The Best Spooky Things to Read and Watch by C.J. Cooke

Spooky things to read and watch

[Note from Frolic: We are so excited to have author C.J. Cooke guest posting on the site today! She’s talking all things spooky books and movies. Take it away, CJ!]

Halloween is my favourite time of year. It probably sounds strange, but I enjoy being frightened – research shows that ‘controlled fear’, or seeking out scary opportunities when we know we’re safe, releases dopamine in the brain, making us feel good. There’s something to be said about diving into a scary movie or book at the time of year when everything is beginning to slow down and darken. My new novel, The Nesting, takes place in Norway during the Arctic winter, when there’s daylight (a weak dusk – not full sunshine) for just a couple hours’ every day. The ever-changing Norwegian landscape – from vivid snowy peaks to black flats dotted with houselights – was the perfect setting for my gothic thriller, which I’m imagining anyone who also loves these dark nights will enjoy reading by an open fire with a hot cocoa (or cheeky glass of wine). I’d also recommend the following films and books for a spooky evening thrill:

The Blair Witch Project

This 1999 film memorably traded on a distortion between reality and fiction, featuring a group of student filmmakers making a documentary about local folktale, The Blair Witch. Based in the woods, and filmed on a shoestring-budget, the performances and reliance on simple storytelling techniques of hide-and-seek is utterly superb. I’m not giving anything away when I mention a scene near the end of one of the characters facing the wall – just thinking about it gives me chills over 20 years later!

The Ring

I watched this scary film through my fingers. Much more sophisticated in style that The Blair Witch Project, The Ring nonetheless draws upon folklore to present a seriously macabre spectacle. The cinematography is gloriously creepy and contributes to the sinister, gut-churning spectacle of horror. 

The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse
The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang)

Lang’s ‘continuation’ of his 1922 film Dr Mabuse, this 1960 film – his last – is a masterclass in charisma-as-horror. Dr Mabuse has the ability to control his victims, even after death, and his ‘1000 eyes’ are suggested as TV screens. The underlining message about the impact of the media, and its ability to manipulate viewers, is a nod at Hitler’s use of radio, but is also tremendously evocative of our current moment.

The Village Gif
The Village 

I’m not a big M. Night Shayamalan post-Signs, but The Village does a deep dive into the primal fear of monstrosity, presented here basically as society-turned-monstrous. It’s the performances that are key to engaging with the story (Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard on top form), and which make it a massively creepy watch.

Shaun of the Dead

My top spooky film is Shaun of the Dead, and I honour Halloween every year by rewatching it. It’s a fabulously funny take on the zombie flick, with typical deadpan British humour and a million memorable lines. For example, ‘there’s a girl in the garden.’ Watch it to find out why that line can be hilarious and frightening.

Sixteen Horses by Greg Buchanan
Sixteen Horses by Greg Buchanan

Buchanan’s debut novel isn’t out until 2021, but I managed to read an ARC and was staggered by the sense of dread and unnatural malaise that pervades the story. Staggeringly sinister visuals resonate throughout the story – such as the opener of sixteen horses buried in the ground – and Buchanan is a master at creating an almost apocalyptic atmosphere that feels very of the moment.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite 

Korede is tired, mostly because her sister Ayoola keeps killing people and expecting her to mop up the gore. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, Braithwaite utilises the cityscape and Nigeria’s oppressive heat perfectly as a backdrop for this this whip-smart slashfest.  I found the dark humour to be captivating, and the shift between Ayoola’s grotesque acts of murder and Korede’s sarcastic commentary to be a terrific combination.  

The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey 

The combination of zombies and children in this novel results in a story chock-full of menace. Most of mankind has been wiped out due to a virus (which is probably why the book comes to mind!), and the remaining generation – mankind’s last hope – are, sadly, zombies, but zombies with a desire to learn as well as eat living flesh. Vaccines, military presences and feral, teeth-baring children akimbo, this is one deeply unsettling story. 

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

This is a brilliantly ominous and downright freaky story about a widow isolated in a crumbling mansion with ‘companions’, or ‘Dummy Boards’, which were wooden figures that the Victorians painted in the likeness of their family. Amongst a number of such figures stored in a locked room of her new home, Elsie finds a companion that looks unnervingly like her, and soon she begins to wonder if the companions’ eyes are actually moving… The sense of social unrest and loneliness is compelling, and the power of suggestion is everything in this novel, with much of the tension unfolding in the reader’s anticipation.  

The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor

The vivid, easy-to-imagine visual of a stick figure drawn in chalk on concrete is deeply effective in capturing the spine-chilling mystery that unfolds in this story. The adult protagonist is propelled back to his childhood when a freaky chalk drawing reappears, carrying with it the eerie significance of its first appearance. The boundary between childhood nightmares and adult terror is expertly deployed here to create goosebumps.

About the Author:

C.J. Cooke is an acclaimed, award-winning poet, novelist and academic with numerous other publications written under the name of Carolyn Jess-Cooke. Her work has been published in twenty-three languages to date. Born in Belfast, C.J. has a PhD in Literature from Queen’s University, Belfast, and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. C.J. Cooke lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children.

The Nesting by C.J. Cooke, out now!

The woods are creeping in on a nanny and two young girls in this chilling modern Gothic thriller.

Architect Tom Faraday is determined to finish the high-concept, environmentally friendly home he’s building in Norway—in the same place where he lost his wife, Aurelia, to suicide. It was their dream house, and he wants to honor her with it.

Lexi Ellis takes a job as his nanny and immediately falls in love with his two young daughters, especially Gaia. But something feels off in the isolated house nestled in the forest along the fjord. Lexi sees mysterious muddy footprints inside the home. Aurelia’s diary appears in Lexi’s room one day. And Gaia keeps telling her about seeing the terrifying Sad Lady. . . .
Soon Lexi suspects that Aurelia didn’t kill herself and that they are all in danger from something far more sinister lurking around them.

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