11 Real-Life Scary Stories That Will Make You Sleep With the Lights On

From unidentified appearances to terrifying houses to creepy children, the 2023 finalists of our annual scary story contest will freak you the hell out.

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The Neighbors

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The Neighbors
Photo: Getty Images

My bf and I live in a warehouse that stretches from a busy street to a back alley. We lack a backyard, so we spent a lot of time in the alley, which is cozy despite being open to public traffic. Two lots across the alley are undeveloped and overgrown with tropical vegetation and large oak trees, providing ambiance. Bordering them is a lot with a single-family home facing the next street over, and a larger wooden two-story subdivided house in the back, built right to the edge of the alley. The upstairs units had balconies—large landings at the top of outdoor stairways, and they looked like bungalows amongst the trees.

We often hung out in the alley with a firepit, grilling some food, sipping drinks, and listening to music on a Bluetooth speaker. Friends would stop by on occasion to join us for little hangs.

A woman lived alone in the bungalow unit that had a view of our fire spot. She seemed to have substance and mental health issues, and would frequently berate and throw bottles at people in the alley, but none of her ire was directed at us, until it was.

She would sometimes startle us and our friends by chiming in on fireside chatting from her balcony, which required a bit of shouting on her part. One night she dominated all conversation with a graphic retelling of the film Apocalypto. We tried our best to stay on her good side by humoring these interruptions.

The back of our warehouse is a workshop with no AC. The space has a 10-foot metal garage that slides up, and iron gates outside the garage. Since we often keep this open for ventilation, my bf equipped the iron gates with rows of thin bamboo fencing, overlapping to provide privacy but allow for some airflow.

One evening we were zoned out, bingeing a show in the workshop, and he paused for a bathroom break. As soon as he disappeared into the other room, I heard the woman ask, from just outside our open garage, “What you watchin,” followed by a few questions about the show. The sort you might ask someone you are watching with. She waited until I was alone to make herself known. I freaked out and screamed, “FUCK OFF BITCH!” My bf rushed out and discovered the woman was crouched on all fours on the ground outside, peering through the smallest gaps in the bamboo, watching us watch TV.

After this, we adjusted for security. We installed CCTV, and ceased our alley firepit hangs. We had become the main targets of her outbursts.

I also got a dog, who I love more than anything ever (this was not for security and was something I had been wishing for a while).

Since I now had a dog who needed walking, I would occasionally encounter her waiting for me on her stairs, she would sneer and make crude remarks as I attempted to hurry past and avoid eye contact. She said things like, “Wow, you’re so skinny, not much you could do to fight back.” One day she inflected a wicked witch tone and proclaimed, “I am gonna kill you, and your little dog too.” Threatening my dog was too far. It took everything I had to not respond.

I lived with near-constant fear of what her next grand gesture of terror would be so I reached out to a friend, a criminal defense attorney. He used his subscription databases to find her name and records. It was not comforting information. She was known to possess a firearm and was fired from several jobs (she had been a security guard) for erratic behavior. My friend warned me to be very careful, and I worried he was holding back what he uncovered to spare my (admittedly fragile) mental state.

I googled her and found her blog displaying amateurish paintings of semi-abstracted horrors. The paintings depicted the loss of a child, seemingly a toddler. I felt some empathy for her. When she occupied the balcony, she sat on one of those ubiquitous cheap white plastic lawn chairs, but always directly across from another exactly like it, but child-sized. I had assumed she used it as a footrest, but now it signified something tragic.

Loud and violent episodes resulting in police visits were near daily events. The landlord moved to evict her. Her final departure was dramatic and we watched on our CCTV while quietly listening, scared that she might damage our property or take whatever swipes she could on her way out. For weeks after, we often saw her car, driving slowly through the alley, cursing the property as she passed, throwing detritus out the window at her former home.

I felt better when her appearances diminished. For a bit. A new tenant appeared, a single man. He didn’t seem unhinged or troubled like his predecessor, maybe a little off.

On a morning walk, the man was there at the bottom of the stairs, as if waiting, to greet me and my dog. I tried not to let history color what was probably neighborly kindness, but it did raise some hackles. He seemed to greet me before he could have known I was there.

There was some discussion between my bf and I as to whether his tenancy was legal. He always left the window on the balcony open, including during tropical storms and one hurricane. No one had seen him move in and no one saw him move out. We didn’t see him use the door or the lights. He didn’t appear to own or use any form of transportation. When he would speak to me, it was unintelligible: I could make out maybe one or two words per interaction, and relied on a general contextual sense to provide my brief, nervous replies. He never spoke to my bf.

He began to spend more time on the balcony. I told my bf I was feeling uneasy about the tenant but there was nothing substantial to justify it. The encounters where he would shock me on dog walks were increasing. I couldn’t figure out how he would always know when we would be coming. Was he spending the whole day at the base of his stairs? Was his eager presence born of loneliness?

Walking the next street over, I realized a lot of the overgrown lot next to the bungalow had been gradually cleared and that several parts of my walk were visible from where the man lived. There was no one on the balcony then, and when I passed the stairs in the alley there was no one there.

The next day, taking the same route, I had the sense I was being watched, so I looked up at the unit, and my stomach dropped to the core of the earth. In the window I saw fingers, parting the blinds. I stole glances at each of the unit’s windows that were visible from my route, trying my hardest to be discreet, by keeping my head down and glancing up with my eyes. And at every window, I saw the same thing, crinkled blinds with fingers holding them apart. He was moving around the perimeter of his unit to watch me from different vantages on my walk. Of course when I rounded the part of the alley that met his stairway, he was there at the bottom with a greeting.

I told my bf. He thought I was over-anxious but said he’d check it out. I described the route to him, and he took my dog on a walk that way. He came back and confirmed the blinds were warped in every spot you can see from the route. After that, he firmly requested that I only walk my dog when he could come along, or to take a route that avoided the sightline of the building entirely.

Before many questions could be answered, a big shakeup occurred. The landlord was not able to rent the front house for long and the back units were nothing but trouble, so they evicted everyone and tore down both houses on the property. I watched the day it was demolished, gladly sucking down any asbestos, lead, and mold particles to see this monument to so much personal anxiety crumble. The contractors got a kick out of how I was watching their work and put on a show for me, which was fun. The blinds were so heavily crinkled that they never went back to form, and remained creepily bent as they crashed into the earth.

This property pushed me over the edge of belief in the supernatural although most of these occurrences were clearly mental health related. And this is why: Once the man started to utilize his balcony more frequently, he brought out a chair, one of those collapsible camping chairs. And a second chair, the same style, but sized for a child. They were always arranged facing each other, in the way the woman’s chairs were once situated. In the years we had to interact with this building and it’s tenants, we never saw a child there.

Now it is just an empty, overgrown lot like the two that sit next to it. There are some interesting pieces of salvage that I would scavenge from literally any other location, but I will not touch due to their provenance. On two occasions while walking my dog, I saw totally mundane things on the lot that are terrifying in context. One day, there was a return of the cheap white lawn chairs, sitting at the edge of the remains of a fire that had apparently been lit the night before. The fire pit was encircled with coconuts and littered with broken bottles. Later, I found two miniature plastic chairs from a child’s dollhouse wrapped into the wire of the fence surrounding the property. These were years apart, and years after the demolition. —Tropical Situations

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