Two Sentence Horror Story Contest Lets Tweens Explore Their Dark Side

The library writing contest was a hit across middle school demographics, bringing in students who rarely came to the library along with the frequent visitors.

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Hana O. came to the library to turn in her submission for the middle school’s first Two ­Sentence Horror Story contest. It was handwritten lightly, almost ­timidly, in pencil, with a smiley face and a flower drawn at the end of the last sentence.

“Here ya go,” the 12-year-old whispered as she looked down at her sneakers and handed me her entry:

“Margaret,” she calls, in that horrifyingly sweet voice that gives me the chills, and I see her, her lifeless, pitch black eyes meeting my gaze. I look away, and when I look back, she’s there, smiling at me with a knife in her hand.

Gulp! This seventh grader’s story caught me off guard, despite having received scores of similar ones over the two weeks prior. I have worked in the library at South Pasadena (CA) Middle School for over a decade, and one of the best parts of my job is coming up with ways to connect with students beyond circulating books. We’ve had famous guest authors, writing workshops, collaborative art projects, and poetry slams.

In October 2019, I tried to come up with a library-friendly way to celebrate Halloween—my favorite holiday—and thought a short writing contest would do the trick. Two sentences max, not a lot of gore please, and pinkie swear to me that you did not copy this off the internet. I figured a handful of my library regulars would participate, I’d pick “the scariest” story and reward the winner with a Starbucks gift card. And we’d all have a little fun in the process.

More than 150 entries later, I realized I’d hit a nerve. Kids who had never stepped foot in the library came in droves to turn in the darkest, most macabre and eyebrow-raising fictional tales of death, loss, and horror. It turns out, more than a few middle schoolers devote quite some time to pondering the concepts of death and dying.

Middle school famously provides a time and place for awkward, gangly, cringey growth and exploration. As kids start to consider themselves separate entities from their immediate family, they also start to explore ideas that are disturbing to most adults: What if I weren’t here? What if something awful happened to me or my little sibling or my dog? Jacob N.’s story touched on several of these concepts in one entry: It happened the night my sister died and I was walking home alone when I saw her next to a car crash crying. I tried to touch her, but my hand went through, and then I saw my body in pieces on the ground.

Silas L. lost a loved one in his story: I stared at the fluffy little squirrel with horror in my eyes. Its eyes were the color of blood, and it was gnawing on the bones of my little sister.

Many of the stories deal with parents or friends disappearing or passing away. I heard my mother calling my name for dinner. She has been dead for five years, writes Bella V-M. Shelby C. submitted this: Walking home from school one crisp October day with friends. One by one, they disappeared. Shelby also wrote: A boy was missing from class today. His funeral is next week.

The most common thread in these stories was that of the death of the author themselves.

Ada B. wrote: There I was in my ­hospital bed, waiting. I closed my eyes and it came to me—my nightmare: death. Daniel B. submitted: When I heard my door open, I thought it was my parents in the night. I didn’t know that when I went to sleep that night I would never wake up again.

If any of the stories submitted felt truly personal or more like a cry for help than a spooky contest entry, we would have brought it to a counselor’s attention. But they did not. Weeks ­before the contest launched, a much beloved math teacher at our school passed away suddenly, and the campus was grief-stricken. I imagine some of these macabre thoughts emanated from a real place of wondering about what happens when we die. Death and dying was on the minds of a lot of these kids.

Each time I received an entry, I would type it (in Creepster font, naturally) and post it at the high traffic entrance to the library. It’s possible that students felt the camaraderie of the shared experience of a teacher’s death, and upon reading what sort of thoughts were swirling around in the minds of their classmates, felt they had a place where they could safely open up as well. A teacher is a symbol of one’s world outside of home, and this was the place to experiment with the possibility that there could be loss and pain in that external world. This lighthearted contest suddenly became a collaborative sounding board where students spoke to and comforted each other through their creepy creations. “It’s OK if you’re sad,” the wall seemed to say, “I’m sad, too.”

Thankfully, there were several ­stories that were more silly than scary, which provided some comic relief from the dark turn the contest had taken. If I glanced at a student reading our wall of entries and laughing, I could almost be certain it was at Hudson T.’s short tale of shock and horror: I opened the fridge. It was empty! Or Anthony L’s: A man sat in his room. A tax ­collector was waiting for him at the door. One sixth grader’s contribution was ­bittersweet for me to read as an adult: On Christmas night I saw Santa! But then I realized, he was dead. Surely part of her becoming a middle schooler meant accepting the fact that she was no longer a Santa-believing little kid. But she, too, felt a safe place to announce this to the world via her school library wall.

One story’s utter creepiness still makes me squirm: One scary Halloween night, a sweet little girl in a sunflower costume approached. She was carrying a knife, and ten little toes.

So, who won the contest? I had made the mistake of very publicly promising an actual prize to a contest winner, and after reading the first 10 entries knew I was in trouble. But the contest-winning entry was a group effort by an eighth grade science class. To me, it was the clear winner: It’s hard to know whether to throw away or recycle. But you have to get rid of the body somehow. 

Rozanna Baranets is the library technician at South Pasadena (CA) Middle School.

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