Everyone loves a good story, but there's no better place to stretch your imagination than in a circle of friends around a campfire. The spooky season of Halloween is on the rise, and with it is the rejuvenation of favorite late-night tales of ghosts and local legends. Good storytelling, however, is not always as easy as it seems - especially if you really want to see your listeners jump.
"If you present a story right, people will suspend disbelief," says professional storyteller Jim Pfitzer. "Mark Twain taught the art of telling a ghost story - it's about how you create the energy moving up to the climax, giving it space and time and silence to move them to the edge of their seat, to build tension...and then delivering that line at the right time. And you can't do that without giving the people that space to let them create the images in the story, to become curious."
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Pfitzer, who has worked as a naturalist and river guide and has even lived in Redwood National Park, tells stories about everything from his own personal black bear encounters to longtime legends in every setting from a campsite to a coffeehouse. One thing he knows about a good story is that it needs an element of honesty. "I tell a lot of tall tales and stories that aren't necessarily factual, but there are two things that, for me, are sort of the measuring sticks of whether it's an honest story," Pfitzer says. "Can I tell it with sincerity and passion? Is it a story that I connect with in a really deep meaningful way?"
Former Troop 176 Scout Master Bob Wagner says that his Scouts love to hear the stories about local legends, like the tales of Pitty Pat, a cat-like specter that supposedly prowls around Sale Creek, and Old Green Eyes that's reportedly been seen roaming the Chickamauga Battlefield since the Civil War. During his 40 years as Scout Master, Wagner told his fair share of stories, holding the unswerving attention of wide-eyed Scouts sitting around the campfire. "If you mix a little truth with poetic license, it creates an adequate amount of doubt that the story could be true," says Wagner. "When we took the Scouts up to the Sale Creek area, we'd wait until it's getting late, the fire is dying down - then we'd talk about Pitty Pat. I've had 16-year-old boys say, 'Are you ready to go back to the tent? Let's go together.'"
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Stories have the ability to connect people to each other, and storytelling itself dates back to the time of cavemen, whose stories we can see depicted in primitive drawings on cave walls. Georgiana Kotarski, who researched and published 30 local legends in her book "Ghosts of the Tennessee Valley," says, "I think humans use stories to try to explain their world. We are just naturally curious ... and I think that has a lot to do with why we love to tell and hear stories. We just want to understand things." Good stories allow listeners to look beyond what they know to be true - testing the limits of their imagination as they question the norm and ponder the supernatural.
"Doesn't everybody like a story? It's interesting; it does something to you," Wagner says. The setting in which a story is told can make the difference in how much a hearer is affected. "For example, if I put a story to you in a certain way after dark, and you're looking at a starry sky, you begin to ask yourself is it not possible that there could be aliens? Have we been visited before ... will we be visited tonight?" Stories told near places like Sale Creek or Chickamauga Battlefield bring life and a reality to the story that never fail to pull the listener in.
"All campfires tell a story," says Wagner. "It burns in the minds of each person in a very different way." So as the air gets crisp, get out with some friends, build your own campfire and let your imagination run wild. But remember, you never know what could be lurking just past those trees - the firelight reaches only to the edge of your campsite.