stuff going on outside her bedroom? EGADS.) I do love the first film adaptation, even though it’s not entirely true to the novel. It seems the sort of book that shouldn’t be filmed in anything other than B&W. The high contrast lighting is perfect.

    I’ve never read SYBIL, but reading your description reminds me of a film that is sort of liike SYBIL meets HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. It’s a flawed film, but it has some great moments — Session 9. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0261983/)

  17. I’ve read Sybil several times. It’s very scary, especially when you think about what her mother did to her, that in order to survive, a child’s mind split to pieces. You could feel some of that “splitting” in Imaginary Girls, a story that could be read as realism and not magic at all.

  18. I haven’t read these. For haunted house stores I liked the Diary of Ellen Rimbauer: My Life at Rose Red.

  19. Eeek I’ve never heard of either of these but they both sound really creepy. Especially Sybil. And what the heck is up with that cover!?

  20. I think the scare about SYBIL is….loss of control….never knowing when where why…..Then when you find out what really happened to her to cause the split…then I just felt so ashamed for not understanding her. Makes you think.

  21. I haven’t read Sybil, but it sounds like something that would have TERRIFIED me at that age! And while I love isolated, old houses….they do make the strangest, creepiest sounds. Thanks for this series…so perfect for this time of year! 🙂

  22. I think setting has everything to do with whether you get scared or not. Just your description of the house where you found and read Sybil gave me chills. In the summer I live out in the middle of the woods and every sounds gives me flashes back to images in books that have creeped me out. Thanks for this series it’s a great way to celebrate Halloween.

  23. Oh, LORD! I’d forgotten about Sybil. Another life-altering book (the wooden spoon still haunts me). Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery is haunting enough to leave me drooling in anticipation for The Haunting of Hill House (ooh! Oooh! I hope to win Package 4!)

  24. OMG, that baby at the end was CREEPY!!!

    Thank you so much for sharing such an incredible memory about the way SYBIL scared you. Your writing style truly brought the event to life and I could picture how terrifying this was for you. The truest things are often the scariest ones!

  25. The Haunting of Hill House sounds so scary! I’ve heard about it from several people. I really have to (and want to) read this soon! I’ve never read Sybil either, but I think I saw the movie, and there was just a piece in the NYT magazine about the real Sybil and whether or not she made up the personalities.

    Thanks for the excellent blog series Nova! I wasn’t able to read through all of the posts, but I really enjoyed the ones I got to read. Lots of scary things to think about between now and next Halloween!

  26. This post made me go read _The Haunting of Hill House_, and it was crazy unsettling! I was sort of obsessed with it for a few days. Even managed to tivo the 1963 film, but it was too soon after reading the book; the changes annoyed me, and Calire Bloom was not my Theo. Anyway thanks! I loved Shirley Jackson’s short stories as a kid, and it is lovely to see how well she holds up.

  27. I read the Haunting of Hill House about two years ago — rediscovered Shirley Jackson — and have not been so scared in a long time! I’m still scared whenever I look at the cover. She tells the story with such precision, and I could never tell who I thought was crazier — the family….or me! 😉

  28. Oh dear! Did you really have to include the creepy picture? I am never going to sleep! I remember Sybil…Oh gosh, I have yet to read The Haunting of Hill House. As scary as it looks, I am looking forward to reading it…during the day!

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