The Tale of the Vanishing Summer Camp Ghost Story


It was a muggy summer evening more than a decade ago in Apopka, Florida. Spanish moss hung like tattered capes on the gnarled oaks that loomed over cabins where, as day turned to night, tired campers made their way to their bunks. After a long day of archery, arts-and-crafts, and waterskiing, there was still one more activity for a willing audience: the nightly ghost story.

The dim glow of a flashlight illuminated the faces of a dozen tween boys. A brave few grinned with anticipation. Some listened cautiously, hiding their fear but ready to dart under the covers. Others, eyes squeezed shut, covered their ears as their counselor began the tale.

“Back when the camp first started in the ’50s, there was a cafeteria lady who was the best cook ever, but she was this old, haggard lady who was very scary, and all the kids would make fun of her behind her back and were super mean,” says Blair Carlyle, remembering the story he once told as an 17-year-old working at the Florida camp.

Scary stories can keep kids up at night, but they can also help campers bond—and help them learn how to process stress and fear.
Scary stories can keep kids up at night, but they can also help campers bond—and help them learn how to process stress and fear. chrispecoraro / Getty Images

The tale is both grisly and typical of summer camp fare: One evening, the dining hall went up in flames. Everyone got out safely except for the cafeteria lady. The next morning, kids who had been particularly cruel to her found spoons under their pillows—but continued to mock her. The following morning, the bullies had vanished.

“They weren’t in their bunks. There was a countywide search, the police came in their helicopters. No one ever found them again,” says Carlyle. He adds with a chuckle: “I scared so many kids with this story.”

Like most classic summer camp ghost stories, the spoon lady story offers a moral lesson—in this case, don’t be a bully—wrapped up in a bit of gruesomeness and creepy mystery. But the goosebump-inducing tradition may be on its way out. A 2015 study found that about a third of camps prohibit ghost stories, while only a fraction encourage them. Camp staff cite concerns over potentially traumatizing children and the desire to make camp fun rather than scary. But purists like Carlyle say stories tailored to their surroundings can bring a camp to life and enhance the campers’ experience. And according to some researchers, a little fun fear can be good for kids, teaching them how to cope with the real thing.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” says Carlyle. “It’s obviously very good intentions to try to make the world as nice for kids as we can, but it actually is a huge disservice…Because it’s not dangerous telling a kid a ghost story, and it’s not dangerous to be scared.”

Like adults, many children are drawn to getting just a little scared, and spooky stories are one way to feel fear without actually being in harm's way.
Like adults, many children are drawn to getting just a little scared, and spooky stories are one way to feel fear without actually being in harm’s way. Cavan Images / Alamy

Science appears to be on Carlyle’s side. Some research suggest that children that engage in risky and fear-inducing forms of play may have a decreased risk of developing anxiety disorders, says cognitive scientist Marc Malmdorf Andersen, who researches recreational fear and its benefits at Aarhus University in Denmark.

While age-inappropriate scares can indeed be traumatizing, scary situations that are appropriate for their age can help children develop ways of handling stress and fear. Says Andersen: “By exposing themselves to fear-inducing situations that are manageable, children can learn what those physical states feel like and how they might be handled.”

“I was that kid that would have been scared beyond handling it,” says Ariel Danley, a former summer camper who is now the director of 4-H Camp Timpoochee in Niceville, Florida. “So personally, I’m not a big fan of them, but I do see some of the value in it.”

In her 2015 master’s thesis, Danley analyzed how camp professionals around the country feel about telling ghost stories. She interviewed 86 camp staffers, mostly in the southeastern United States, and found that 31 percent of camps prohibit ghost stories, while only 13 percent encourage them. The rest, she says, tolerate them: The camps don’t have written policies against them, but counselors actively discourage kids from sharing stories. From what Danley can tell, this trend is gathering momentum in recent years, and spreading across the country as camps focus more on children’s psychological well-being.

Interestingly, an earlier push to study how scary experiences affected children psychologically began in the 1980s—the same decade that happened to see a surge of horror movies set at summer camp. But it was another movie that’s often credited for spurring a closer look at the consequences of scary entertainment for kids. The 1984 hit Gremlins was marketed to children but, if you’ve ever seen it, you know it’s pretty terrifying for all ages. It was one of a handful of mid-’80s movies credited with inspiring the need for the PG-13 rating, an acknowledgement that age does matter when it comes to how we process fear. Some, however, took policing fear too far.

<em>Gremlins</em> was originally marketed to children. After terrifying many young kids, the film became part of a case to create the PG-13 rating.
Gremlins was originally marketed to children. After terrifying many young kids, the film became part of a case to create the PG-13 rating. Allstar Picture Library Limited / Alamy

“I think some of these developments may have had an impact on the way parents think of fear as a purely negative phenomena that they should shield their children from,” says Andersen. “When in reality, it is probably much more about finding a good dosage of recreational fear that their children can learn and grow from.”

The right dose of frightful fun may vary from one individual to the next, complicating the summer camp scary story tradition.

“We’re seeing a lot more issues with trauma experiences and anxiety and depression… some of those ghost stories could trigger some of that stuff,” says Danley, who has adapted a traditional ghost story set at Camp Timpoochee into more of a friendly fable. “We just want to make sure that kids feel safe and secure while they’re here at camp.”

According to ongoing research from the Recreational Fear Lab, storytelling is one of the many ways kids of all ages play with fear.

“Being scared at camp is different than being scared when you’re home,” says Carlyle, who remembers being “absolutely petrified” by some stories he heard as a summer camper. “You’re in a cabin with a bunch of kids that are also scared, so it is fun. It’s not like being alone in your room at home and seeing a pile of clothes in the corner and not being able to sleep because you’re terrified of it.”

Hearing a scary story before bedtime often draws campers together, whispering in the dark. What they miss out on in sleep, they make up for with new friendships—and new tools to process their fear. Says Carlyle: “It’s really bonding, and even at the time, I remember being excited to be scared.”





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