If you ask me, the scariest stories are those that are true.
Like this one.
It was a night not unlike this, in these very woods, many years ago. The night sky was murky with the faint glow of a waning moon that peeked intermittently from behind a ghostly veil of thin clouds. Late October winds rustled the few dry leaves that still hung desperately from gnarled trees.
It was too dark in the forest to see, but the slow, methodical leaf crunch footsteps, to anyone still alive to hear them, were unmistakable.
This is how the storyteller, a respected father, commenced the final ghost story of the evening. The boys, members of Cub Scout Pack 44, sat huddled around a toasty fire and—after hearing several chilling tales of horror—were now listening intently. They wore sweatshirts against the fall chill and their mouths were smeared with chocolate and marshmallows.
The dads sat scattered in a ring of camp chairs to the outside, their shadowed faces flashing periodically in the firelight to give the younger and more frightened boys comfort they were there.
In those days, just off the road we drove up on to get here, there used to be an asylum. It is gone now, but at the time cold institutions such as this often sheltered sick and crippled individuals who because of their mental impairments, were kept separate from society.
One of the inhabitants of this particular asylum was a man known only as Ranger Rich. They called him Ranger Rich because he liked to roam the woods and clear paths with a hatchet. All anyone really knew about Ranger Rich was that he was “not quite right”, and before he arrived at the asylum the sheriff had to take away his hatchet to prevent him from hurting . . . doing more bad things.
Around the campfire the boys’ eyes grew wide. They did not require further explanation. Vivid images fueled by movies and television were enough to fill their heads with crippled and grotesque visions of a hatchet-wielding psychopath dressed in khakis and a ranger’s hat.
No one really knew for sure how the fire at the asylum started. Some say it was set on purpose. Others say it was an accident caused by the old moaning lady that roamed the halls with a candle late at night in search of Napoleon, her long dead cat. It didn’t much matter. By the time the authorities arrived in the black of night the place was pretty much burned to the ground.
The storyteller paused dramatically to let the boys contemplate the scene. He waited to continue until after one of the boys bravely asked the question that was on everybody’s mind: “What happened to . . . you know . . .”
Most of the patients were found staggering absently about the property in the dark, not able to fully comprehend what had happened. But as authorities combed the grounds with their wagging flashlights in search of missing patients, they heard a chilling scream emerge from a garden shed that sat safely away from the asylum, at the base of the woods.
Rushing inside they found a hospital guard. Next to his blood soaked body were his arms and his legs. His severed hand still clutched the keys that had been used to open the locked shed.
And on the wall behind the guard, laden with hanging tools, between a shovel and a tree saw, was an empty hook.
“Ranger Rich!” said one boy knowingly. “The hatchet!” blurted another. “Di…di…did they ever catch him?” asked a third.
The storyteller sighed and looked deep into the campfire.
He was never found. But on several occasions over the years, hikers in these very woods have reported seeing a mysterious man methodically forging a path of his own making, clearing the way before him with a hatchet stained in blood.
And there the story ended, left to linger in the psyches of the uninitiated. The boys sat gazing into the fire, connecting the storied pictures in their heads. No one spoke a word, but in that moment we all shared a queasy pit in our collective stomachs.
This, after all, is what spooky campfire tales are all about.
And that is when we heard it. The unmistakable sound of slow, methodical footsteps trudging over dried autumn leaves, indiscernible at first, then growing louder and more distinct as they approached our settled fire. Startled, we looked desperately in the dark beyond the dancing firelight for that which we could not see, but could now easily imagine.
From the blackness a man appeared, his grizzled face partially hidden in the shadows beneath the brim of his ranger hat. In his belt he carried a hatchet.
Several of the boys let loose a vocal jolt of terror. They were too paralyzed with fear to react further.
I am not too proud to admit that I too jumped in fright when the park ranger emerged like an apparition from the dark and trudged casually up to our fire.
“Good evening folks, sorry to bother you,” the man said. “My name is Ranger Richard Perkins from the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry. I am just making my rounds ensuring that fires are contained and everyone is safe. There are not too many campers at this late time of year.”
After a couple of slow, raspy chuckles, he spent some time with the boys talking about fires and safety in the woods. He also told them he knew the story about the deranged ranger. He had heard it himself as a boy. In his version, the ranger was named Bob and he had been badly disfigured in the fire and was missing two teeth and an eyeball.
I recall that I didn’t sleep much that night. It is hard to sleep in a tent when you are scared stiff listening intently for the sound of methodical leaf crunching in the dark. But while my son slept soundly, it wasn’t the imaginary steps of a deranged killer with a hatchet that was keeping me awake.
Earlier, just before Ranger Rich returned to his rounds in the darkness, he turned to warn me quietly beyond earshot of the boys, “please remember to pack up your food tight and place it in your car. There have been bear sightings around here recently.”
Post Script: On the way out of the state park I stopped at the welcome station to drop Ranger Rich a note of thanks. The uniformed woman staffing the post acted shocked and surprised when I explained to her what had happened.
“I have no idea who that is,” she said, mystified. “We haven’t staffed rangers in this park after dark for over twenty years.”
It was a quiet ride home.