Believing in ghosts: Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part piece I wrote for my Gothic fiction class.  If you’re just beginning this piece, you ought to start with the previous post.

Why we love a good scare

Campfire Child

(Rudis/Flickr/CC-A-SA)

Not all kids believe in ghosts, of course. And there were always rumors that the whole “Flying Joe” legend was a put-up job. An elaborate hoax staged for the benefit of the campers. There were also stories of pathetic attempts to fake signs of Flying Joe, such as by setting off a mechanical laughing box in the quad during Flying Joe night. Everyone groaned, the story went, because it was so obviously fake.

But scary stories and camping go together. Anyone who’s sat around a campfire, outside in the woods, and listened to a scary story knows the delicious joy of squirming at a particularly disturbing tale.

Picture this: It’s late. You’re tired from running around all day. But you’re sitting in the dark, with only firelight to see by. And someone, perhaps an adult, someone you admire and trust, begins telling you a story:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who toil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Laberge

I cremated Sam McGee. (full text)

This was a scene from the 1993 film Indian Summer, with Alan Arkin as camp director “Unca Lou” reciting the poem from memory. (By the way, if you want a real hoot, check out this recording of Johnny Cash reading the poem.) As the adult camp alumni sit around the campfire, reliving their glory days as kids, you can tell they know it’s a story, and have heard it many times. But they’re still on the edge of their log bench.

And Red Acorn certainly isn’t the only camp with a story about a resident spirit. Roughly fifteen miles north of Toledo, Ohio, the former “Camp Lady of the Lake” is still considered by some today to be a hotbed for paranormal activity. Campers who attended the camp while it was operational in the 1960s recall stories of “Seaweed Mary.” One former camper, Ray Zielinski, wrote how the counselors would play pranks on the campers:

I do remember “Seaweed Mary and Seaweed Ellen (the lake sisters). The counselors would sneak into our cabins at night and would cover our bunk beds with seaweed from the lake while we were asleep to let us know that the “lake sisters” had come out of the lake and wondered the camp property. If I’m not mistaken there was also the “Monster from the Black Lagoon” they would create from time to time to try and scare all of us. (link)

It’s hard to believe there’s any malevolent intentions here. The fact is, a lot of people enjoy the experience of being scared. And there’s even been scientific research suggesting that since the same parts of the brain are responsible for processing both pleasure and fear, it makes sense that a lot of people get happy while watching the Friday the 13th movies (most of which do take place at a summer camp).

So it’s clear that a lot of little kids like to be scared by stories — even if they’re made up. And there are obviously a lot of adults happy to scare them.

But this doesn’t explain much of the “Flying Joe” story. This was no simple prank played by a few college students taking a turn as camp counselors. Every summer I went to Red Acorn, there were signs. And they were always different. There were artifacts from the old days of camp that emerged in odd places. Mysterious ringing of the dinner bell when it seemed there was no one close by to pull the rope. There were fires that exploded into lie in the Rec Hall fireplace. There was even a trapeze supposedly used by Flying Joe in the Rec Hall.

And, most significantly, there was the voice so many of us heard. It sure didn’t sound like it came from a tape recorder.

I’m 37 years old. I’ve got a wonderful family, a great job, and a lifetime of memories both behind and ahead of me.

But there’s a part of me that’s still madder than hell about that night when I was told Flying Joe wasn’t real. I believed in Flying Joe a lot longer than I believed in Santa Claus.

Something got taken away from me that night. I want it back.

So I went looking for Flying Joe.

And I think I found him.

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