Halloween may have passed but for some of us folk, its Halloween every day! I’ve been a fan of this lady for a while and have long suspected we have a fair bit on common as far as what things we enjoy watching and reading and this chat made me want to talk even more about spooky stuff! Rumer Haven, author of several excellent books featuring the 1920’s and the dear departed, and most recently a collection of short stories – Myths, Mothers, Mystics. She’s my kinda gal!
What movie/book scared you as a child?
Poltergeist was hands down my favorite scary movie, though it truly frightened the daylights out of me (scary clowns, skeletons in pools, and, good God, that scene where the guy peels his face off? Gah!). I still say that one holds its own; I watched it more times than I could count as a child and have seen it at least a couple of times again as an adult, and…yeah. Still scary. Impressive special effects for the ’80s and actually some great acting. I’m in denial that there was ever a remake in 2015, but I’ll acknowledge it enough to say that it’s absolute rubbish, so stick with the original—ye old cathode ray tube TV as a portal to the dead (“They’re heeeeeere!”) is way scarier than a dumb drone sent into the spirit world. The 1982 Poltergeist even had me fearing the tree outside my bedroom window!
But while the original Poltergeist was (and might still be) my favorite, the film that actually terrified me even more as a kid was The Entity. Starring Barbara Hershey, this was another 1982 horror film that I probably shouldn’t have been watching when I was so young, but it was a sleepover favorite. I don’t think I could watch that one again as an adult, honestly; it frightened me that much. Felt too real, like something that could actually happen if a malevolent spirit were to attack, and while Poltergeist is filled with wonderfully scary and atmospheric visuals, it’s what you can’t see in The Entity that paralyzes me in fear even just thinking about it now.
Book-wise, I automatically think of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. Truly, I think what scared me most about those books as a kid were the illustrations. I don’t know how to describe them, but there’s just something so liminal and watery and…hairy about them…like the kind of loose hair you’d find in a drain, which isn’t to say they’re gross, just creepy AF.
What was your biggest fear as a child?
Probably that damn tree outside my window! But seriously, aside from day-to-day fears like jumping off the diving board at the local pool or hanging upside down from monkey bars, paranormal stuff was probably the most consistent fright that manifested in many ways: fear of the dark, any creaking in the house, the space underneath my bed, dolls…(I was Team Stuffed Animal, with the exception of my Cabbage Patch Kid. Animals = cuddly and love you. Dolls = creepy and want to kill you.). As much as I was afraid of ghosts, though, I couldn’t get enough of them in stories and movies. I was just asking to be scared.
I will say, though, that my early fascination with the afterlife may have, unbeknownst to me at the time, been very closely related to another fear: death. Even as a young child, while saying my prayers at night, the line “And if I die before I wake” gave me pause. I think I really did fear every night that I might die in my sleep. What a blessing it was, then, to wake in the morning to my mom whistling and throwing open the curtains, letting in the light.
Do you like scary movies? Which one is your favourite?
You bet I do! Not gory slasher films (though I’ll indulge in those, too, around Halloween) but ones about spiritual hauntings. As mentioned earlier, Poltergeist has remained a firm favorite since childhood, though another one to emerge during my adult life is The Others with Nicole Kidman. Released in 2001, that film is exactly the Gothic atmosphere and subtle touch that I love in a scary story. It’s what’s left to the imagination that I personally find most frightening, which is why blood-n-guts or easy jump scares ultimately don’t do it for me.
I am usually scared the most by ghosts when I’m reading a book. Have you ever had a paranormal experience in real life?
The closest I’ve come to a paranormal experience was while staying at a Tudor-era holiday cottage in Herefordshire, England several years ago. By then, I had already come to realize that I can sense…something in certain places, that I’ll sometimes feel a distinct pressure on my chest that leaves me gasping for air a little. Some places are heavy with their histories, I figure. But during our first night at that cottage, I saw the fringe of my husband’s scarf sort of flutter upward from where the scarf was hanging on a coatrack. But it didn’t so much look like it had been blown upward as it was being tugged at. Just when I was about to dismiss it as my eyes deceiving me, I hear my husband say, “Did you see that, too?”
He’d witnessed the exact same thing and was actually the one staring at it more straight-on than me. That had us up on our feet and investigating the entryway around the coatrack, trying to debunk the movement as having been caused by the wind. We checked the gaps between the front door and the doorframe, the mail slot, etc., but for an old cottage, it had actually been renovated with quite modern features and was airtight. There was no breeze coming through from anywhere, and it wasn’t windy outside in the first place. We even checked the radiator, but no blowing heat was coming from that, and there weren’t any vents to be found—and, anyway, if air had blown in from any of these possibilities, the scarf was on the opposite side, facing a wall and shielded on the other side by our coats. In any case, we just dismissed it for the time being and went about our leisurely evening, watching TV and snacking.
And that’s when I heard a scraping sound right in front of me. I looked down at the floor at my feet in time to see the Doritos bag that was setting there tip over a few inches and then return to right-side up, scraping against the edge of the coffee table as it did so. Directly in front of me, with the lights on; I watched this happen plainly—the bag leaning at an impossible angle without tipping over, and not only did it not fall, it stood itself back up. My husband was on his laptop at the time, so he didn’t see it himself, but he was sitting right next to me and did hear the scraping. And once again, we immediately set about debunking what I saw. I know I had not moved my feet, but my husband had been sitting with his legs crossed and wondered if he’d been swinging his foot, causing a breeze. We tried to recreate it, with him swinging so feverishly it was funny and obviously not what had happened, and again, windows and everything were sealed tightly with no draught, and we’d have been hard-pressed to explain how one could’ve caused the bag to sway side to side the way it did anyway.
Later that night, I experienced a lucid dream in which I thought I had woken up in the same bedroom where we were staying—everything the same except for a desk by the window and an armoire against a different wall—and I met a little ghost girl who told me her name was Sarah. She had long blond hair in braids and wore an old-fashioned dress, and I clearly remember the brief conversation I had with her, asking if she minded that we were there and if there were others there, too. Fortunately, she was fine with us being there but didn’t seem as reassuring about the others, who apparently were there. At any rate, there were no occurrences beyond that first night, only that heavy pressure on my chest every time I entered the bedroom. We were intrigued by it all but not scared; it felt harmless, indeed like a curious child inspecting our things and feeling out the new strangers in a house that was probably used to sitting empty.
Has a book ever really scared you?
Automatically, I think of how American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis nearly made me vomit—literally—but that was more to do with its graphic nature. Otherwise, I’m racking my brain for one that would’ve had me leaving the light on at night… Not to say that hasn’t happened, as I certainly have gotten chills from Gothic tales like The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Woman in Black—and anything these days by Shani Struthers and Sarah England is sure to frighten!—but for being so bookish, I actually think I’m more skittish when it comes to movies. Not sure why.
Can you share with us an example of fear in one of your own novels?
Fear creeps across all my stories, and in my paranormal ones it’s usually my main characters’ fears that render them more vulnerable to the supernatural—not in that they’re preyed upon by a malevolent entity for that reason, but that their human frailty genuinely connects them to someone in the past. That’s usually the point of any “haunting” in my stories, not really to terrify but to show the universality of the human condition across time.
Yet to cite a specific example for this question, I’ll look to my most recent story, “Revolve Her,” a novella that now features in my short story collection, Myths, Mothers, and Mystics. In this one, my main character, Ellie, immediately finds herself freaked by a murder she might have just committed, only to find it was all in her mind, which proves almost (if not just) as scary. She’s questioning whether she’s had a psychotic break or not when she begins to suspect there could be someone else’s emotional baggage that’s affecting her—a presence in her hotel room that haunts her both in dreams and her waking life. Ellie has just experienced a shocking heartbreak in her relationship with a doctor, and she’s traveled far from home, feeling alone in an unfamiliar landscape, so her sense of betrayal and sadness and loneliness all compounds to make her relatable to a ghost because of what had led to that person’s death and the ethereal existence they’ve had since. Over the course of the story, we see not just fear but the different ways people might choose to act on that fear and what the consequences could be.
In real life what is your biggest fear? Do you use that when you write?
Currently, my biggest fear is anything happening to my family while I’m overseas. I live in London, UK but am originally from Chicago, Illinois, and this separation from my family in the States during COVID is a nightmare. Aside from missing siblings, nieces, and nephews terribly, my parents are highly at risk right now, so I’m terrified of them having any contact with this virus, along with just not knowing how long it will be before I see them again, if I’m losing precious time.
I honestly think that fear is actually preventing me from writing lately. But moving away from my family in the first place did heavily influence my first novel manuscript, which was my second book to be published: What the Clocks Know. I started drafting that story while in the throes of depression, soon after relocating to London from Chicago in 2008. Since I wasn’t working for a time to follow the move, I ended up pouring my emotions into Clocks…the loneliness of missing family and friends back home and not having anyone near me besides my husband, the blank and drifting feeling I had without familiar surroundings and a sense of structure and purpose…
That big unknown about the future and not having a local network of support was incredibly frightening, and even scarier was the fact that, most days, I didn’t even really know myself anymore. I didn’t know what defined me any longer, if what I thought defined me before even had in the first place. In my early thirties, I was facing a bigger identity crisis than in adolescence, so a lot of that got dumped into poor Margot, my protagonist. I had her come to London on her own steam in an attempt to live vicariously, to feel more empowered about my own situation overseas rather than feeling like the “trailing spouse” (a horrid term, if you ask me), and I gave her my depression but with the hope that, hey, maybe it isn’t her—maybe it’s a ghost! A presence in her new flat that might be imparting its own emotions onto her, just like I pondered when I myself sat alone in my new Victorian-era space. I wished so badly that it was just residual negative energy, trapped within those walls, that would explain why I felt the way I did, why I didn’t feel like myself—because that would be less scary than the realities of my mental and emotional health. So, I explored that in the book, and, well…now it is what it is!
That’s probably the most personal example of how I’ve used fear in my writing, but even as the characters I write become less and less like myself, I still use my own fears in thinking up scenarios that would frighten me as a reader. And even if I can’t relate directly to a character’s life experience, I think fear is key to finding common ground. Ultimately, we’re all human and vulnerable and afraid of something, and even if those fears take different forms, their nature is essentially the same at the core and can topple even the giants among us.
Huge thanks Rumer, we really do have alot in common! The Entity ruined me for years, I still can’t watch it, and Poltergeist is absolute tops (and yes that remake didn’t last very long on my screen, eve with the presence of Sam Rockwell). And on the subject of American Psycho – the reason I only read it once? The Rat.
If you fancy a dip into the paranormal world of Rumer, please use the links below and get yourself some lockdown reading by stacking her books up on your shelf or virtual shelf.