Campfire stories have a long and sordid history (citation unavailable), and the art of spinning a flame-lit tale is a skill few master. A tale-spinner must read their audience. If this wasn’t an art, a person could throw on the latest version of Campfire Radio Theater and everyone would snuggle up around the destroying-wrath of Mother Nature and get some goosebumps. Fortunately, the campfire-based story-master has yet to be replaced with Android counterparts. Here are a couple tips to ensure your spooky, soot-smattered stories come off with a shiver.
- Ensure the coals have burned low in the fire, encouraging your listeners to gather close to the fire receptacle. Once you begin your tale, place a very large log on top of the coals. Your courteous listeners won’t move when they begin to roast and sweat in the increased heat. Your non-courteous listeners will hopefully be paralyzed by fear. Think of movement away from the fire like the red light in a comedy club. If your listeners start to shuffle back, you’re doing a bad job.
- Mundane situations are generally more horrifying than fantastical ones. You want your listeners to be able to picture themselves being flayed alive by their overly-nice neighbour Francine. Start with the subtle, build up to the ghastly.
- Let’s say we start with a place that already gives everyone the jeebies: the hospital. Even people who work in hospitals don’t like the hospitals. They are a necessary evil of fair, just, and scientifically-forward societies. If you have an acquaintance at the campfire who enjoys/loves/is beholden with hospitals, this person is not your friend. Psychopaths do not believe other people’s emotions are real, and therefore, cannot sustain lasting and true friendships.
- Snacks are also a good barometer of how well you’re captivating your audience. If ungrateful-Steve is going in for his fifth marshmallow and gluten-free, coco-substance-coated graham cracker, time to unleash some of Steve’s personal fears and details into the story. Steve hates spiders? Steve is divorced? (Big surprise there, Steve.) Spiders take over the haunted hospital. Then a loving wife, who is in for a routine surgery, is injected with the spider’s cognitively destabilizing venom. She turns on her husband, slowly at first, crushing up her pain medication and slipping it in her pudding. ‘Butterscotch is your favorite flavor honey. Why don’t you just have a taste.’ Next thing you know she’s stalking him through ward 8, stitches seeping blood, and carrying a dagger that she’s whittled out of a nurse’s clipboard.
- Now that you’ve got your audience sweating, deprived of snacks, and, hopefully, ready to lose control of their bowels from fear, time to take it home. Remember that the difference between a horror story and a thriller story is open to interpretation, and you’re the damn tale-spinner, so you get to choose. Use your creative licence. Steve finds a cure for spider-maddened Leslie, and they make love in the gift shop: valid ending. Steve drowns Leslie in the janitor’s closet and sets the entire hospital on fire to eradicate the spider threat (though, of course, some escape into the sewer): equally valid. It’s the details that matter, and your description of the consistency of the hair on the spider’s legs is what’s really going to stick with your victims listeners. Make it memorable. Make it graphic. And like Alfred Hitchcock (likely never) said: all’s well that ends with Steve crying near the woodpile like a frightened squirrel.
Now hand me a s’more.
Jaclyn Adomeit lives and writes in Calgary, Canada. In her spare time, she dances to old records in the kitchen, befriends stray cats, and attempts to rival her grandmother’s cooking skills. Her fiction has previously appeared in magazines and anthologies including Armchair/Shotgun and After the Happily Ever After. She is currently at work on her first novel.