Little Orphan Annie’s come to my house to stay. To wash the cups and saucers up and brush the crumbs away.To shoo the chickens from the porch and dust the hearth and sweep, and make the fire and bake the bread to earn her board and keep. While all us other children, when the supper things is done,we sit around the kitchen fire and has the mostest fun, a listening to the witch tales that Annie tells about and the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!
When the night is dark and scary and the moon is full, and creatures are a flying and the wind goes Whoooooooooo, you better mind your parents and your teachers fond and dear, and cherish them that loves ya, and dry the orphans tearsand help the poor and needy ones that cluster all about, or the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!!!
– James Whitcomb Riley, 1875
Summer is just around the corner – it is a time of endless oceans of daylight falling into purple shrouded twilights filled with tales of the unexpected. It was on these warm summer nights, that my brothers and I would camp in backyard “tents” of blankets anchored by ropes and lawn furniture. We would lay motionless – adolescent grunions on the edge of a shoreline of weak light that ebbed from the windows of our back porch – telling ghost stories.
I loathed and loved my older brother’s perpetually embellished tale of the young couple stranded in their car, while their radio warned of a psychotic killer with a hook for a hand who had managed to escape from a local insane asylum. It appears that in the 1960’s security was extremely lax at hospitals for the criminally insane. As well, it seemed that every town had an asylum – along with supermarket, laundry mat and diner. And what about the hospital’s choice of prosthetics? Could you at least replace a psychopath’s razor sharp hook with a rubber thumb or feather duster? Not! Alas, the macabre tale always concluded in some shockingly improbable ironic twist and was punctuated with the shrieking of a girl who turned one last time to catch the sight of her disemboweled boyfriend.
My all-time favorite was a highly politically incorrect story aptly named, “Clubfoot Tom “. Tom was a downed WWII German pilot who had become horribly disfigured when his plane crashed while on a secret bombing run over Los Angeles ( yes, Los Angeles. My brother failed history ). He was 6′ 8″ tall with burns over 99% of his body. After pulling himself from the flaming wreck, Tom lived off small animals and eventually children who would stray too far from their campgrounds. Tom’s victims would first detect a sort of dragging noise ( footstep – dragging sound. Footstep – drag ) in the near darkness. Perhaps one might even hear a deep feral grunt just moments before a massive scarred monster struck with surprising quickness out of the corner of your eye.
Years later I would question several elements of the timeless Aryan cannibal. Just how does a 6’8″ man qualify as a Stuka pilot? What were the Germans bombing in Los Angeles? How come the police never caught the creature – a 6’8″ mass of scar tissue and fingernails is hard to miss. My brother would shake his head and smile sardonically. He would have made a great politician. He had a frustratingly impossible to verify answer for everything. “You’re such an idiot. The Germans were creating the master race. Their engineers could make everything. They measured the cockpit of the wreckage and determined the man who occupied it must be at LEAST 6′ 8″. The Germans were bombing Disneyland as the US was secretly building nuclear bombs underneath the amusement park ( Disney did not open until 1960 ). As to your most preposterous question, they still have not caught Bigfoot and he probably has an entire family in the forest.” He would stare at me with derision.
One fact was irrefutable Clubfoot Tom was a cannibal and German and everyone brought up on WWII movies knew Germans ate babies and committed acts of atrocity for sport. Each summer, there were endless permutations of Tom’s havoc, horror and misery. However, each curious case would always conclude in the same manner, “…and the last they saw Tom was somewhere right-around- HERE!” This would always be followed by excruciating silence and an almost inaudibly whispered question from the most frightened among us, “is-that-story-true? “ My brother would nod slowly, sadistically turning off his flashlight leaving us only with the seeds of the supernatural and our pregnant imaginations.
The night became eight hours of endless terror. A squirrel became a sociopathic clown intent on killing 8 year old boys. A cat jumping into the adjacent ivy was the advance guard of a legion of shapeless pitch black goblins. On these evenings, I made it a habit to never drink water ‘lest biology force me to sprint past Club Foot Tom who was most likely lurking in the hydrangeas. Dawn was a governor’s death row reprieve. With the sun, an unknown neuorchemical was released in our brains melting the midnight phantoms into morning dew. The next camp out, we would beg for another story.
Years later, I would pay forward my brother’s gifts to my campers as a counselor at YMCA camp in Mammoth Lakes, California. Ok, so there were a few complaints from parents whose kids came home wanting to sleep with them until they were 18 years old. And yes, to this day, I am still getting in trouble with my wife and other parents when this latest generation of fear junkies beg me for a scary story. I am certain a psychologist would have a Freudian field day with my adolescent phantasms, but come on, we live in a region rich in legends of spooks, goblins, witches, ghostly apparitions and haunted woods. A kid growing up in New England needs a regular meal of Washington Irving and Salem Witch Trials spiced with tales of an insane local “Leatherman” ( those hides were not made from deer ) and haunted Indian spirits like the Wendigo an evil spirit the native Americans believed was created whenever a human being resorted to cannibalism.
There are many who have consciously avoided horror movies their entire lives. There are those pacifists who feels Bambi was given too liberal a rating, ( the forest fire scene was terrifying ) and regularly convey deep disapproval of scary stories in a manner that only those who are married and live in the state of disapproval can understand. (By the way, the state of disapproval is the 51st state in the US. It has no area code or zip code but it is the largest contiguous land mass in the continental US. All husbands pass through this place while some have taken up permanent residence.) It is here that we tell stories to children that scare them into Sunday and where we get chastised for our prehistoric preoccupation with disappearances, murders and grisly discoveries – – all wrapped in a blood stained thick brown wrapper.
Scary stories served useful purposes since the dawn of time. Most phantasms were invented by authority figures wanting to keep their children from doing something dangerous. In England, the green decomposing water faerie, Peg Prowler swam the edges of rivers and lakes, looking to snatch the ankle of a reckless child standing too close to the water’s edge. Redcaps, who dipped their caps in human blood were found near dark forests, abandoned huts and caves. The native Americans had good and evil spirits competing for the hearts and minds of children nestled shoulder to shoulder in long houses and lodges. The greatest story tellers focused less on mayhem and more on metaphor to surgically embed a social guardrail into the brains of their wide-eyed audience. Perhaps some of us enjoy seeing them squirm a little too much. However, the ghost story is an important stimulant to a child’s imagination. It helps us to keep our strange mythology alive and to counteract a modern day adolescent digital mind stunted by graphic gratification, electronic realism and politically correct resolution that ensures nothing remains unexplained.
Lets face it. The real world is scary enough. Clubfoot Tom has become the monster of public debt and the specter of hyperinflation. The insane asylum escapee is now an ideological terrorist or a faceless pandemic. I want to hide under my bed just thinking about all these crazy, non negotiable threats that loom out there beyond my control. Personally, I prefer the old stories where there was a sort of implied social contract with the cosmos. If you followed the rules and you did what you were told, you just might make it out alive. Don’t talk back to your elders, do your chores and go to church. Kids who kept their wits about them always seemed to find a way through the scary places.
And remember – bad things can happen to people and the goblins will get you if you don’t watch out.