Tall Tale Techniques For The Scarily Inclined


First, listen to a master. This bloke (‘Bongo’) rang into an Australian radio station cracking on his story is true. If it’s true, I’ll eat every single one of my hats. Mind you, the guys at Mysterious Universe believe it. Strange things happen in The Outback.

What do you think?

Go to episode 404 of Mysterious Universe and, unless you want to hear all about sleep paralysis and trolls sitting on chests (which is also fascinating), you can skip straight to Bongo’s yarn at 51:25.

No doubt about it, Bongo is a master of the form. I bet he’s been telling this very yarn for years and years (since September of ’78). If you go to the Australian Outback you’ll meet a number of great storytellers just like Bongo; my in-laws love their camping holidays and they’ll tell you exactly where to find these old guys – out near Lightning Ridge and so on. There’s nothing much else to do out there after dark, you see, with no internet connection and no nothing. Spinning yarns while sounding authentic is a valued skill, like playing the banjo or the harmonica… or the Bongos, even.

1. This old fella spins a tale just like my Dad spins a tale. He doesn’t want to come across as a master of the form – despite the fact he is – so he goes into all this extra detail (just like my father does), about who was where and what the roads were called and just when you start wishing he’d get on with his story, there you are: he’s come to his point.

2. I can’t believe a Telecom truck wouldn’t give this guy a ride back into the nearest town. The overwhelming majority of people you’d meet in remote areas would be happy to give you a lift back. Notice the truck driver winds his window down just ‘a crack’. He’s scared of something, but won’t say what. Great tension building there.

3. The Thing that rips the door off its hinges is – judiciously – left entirely to the listener’s imagination. Bongo is so scared of this thing he can’t describe it. He’s got the stutter and the fake whimpering down to a fine art.

4. I love the climax of this tale. The Thing has ‘a fetish for white, skinny, hairy legs’, and has them draped all round the place. By this point, the storyteller can tell he’s got you – or not – because his audience will either crack up laughing or listen, deathly quiet. I must say, this scene reminded me a little of Wolf Creek, one of the scariest movies I’ve seen, and which has a similar plot, of getting lost in the Australian Outback and meeting a crazy fetish murderer.

5. Bongo cracks on he’s been in a psychiatric ward  – has been ever since the incident 32 years ago. Well, that was a nice touch. Not something we can all get away with, though some of us might.

For more on tall tales, see here.

A bearded man either listens to or tells a tall tale inside a cave
Aim for this face when you’re telling a scary tall tale. (In both you and your audience) Photo by zamario.


One of my best memories of first-year teaching involved me telling a scary tale to a group of 14 year old girls. After the older teachers went to bed, I stayed around the campfire and scared them half to death with a tale I no longer remember. We were on a Duke of Edinburgh tramp and were camping overnight in the middle of a National Park surrounded by dark forest and the sound of the river and I must say, 14 year old girls make a wonderful audience. I learnt a lesson that night – even after I’d joined the other teachers in the cabin on the hill, we listened for hours to screaming and giggling as they revelled in further scary tales of their own. None of them got much sleep. The next day, we were supposed to climb a steep hill and it was damned hard work trying to get them up it. Eventually, I lost the game because  the laziest bunch of them decided to just sit down. The others joined them.

“That’ll serve you right for getting them all worked up with scary tales,” I was told.

A few years later I was supply teaching near London, and I learned that the ability to spin a good scary yarn at short notice is a good skill to have, when you’ve a room full of kids and nothing much else but an hour to fill.

Again, my best memory from that time involves a scary tall tale – maybe the same one – I don’t remember. I was having trouble with a bunch of 12 year olds – they wouldn’t sit still and listen to a darn thing, so I sat them on the floor in a circle, asked them to imagine a camp fire and turned out all the lights. (Being London, it was a dark, grey day.)

I was almost at the climax of my tall tale when the whole lot of them screamed prematurely, scaring even me. A head had appeared through that little window you often find in a classroom door. In the semi-darkness it was a freaky looking thing indeed.

It turned out to be their PE teacher – a huge guy with a head of wild dreads, and he’d come only to deliver a message about an after school football tourny.

He wondered what the hell I was doing in there.

Anyway, if you work with kids, you need something – just one thing – that’ll impress them. Maybe you can do tricks with a soccer ball or pull out a guitar and crack out a tune. If you can’t do any of those things, I highly recommend mastering the art of the scary tale. It’ll get you some respect.

Trust me.