by Loren Niemi – June 19, 2021
There is a story I tell about camping with the boy scouts in my youth. At one point after the meal of bacon, beans and burnt potatoes, the scoutmaster has us assembled around a fire and begins to tell us a series of ghost stories. Each is more horrible than the one that preceded it and I say, “If this is the place where the insane killer slaughtered all those boys, why are we here?”
His reply was, “Niemi, you just don’t get it, do you?”
But I did. Even then I realized two things about ghost stories told around the campfire. The first that no matter where you are, some dreadful spilling of blood and guts took place. The location doesn’t matter, the story doesn’t change. It is always supposed to make you look around wondering, WTF will happen next? The second thing is that these stories are only as scary as the audience’s willing participation. No matter how we ratchet up the BG&G (blood, guts & gore) if the campers are unwilling to suspend their disbelief, unwilling to see themselves in the situation, the stories cannot offer thrills and chills.
Many years later, I was telling ghost stories at a girl scout camp. ‘The Ghost with One Black Eye’, ‘Phantom Hitchhiker’, a Wendigo tale had all made an appearance but the story that provoked screams started with “She didn’t want to be a babysitter, but she was. She didn’t want to go into the dark basement with the bad flashlights but she did…” and that’s all I had to say. Those campers did not have to suspend their disbelief to see themselves in that story. They already had so many images in their head of what that was, and so easily could see themselves in that story, that my invitation was enough.
There is a formula for every ghost story which calls for us to establish entry into a work in which ghosts or perhaps more generally, the unimaginable, may be imagined. Often, we begin with the common place, the ordinary, into which the unexpected enters. Whether it is the girl standing in the rain, and when you stop, is seeking a ride home or the creaking of the ghost with one black eye climbing the steps. From there we build tension leading to a climax. In the first instance, the parents tell the driver she is long in the grave, in the second it is the impudent dweller of the bed offering a second black eye.
The sleight of hand in ghost stories is based on the tone of voice. It is not only what we say but how we say it. When are you soft, when loud, when fast, when painfully slow? It is the modulation of voice that allows the audience to fill in details, to fill in emotional anticipation.
Let me circle back to that moment I started with. In fact, the ‘ghost’ in the story I tell is not anything the Scoutmaster told us but what happened the next day when we were coming back to the parked cars that would take us home. There was an ambulance and county sheriff’s deputies crowded around the body of a drowned man. The Scoutmaster had us line up and walk past the body. “Take a good look at death,” was the implicit statement and since most of us had never seen that sort of thing before, it made an impression.
The ghost story I tell leads the audience from the lighthearted foibles of boy scouts on a camping trip to that moment, and to the silence that follows. If I tell the story well, that silence at the end is what haunts the listener.
When done well a ghost story is a joy, And all this and more will be explored in our free Summer Camp Ghost Stories workshop on June 27, 2021 at 7pm.