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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)

That was an innocent time for me, mangled rodents and murdered dogs and lifeless campers staring skyward with dead eyes notwithstanding. That was a time when I could still tell scary stories. What? You don’t believe I stared into the face of death one July morning? Are you also going to claim that the Thanksgiving moans came from a bird, or a mountain lion, that what I found in the County Tattler that awful afternoon in the Mendocino library wasn’t…no, I don’t want to think about what I found. I can’t yet. Maybe later, but not now…

I call Richard Young again. Maybe he can help me unravel the secrets of the Backbreaker, and in so doing, help me forget the Moaner.
 “Stories can validate our experience,” Young says. “They can warn against bad behavior, bad places.”

“When I was a boy,” he says, “We used to gather down in Arkansas, near a scout camp where they have a local legend. Supposedly the boys were having a mudball fight, and one of the boys put a rock in a mudball and it hit a counselor on the head, and the boys ran away. They never found the counselor’s body. And now, the story goes, if the boys go where they’re not supposed to, Smoky Joe (the apparently but not definitively dead counselor) chases them away. But there are also tales of boys falling from bluffs who are caught by a figure they didn’t know was there. So Smoky Joe is both threatening and protective.”

“Basically, that’s a cautionary tale to keep you away from where the counselors are kissing their girlfriends.”
That’s reassuring, I suppose. That makes me feel like I hadn’t been merely trying to scare the living hell out of my young charges at camp. No, I had been doing my best to help mold their behavior, to help them realize that they would lead healthier and happier lives if they avoided the flagpole, and generally tried to stay away from areas where animals were perishing from snapped spinal cords.

But that was kid stuff. Children (the ones who don’t end up dead, next to flagpoles) grow up, and encounter other terrors. Demanding bosses. Angry spouses. Illness. Mortgages. Cranky girlfriends and weird guys in hoods.

And the stories change, too. The Backbreaker of Oneida County? He (or it) has nothing on the Black Dog of the Blue Ridge, who appears, growling and snapping, in times of danger to the area. Or Raw Head and Bloody Bones, a half-woman, half-pig whose presence reminds us not to butcher any widow’s hogs that don’t belong to us. Not to mention the Phantom Wolf of the Lehigh Furnace Gap, a shadowy beast that patrols the Appalachian Trail. And let’s not forget the Monster of the Mogollon Rim, a skinless, eight-foot-tall deadling who terrorizes Boy Scouts (it seems the Scouts are popular targets) and other representatives of Western imperialism unlucky enough to be connected, at least in the Monster’s view, with the brutal pioneers who killed an Indian woman.

Racial injustice, fear of modernity, a violent lamentation for pillaged landscape—there are as many explanations for these ghost stories as there are sightings of New England’s fearsome Wendigo, described variously as a composite animal, with parts of different animals mixed with human parts, or a spirit who flies above the forest, depending who’s telling the tale.

Speaking of which, would I ever be able to terrify…I mean, offer aid and catharsis to trembling campers again? Wasn’t the truth supposed to set me free? Wasn’t I becoming pretty damn conversant with the cultural roots and societal values of a goosebump-causing yarn? Maybe I needed to know more. Maybe I needed to know some history.

I call Dennis Boyer, author of four ghost-story collections, including Once Upon a Hex. “The tradition of ghost stories goes way back,” he says. “Look at Macbeth, or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s a durable, useful form for folk wisdom.”

“I think the reason for this has to do with our relationship with the past. Washington Irving framed The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as a tension between perspectives. Often the terrorized are on the side of modernity. The source of terror is the backward and brutal past, often represented by rural-peasant-pagan archetypes. But that also permits a nostalgic telling of a ghost tale from the rural perspective where the past is viewed warmly and modernity is made to look silly in its terror.”

Pagan archetypes. Check. Tension between perspectives. Got it. But why do I still have nightmares about a waitress?

I call Nancy Roberts, a North Carolinian who Southern Living magazine has called “the custodian of the twilight zone.” Roberts has authored more than 20 volumes of spooky stuff. She’s also a born-again Christian (rare among ghost-story tellers; a few I consulted complained—anonymously—about the religious right picketing their events), and something of a fraidy cat. “I don’t like even to go in the living room when a scary TV show is going on.”

Most important for my purposes, Roberts, unlike her more skeptical colleagues, has actually had a close encounter of the bone-chilling kind. Maybe hearing it will help me.

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