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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.

“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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Reader Rating: -

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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