Travel: Campfire stories

This article published in the Denver Post’s 2015 Camp Guide. 

Why we love campfire stories — and how to tell a good one

By Kate Jonuska

In most versions, the teenagers hear a radio bulletin about a hook-handed escaped convict while, ahem, canoodling on Lover’s Lane. Perhaps you were told the more wholesome version in which the teens were driving to the movies. Either way, this classic scary story ends the same: with the convict’s hook hanging from the car door handle and the couple terrified that danger had unknowingly been so close at (hooked) hand.

camp2If you heard this story as a kid, however, you most likely remember the terrifying tale not with fear, but glee. Indeed, being scared by campfire stories usually makes us happy.

“I loved ghost stories around the campfire or at sleepovers,” says middle-grade and young-adult author Todd Mitchell.

“I think we listen to stories and we read stories to feel something, to feel alive,” he says. “With kids in particular, they like to explore extreme emotions, and so it’s the thrill of being scared. You leap out and say, ‘Boo!’ You get that chill, and then you laugh.”

As for how that transformation from fear to fun takes place, Catherine Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit storytelling organization Spellbinders, says it’s all about distance. “The reason we love them is that, even as we hear them, we know we’re safe.”

As director of Spellbinders, which last year sent about 350 storytellers into more than 2,400 classrooms across Colorado, Johnson knows a few things about telling tales. She divides good campfire stories into two types.

“First there are those that send chills down your back and make you jump and scream and clutch the person next to you,” she says. These are stories in which you feel the adrenaline rush of being in a dangerous situation vicariously from somewhere safe — like around a campfire surrounded by friends. In fact, being scared together is often a group-bonding experience that brings friends closer together.

“The second type of scary story is if you think of Grimms’ Fairy Tales,” says Johnson, who notes that especially in their original versions, such fairy tales were often violent or gory. Even so, such stories are universally beloved and can even be seen as instructional, if only symbolically.

“Whether it’s the ill intentions in each of us or the dragons and demons (the kids) may be facing in their own lives,” Johnson says, “scary fairy tales have important roles in showing kids that good can conquer evil.”

Author Mitchell, who also teaches creative writing at Colorado State University, agrees that a good story is all about transformation in the face of adversity, or a hero overcoming something bad or even evil.

“For kids, the scary factor in campfire stories is usually external. It’s something you can escape,” says Mitchell. “It’s that giddy thrill you can get away from, whereas truly terrifying stories that we might read or see or tell as adults are stories of how you can’t get away because the horror is within us or the horror is inescapable.”

In order to make campfire stories an ultimately positive experience for kids, then, avoid the latter. Another way to connect with children is to make sure the fear depicted in the tale is constructive.

“If you look at a lot of stories, a lot of ghost stories, the underlying message is that if you get carried away by fear, bad things happen,” says Mitchell. “The hero who overcomes is the one who doesn’t get carried away by his or her fear, the one who keeps a cool head.”

Tell it well

Storytelling is not the same thing as reading stories, Johnson says . It’s definitely more active and more personal.

“Use your whole body as your orchestra,” she says. “Your body posture, your hand gestures, the size of your eyes, how slowly or quickly you speak at certain parts: All that can build in a lot of the suspense and scariness and surprise into the story.”

Another trick is slow, evocative details that draw out tension. Johnson says to picture the story like a silent movie in your head before telling the tale.

“What are you seeing? Describe those details as vividly as possible,” she says. “The color of the witch’s hair, the blood running down the lips. What color is that blood? Those are the details that will make the story pop.”

Of course, it’s vital to note that while most of us love a good thrill, there are some among us — young and old — that simply don’t enjoy scary stories. Be aware of the maturity and sensitivity of the audience and watch their reactions, pulling back if necessary if you notice signs of distress.

“And end with a life-affirming story, something funny,” Johnson advises. “Particularly if the kids seem nervous, always end on a note of laughter.”

Online resources for campfire tales


Scary for Kids:

Boy Scouts of America:

Ultimate Camp Resource:

KOA Campgrounds:


Coleman Campfire App (free, iTunes App Store):

Scary Campfire Stories (free, Google Play Store):

Campfire Stories for Scouts ($1.99, Google Play Store):

Smokey the Bear and the Campfire Kids ($2.99, multiple platforms)

This article published in the Denver Post’s 2015 Camp Guide. 

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