10 Mystery & Thriller Writers Share Their Real-Life Scariest Moments

Liz Alterman

On Halloween night about a dozen years, I sat at my dining room table, my back to the windows facing the street as I checked my email. My husband, Rich, was upstairs getting our children ready for bed. It was nearly nine, and except for the gentle swish of the dishwasher, the house was quiet …until I heard tapping. Initially, I ignored it, assuming it was some kid-related mayhem.

Then it came again. A knock. Closer, more urgent this time. I turned slowly toward the windows. Illuminated by my porch light, someone in a Michael Myers mask stood, pressing a gloved hand to the glass. I gasped. Michael Myers didn’t move. He continued staring as I darted through the kitchen and raced upstairs to get my husband, who assured me it was a teenager having some last-minute fun at my expense. I was over-reacting, he said… until he opened the door.

Refusing to accept any candy, the masked person just stared at us, silent. I wanted to see if Rich, so calm moments earlier, was as scared as I was but I couldn’t stop looking at Michael Myers’s eyes, so brown against the white mask, so familiar. I knew this person who was just inches away and every bit as frightening as the character from the 1978 classic film.

After moments that felt like hours, he turned and walked down the steps, disappearing into the dark night.

“Okay,” my husband conceded, “that was really creepy.”

We double-checked the locks on every door and still, I barely slept that night.

Days later, as I was shooting baskets in the driveway with my children, my neighbor, a father of three, strolled over. He offered to take my kids roller skating with his. “I owe you one,” he smiled, his brown eyes twinkling.


What gets other mystery and thriller writers’ pulses racing and palms sweating? I asked authors to share their real-life scariest moments. Many date back to childhood while others are more recent. Some hair-raising even served as inspiration for their novels. Read on to discover what’s terrified these masters of the macabre.


‘I want to go home’

“I’d have to say that my scariest moments always came at camp,” recalled Catherine McKenzie, author of PLEASE JOIN US. “Our cabins were old and creaky and had trees too close to them and sometimes there were mice! So you never knew what noises at night meant. One night I saw something GLOWING outside the window. Then I smelled smoke. My heart was pounding! Turned out it was just the camp director doing bed checks, not a serial killer! Phew. But that memory partly inspired my book, I’LL NEVER TELL.”


The bust that wasn’t

“Forty years ago, when I was seventeen, I lived in a suburb of Cincinnati,” said Matt Witten, author of THE NECKLACE. “One Friday night, a lot of us teenagers were at a keg party and became convinced there was a UFO in the sky. The next night, my friends and I got together in my backyard to get high and see if the UFO would return. I had been smoking pot for years, but I mainly mooched off other people. Tonight, for the first time, I had bought a decent-sized amount of pot myself. It was autumn and I wore a thin, light blue windbreaker. In my left pocket was the pot pipe. In my right pocket was the ounce I’d purchased for twenty-five dollars. After we smoked a couple of bowls, we looked up in the sky for UFOs and started laughing uncontrollably, pretending to see them everywhere, imaging that every star was an alien spaceship.

“Our next door neighbors, who had a teenage daughter, thought we were looking into their upstairs bedrooms so they called the police. We were at the height of our pot-fueled hilarity when we heard, over some sort of bullhorn, ‘This is the police. We are coming into the backyard.’ We stopped laughing.

“Back then, in Cincinnati at least, pot possession was a serious crime. A policeman came around one side of the house, and another came around the other side. I jammed my hands into my shallow pockets, trying to keep the policemen from seeing the outlines of the pipe and the plastic bag containing the pot. The policemen stood in front of us. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked.

“I was so terrified. I was positive they were looking straight at my hands. All I wanted to do was bring out the pipe and the pot and say, ‘Here they are.’ My friend, who was eighteen and cooler than I was, pointed at me and said, ‘He lives here.’ I managed to say, ‘We’re looking for UFO’s.’ The policeman said, “UFO’s, huh?” We explained we’d seen some strange lights last night and wondered if we’d see them again.

The other policeman said the neighbors complained about the noise and told us to keep it down. When they left, I took my stay hand out of my pockets.

“The next day I sold my ounce of pot to someone else for fifteen bucks, just to get rid of it. But I’ve often thought about that night, especially during the past couple of years. If I’d been a  minority, or lived in the inner city, I believe strongly that I would have been searched, arrested, and put in jail. I would have gotten a police record that kept me from going to the school of my choice, Amherst College, and my whole life would have been altered.”


Fear begins at home

“My scariest stories always involve my brother,” noted FOR YOUR OWN GOOD author Samantha Downing. “He is two years older than me and when we were kids, one of his favorite hobbies was to torment me. Mostly he liked to jump out at me from around corners or grab my foot as I was walking. Anything to make me scream, which I usually did.

“One night we were in the house alone and he decided to play a longer game. At some point, he walked out of the room where we were watching TV and never came back. After a while, I went looking and couldn’t find him anywhere. I called out his name but he didn’t answer. I yelled it a few times, still nothing. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to search or who to call. This was before everyone was carrying a cell phone, so my parents weren’t an option. What I remember most is the fear. Heart-pounding, panic-inducing fear that something had really happened to him. This was way beyond anything he had done before.

“My last and final attempt to flush him out was to yell one more time, except I didn’t say his name. I said I was going to run over to the neighbor’s house and tell them. And I would have, too. I was walking towards the door when he appeared—out of nowhere—and told me to calm down. The good thing? He was never really able to scare me again. He went too far and ended his own fun.”

Life imitates art

“I had just watched ‘The Conjuring’ and it had been the first movie in quite some time to really scare me,” said Mathew Farrell, author of THE PERFECT MOTHER. “I was shaken, and that’s saying a lot because I’m a horror movie fanatic. So, the movie’s over and it’s time to take the dog out. No way my wife was taking him out. Not after watching that.

“I agreed and walked him into the dark backyard that sits on a quarter-acre of property and butts up against the woods. While the dog was doing what he needed to do, I kept hearing the leaves crunching in the woods. Twigs snapped. Bushes shook. I almost left the dog in the dust because although it was probably just a squirrel or chipmunk or at worst, a deer walking through the woods, in my mind it was Bathsheba or Annabelle or the toy monkey coming for me with their army of darkness in tow. Needless to say, the next night was my wife’s turn to take the dog out. I couldn’t handle it two nights in a row.”


“Twentyish years ago, when my husband (then boyfriend) first moved in together in a little house in Austin,” shared May Cobb, author of THE HUNTING WIVES. “I was home alone on a Saturday night, soaking in the tub. He was a waiter at the time and would come home close to midnight. It was probably 6 in the evening and I was relaxing, with bath salts and candles, the whole nine yards.

“I went underwater to rinse my hair and when I came up, there was a man in dark sunglasses and a black leather jacket looming over me. I thought it was the end of my life and I let out a shriek of terror—a noise that I haven’t made before or since. After a second, and after he removed the glasses, I realized that the man was, in fact, my boyfriend, home early from work. He had wanted to surprise me, and thought I’d be happy his shift got cut and we had the night together, not realizing until it was too late that he scared the hell out of me instead.”

The man in the black tuxedo

“When I was a kid, my brother and I were obsessed with horror movies,” Scott Blackburn, author of  IT DIES WITH YOU. “One night, after we’d watched the 1986 cult classic, ‘Night of the Creeps,’ my brother convinced me that he’d seen the man on the cover of the VHS box, a tuxedo-wearing half zombie with glowing white eyes, standing in our parents’ bedroom. Their room was right across the hallway from my bedroom room, so for years afterward, I’d look hesitantly into that room on my way to bed each night, always expecting to see The Man in the Black Tuxedo, as we called him.

“Still to this day, if I go upstairs at my parents’ house, I check their room, hoping the bloody-faced man in prom attire won’t be staring back at me.”

Ghost(s) stories

“I was living alone in the early oughts in a house in Lincoln, Nebraska,” said Erin Flanagan, Edgar Award-winner and author of DEER SEASON. “One night I awoke from a dead sleep and looked to my right and saw an Asian man leaning against my dresser in a trucker hat and a Carhart jacket, his arms crossed. He smiled at me and my heart jackhammered. I burrowed my face into my pillow—I was clearly awake now, and figured it had to be a dream—but when I looked over, pulse pounding, he was still there. He began to dissipate, like pixels disappearing one by one. I had never before and have never since had a dream like this.

“A few months later, I was asleep again and awoke around two in the morning to a banging noise. I shot up, confused, and eventually realized someone was at the door. Two cops on the porch told me there’d been a 911 call from this landline. I let them know I was the only one home and there had to be a mistake, but they assured me their call systems didn’t make mistakes. They let me off with a warning, saying if it happened again there’d be a hefty fine. It was clear they didn’t believe me, but I have never made a phone call in the night before or since.

“The third experience in this house is the one that most people believe, because it doesn’t involve me sleeping and there was a witness. I was watching TV upstairs with my cat, Buster, when what appeared to be a dark cloak slid across the ceiling and through the top of doorway. The hairs on my neck stood at attention. I had just about convinced myself it was car lights from outside (even though in the two years I’d lived there, car lights had never looked like this), when Buster screeched and tore down the stairs. He never visited the second floor again.

“I thought many times about looking up the history of the house to see what I could find out, but honestly was too frightened to do so. Were these events due to a ghost? Who knows. But did they scare the shit out of me? Absolutely.”

Date and switch

“When I was a freshman in college, I was in a long-distance relationship with a guy who lived in Texas,” said Anne Heltzel, author of JUST LIKE MOTHER. “I flew to San Antonio to visit him for a week over the summer, and one night our vacation took a turn from romantic to sinister. We were heading home from dinner late at night when, without warning, he pulled off the road into an empty cul-de-sac. He put the car in park, locked all the doors, and pivoted (only by his neck!) to face me. The expression he wore was straight out of a horror movie: a dead-eyed, ear-to-ear, menacing grin. I screamed, rattled the door handle, and started to cry; only then did he drop the act. He thought it was hilarious. Needless to say, it was the first sign I was dating a sociopath.”


Mother of all fears

“I’ve been mugged in Central Park, fallen off a horse in the middle of a stampede, and been trapped by a crowd so dense that I had no control over my own movements,” said Mally Becker, Agatha Award-nominated author of THE TURNCOAT’S WIDOW. “None of that was as scary as the day I biked down a small hill in our suburban neighborhood with my then-seven-year-old son.

“He had started riding a two-wheeler a few months earlier and was still obsessed by his new skill. Speeding down the hill, he wobbled once, twice, then flew over the handlebars, landing head first. That was when I discovered that truly bad things really do seem to happen in slow motion. I’ll never forget the fear on his face, his arc through the air, and, later, the skid marks on his helmet. Thankfully, somehow, he wasn’t badly hurt; but that’s still my scariest moment!”