Like peanut butter and jelly, or chocolate and marshmallows, there's nothing that pairs better with a roaring campfire than a good old fashioned scary story. I can hardly remember a childhood summer that passed without at least one late night spent huddled by the blaze, wishing I could rush to hide in my sleeping bag when I heard about the Man With the Claw.
Today, most campfires pass by in a pleasant haze of Phish jams, burnt s'mores, and dancing like no one is watching, which works for me the vast majority of the year... and then again summer rolls around. Like a mosquito to a soft forearm, when the days grow longer and the crowds begin to gather, I am hopelessly drawn to the forbidden fruit, the scary campfire story. Thanks to the Saw franchise and that trailer I very much regret watching for The Human Centipede, there's no scary story on earth that could every rain down true terror, but then again, that's not really the point. A campfire horror story should bring people together, sap the imagination, and send a thrill of excitement out into the crowd.
So, if you're not looking to terrorize your guests with a Hollywood reenactment of guts and gore, but you'd still like to participate in summer's most timeless ritual, these 10 scary stories are the perfect addition to any summer camping trip.
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
Although she's better known for her breathtaking romance The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger sure knows her way around a scary story. Taking up the tale of two twenty-something sisters who receive the mysterious inheritance of a London flat bordering Highgate Cemetery, Her Fearful Symmetry chronicles the move to a new home and the discovery that in life, in death, and in Highgate, not everything is as it seems. Classic, consuming, and captivating, Niffenegger's story is perfect campfire fare.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
You may have seen the film, you may have endured the nightmares, but you haven't known true horror until you've read William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist in its entirety. If you're brave enough to bring the book along with you and read by the light of the glowing embers, beware — this is one story that is not for the faint of heart.
John Dies at the End by David Wong
Mysterious drugs, dark forces, and small town mysteries make David Wong's John Dies at the End the perfect blend of comedy and horror. When you're looking to impress your friends and send a few of the more delicate souls off to bed early without killing the vibe, a little time with John Dies at the End might be just the ticket.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
If it's wicked and on its way, it's perfect fodder for campfire fun. When you're looking to move beyond the usual hauntings and deep into the realm of fantasy, you simply can't do better than Bradbury's saucy step into the shadows of Green Town, Illinois on the morning of the week before Halloween. Enter if you dare.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves is a horror story of epic origins — the bound and printed legacy of what was once (if you believe the hype) simply a stack of papers, passed around by artists and writers looking to find themselves in the dark secrets spilled upon the page. For a scary story with a lot of heart, turn to House of Leaves.
Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez
In this day and age, is there anything more valuable you can bring to a summer campfire than the threat of a zombie attack? Gone are the days when we could legitimize our fears of great white sharks or scurrilous fisherman out for blood, but, at least for now, the threat of the zombie apocalypse lives on. Here's the book to read for a scary story with the ring of truth to it (or at least a whiff of possibility), along with a healthy helping of good old-fashioned fun.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House might just be the original campfire horror story. Bringing together four outsiders, a creaking manor in the countryside, and inexplicable phenomena, The Haunting of Hill House offers spooky starts and startling scares at every turn. Fill up your canteen, and make sure to use the bathroom before you crack the spine, because things are about to get full-on spooky.
Ghost Story by Peter Straub
When it comes to scary campfire stories, there's nothing more traditional than an old-fashioned ghost. Of course, after years of experience in the realm of the paranormal, it takes quite the ghost to summon a reaction from the modern reader. And yet, by playing up our most basic fears and capitalizing on a legacy of work in the field of horror, Peter Straub breathes new life into the tried and true realm of the literary haunting.
Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe
When I first broke out Bunnicula around the campfire at a college getaway, I endured a few smirks and a casual dismissal before bringing the audience to their knees in a fit of laughter pierced every now and again by a thrill of terror. When you're looking to upend the traditional ratio of terror to mirth, make Bunnicula your first line of defense and you'll find that even as fire dies down your laughter will light the way.
The Complete Tales and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe
With the wind whipping through the trees and the flames casting shadows on the sides of the tents, there's nothing like a classic tale of horror and suspense to really make the most of the moment. When you bring Edgar Allan Poe to the party, all the usual horror suspects fall by the wayside and fear itself comes out to play. Double up on s'mores and double down on story for a night you'll never forget, if you can even make it to sleep after all that horror.
Image: Greg Morgan/flickr