There is something primitively satisfying about a campfire. We like to gather around the warmth and light, warding off the chill and darkness behind us. But what does that darkness hold? That is the age old fear.
Once the campfire is constructed, it is good to let your group get comfy, satisfied with some drinks and perhaps some s'mores or hot dogs.
You need to get people relaxed, comfortable and unsuspecting before you decide to wind up a tale that will make them afraid to leave the circle.
Smores: Graham crackers, Hershey's bars, marshmallows, fire-resistant skewers. Lay out your graham cracker, place a Hershey's bar to fit. Heat the marshmallows over the fire until golden, but don't get to close or they burn. Hold the hot marshmallows to the Hershey's bar and place another graham cracker on top of the marshmallows and squeeze it closed while you pull the skewer from the marshmallows. Squeeze and let the chocolate start to melt. Consider keeping a kit on hand
1. Identifying with characters and/or location.
2. Imparting primal fear and theatrics to make the listeners feel this story could happen to them.
The objective is to make that circle of campfire safe, but what is behind them in the dark, the great scary unknown. The listeners' vulnerability must be showcased.
Begin with characters who reflect the same makeup of the group around the fire, such as "a family," "a group of campers," "a few couples," or "some teens." Now, you have the listeners identifying with the group.
Utilize a primal fear most folks have, fear of the dark, fear of being attacked by a wild animal or monster, coming up against some dark unknown force, an angry ghost, or a maniacal killer.
Legend making: All good tales tell a legend. A legend is a discretionary tale. It teaches us things like - don't go into the woods alone, or behavior so you won't be punished or perhaps listen to your elders and stay within your safe parameters. This is the basis for what we call urban legends. In ancient times such tales kept children from wandering into dangerous places.
To make a legend stick, one has to create characters who push past warned boundaries, like parking on lover's lane, going down a wooded path that was not allowed, or doing something wrong they must be punished for.
Vulnerability equals personal challenge and learning a lesson is the purpose of the legend. In other words, legends basically say "I told you so!"
Telling the Tale
Dramatics - Stand up at the beginning of the story and walk around the circle of people, taking a stick and drawing a circle around the entire group in the dirt. With a flourish, tell them that it is to protect them from what's in the dark behind them and they must not break the circle (nice reminder to them that their backs are to the dark). Toss the stick on the fire for flare.
Now begin the tale. Pace yourself, speak slowly, be sure to make eye contact with each person so they feel you are telling it to them specifically.
To make everyone identify with the victims, you can have characters who are a jock, an outcast, a nerd and a cheerleader. Or you can do a ship's captain, a first mate, a lighthouse keeper, and a lost woman. Perhaps "a short guy," "an old timer," "the young woman" and the "ditsy teen." Whatever the characters are, make them characters and not names. It will make it easy to recall who they are and also give them listeners someone to identify with.
For the villain, you will want to use things that conjure up images immediately; a scientific experiment chimera creature part bear/part wolf or perhaps a lunatic from the asylum, a killer maniac, an angry ghost, a trouble recluse, a magical monster created by the mind of a wizard.
That villain's objective must be something the people in the group relate to like; "the killer maniac inhabits the dark forest at night and caves by day. He is so troubled by light, it makes him go berserk. When he wanders the woods, even the fireflies are his victims and anyone stupid enough to use a flashlight or campfire, feels his wrath in a painful and agonizing way!" (At this point, you might want to add some wood to the fire for unsettling effect before you tell of people who were dumb enough to use a light in the woods.) Crane your head and say something like; "did you hear that agonizing scream?"
Other than back story about the villain, keep what he is doing in the present tense so it sounds like not something that just happened long ago, but is happening now.
"The lunatic escaped the asylum and even today lives in the woods nearby. In fact, it could be these very woods. There is an asylum on the edge of them. He slaughters animals and leaves their messy carcasses on the pathways. Hikers come across them all the time, like the dead gutted deer they cleared from the path we took in here (incorporating your groups trek in). That was just two days ago when the forest service removed that. You know that bend after the creek we passed earlier? That's where they found it. He's probably feeding close by. The smell of hot dogs cooking might just draw him in. Maybe we should stop cooking food right now?" (raise an eyebrow)
You will lead into graphic and tense descriptions of prior killings and then lead into the fact he/it is still on the loose, looking for more to add to the unlucky collection.
"By the time the ranger shot at him, he was already bounding through the woods, the wet blood of his victim spread all over his face and arms in a bloodthirsty ritual of ecstasy. The ranger never did find sign of him anywhere and the maniac was still on the loose in the woods, somewhere near a tall rock outcropping (nod your head toward the rocks behind you) and was awaiting the next victim who walked into the woods alone." (add more theatrics here, by saying "should we take a break right now in case anyone needs to use the bathroom?" - if they dare!)
When you leave the story open-ended that we don't know what happened to the monster/maniac, you can also point out something to give them lingering doubt. An example would be to say that they don't need to worry, you can tell if the killer is coming because the tree tops shake. Most people think it's the wind and pay it no mind, but it's really the monster/maniac who shakes the trees in his frustration. (now your audience will listen for trees swooshing all evening).
Details: Remember details sell the story. Add things that make it here and now "did you see that tree over our path on the way up? They say he knocks trees down to mark his killing area." Or, "watch out for any rock stacks. Those are his favorite way of marking where he is planning to hunt." (having put up rock stacks earlier on the trail the bathroom, your listeners will now look for them and find them!)
Alternative: Another popular technique for campfire tales is the urban legend or Native legend. An historical event retold can only have a terrifying effect if the villain were immortal and still at large. Then, it could be along the lines of Jeepers Creepers or Gargoyles where the villain only emerges every (any odd number) of years and that lines up with today's date or is of a supernatural nature that cannot be killed.
A little research of lesser known local legends can produce scenarios like the Bunnyman , the unexplained pagan, or the witch who was said to kill some boy scouts.
One of my favorites I did for a group was based on a legend from where I grew up. It was about a man who had a wife that drank and kids that were noisy. He had enough of it and moved to the woods where he built a shack and proceeded to get lonely over the years, so he would steal people to make a makeshift family. The only people he would not steal in the woods were noisy ones, so if a person were to whistle, sing, or laugh going through the woods, he would leave them alone. Later, after the story was done, people were whistling to the bathroom.
- Movies with campfire tales and legends -
The Final Terror
Campfire Tales (1997)
The Blair Witch Project
If you notice in this opening to 1980 John Carpenter's "The Fog," the storyteller uses a specific time and date so that the listeners realize "it's the anniversary right now!"
Happy storytelling and bonfires, smores, and thrills!