THR Web Features   /   October 28, 2022

Frightschrift: Some Scary Stories for Halloween

The Hedgehog recommends.

The Editors

( Shutterstock, Inc.)

It’s the weekend for trick or treating and frightening stories. We asked some Hedgehog Review editors, contributors, and friends to send in their recommendations for books, movie, or television shows to enjoy with friends or, for the very brave, alone. 


Mr. Harrigan's Phone

Stephen King’s fans will feel right at home watching the new Netflix dramatization of his 2020 short story Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. There’s the wealthy and eccentric mystery man, the susceptible and good-hearted young protagonist, and a blend of horrors concocted from the mundane and the supernatural. King has written in the past about possessed objects (the 1958 Plymouth Fury of Christine) as well as the dangers of cellphones (Cell and its zombies) but this time things feel different. Here, the central character is the smartphone, one that apparently can send and receive texts from beyond the grave, regardless of battery life (that’s a nice trick). “A person shouldn’t call out unless they want an answer,” says a doomed character—and in this tale, the reception is otherworldly.

—Leann Davis Alspaugh, managing editor, The Hedgehog Review


“The Sandman”

 “Have you, gentle reader, ever experienced something that totally possessed your heart, your thoughts, and your senses to the exclusion of all else?” So asks the narrator of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman” (“Der Sandmann” in the original German) in order to win our sympathy for his ill-fated Romantic dreamer, Nathanael. The story presents a sinister twist on the folktale of the Sandman, bringer of dreams, tracing a series of encounters in the young Nathanael’s life that test his, and the reader’s, sense of reality. In a recent unit on early Gothic fiction, my students found many of the texts predictable; “The Sandman” surprised them and freaked more than a few of them out.

—Richard Hughes Gibson, associate professor of English, Wheaton College


Messiah of Evil

Messiah of Evil (1973) is the kind of movie best stumbled upon the way I did: when you can’t sleep and are hoping to watch something decently silly, with, if you’re lucky, a few striking visuals. It is then that the movie can work its weird and moody spell. The story is pretty simple: after receiving disturbing letters from her artist father, who then disappears, Arletty goes to find him at Point Dune, a creepy seaside town in which he’s set up house. There she encounters unfriendly locals and a rather too friendly menage à trois that have come to Point Dune to collect local folklore about a “blood moon.” Of course, such an unpleasant little town has an unpleasant little secret… And so on. You can’t really watch Messiah of Evil for the story, though. You watch it for the mood: for Arletty’s father’s house, the layout of which is impossible to figure out and which is full of bizarre, impractical furniture; for the eerie scenes of the town at night, somehow too empty and then abruptly too full; for unexpected flourishes like the moment a hitchhiker ends up in a pickup truck with an ominous hick who loves Wagner (pronounced “wag-ner”), eats a live rat, and chivalrously offers her one. Whether the inhabitants of Point Dune are victims or villains is never really clear, which is maybe as it should be. You just watch the movie with a sense that something is wrong, a sense that deepens over time and which the movie’s various flaws only help to reinforce. And really, whoever watched a horror movie for its meticulously crafted plot?

—B.D. McClay, contributing editor, The Hedgehog Review


“Dogman Encounters”

Horror fiction is scary because you willingly suspend disbelief. But there is another path to fear. I recently stumbled across a podcast consisting of interviews with ordinary people who claim they have seen werewolf-like entities. (“Dogman Encounters” on YouTube or Spotify). In my initial foray, I didn’t realize what the witness was going to reveal. He was plain-spoken and unassuming, his story included odd details that rang true, and he manifested genuine fear in his recounting. Helplessly, I found him credible. As it turns out, there are hundreds of such accounts. Considered as pure stories, they cannot match a Lovecraft or Machen tale. But I have been delighted to discover that even a flicker of credence can elevate a deer stand sighting of a bipedal wolf above a Cthulhu rising from the deep.

—Paul Nedelisky, assistant director and fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture


The Witch: A New England Folktale

The 2015 horror film The Witch: A New England Folktale, written and directed by Robert Eggers, is remarkable not only in its atmospherics and its historical verisimilitude but also in its attitude. Eggers’s total investment in telling the story from within the Puritan worldview—what historian David D. Hall once called Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment—makes the fear induced by his camera work even more compelling, particularly as the viewer is put to the screws of an almost unbearable tension in the second half of the film. A healthy reminder of just how terrifying and socially destructive an enchanted world can be.

—Isaac Ariail Reed, senior fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and professor of sociology, University of Virginia


The Night of the Hunter

There’s supernatural scary and there’s natural scary—and then there’s preternatural scary. And in my book, the last category is owned by Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton’s 1955 ultra-dark heart-stopping thriller, The Night of the Hunter. The poet and critic James Agee wrote the screenplay, adapting it from Davis Grubb’s novel, and the film’s brilliant cinematography went on to inspire a Who’s Who of great auteur filmmakers. But to a ten-year-old boy watching the film for the first time, it was just plain scary as hell. Mitchum’s Harry Powell is a serial killer who poses as a preacher to con his way into the hearts of a trusting widow (Shelley Winters) and just about everybody else in her small southern town, though her two children, John and Pearl, are wary (ditto their beloved hound). Powell has come to ferret out the $10,000 that his former prison cellmate Ben Harper had in desperation stolen from a bank and then entrusted to his near-starving children before his arrest. Reverend Powell, the words H-A-T-E and L-O-V-E tattooed on the back of his fingers, knows only that the money is somewhere around the Powell house and devotes his diabolical charm campaign to finding out where. Needless to say, things turn quickly dark, with the poor widow ending up in the bottom of a river (Winters’ hair waving languidly in the current is enough to stock half a lifetime of nightmares) and her two kids, wise to Powell’s intent, fleeing in the night. Powell pursues them on a mule, and the image of him on his steed, silhouetted against the moonlight as he sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” will take care of the rest of your nightmare repertoire. No need to tell all, except to say that a character played by the late, great Lillian Gish does a stand-up job of standing up to this very dirty Harry. Not that even the happiest of endings would calm the terrors brought on by the ever-looming image of Mitchum-Powell, his fingers locked in mortal combat between Brother Love and Brother Hate. It didn’t help that I saw the film at night with my little sister, alone in our Army housing, a converted ward in an extensive World War II hospital complex, each wing of which of was connected to the others by a seemingly endless corridor. Ghosts of the mortally wounded were said to wander that winding corridor at all hours. They were very busy that night. And it was no comfort hearing the words of that hymn in my mind as I struggled to get to sleep: “Leaning, leaning, /Safe and secure from all alarms;/ Leaning, leaning,/ Leaning on the everlasting arms….”

—Jay Tolson, editor, The Hedgehog Review


Midnight Mass

Set in an economically impoverished fishing village on a small island, Netflix’s Midnight Mass revolves around a Roman Catholic parish led by a young priest, played by the remarkable Hamish Linklater, who has just arrived ostensibly to fill in for an aging and ailing pastor receiving care on the mainland. The newcomer reinvigorates the life of the parish and draws in the neglected and jaded. Mixing rich religious imagery and truly disturbing vampire motifs, however, director Mike Flanagan (himself a lapsed Catholic) turns the central rite of the Christian religion—the Eucharist—into a bloody device for domination. It’s a gripping miniseries that conveys in its slow-burning way the old biblical promise that whosoever will save his life shall lose it.

—Kyle Edward Williams, senior editor, The Hedgehog Review