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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)

“This is so great,” Melissa said.

“Uh-huh,” I repeated, softer, terrified that the torturer would hear us, and come for us next. It had to be a torturer, or a killer.

“Shhh, let’s be quiet and enjoy the night,” I said, while I visualized the location of my running shoes, and calculated how fast I could make it out of my sleeping bag and across the creek. Wondering what it would do to Melissa.

Melissa fell asleep, and I listened to her soft breathing, and to the hissing and cracking and moaning, and I silently cursed myself for my cowardice. For not protecting Melissa. For not saving the poor soul being tortured in the woods. For being so terrified of some harmless nocturnal creature.

We woke to a soft dawn. Of course we woke. The only bad thing that happened to us that night was getting soaked with dew. We were in good spirits. Melissa, because she was experiencing her first morning outdoors. Me, because we hadn’t been gutted like fish. I chuckled to myself. This would make a wonderful campfire tale.

We packed up. I made a little fire and we had some coffee. We breathed deeply, all the things people in the wilderness do. Birds sang, the sun shone. How could I have been so paranoid? I told Melissa that tonight, we would do some real backpacking—maybe I’d even buy a map. She laughed, thanked me again for bringing her. I could still hear her laughing as I strolled into the woods behind our tent. I could still hear her laughing, as I unzipped my shorts and found a spot next to a giant redwood and glanced up at nothing in particular. I could still hear her laughing when I saw the handcuffs.

Heavy things, nailed into the tree, about two feet above my head. High enough to hold someone, helpless, naked, moaning. The cuffs were open, held to the tree by two big, rusty nails. Below, smeared on the bark, something thick and viscous and brownish red.

“What’s wrong?” Melissa asked as I crashed into camp.

“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing’s wrong.” I didn’t tell her about the cuffs, or the stains. I didn’t tell her that in my rush back to camp, I had nearly tripped over a pile in the brush. In the pile were robes and knives and a long, wet bullwhip. And a strip of blue polyester with a bloody nametag that said “Kath.”

I never told a ghost story again. I had grown up hearing tales of terror—often huddled over flashlights in tents—and I had screamed and laughed and even cried a few times. And when I got old enough, I started repeating the stories, then when I got older still, inventing my own. Cultural anthropologists would say I was doing my part to solidify society’s values by passing on entertaining, gruesome little fables. Psychologists would say the stories helped me and other children master fear by giving it to us in small, manageable doses, that such stories helped us see that fear wasn’t fatal, that surviving a scary story wasn’t much different from learning to live with other unpleasant emotions. But how would the experts explain the handcuffs and the rusty nails? Why was it that after that night in the redwood forest,after I saw the bloodied and torn blue polyester uniform, the very words “Once upon a time” struck me mute?

It’s been a quarter of a century. Maybe it’s time for me to—finally—look back, and by looking back, to move forward. Maybe if I set out to understand the origins of the terrible tales, I might be able to forget the horrible moans, the bullwhip. Maybe then I might be able to gather friends around a campfire and tell a ghost story again.

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