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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)

First I make a call to a really scary place. Branson, Missouri, is a town where Andy Williams and Mel Tillis perform regularly in their own theaters, and where you can take in a show called Neil Goldberg’s Christmas Dreams. Branson is where I find Richard Young, a professional storyteller who is the coauthor of Ghost Stories from the American Southwest.

“Ghost stories help us deal us with death, how we view death, what we’re going to do after we die,” he says.

Not only that, Young tells me, a terrifying narrative can actually aid a child as he negotiates his inner life.

“The children we talk to say they like the stories because they allow them to face fear, and to master that fear,” Young says. “Pay attention when you tell a small child a scary story. They’ll ask to hear it, exactly the same story, four or five times in a row. The fifth time, they’re not scared anymore.”

That doesn’t help me deal with the Mendocino Moaner. But perhaps it does explain why my mother’s younger brother regaled me with stories of the White Hairy Monster and the Green Slimy Monster when I was four years old until I had been transformed from a cheerful and optimistic little boy who liked to play with rocks into a sniffling, blubbering candidate for decades of psychotherapy. Maybe Uncle Jeff wasn’t a leering, donut-gobbling sadist. Maybe he was simply trying to help me face and master my fear.

I would try to forgive Jeff. And in so doing I would try to regain my storytelling mojo, so that I could help other kids deal with their internal lives by making them weep with terror while they tried and failed to rock their trembling little bodies to sleep. But first, I had to deal with my own terror. My own terror which, even before that night in Mendocino, seemed to flare up whenever I was in a tent or sitting next to a campfire.

Why was that, I asked Young. Why was it that in the great outdoors, merely-titillating closet-monsters and under-the-bed demons transmogrified into vengeful cannibals? Why was it that on a backpacking trip, there always seemed to be things waiting? Gibbering, mewling things with sharp teeth and wet fur. Hissing things that liked the taste of human flesh. Women who walked like wolves. Men who grunted like pigs.

Barely-human halflings who waited, patiently, for little boys who had to get out of their tents at night to go to the bathroom. Giant trees with handcuffs nailed into their oozing bark.

Okay, maybe I just thought that. Maybe what I said was something like, “So why is it that we get so scared outside? Why are camping trips the best places to tell ghost stories?”

 “Generally speaking,” Young says, “the city is thought to be a place that’s orderly, laid out in long straight lines, with four walls around you, where you can lock the door. But out in the wilderness everything is disordered, everything is crooked, the walls of a tent won’t protect you from a bear. It’s a complete change of experience and you feel vulnerable. And you are vulnerable. In the wilderness, the stories become more frightening, because there are sounds you’re not used to hearing. The hooting of the owl, the distant call of coyotes.”

“The stories are cathartic. You hear the scary story, you live through the night, you wake up feeling better about it all.”

Ah. Catharsis. So that’s why I told the boys at northern Wisconsin’s Camp Timberlane, near Minocqua, the absolutely true account of the Backbreaker of Oneida County. They were too young to have heard the gruesome details themselves, and no doubt their parents would have been reluctant to tell them, but, as the senior counselor of the Mighty Hawk Cabin, I felt duty-bound to level with my 10-year-old charges. I told them that. “I feel duty-bound to level with you guys,” I said. I respected them and felt they were old enough to handle the truth. I was confident that none of them would cry at night or go whining to the camp director, who would probably deny the whole thing anyway because he was worried about bad publicity. I urged any skeptics among them to visit a library, to check the microfilm of the Minocqua Weekly Herald and judge for themselves.

 It seems that two decades earlier, on a late winter day, after the visiting snowmobilers had gone home, before the summer tourists would arrive, the locals driving to work noticed something strange. There was a crunching beneath their tires. Who was the first person to get out of the car? And what did he think when he saw scores of dead chipmunks scattered across the pavement?

This is a true story, not some folkloric legend, so the good folks of Oneida County did what people do. They called the authorities. And the authorities did what authorities do: test. Test for rabies and hantavirus and even for bubonic plague. I told the boys of the Mighty Hawk Cabin that. You boys want terrifying? Those diseases are terrifying. But the tests came back negative. In the midst of the testing, though, a lab guy noticed something odd. All the animals’ spines were broken. Was it a wasting disease that affected only rodents? Was it some bizarre hoax concocted by college students, who had collected lab animals and killed them and dumped them on the roads? No one ever knew, and after a few months, no one really cared. Just one of those weird mysteries. People forgot all about it. Until one chilly May morning, when the town woke to a sound it had never heard before—the sound of quiet. It was a morning with no barking.

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