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October 2005

Terror in the Trees

Ghost stories always seem scarier beside a flickering campfire. So, dim your headlamp and scoot up closer: our writer-at-large explores the ghoulish beginnings of these age-old tales and shares a few of his all-time favorite blood-curdlers. We dare you to read on.
terror in the trees 445x260(Illustration by Jackie McCaffrey)

THERE WAS NO CNN THEN, OR GOOGLE, so unless you lived in Mendocino, California in the mid-’70s, and happened to be a regular at Ernie’s Diner, right off Highway One, where Ernie made a mean stack of banana walnut pancakes, you never heard what happened in the woods that night. No body was ever found. There was no missing-person report. There was only a small item—four lines long—in the local rag, and if you’re curious, you can still find it on microfilm at the Mendocino public library. Page C-13, next to the real-estate ads, in the County Tattler. Last time I was there, a few years ago, I looked, just to remind myself. “Tourist reports mysterious sounds, items found, prank suspected.” An innocuous little headline, next to a strange letter to the editor. A meaningless few sentences. After I read it, I went outside and leaned over a trash can and puked.
 What does a long-forgotten incident from 25 years ago have to do with ghost stories? A fair question. What do a few cryptic lines in a local paper and a reader with a delicate digestive system have to do with the enduring power of tales of terror? Another reasonable query.

I’ll get to the spooky stuff, trust me. I’ll get to the Black Dog of the Blue Ridge. I promise. This is a story about fear and the outdoors, so I won’t forget Raw Head and Bloody Bones, or the Monster of the Mogollon Rim. How could I? They, along with the ghost wolves and muck-encrusted man-things and shambling forest beings, are the archetypes. How could I avoid the spirits and spooks, hags and hobgoblins that haunt our wildest places? I can’t, and I won’t. 

But before you can understand why scary campfire stories and backpacking trips go together like graham crackers and chocolate, except with snapped bones and twisted entrails thrown in, you first need to know what happened that night in northern California. It was before the breakdown, long before the pills, before the trouble at the movie theater and the stint in the psych ward. I like to think that’s all behind me. I like to think that none of it was related to what happened that night. That’s what I like to think, but after my last trip to the dusty little library, I’m not sure. I’m not sure of much any more.

It was late at night—not a dark, stormy night, or a hushed, cloudy night where you hear wolves howl, or any of the other nights where fictional tales of terror usually begin. Just a temperate, starry night in northern California. A normal night, the kind of night when bad things happen to normal people. It was Thanksgiving, the kind of crystalline, breezy coastal evening where torture seems about as likely as Ernie coming out of his kitchen with a butcher knife dripping blood, instead of carrying a plate of his famous pancakes.

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