Last week I went up to visit my friend Emily on her family farm. Ryder Farm is a 126-acre spread in Brewster, New York, and I think the whole place has been bathed in that perfect golden light that doesn’t usually show up until sunset. It’s a beautiful farm near a lake. There are wild turkeys and stacks of hay. The main farmhouse made me think of all the Little House on the Prairie Books I read as a child, and I found myself yearning for a bonnet and wondering if Papa had smoked the hog yet.
Emily’s farm reminded me of camp. I spent ten summers at a sleepaway camp in Sussex County, New Jersey, and I can’t go to any woodsy area without thinking of Fairview Lake YMCA. It’s the way gravel sounds underfoot, how a dock bobs on the lake, how morning smells when you’re out of the city. Emily gave me a tour of the grounds and we passed a shed with “Keep Out” etched into its door. It made me think of horror movies and ghost stories. I asked Emily if Ryder Farm had a scary monster who lurched around at night, ready to eat babies and children. Sadly there are no tales of death and mayhem at Ryder Farm, but that warning to keep out made me think of Crazy Annie, and I’m 33 and pretty far from both my youth and my camp, but don’t you know my skin started to tingle and my chest got a little tight and I smiled at Emily but it was a forced, pressed kind of grimace, and I hope my hand wasn’t shaking as I suggested we keep moving and see the rest of the site.
I think most summer camps have a ghost story. If these camps are anything like Fairview, there will be an end of summer campfire around which the tale is spun. An older counselor or perhaps the camp director will relay, in bowel-loosening detail, the story of an old ghoul who haunts the grounds and kills the kids. For us, the resident psycho wildling was Crazy Annie– a jilted lover, a scorned kitchen cook who catches her sister kissing the man she loves, and while in a rage, while she’s reaching for a butcher knife to gut the treacherous pair, she bumps into a meat grinder, grinds up one of her hands (I think it’s the right one, but my lingering fear has made many specifics hazy), and runs off screaming into the woods, sans one hand, leaving a trail of blood and heartache behind her. And so the story goes: Annie’s sister and former lover are ripped up by a howling Annie, who now has a hook instead of a hand. And then dismembered campers start turning up in the bug juice, and counselors go missing, and limbs are hacked off, and if you hear a scratching on your cabin window screen at night, that’s probably Annie out there letting you know your ticket’s about to be called, and if you find bloody daisies on your pillow, that’s definitely it for you, the jig is up, start your goodbyes now.
The story is beautiful and ludicrous at the same time, and you could drive a Toyota Corolla through some of its holes (“How,” I would counter, “could Annie run into the woods and put a hook on her hand and not bleed to death or get an infection?”). But any attempt to graft meaning or logic onto the story was, in my mind, purely a defense mechanism; a way for my terrified, young imagination to protect me against the thought that someone out there would chop me up, would slit my belly and laugh as I held my intestines in my hands, somebody would do me harm for no reason other than my sheer existence, my vitality made me a target, and that scared me to death. I heard the Crazy Annie story my first summer, as a camper at ten years old. By the time I reached my last summer at camp, as a counselor at twenty years old, I still couldn’t walk around Fairview at night by myself. If a branch creaked, if a rock tumbled, I knew it was that crazy, murdering bitch coming for me, and I just didn’t have the stamina to face her on my own. Even now, even now– thirteen years since I’ve been at Fairview Lake, twenty-three years since I first heard the story– if I’m in the woods at night and some unexplained noise creeps out from the trees, my insides start roiling and my throat is in a knot. And it’s not because I think it’s a bear or an actual psychopath who might want to do me harm. It’s because I know that it’s my biggest fear from my youngest days coming to finish a job she tried to start long ago.