How to Tell a Good Campfire Story

One of our favorites from the vault: a master entertainer spills his secrets for spinning unforgettable yarns.
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One of our favorites from the vault: a master entertainer spills his secrets for spinning unforgettable yarns.

PICK A GOOD TALE
Does it creep you out? Would your friends object if you told it to their 11-year-old kid? Yes? Then you’ve got a winner.

TELL A TRUE STORY
“This is a true story” is OK. “This is a true story and the person who it happened to is in the Maine Hospital for the Criminally Insane now, a total vegetable” is better. “Cable news hadn’t been invented then, but you can look it up on microfilm at the Mendocino Public Library” is the best. When’s the last time anyone actually looked up something on microfilm?

KEEP IT SUBTLE
When the story gets to the really, really, really scary part, clam up. You don’t want to go on. Your voice gets softer. You’d prefer not to talk about what happened next. You don’t even want to think about it. But you will. You owe it to your audience. 

USE VISUAL AIDS
Your appendectomy scar? Who’s to say Neville Flange, the machete-wielding marauder of the Smoky Mountains, didn’t cut you there? Hold on to bandanas emblazoned with camp names.

BE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO
Scary stories are fun and thrilling, but told to the wrong person, at the wrong time—well, sometimes that can have tragic consequences. I was telling the story of the Mendocino Moaner a few years ago to friends on a weekend trip in Yosemite. Everyone was pretty freaked out—especially because it was a true story—but nothing happened that night, and we all woke up the next day refreshed and ready to hike. All except for my friend Jack. Who knows how it affected him, or why? All I know is that Jack wouldn’t say a word that morning. All he would do was hum and shake his head and wave his arms, which was really a drag, because we had to drive all the way to Reno, where we had a plane to catch. They wouldn’t let Jack board the plane back to New York City, though. We had to take him to the Washoe County Hospital. Eventually they transferred him. To the Nevada State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s been five years and he’s still there. I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t even like to think about it.