OK, not exactly. I wasn’t attacked. It was all just a scary story about a serial killer, told by a counselor to a group of gullible children on the very first night of camp. Usually, such stories are a one-time thing; a single night of fear to add a bit of spice to the normal camp activities of boating, hiking, swimming, and so on. Not in this case. That original story was just the prelude to an escalating series of pranks perpetuated by the camp counselors – they were all in on it – on us campers, until we were in a state of constant terror. It ended, finally, after two weeks, with a child experiencing a mental break on the bus home.
It was like a 1980s slasher movie simulator, forced on small children who thought they were going to be paddling canoes on placid lakes, or learning to hit bullseyes tacked to sagging hay bales with dull arrows shot from bows made of tan fiberglass.
It all began many decades ago, in Michigan. I think I was 10 years old, which would put the year at 1982. In 1982, here are some of the movies I wouldn’t have seen yet, but would have been aware of: Friday the Thirteenth, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and The Burning. You know who else was aware of those movies, and many others like them? The counselors who were about to report for summer duty at Camp Ahara.
Camp Ahara was a YMCA camp somewhere to the north and west of where I grew up. It isn’t there anymore. There are few references to the place that I’ve been able to find online, and as near as I can tell it has changed names and hands more than once over the decades, including, in true slasher movie form, a military academy for troubled teens.
I remember the YMCA building, the staging area for the journey to the camp, as a madhouse of concrete corridors and check-in stations. Families and campers swarmed. It was stressful, but exciting.
The bus ride up north seemed to take forever. I was uncomfortable with my seating partner, who carried a bag given him by his mother because he tended to “spit up.” We were the youngest campers, the earliest age tier allowed to go.
When we arrived at Camp Ahara it was chaos. The busses parked in a clearing, woods all around, and counselors unloaded the heavy trunks that contained each campers’ supplies for the next two weeks, the swimsuits and shorts, t-shirts and toothbrushes, and required folding knife, and hauled them to the cabins. It was a madhouse of adults yelling instructions and screaming kids ignoring them.
I think there were six of us assigned to our cabin, plus him. It looked like a cabin out of a Friday the Thirteenth movie, with a screen doors and screened windows, wooden floors, and bunks on three of the four walls, plus the counselor’s cot. That night, after we had settled our bunks, our cabin counselor, a jumpy, dark-complexioned guy, gathered us together. I can’t remember his name so let’s call him Bob. He leaned forward on his cot and began to tell us the tale of Stumpy.
The Tale of Stumpy
Years ago, there was a counselor who worked at this very camp, Camp Ahara, a big burly guy with a big burly beard. The camp hadn’t opened for the season yet; the counselors and other staff were there getting set up. This burly counselor, he needed to go into town to get supplies, so he hopped in his jeep and started driving down the dirt road out of camp – the same dirt road you came in on this very morning.
(For some reason, it’s stuck in my head that the supplies he was going to town for were lightbulbs, but that seems like a pretty specific detail for a camp horror story.)
Suddenly, he lost control and his jeep went off the road! It tumbled, end over end, and his right arm was ripped clean off! Maddened with pain, he ran screaming into the woods, where he stayed for many years (for some reason).
While living like an animal in the woods, the counselor (who we can probably now safely refer to him by his slasher name, Stumpy) grew every more insane and filled with rage. He began to blame the campers for his mutilation; after all, they were the reason he had been driving into town when his accident occurred, to get supplies (light bulbs?) to support their happy camping experience. It was time for them to die! Die!
(OK, so that’s all pretty stupid. But keep in mind, Bob was telling this story to 10 year olds. Also, it makes about as much sense as the reasons why Jason Voorhees would kill anyone (they exist).)
So one dark night, a night just like this one, 20 years ago, Stumpy returned to Camp Ahara, his clothes in tatters, his beard wild and overgrown and filled with sticks and leaves. While the camp slept, he went to a storage shed where he knew where an ax was kept – a double-bladed monster of an ax, so heavy that no other counselor had even been able to lift it! He took the ax and—
(At this point I piped up. Hey Bob, if the ax was so heavy, how was Stumpy able to lift it if he only had one arm? Bob was irritated at the interruption. Like I said, jumpy guy. Uh, he used to lift weights before his accident. Even at age 10 I could tell that was pretty lame. Now don’t interrupt again or I’ll make you stand outside the cabin on your head. That was Bob’s threat to keep the rowdy cabin under control – doing a headstand outside in the dark. Bob was replaced with a new cabin counselor after the first week.)
The horror began soon after. A couple of campers were walking between cabins at night when Stumpy got them. He hacked them to bits with his ax, snarling like a mad beast!
The next day the gory remains of the campers were discovered, and the camp was in a state of panic. Parents were notified, and they wanted to withdraw their kids, but the greedy Camp Director, fearful of impact to his reputation and the massive financial losses he would sustain if the camp closed, convinced them that the incident was a one-time tragedy (Yes, this is the exact plot of Jaws).
(OK… so this is beyond stupid. OBVIOUSLY if two campers had been killed, especially hacked to death with an ax, the camp would be immediately evacuated. Beyond that, Camp Ahara was a YMCA camp; I don’t think there was an owner with a private stake, but admittedly I don’t know much about the business of summer camps. I knew none of this sounded right, but Bob’s threat to make me stand on my head out in the night was incentive enough to hold my comments.)
(Also, I seem to remember that Stumpy killed someone else in the story, but I can’t remember the details. So just make up a scary ax murder and plug it in right here.)
After the second attack by Stumpy the police were summoned and they searched the camp from end to end, but no sign of the maniacal killer could be found. Days went by with no further killings, and the campers and counselors alike began to relax (Ha!). Regardless, the decision was finally made to close the camp.
It was the last night before the camp was to be closed when Stumpy made his last and most horrific attack. A group of counselors gathered at the fire pit for a final celebration (…OK). Then, in the middle of the night, while the counselors laughed and the fire raged, Stumpy sprang up from the darkness, roaring and waving his ax high with his lone arm. Leaping into the circle, he hacked every counselor to death right there, sending severed limbs and heads tumbling into the black woods.
After this atrocity the campers were sent home. The police returned and searched again for the blood-mad killer, but he had simply disappeared (again). Camp Ahara was closed for good.
But it didn’t stay closed. The decision was made to reopen Camp Ahara a few years ago, and that’s why all of you are able to be here this very night, even though it was a night just like this one when the first Stumpy murders occurred. Stumpy hasn’t been seen for 20 years… but he was also never caught. Stumpy is still out there, in the dark, dark woods, waiting, his rage simmering, about to boil over into another killing frenzy. He stands on the outskirts of this very camp, looking in at the fresh new campers, at you, the ones he hates, and one night he will return, his bloody ax raised to come down on the head of a camper like you and split it in two down to the neck. One night, Stumpy will return… maybe this night!
(His tale of terror over, Bob told us to go to bed, then promptly lay down on his cot and started snoring a few moments later.)
So that’s it. The tale of Stumpy. I don’t remember us being terribly frightened at the time, and we kids were able to sleep just fine, excited for the next day of activities. But let me reiterate: this was the first night of camp. And it was just the beginning.
See, Stumpy wasn’t someone Bob just made up off the top of his head to keep his new wards entertained for an evening. What we kids didn’t know at the time is that the same story was being told that night in every cabin throughout the camp. It was a conspiracy, one the counselors conceived and agreed upon when they had gathered the previous week to prepare for the opening of the camp. And the tale was the tame part, just a setup for what was to come next.
The next night no mention was made by Stumpy. Instead, Bob told another story, this one about a time when Camp Ahara was a logging camp. A logger was locked in a basement (on this very site!) as revenge for accidentally killing a fellow logger’s dog during an ax-throwing contest. Locked in an earthen cellar in the dark and without food, he turned into a giant monster mole. The mole then dug its way out of the cellar, only to later murder a group of loggers gathered in a cabin for a drunken party. It was a weird tale, but I remember it being scary at the time.
The next few days were devoted to normal camp activities: archery, boating, crafts, and the like. Kids wandered at will, mostly unsupervised, making their own fun and exploring. It was a different time.
Looking back, I think the story about the mole, and to the carefree days of fun we’d been granted, were just elements of the counselors’ plot. They wanted to lull us into complacency, first by making us think that Stumpy was just one of several fun camp horror stories, nothing unique; then by letting us forget about horror altogether. But now it was time to move to the next stage of their terror campaign.
It began late one night when we heard a distinct mechanical roar in the distance. A moment later the door was hurled open and a counselor, wide-eyed, thrust his head into the cabin. “Everyone, hunker down and stay put! Someone just started up a chainsaw in the woods!” We heard him run to the neighboring cabin where he delivered the same terrifying message.
We spent the rest of the night huddled in our sleeping bags, terrified.
The atmosphere at camp changed after that. Like we were living in a real slasher movie. None of us had actually seen a slasher movie, of course; but that just made it worse. The killers who stalked those films – Jason, Leatherface, Michael Myers – loomed larger in our imaginations because we had yet to experience them in action. And now we had Stumpy to contend with.
Things began to get strange at camp. One day a group of us spotted older campers cavorting about, yelling “Stumpy, Stumpy!” They were just having fun, not taking the whole thing very seriously because they were older, but to us little ones the display was practically demonic.
Another day, several counselors made a point of admiring an ax mounted below the eaves of one of the buildings – this was Stumpy’s own, they said, knowing we were listening.
Horror began to infect all camp activities. Kids went about their business with darting eyes and slouched shoulders. They told their own strange ghost stories. There was the story of the Lady of the Jar – I have no clue what that was supposed to mean – who was a blank-faced, remorseless killer who could heal any wound inflicted upon her instantly. And then there was an evil old man who supposedly lived in an island in the middle of the lake who set monstrous traps for any campers who dared trespass on his land. I didn’t hear either of these tales firsthand, but rather received Cliffs Notes versions from friends who heard them told by other friends.
Moving about camp became an exercise in crippling terror. I recall creeping between camp buildings one day with a friend – creeping, because we could no longer walk or run like normal kids at play. That would make noise; noise that might attract Stumpy. The afternoon light filtering through the trees only made the shadows darker, and in that moment Stumpy was near, stalking us. We could feel his bloody ax rising; sense his fist tightening about the handle until the filthy knuckles went white with rage. But we made it to the next cabin before he could bring his terrible double-headed ax down on our heads.
Another day I was in the large boat house near the lake; the place smelled of mothballs and was full of fishing gear and boat buoys, all half-hidden in shadow. The walls were lined with long canoes, leaning at angle on their racks, and it was as apt a place as any there has ever been for a bloody slasher killing. I could feel Stumpy lumbering toward me from the end of that long boathouse; I could smell the stinking blood on his breath. But of course he never manifested.
One night I was awoken by another camper. Sobbing, visibly terrified, he told me someone had opened the door to the cabin and thrown an ax inside. As sleep fled, I realized the entire cabin was filled with the sound of crying children.
The wanted posters showed up near the end. They were plastered all over camp; Stumpy’s crude bearded visage glaring angrily in rough pencil. That was it, the final straw. We were done at that point; summer camp had become a nihilistic death sentence. None would survive.
Camp eventually came to a close. We packed our gear in our massive trunks. We said our goodbyes to our fellow survivors, the friends we had made over the previous two weeks. And we left.
On the bus ride home, a child began shrieking and sobbing; looking out his window, he claimed, he saw a bloody chainsaw in the back of a truck below.
And that is what I remember of the tale of Stumpy, both the one I was told, and the one I lived. It was a camp-wide project, and I intersected with it only in parts; the experience of other kids would have differed from my own. Stumpy was scary mostly because what I brought to the story. My own half-formed fears, fed by slasher movie posters, commercials, and the Siskel and Ebert Sneak Previews anti-slasher movie special, made Stumpy the hulking, fearsome killer he was.
Stumpy existed, obviously, within a larger cultural framework. Horror movies – specifically slasher flicks – were a big part of his DNA, as were real-life news reports and rumors about serial killers. But he was born around the campfire, and he had brothers. Readers from the East coast will probably be familiar with the Cropsey Maniac, a summer camp slasher so famous he was featured in at least one 1980s slasher film (The Burning). I’m sure there are others, although, like Stumpy, I’m not sure how many of them have survived the decades to leave an imprint on the Web. Perhaps I’ll follow up this article with a sequel, if my research bears fruit.
In the meantime, if you go into the woods in Michigan, watch out… because Stumpy might be… well, you know how it goes.
Originally published on the blog American Camp Horror Stories, 1989. Used with permission. All rights reserved.