Haunting Hooks Scary Story Opener Writing Contest: The Winning Entry!

text on black background with science fiction elements including UFO, stars, and moon: "Haunting Hooks"

After nearly 5,000 (!) submissions, three finalists, more than 3,000 votes, and some seriously scary sci-fi: it’s official. You have chosen the winner of the 2022 Haunting Hooks Scary Story Opener Writing Contest!

For our second annual edition of the contest, we again challenged contestants to write a captivating opening to a scary story in 50 words or less. This year, there was a theme: scary sci-fi.

Your enthusiasm for sci-fi horror exceeded our wildest expectations—we received more than double last year’s entries! Competition was extremely stiff, but Dictionary.com editors were able to narrow it down to three finalists, and we left the rest up to the scariest contingent of humans we could think of: the internet public.

We now present 2022’s most Haunting Hook, as judged by you.

🥇 1st place (1,215 votes/37%)

Haunting Hooks contest 1st Place Winner Frederick Barstow: "Time travel is complicated business, especially when it comes to correcting the timeline. Anomalies occur throughout history, “glitches” that would otherwise keep events from proceeding as they have been ordained. For example, some people simply refuse to die when they're supposed to. That's where I come in."

Frederick Barstow on composing the winning entry:

“I think what many people fear most about mortality is the unknown—not just of what’s on the other side, but also not knowing when, where, or how their death will happen. It’s also scary to me to think of death as an unstoppable, inevitable force, like in Final Destination, where no matter what you do or how you try to avoid it, it comes to you all the same. Then I thought to personify that force as a kind of time-traveling hitman or assassin whose job it is to navigate the timeline and hunt down people who didn’t die when they were supposed to, in a cold, ‘strictly business’ sort of way. Then that begs even deeper questions: Who is paying them? Who decides when a person is ‘supposed’ to die? How do they decide? I think it would be very interesting to hear a story from the point of view of one of these time-traveling killers and maybe find out the answers.”

Dictionary.com editors on what makes it work:

There’s a chilling matter-of-factness to what the narrator is saying. Some people simply refuse to die when they’re supposed to. Right after the narrator says that, they reveal that they are not just an observer, but an active participant in correcting the timeline. It immediately creates vulnerability, making the reader feel as if they’re going to spend the rest of the story on the run from an inescapable fate, even though—and perhaps especially because—they’ll be experiencing the action from the perspective of the agent of that fate. Yes, we feel the dread. And yes, we feel the need to read more.

🥈 2nd place (1,075 votes/33%)

Haunting Hooks Contest 2nd Place Winner Max Abramson: "Four minutes and fifty-four seconds. That's how long it takes. Four minutes and fifty-four seconds for the first sentient AI to realize humans are no longer necessary. That’s 294 seconds. One more and it‘s detonated every thermonuclear weapon on Earth. Four minutes and fifty-four seconds. That was ten years ago."

Max Abramson on existential dread:

“Because I wanted to write something unconventionally spooky—more existentially scary than anything—the inspiration behind my haunting hook was the Terminator franchise coupled with the now seemingly daily news about the frightening advancements in artificial intelligence. This, to me, is (unconventionally) terrifying.”

What makes it work:

The specificity of the time and the precision with which it’s stated and repeated serve to emphasize the cold calculation of an AI that determines humans are no longer necessary. And then what we thought was perhaps a hypothetical situation is revealed not just as a real one, but one that happened a decade ago. We now have a very strong sense that this story’s world is a terrifying place, and we absolutely want to know what it looks like.

🥉 3rd place (995 votes/30%)

Haunting Hooks Contest 3rd Place Winner Catherine LaCroix: "The lace of Eva’s cuffs was a testament to antique craftsmanship. Fine, delicate strands painstakingly woven into a stunning floral design. To her, it was a memory of her family thousands of lightyears away. To Experiment 5186, the lace was a nuisance that caught between its teeth."

Catherine LaCroix on what inspired her:

“My favorite science fiction pieces present the disparity between human traditions and technological advances. My grandmother crocheted beautiful doilies and lace, and I wanted to incorporate a personal, tangible memory into my hook.”

What makes it work:

The story begins with something delicate, personal, and pure: antique lace. It’s immediately tangible, but it also subtly embeds exposition that tells us important things about the character and the world she inhabits. Then comes the brutal juxtaposition. It’s a sensory image that, frankly, we’ll never forget: lace caught between the teeth of “Experiment 5186.” Something tells us we’re about to learn a frightening amount about these teeth and the rest of whatever it is that they’re part of.

Spooktacular honorable mentions

Stay tuned for more contests from Dictionary.com! Need more Haunting Hooks in the meantime? Here are some of the hauntorable mentions that just missed the cut.

“Multnomah Falls thundered beneath Christy’s feet when her phone started vibrating. 2 Min left to capture a BeReal. “Perfect Timing!” Location settings on. Target Acquired. Christy’s front camera captured her frizzy hair, and her wide horrified eyes. The back camera captured the drone’s steady approach. The falls captured her body.”
— Joshua O’Brien

“The first pause happened when I was eight, swinging outside listening to music. There always seemed to be sound involved whenever the pauses came. The swing curved upwards, then -it- happened. I felt a little jolt in my body as the swing seat froze in mid-air.”
— Ana Beard

“‘They call it the Dancing Floor.’ Rebecca pressed her nose to their shuttle’s Starport for a better look as they passed through billions of frozen twirling bodies. ‘Where did they all come from?’ she asked the captain, her eyes fixed on the morbid scene floating by. ‘Earth’s last war.’”
— Eva Creel

“If you’re reading this, whenever, or wherever you are, don’t take the elevator. Space, unlimited in new possibilities. Space, the answer to everything. I am alone, without time, adrift in a vast inky sea of blackness. I’m sending this message to you from the dark. Don’t. Take. The. Elevator.”
— Leann Bonetti

“I was born in the heart of a dying star. Your planet, lush and green and boiling over with so much excess life, disgusts me. But I did not come here to end your species. I came here to watch you do it yourself…”
— Jess Flarity

“This time I cannot afford to fail. I am a person, not just a metal frame. But their footsteps are getting louder. I feel like crying. Screaming. But I haven’t qualified for that programming yet. I am a person… and I don’t want to die.”
— Julie Ghizzoni

“Mars Exploration Program. October 13, 2043. When the figure appeared in the distance, I thought it was Ramirez. Ramirez believed it was Beirne. Beirne assumed it was Murphy. And Murphy figured it was me. The truth is, none of us were outside in the northwest quadrant at 2:35 PM.”
— Miles Wiedmann

If you’re still curious about how the contest works, you can also review the official contest rules.

Previous Strengthen Your Bonds With 17 Words Of Affirmation Next Absentee Ballot vs. Mail-In Ballot: Know The Difference