The art of telling a scary ghost story

Over the years I've shared campfires with some folks who could spin a pretty good yarn. These tellers of tall tales had one thing in common: They were good liars. • Just in time for Halloween, I decided to explore the art and science of the ghost story. We staged our experiment at Fort De Soto's group campground, chosen both for the fact that you can have a campfire, and that there is that semiscary old fort nearby for atmosphere. The test subjects ranged in age from 6 to 16. • Much of what I know about scary stories came from my father, the late Phillip L. Tomalin, who went by the nom de guerre Les of the Woods. My old man was an accomplished actor, singer, director, and for more than 30 years, an integral part of the New York advertising culture that inspired the popular television series Mad Men. • My dad knew that you could sell a pound of lies to anyone as long as it contained at least one ounce of truth. With that formula in mind, here's the tale I told my test subjects — with a break for further storytelling instruction:

Before bridges and causeways connected these islands to mainland, men traveled by water, often with just the moon and stars to guide them.

The month was October when a young lieutenant from the nearby fort went on an island-by-island search for a deserter who had gone crazy beneath the broiling Florida sun.

Life was hard for the young Army recruits, eaten alive by mosquitoes as they toiled at their posts, surrounded by sharks and rattlesnakes. At dusk they'd dream of freedom only to be taunted by monstrous raccoons that looked like small bears, standing on their hind legs, waving as if to say, "Come follow me."

The officer, who happened to be my great-grandfather, thought he'd be fighting the Spanish in Cuba, but instead found himself paddling among these islands under a moonless sky searching for a madman who swore he'd never be taken alive.

Noise travels fast and far over the water at night, so Great-Grandpa heard the screams long before he saw the strange shape dancing in the firelight. It took an hour to finally make landfall, but as he stepped out of his boat he fired a warning shot.

The fire ring, the same one around which we now sit, was empty. On the ground he found some scattered bones — from fish, birds, turtles and something much larger, gnawed beyond recognition.

There, mixed in with the bones, he noticed some scraps of cloth, Army blue.

He gripped his pistol, scanned the darkened tree line and muttered to himself,

"DAMN THAT MONSTER OF MULLET KEY."

Now, like advertising, the trick to any good ghost story is combining fact with fiction. Great storytellers have always injected history into their tales — it worked for Homer and Shakespeare, so why not you?

A good ghost story need not be probable, only plausible. So what if the facts are a little mixed up? Politicians do it all the time and they still get elected. It's the overall message that counts, not the picky details.

But when possible, stick (at least somewhat) to what you know. As Jimmy Buffett said, "Don't try to describe a Kiss concert if you've never seen it." Convincing details are everything.

So don't confine yourself by thinking that ghosts only hang around old houses. They like suburban-style ranches and cute little bungalows, too. A cold, dark office in a skyscraper can be just as creepy as that mansion on the hill, especially when you consider what happens in some offices.

A good story is only half of your challenge. My father, the master of delivery, could make a trip to the supermarket sound scary. And while everybody knows the old flashlight-under-the-face trick, remember that today's campfire crowd is far more sophisticated and unworthy of such simple-minded shenanigans.

No matter your audience's age, treat them with respect. Approach every story as if it were a conversation with intelligent adults. Speak clearly and with purpose. Sometimes I even pretend to lose my train of thought, just to be brought back on track by my now hyper-attentive audience.

An accomplice can sometimes be helpful if properly trained to interrupt on cue and say, "Did you hear that?" or "Did something just move in the bushes?"

And know your audience. A story that is appropriate for high schoolers might be too much for second-graders, who, however, love gross-out details. But don't be afraid of being frightening. After all, scary stories are important to human development.

Courage is not a birthright. You earn it by facing and overcoming things that frighten you. Many a youngster has returned from a week at scout camp, maybe a little traumatized, but stronger nonetheless after a few nights in the woods listening to scary stories.

The Chinese philosopher warrior Sun Tzu once said, always allow your enemy an avenue of escape, unless you plan to destroy them.

And so it goes with ghost stories. After you have sufficiently scared your subjects, let them down gently. Nobody wants their child to return home from a camping trip with a lifelong phobia of things that go bump in the night. That's what TV is for.

Now, back to our story:

The Tocobaga Indians talked of a galleon that wrecked in a late-season hurricane on a sandbar at the mouth of Tampa Bay, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Three conquistadores made it ashore and stayed alive for several weeks by eating mice and rats.

But on Oct. 31, their leader snapped.

Tired of eating rodents, he made a deal with the devil, who promised him a fine meal if he did away with his companions. The conquistador complied, feasted mightily — and was forever cursed with eternal life.

The wretch evolved over the centuries, gradually taking on the traits of the fish, birds and mammals upon which he dined. Gills, fur, claws all sprouted from his form, which, by the way, really stank.

Occasionally, some explorer or trader would venture too close to his lair and became part of the menu, too. And that is how he came to be known as the Monster of Mullet Key.

Seeing the carnage around the campfire, my great-grandfather realized the monster had already eaten its fill. That, he figured, is the only way he escaped the horrible creature with his life.

But great-grandfather passed the story on to his son, who told his boy, who shared it with me a long time ago, by a campfire far, far away.

I had all but forgotten the legend until a recent night when I forgot to check the weather forecast before I went out on my kayak. As black clouds filled the sky, blotting out the moon, I knew I had to find shelter.

I came along this stretch of coast and noticed the faint glow of a campfire. I was paddling toward the light when I heard a ghastly howl.

No beast I knew of could make such a frightful noise. I tried to convince myself that it was just the wind.

I dragged my kayak on shore, the wind tearing at me. The campfire was empty except for the partially eaten bones of what looked like a great blue heron.

Just like any hunted animal, suddenly I knew something in the darkness watched my every move.

I reached for my trusty Buck knife, but realized I'd left the weapon in my kayak. That's when I saw the demonic red eyes peering from the mangroves.

I tried to scream, but all I could manage was a moan. The trees rustled and shadows danced around the campfire, as the beast circled.

I smelled the putrid stench of rotting flesh, like a lagoon full of bloated fish a month into a red tide. I felt the beast's hot breath on the back of my neck.

Then I saw its paw and three black claws on my left shoulder. It shook me like a doll and I yelled, "No! No! No!"

"Wake up, Dad," my son yelled as he roused me from my sleep. "You must be dreaming."

I wanted to believe him, but I told him it was too real for a dream.

So he led me by the hand out of our tent and handed me a cup of hot, black coffee. Then he showed me the pile of bones.

"Look what I found," he said. "It looks like something had dinner while we were sleeping."

Contact Terry Tomalin at tomalin@sptimes.com.

The art of telling a scary ghost story 10/29/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 31, 2010 1:43pm]

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