For many Minnesotans, summer camps bring back a certain kind of nostalgia — memories of campfire songs, outdoor activities and creaky bunk beds remind current and former campers of childhood adventures. But one thing you might not find at camps in 2020? Ghost stories.
Some say classic stories about haunted cabins or woodland monsters can be considered emotionally scarring to campers, and tall tales over late-night campfires now might be few and far between.
Attitudes at camps are mixed. A study of 86 camp professionals across the country found that 31% of camps prohibit ghost stories, while only 13% encourage them.
Groups like the American Camp Association (ACA), a national organization that aims to ensure the quality of camp programs, haven’t taken a hard stance on scary stories, said spokesman Kyle Winkel. Almost 100 Minnesota camps are ACA-accredited, but there’s no state-wide standard that will stop a child from Bigfoot-induced nightmares.
Storytelling has been a part of camps since their creation in the late 19th century, said Leslie Paris, associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia and author of “Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp.”
Founded out of anxiety over an increasingly urban and industrialized society, camps were formed to give children the experiences in nature that adults in earlier generations had growing up, explained Paris.
Most stories told back then were those of American pioneers or Native American legends, she said. But while records of scary stories pre-World War II were few and far between, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist — an informal piece whispered in a tent probably wouldn’t make it into the archives.
“I think all of these stories were designed to build community in different ways. And one way to do that is by sharing a scary experience, while … still keeping kids safe in their bunks at night,” she said.
Telling legends of lost campers to keep children from wandering off isn’t the only purpose of gathering around the campfire.
Stories were a major part of Hugh Haller’s time as a camper and counselor. Not all were meant to terrify — the tale of the Wendigo, a demonic spirit believed by some Native American tribes to possess humans, is told alongside humorous personal experiences with skunks and polar bears.
Now as president and CEO of the Camping & Education Foundation, which runs Minnesota wilderness camps Kooch-i-ching and Ogi Daa Kwe, Haller is ensuring that the tales he was told growing up and the new stories continue through generations.
“They’re like recipes. We have the favorite recipes that are ... passed on, but then we have new recipe books that people will take. Storytelling is definitely still a part of what we do,” he said.
Tips for storytellers
But what makes for a good scary story in the first place?
The suspense and engagement, explained lifelong storyteller and Story Arts of Minnesota board chair Loren Niemi. The audience, no matter their age, should try to suspend their judgment and keep their emotions open, he said.
“You want campers to be imaginative and emotionally engage ... so it is much better to tell stories in which things are withheld or implied,” Niemi said. “I don’t need to fill in any details — they do that themselves.”
Niemi recommends tailoring a story to the group, gauging what they can bear before anyone starts to scream. If campers go back to their bunks and start retelling, it was done right, he said.
Whether the topic is an urban legend or funny memory, the unique storytelling experience is an instrumental part of camp memories, Haller said.
“You’re out in the woods, sitting around an open fire, and you can’t really see sort of beyond the dark. Every little sound and crackle that you hear while you have a really great storyteller telling you everything it could be ... it’s intoxicating,” he said. “Those little things I remember more than just a specific story.”
Audrey Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.