There’s a special magic to camping. There’s the wide-open night sky, the self-sufficiency of roasting food over a fire and the way that time seems to pass a little slower without the urgency of your usual routine. For kids, that magic is magnified. The whole world can open up, and one of the things that families most look forward to during a weekend of roughing it is gathering around the fire to tell spooky tales.
Of course, if your kids aren’t quite ready for creepy urban legends about hitchhikers and murderclowns, it can be tough to decide what yarn to spin. We’ve gathered 13 campfire stories for kids that are delightfully spooky but end with a twist. These ghost stories have just the right element of fright with none of the nightmares or fright-induced sleeping bag accidents.
1. Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping
For the itty-bitty campers in your midst, even a story that starts out scary and twists into a funny ending can be a little too much for them. Mélanie Watts’ Scaredy Squirrel books are a favorite among kids, and Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping will teach them that even in the great outdoors, there’s nothing terrifying about camping with family or friends.
2. Going on a Bear Hunt
This fireside chant isn’t exactly a spooky tale, but you can get adrenaline pumping if you ham it up a little bit. Besides, when you’ve got younger kids with you, it’s probably best if the scariest thing they can imagine on their camping trip is a bear and not, say, a psycho-killer that licks people’s hands.
3. The Pink Jellybean
The Pink Jellybean is a suspenseful tale about a single pink confection, where most of the story is just in establishing the setting. The trick to telling this one right is to play up the spooky aspects of where the jellybean is stored.
4. The Purple Gorilla
Here’s another one where the spookiness is all in the way you tell the story up until the very last line, where kids will learn that the terrifying beast that’s hunting the character doesn’t actually want to hurt him.
5. The Ghost of the Bloody Finger
This one has ghosts! And blood! And fingers! But like the others, there’s nothing in it that will keep kids up in their tents after the fire’s been extinguished. Plus, you’ll find this story on a website with some great resources on it for happy campers, including how to best introduce scary stories to your kids.
6. The Ball Pit
This one’s perfect if you want to try out an urban legend on your kids but you’re not quite ready to whip out any tales about basement-dwelling murderclowns. It’s actually more of a joke, but if you draw it out it can function as a short spooky story with a silly twist.
7. Flesh-eating Rabid Zombie Chipmunks
This one’s much more suitable for older kids and is commonly told around the fire on Boy Scout camping trips, but you could easily edit it for scout lingo if you were hoping to use it around the family fire. It’s not graphic, exactly, but it does have some imagery that’s better handled by kids 10 and over.
8. The Coffin
This one is a classic, and you probably grew up hearing it yourself; a story about a haunted coffin that chases a scared camper, only to be defeated in the punniest of ways.
9. The Open Window
Kids will like this story of a little girl who delights in telling a visiting neighbor a spooky story of her own, because kids love the idea of pulling one over on adults. Plus they’ll be relieved to find out that it’s all just a well-played prank.
10. The Ballad of Johnny O’Dell
This poem is a little long, and perhaps not so scary as much as it is suspenseful. But it’s quite a lot of fun, particularly the twist at the end which will have kids laughing, particularly if you decide to go with the naughtier “damn” instead or “darn.”
11. The Knife in the Grave
The Knife in the Grave has a few variations, but the tamest one involves a braggadocious bet between two friends and a lesson about how often fear is mostly in our own heads.
12. Tommy Knockers
Nope, not the awful Stephen King sci-fi story. The tale of the Tommy Knockers features the ghosts of California miners, so there’s definitely some spirits in this chilling story. You can heighten the suspense as the story goes on to make the twist ending that much more silly.
This sort of hokey story about a cursed pair of stinky shoes is a perfect one for the ghost story newbie, because it uses the time-honored tradition of a scary-but-not-really over-dramatic ending that can be hammed up for a little extra fright factor— or a few extra groans, depending on how good you are at it.