A twig snaps. The crickets go silent. Something rustles in the nearby bushes.
A dark campsite is one of the best settings for a spooky story. Flickering firelight creates shifting shadows, night creatures provide a suitable soundtrack, and a lack of locking doors reminds us all that we are more vulnerable than the typical trappings of civilization would lead us to believe.
Even with a bright flashlight on hand, the pitch-black forest can be intimidating under the right circumstances—especially when helped along by a storyteller adept at drawing in listeners.
While tales of Fearsome Critters may be enough to make an audience uneasy, there is one campfire story that stands out to me above all the rest: “The Golden Arm.” Even now, I can hear my dad or one of his friends delivering the chilling line at the heart of the tale in a creepy moan.
I learned only recently that the story is thought to be more than 200 years old, with origins lost to time. It was apparently, however, a favorite of Mark Twain’s, and he used it as an example of how to effectively tell a scary story.
The basic premise of the story is this: A man (or woman) with a prosthetic arm made of solid gold dies and is buried, but a greedy person digs up the body and steals the valuable limb. Sometimes the deceased is a wife and her thief the husband. The next night, the grave-robber hears a voice in the distance, growing closer and closer, intoning a single question: “Whoooo stole my golden arm?” The spectral searcher may get nearer over the course of a single evening as the guilty party cowers alone in a locked house or runs terrified across a field in an attempt to get away. Other versions have the voice progressively approach over several nights, but the end result is always the same. The story ends with a loud shout (which Twain called the “snapper”): “YOU’VE GOT IT!”
With a little practice, you can be scaring your fellow campers out of their hiking boots. All it takes is a little storytelling effort:
1) Timing is everything. Wait for the best moment to start this tale. It won’t work if someone else just told a story with a startling ending, and its impact will diminish if there are people up and about, bustling around the campsite. Wait until the dinner gear is stowed away, the firewood has all been gathered, and the whole group is comfortably settled and on the verge of getting sleepy. This story is best lit by embers. (“There once was a woman with a single golden arm in the place of a working right arm. No one knew how she had lost her good arm, nor why she chose to have a replacement cast in gold, but she had it until the day she died … .”)
2) Use dynamics. That means you should get softer and louder as the story progresses. Start quiet, then build, then drop back down to almost a whisper again as the climax approaches. You’ll want everyone leaning in to hear you as the tale winds down. (“He clutched the arm to his chest and ran back to his house, thinking only off all the things his newfound riches would buy him … .”)
3) Repeat yourself. Saying the same phrase over and over gives your story rhythm—and lulls the listeners into a false sense of security. Your fellow campers will think they know what’s coming after hearing three or four sections of the story end with “Who stole my golden arm?” (He heard it again, closer this time, as if someone were standing right outside his front door. The voice was sorrowful, like a sigh: ‘Who stole my golden arm?’”)
4) Pause perfectly. This break just before the “snapper” may take a little practice. It can’t be so short that it rushes the finale, but too long of a break makes the stretching silence almost comical. Twain honed this particular portion of the tale to such a degree that he found he could elicit at least one “dear little yelp” out of an audience member each time he told the tale. (“ … ”)
5) Shout! You’ve baited the hook and everyone’s nibbling. Now catch them! By bellowing at the top of your lungs. You can even reach out and grab the person nearest you. (“YOU’VE GOT IT!”)