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.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

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.

We were college students, my girlfriend and I, and we had driven here, to the redwood forest, from San Francisco. I had promised to take her backpacking. She had grown up surfing in southern California, had never spent a night in anything but a feather bed. Being a college student in the mid-’70s, in northern California, my approach to backpacking was “the Earth will take care of us.” Which means I drank water out of streams, ate nothing but bags of granola and cheese and avocado sandwiches, and planned itineraries by asking locals where to camp. I didn’t have a watch, or compass, or a map, because to me, camping was all about not being enslaved by the accouterments of society. It was all about freedom.

To Melissa, though, my brand of exploration meant hunger and crabbiness and “I thought you knew what you were doing when I agreed to come up here with you.”

I told her there was nothing to fret about. I told her that after we ate, our senses would be sharpened, that we’d be fine. What I didn’t tell her was that I had no idea whether we’d find a diner, or gas station, before we ran out of fuel.

And that’s when we saw Ernie’s, just off Route One. A single gas pump on a patch of gravel, and behind it, the diner, a little wooden shack that pulsed cheerfulness through its plate-glass window. It was clean inside, and smelled of pancakes and comfort. The waitress wore a blue polyester uniform with a nametag that said “Kath.” She was a redhead, slim, about 30, and she told us we could sit wherever we wanted. We were the only customers, except for a table of five guys. They all had robes and long beards, but this was northern California in the mid-’70s, so it didn’t seem odd. What did seem odd, what I didn’t notice until I was halfway through our pancakes, is that except for the occasional clattering of dishes from the kitchen and scrape of silverware, the restaurant was silent. The guys in robes hadn’t said a word since we’d walked in. They just stared at the center of their table. When Kath cleared our empty plates, I asked if she knew any places nearby where we might camp for the night.

She did. She told us to continue five miles up the road, then to make a left on a dirt road, and take it another two miles, then when we saw a black boulder on the right, to pull off next to it and take a footpath about a quarter-mile. There was a nice spot next to a creek, a pretty little grove near some of the giant trees. We would be happy there, the waitress promised. She leaned closer and smiled and whispered something. To avoid staring down the front of her blue uniform—Kath had quite a body—I tried to look elsewhere.

That’s when I noticed the fresh scars on her wrists.

“What?” I said.

“It’s a secret place,” Kath said. “I think you’ll like it.”

“That seems complicated,” Melissa said as we got in the car. She hadn’t seen the scars. “What if we get lost?”

“We won’t get lost,” I said, trying to believe it. “And she seemed really nice. I’m sure it’ll all be fine.”

As we got into the car, I glanced back at the diner. Kath was sitting at the table with the guys in robes. Was it my imagination, or were they talking to her? And was she nodding? And were all of them smiling, looking out the window, straight into our car, as we pulled into the night? Would you believe me if I said it was the first time in my life people smiling made my fingertips icy?

Kath’s directions were perfect. The spot was perfect, a grassy piece of velvet beneath giant redwoods, just yards from a spunky stream. The stars were perfect. Melissa asked if we could sleep outside, she wanted to look at the stars, and the way she felt, nestled next to me, that was perfect, too. We stared at constellations and listened to the quiet rush of the creek and that’s when I heard it.

It was a soft, sibilant, caressing whisper that turned into a sharp crack, which was followed by the longest, most desolate moan I had ever heard in my life.

I imitated the sound for my sister one night, at her cabin in the mountains of Colorado. “If you can tell the story,” she had said, “maybe you can finally put it behind you. Maybe you can get off the meds and move on with your life.”

So I tried. “ssssssSSSSSSSSCRACK!, Oooooooooh,” I said to my sister, and she looked at me, wide-eyed with worry.

“What was it?” she asked, and before I could say anything, I heard a whimper and my sister got up and peered around the corner and there was her four-year-old boy, my nephew, who must have heard us. I don’t know how long he had been there. That was the night Izzy started wetting his bed and waking up screaming. He still hasn’t stopped. Just two weeks ago, my sister took him to a child psychologist, who told her it was a developmental thing, a natural part of the growing-up process, that it was only coincidence that it started the night he heard me make the sound. I have my doubts.

What was it? That’s what I asked myself that night. A bird, no doubt, or some rodent I had never heard before. That’s what I told myself, as I lay under the stars, but I couldn’t help imagining something else. Those moans!

“I want to thank you for bringing me here,” Melissa said. “I never would have gone into the wilderness by myself.”

“Uh-huh,” I murmured to her. Did she not hear the noise?

“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.

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.

Who was the first to open his back door? Was it a child, checking to see what was wrong with Prince, or Duke? Who was the first to call to his sleeping dog, to call again, and then to realize Prince would never wake up again? Who was the first child to pick up his pet and sense something wrong? Who was the first boy to feel a dog’s snapped spinal cord?

This time, the authorities were ready—they brought in experts from Madison. Again, they found nothing. An entire town wakes up to hundreds of dead dogs—dead dogs with broken backs—and you never heard of it? You’re probably thinking what the kids in the Mighty Hawk Cabin were thinking. You never heard of it because it never happened. Right?

I’ll tell you what I told the boys that night. You never heard about it because the folks of Minocqua were bewildered, and, yeah, they were frightened, but they weren’t stupid. They knew that in just weeks the fisherman would be flocking to the area, and the summer camps would be opening, and the bratwurst would be roasting at the lakeside grills and the beer would be flowing. An inexplicable illness that attacked chipmunks and dogs was bad, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as what might happen if the tourist dollars got scared away. That would be the real death of the town. So there weren’t any big press conferences or warnings about bringing dogs to Oneida County. This was before CNN and the Internet, remember.

So how do I know about it, if it was all hushed up?

I’ll tell you the same thing I told the 10-year-olds of the Mighty Hawk Cabin that night. I’ll tell you the truth. You’ve heard of Camp Red Eagle, in Lac du Flambeau? No? The kids in the Mighty Hawk had heard of it. Years earlier, it had been the leading boys’ camp in the entire North Woods. They say it was the model for Meatballs, that Bill Murray movie. Seriously: You can look that up on the internet. Just plug in “Meatballs” and “Camp Red Eagle” if you don’t believe me.

But then the camp shut down.

“’Cause the owner cheated on his taxes,” one of my boys, BlimpyLardo, yelled out.

“’Cause the assistant director was sleeping with a kitchen girl, and there was a big scandal,” shouted Hormone.

“You guys will believe anything,” I said, chuckling. No, the reason Camp Red Eagle shut down didn’t involve taxes or sex. It was something else.

It was the morning of the Fourth of July, a big day at Camp Red Eagle, with archery contests and a hamburger cookout. But this morning, an hour before the campers at Red Eagle were supposed to gather at the flagpole to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the camp song, one kid couldn’t sleep. He was homesick. He was weepy. He was a frightened little boy, and he didn’t like camp. Other kids made fun of him, because he wore his Camp Red Eagle bandana around his neck, all the time. I mean, all the time, swimming, playing basketball, sleeping, all the time. Anyway, that morning, he walked through the woods to be first at the flagpole, to weep in silence, away from all the kids who teased him.

At first the boy thought they were sleeping. There were six of them, six boys from the Mighty Wolf Cabin, lying in a circle, head to toe. They were on their backs, looking up at the wispy morning clouds. The boy stopped sniffling. No matter what, he couldn’t let them hear him sniffling.

“Hey guys,” he shouted, but they ignored him. He walked closer. “Guys, hey,” he said again, but there was no reply. Only then did he notice they weren’t blinking. Only when he was staring down did he see they weren’t breathing. That boy screamed then, and he didn’t stop screaming until doctors at the Howard Miller Medical Center in Minocqua shot him full of tranquilizers. That boy saw a psychiatrist—yeah, a kid psychiatrist—until he went away to college.

What? Yeah, that’s when Red Eagle shut down. It never opened again. And yeah, their backs were broken.

“That’s bull!” Blimpy yelled, but there was a high-pitched edge to his voice.

“It was a sex scandal!” Hormone insisted, his voice quavering. “Salty, the junior counselor in the Mighty Cherokee cabin, said the kitchen girl got pregnant, and she was a nympho, and…”

I wish it were bull, or just a sex scandal. That’s what I told the boys. “It was 10 years ago and no one ever figured out who—or what—did it,” I said. “All I know is I wish it never happened.”

Why, the boys wanted to know? Why did I wish it had never happened?

“Because,” I said, my chin quivering as I pulled off my Camp Timberlane sweatshirt and let them get a good look at the bandana tied around my neck. The bandana with the faded but still legible letters emblazoned across the swooping bird. Red Eagle. “I never want to see what I saw that morning again!”

There was a hush then, as the boys stared at my Red Eagle bandana.

I shuddered a little then.

“I’m sorry, guys,” I said. “I just hadn’t thought about this in a long time. And I don’t like to talk about it, and I don’t want to talk about it again. I don’t even want to think about it. I’m just telling you since you’re good campers, and I know you’re not sissies who will freak out. So please don’t freak out when I tell you this: Two months ago, they found dead chipmunks on the road. And in June, they brought in the state vets, because, yeah, all the dogs in Minocqua had been killed—backs broken.”

A few boys started whimpering.

“I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m sure it’s some weird kind of disease. But listen up, you guys,” I said, as I rose, to head out into the night to meet my girlfriend Cindy for a make-out session at the flagpole. “Everyone try to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day, lots of Fourth of July festivities.”

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.

It involved a haunted hotel out West, and a room where a little girl had died in a fire, and a chill that passed up Roberts’s arm when she touched the wall of the room—right where the cradle had gone up in flames!

It scared her enough that the hair on the back of her neck stood up. Me? I wish her tale brought healing. But hearing it, I think of my experience with…honestly, I still don’t know what was moaning in the Mendocino woods. Had consenting adults been engaged in weird but safe bondage games that night? Were the waitress and her hooded pals playing a trick on us?

And if it was all innocent, how to explain that other item I saw in the County Tattler that foggy spring afternoon in that dusty little library? How to explain the strange letter to the editor? It was from a woman in North Dakota, asking for help in locating her daughter. Her daughter who had been living in Mendocino for a few months, who had called her every morning, just to assure her that everything was okay, that her waitress job was going fine, that she was making friends, that no, really, her mom didn’t need to worry.

“But I’m worried,” the woman from North Dakota had written. “I haven’t heard from my little girl in three months. Has anyone seen my daughter? Her name is Kath.”

She haunts me still.