Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Fear and Trembling in Ancient Rome

One of my favorite summer gigs is camp at my former grade school. They invite me over every year for campfire storytelling (which is how storytelling really should be done).
This year, their theme for the week was time travel, and Tuesday evening fell on Ancient Greece and Rome. This is, for all intents and purposes, my home turf, so I was super excited; on top of that, they wanted me to tell scary stories, to create the whole traditional campfire experience.
I don't think they knew what they were asking when they told me "the scarier, the better."

I selected stories from my repertoire, including Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and the odd barbarian or two. I included Petronius' werewolf, Pliny the Younger's haunted house, the Nart skeleton story, and some darker pieces of Greek mythology. Since the organizers specifically asked for a mummy story to prepare the kids for the nighttime "bravery game," I also brushed up on Lord Hamon's case with the Mummy's Hand.
I arrived to the camp around 9 pm, dressed in full Roman garb (I love dressing up for storytelling; it's not really a character thing, but it does get me in the right mindset). The kids, almost 70 of them between the ages of roughly 8 and 14, eyed me from a safe distance; some of the boys demanded to know what I was. When I told them I was the storyteller, they frowned, and informed me that they thought storytelling was boring. I told them I was sorry, since according to camp rules they would have to sit through the horror tales anyway. The word "horror" worked like magic. It's the Achilles heel of middle school apathy.
For the next half hour or so I was surrounded by a swarm of kids, all talking at the same time. They wanted to know what stories I was going to tell, and whether they were going to be really, truly, really seriously VERY scary. I told them they could take their pick from werewolves, ghosts, mummies and dead people, and that choice occupied them for a good while. We also had a conversation about scary movies, video games, the Hunger Games, and superheroes, and by the time I got around to the campfire, one of the boys sat down at my feet muttering "finally somebody normal."

The stories were told in-between some performances by the kids. I decided to start with less scary ones, since the sun was just setting, and work my way up as it got darker. First I told the myth of Mestra, Odysseus' grandmother, and the evil king that ate himself. It is not very scary and only moderately gory, but it has a great mood, and also superpowers (it is included in my book under Shapeshifting). In the second slot I was asked to do something "scarier" at popular demand, preferably featuring werewolves, so I switched gears from Rome to Vikings, and told a child-friendly version of Sigmund and Sinfjötli (yes, there is such a thing as child-friendly gore). During the following break, I started getting signals that I had hit the kids' limit of "scary" sooner than I expected - a little girl asked me to not do anything "scarier than these," and a boy confessed that he might have nightmares if I tell about ghosts. Now, the mummy story I planned is not only allegedly a true event, but it is also truly terrifying - I was pretty sure it would max out the "they won't sleep for days" category, which might cause trouble for the camp leaders.
With that in mind, I made a judgment call. I told the kids that some people are scared of things, and others are scared of others; I didn't want to tell something horrible and make anyone feel bad. Instead I offered to tell them an adventure tale that just happened to be about Fear. I could see the shier kids relax, and the louder ones settled for adventure instead of horror.
I told the Red Lion, and it worked like a charm as usual. After the story, several kids came up to me to talk, and I stayed around for a while as the campfire died down and the leaders set up for the nighttime game. Some kids wanted to know if the stories were true; I talked to them about why people tell stories, and what we can learn from each. Some of them still demanded 'scarier' tales, but the telling time had passed; we had a conversation about dragons instead.

All in all, it was a fun gig, even if it didn't go quite the way I planned. I think the concept of "scary" stories meant something else for the leaders than what I had in my repertoire - I don't do jump tales at all. I am not a horror person, but if I go Halloween, I go for the chills.


  1. That sounds like such a fun time for you and a cool thing for the kids.
    Susan Says

  2. You are cute as a Grecian! You mentioning the mummy's hand made me think of the monkey paw. That creeps me out.