The sun was just beginning to set as I paddled into the Okefenokee swamp along with my friends, Hank and Lucia. We weren't strangers to kayaking in the swamp; we had all done it since we were kids. Even at night, we weren't afraid to go in with the alligators and the birds and the other wildlife. This trip in particular, however, was designed to be scary. What a better time to tell ghost stories than while camping in the swamp on Halloween? We'd never spent Halloween in the wilderness before, and we figured it would be better than going to another costume party. I love being able to get away from my job at the Foundation every once in a while. The cold, sterile halls of Site 327 have no soul, none of the romantic power that nature does. As much as I love science, I need that kind of spiritual peace that nature imparts.
Things started to get dark around 6.
"Lights on everyone," said Lucia, as if we were kids that needed her to order us around. Hank looked at her and pouted.
"But I don't wanna!" he whined.
"Come on Hank," I said, "we better do what she says, or she'll spank us."
The look on her face was enough to send us both into a fit of laughter.
"Shut up Joe," she said. "I don't know which one of you is worse."
We kept mostly silent after that, paddling our way to our campsite. We'd been there many times before, an island of solid earth in a sea of stagnant water, peat, and trees. Spanish moss waved lazily in the wind as true darkness finally came, obscuring the already alien shapes of the Okefenokee. Here was true wilderness. No humans came here frequently, and when they did they never stayed long. The trees grew large and twisted, silent surveyors of the affairs of fish and fowl, alligators and snakes. We tied up the kayaks, set up our tents quickly, stowed our gear, and built a fire. As we cooked marshmallows and hotdogs, now came the reason we had come out here in the first place, our first-ever Halloween swamp ghost story contest. Hank took the first turn.
A few miles south of Folkston, back in the 1800s, there used to be a place called Trader's Hill. It was a traders' town, of course, built near the water. There's an enormous old oak tree there, still around today. People called it the Hangman's Oak, for reasons I'm sure you can imagine. So one day, this Indian named Suanee came to town. He got accused to stealing some goods from a trader, and he ended up being sentenced to death. So they brought him up to the Hangman's Oak, and they were tying the rope around his neck when he said "May the curse of my father's spirit and my own be upon you, for as long as there is a Trader's Hill!" No one payed him any mind, and they hanged him dead.
About a month later, the people of Trader Hill were having a dance to celebrate the harvest, when they saw something bright in the distance. They all looked toward it and saw Hangman's Tree, glowing bright like it was on fire, and they could hear wailing and moaning like a thousand people being tortured! The next morning the first group of people packed up and left Trader's Hill. Eventually, the whole place was deserted. They say that sometimes, at night in the fall, you can still hear the wailing of Suanee and his father.
"Hank, I'm sorry but that story was just awful," I said, "It wasn't scary, and I'm pretty sure I've heard it before somewhere."
"What!? That story scared the shit out of me when I was a kid!"
"Nope. Wasn't scary."
"I agree. Boooring." said Lucia.
Hank stared at us both, flabbergasted. Before he could say anything, I saw it. There was a light in the swamp, like an orange flame. It was far off, and obscured by the fog, but I could see that it was bobbing along like someone carrying a lantern. Who would be out in the swamp at night? And how do you just causally walk through the swamp?
"Hey guys, do you see that?" I asked.
Almost as soon as they turned, the light disappeared.
"What was that?" said Hank.
"I don't know. Maybe it was just someone setting up their own campsite?" suggested Lucia.
"I guess…" I said. I was used to seeing weird things. Something about this didn't seem right. Still, it's my weekend off.
"Whatever, let's just keep going. I believe it's my turn," I said as I stood up.
One day, a man named Henry Ferguson was driving home from work. It was another busy day in Chicago, with lots of traffic on the highway as people made their way home. Henry was tired, he had been working late the past couple of nights. He couldn't wait to get home and relax. Suddenly, his phone rang. He answered it.
"Good afternoon Mr. Ferguson. I have your son here at gunpoint. You must make a choice now."
"What? Who is this?"
"That's not important. I can see you from a screen right now. Speed up, and turn into oncoming traffic. If you don't do it soon, I will kill your son."
"Dad! Please, don't do it!"
"George? Is that you?!"
"Yes Dad, it's me, don't worry about me I'll be fine!"
"Shut up! Mr. Ferguson, you're running out of time."
Henry heard a gun click. His heart was beating out of his chest. He didn't know what to do.
"George…..I love you."
He stomped on the accelerator and turned sharply to the left.
Mr. Henry Ferguson didn't survive the crash. When the police asked for a recording of the last phone call he had made before committing suicide, they got it. To this day, no one knows who actually made the call, where it came from, or how George's voice was on it when he had never been kidnapped or threatened with a gun at all….
I stood silent for a few moments while I let the last part set in. Hank and Lucia looked a little spooked now. I'm sure the Foundation wouldn't mind that I had made up a ghost story using an SCP for inspiration, but then they probably would never know.
"Dude, that's fucking creepy." said Hank.
"That was one of the better ones I've heard recently," agreed Lucia. "However, I think I've got both of you beat. Have a seat and listen to a true master of the art."
Long ago in England, there lived a man named Jack. Jack was a thief and a scoundrel, but a clever one. One day, for all his cleverness and carefulness, he got caught stealing a gold coin from a farmer. Half the village was chasing him with murder on their minds, for that coin was all they had. Jack jumped into some bushes on the side of the road and let the villagers pass by, then dusted himself off and started walking the other way. He hadn't gone more than a few steps when a dark figure stepped onto the path before him, appearing like a wraith from the fog.
"Jack," the figure said, "I have come for thee. You hath lived a wicked life, and it is my duty as Satan, Lord of the Hell to take your soul to eternal damnation. Your time hath come, the villagers shall return and kill you soon."
Jack, being the clever man he was, thought this over and had an idea. "Devil," he said, "would you not prefer to have many souls over one?"
"Are you proposing a deal, Jack?" the Devil said.
"A small one, Devil. It would benefit you much more than me. It is simple, you shall see."
"Tell me more, but be sharp, for your time runs short."
"Well first, Devil, I but throw away this gold coin I stole, into the forest where the peasants will never find it. Then you, Devil, turn thineself into the same gold coin. You hop into my purse, and when the peasants find me I give you to them. They don't kill me, but you disappear from their pockets later, and soon enough they'll all kill eachother arguing over who stole it."
The Devil agreed, and did as Jack said. But when he turned into a coin and hopped in Jack's purse, he found in there a crucifix. At the sight of it, the Devil's power was diminished, and he could not move from Jack's purse.
"A curse on you, Jack! You damnable wretch!"
"I will let you go if you do as I say."
"Blasted fate! I submit. What do you wish?"
"I wish that you promise you will never drag me to Hell, never touch my soul, not ever."
The Devil was reluctant, but as the peasants drew near, he finally gave in to Jack's demand. Jack threw him from his purse, and the Devil fled into the dark forests.
Finally, the farmers had Jack where they wanted him. They snatched him and bound him, and searched him for their gold. But they did not find it, for Jack had thrown it into the woods. Instead, they took his head.
Jack was now in a predicament, for it seemed that Heaven would not take him, on account of his wicked nature, but neither would Hell, for the Devil had made his promise. Trapped between worlds, Jack begged of the Devil for one thing. A light for him to see by as he wandered the Earth. Satan took pity on Jack, and gave him an ember from the fires of Hell itself. Jack took it, and placed it in a carved pumpkin that he now wears in place of the head he lost. Since, he became known as Jack 'o' The Lantern.
I yawned. I saw worse things on an average Tuesday.
"Eh," said Hank, "it was interesting, but not really scary. Kind of cheesy too. Pumpkin heads are so overdone."
"What are you smoking? A guy with a pumpkin for a head with fire from Hell itself wandering the Earth for all eternity doesn't scare you?"
"You're too jaded."
A voice came from just outside the light of the fire. "Oh, it's a good story. You just got a few of the details wrong."
We all turned, startled, toward the voice as a man stepped into the light of our fire. He was old, his skin wrinkled with age. Half his hair had fallen out, the rest was grey as brushed steel. His eyes gleamed in the firelight, obscuring their color. He wore swamper's clothes, overalls and boots, but he seemed dirtier than most swampers I had seen.
"Who are you?" I asked him.
"They call me Will." He turned toward Lucia. "If you had told that story right, it would have been much scarier."
"You were spying on us?"
"Only for as long as her story lasted. I was just on my way in my canoe when I heard your voices."
Lucia stood up. "Well if you know that story so well, what did I get wrong?"
"Well, for one thing," said Will, "Jack never lost his head. The villagers just hanged him. He pretended to be dead and then just got up and left as soon as they turned around."
"For another, Jack didn't use a pumpkin to hold his Hellfire. There weren't any pumpkins in Medieval Europe, they're an American vegetable. He used a carved turnip."
As he spoke, I saw the light again. There it was, closer this time, slowly bobbing left and right, left and right. There was another, and another, another…
"You also forgot the best part. Jack figured out that though his Hellfire would never go out, on some days it was stronger. Particularly one day. It's a day of significance, ancient and cursed. They call that day All Hallow's Eve, or more recently, Halloween." The lights where closer now, more coming into view every second. I realized that Lucia, Hank and I had huddled together close, while Will was standing totally still, a knowing smile on his face. He casually rolled his head, revealing a white, puckered scar going all around his neck.
"Jack eventually figured out that on Halloween, his Hellfire was strong enough that he could use it to take people's souls for himself. All he had to do was use it to burn off someone's head. The Hellfire would spread to their necks, and burn on forever, trapping their souls and bending them to Jack's will."
The lights were very close now, so close I could make out more details. They were faces. Carved faces. Jack-o-lanterns. One came into the light of the fire. A dark figure, wrapped in rotting cloth. It seemed taller than a person should be. On it's head, it wore a jack-o-lantern like a helmet. But that couldn't be right, there'd be no room for the head and the candle…
"I really like the way pumpkins look. Much nicer than turnips. Roomier too."
One of the figures stepped closer. I looked into the pumpkin, searching for a face. All I saw was a stump of a neck, a small flame pouring out from the throat. The smell of burnt meat filled my nose.
"Oh, I almost forgot! in some versions of the story, they call him Will."
I can still hear his laughter echoing in my ears. I'll never be able to forget that cackle of his, so deep it sounds more like he's choking. No matter how long I walk the swamps, day or night, rain or shine, I can never seem to get it out of my head.