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Backpacker Magazine – 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.

by: Steve Friedman

(Illustration by Jackie McCaffrey)
(Illustration by Jackie McCaffrey)

TELL A SCARY STORY
Learn how to tell your own tale of terror with our how-to guide, right here.
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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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
The John
Jun 21, 2014

I liked it. It was a little confusing at times but I liked it.

Star Star Star
Tukan
Oct 31, 2013

Here are some really really scary stories, I have read recently

http://www.amazon.com/After-Dark-Ghost-Stories-India-ebook/dp/B00DYA0H7E/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383238448&sr=8-1&keywords=after+dark+ghost+stories+from+india

Star
noala
Oct 21, 2013

Star Star Star Star Star
jayasurya
Oct 21, 2013

hai! good

Star Star Star
Katie
Jan 17, 2013

No offence, but that wasn't very scary (it wasn't scary for me).

confuzled :/
Oct 31, 2012

??????what?????

confuzled :/
Oct 31, 2012

??????what?????

rebecca
Aug 21, 2011

I'm very happy about this, for me you pulled me in with earnies, kept me interested with the other directions and came back in with the kicker at the end.....i honestly can't decide if its true or not....well done

calboy147
Oct 31, 2010

Wow, I found it to be a quite amusing tale till i read the majority of these posts. Now i think i must have fallen asleep and dreamed it all up.
I certainly don't remember reading anything about his girlfriend screaming.. I guess i better go back and read it again. My macular degeneration must have gotten worse.

NevikS
Oct 29, 2010

I thought it was pretty goo - tied several stories together nicely.

The Smokey Joe story is told at every session at Camp Orr - a Boy Scout camp on the Buffalo River near Jasper Arkansas. There was just a snippet told here. The whole story is a 45 minute long tale about the derranged camp counselor presumably hiding in Compton Hollow. We were there a couple of years ago, and prior to starting the story, they warned the audience and allowed anyone about the disturbing nature of the story and allowed anyone to leave that wanted to. This really helped set the mood.

I wonder if the other stories are original by the author, or if they are also snippets of stories he has heard at some time?

emo person
Oct 27, 2010

its so bad that i stopped readin after the 1st page.

claudia
Sep 03, 2010

whhat the hell!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

claudia
Sep 03, 2010

i think he fell asleep writing it what a shame oh well at least he finished it.......heheheheheh

hi
May 01, 2010

hi

such a retarded storie
Feb 16, 2010

what the hell is this about?How do you not hear your girlfrend screaming? What a dumb as. This story is#&(@$&(^%*$

PS.I wrote the storie below to=)

such a retarded storie
Feb 16, 2010

what the hell is this about?How do you not hear your girlfrend screaming? What a dumb as. This story is#&(@$&(^%*$

PS.I wrote the storie below to=)

Anonymous
Feb 16, 2010

The most retarded scarie storie i have ever read! I laughed the whole way. My dog could tell a better storie than this! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sarah
Nov 20, 2009

I liked it. Scared the hell out of my 6th grade class.

Me
Nov 19, 2008

I thought it was pretty good. For those of you who think you're missing something make sure you go through all the pages they're listed on the bottom. I can imagine sitting around a campfire with friends and looking into their fire-flickering eyes, seeing them hope but not know that it isn't true. haha

Steve
Nov 19, 2008

This was so stupid

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