Virginia ghost story about two kids who investigate a mysterious campfire across an eerie swamp one night. You know this ain’t gonna end well. Written by James Colton.

My cousin, Ben, had a lake­side cabin where he and his par­ents would spend their va­ca­tions. I was al­ways jeal­ous of my cousin when he came back with sto­ries about his ad­ven­tures in the woods and on the lake, so I was ec­sta­tic when his fam­ily in­vited us to join them that sum­mer in Virginia.

We stayed up late our first night there, sit­ting around a camp­fire and roast­ing marsh­mal­lows. Our par­ents caught up on each other’s lives while Ben and I swapped ghost sto­ries.

A sound caught my at­ten­tion as it drifted over the lake, like laugh­ter from far off. I looked over my shoul­der, across the dark ex­panse, and saw the tiny flick­er­ing light of a fire on the far shore. I had imag­ined my cousin’s cot­tage as a se­cluded re­treat, but then I re­al­ized such a pic­turesque lo­ca­tion was sure to at­tract other rich fam­i­lies who would build their own lake­side cab­ins and enjoy their own camp­fires each night.

“Your turn.”

“Huh?” I replied stu­pidly. Ben had fin­ished his story, and I had missed the ter­ri­fy­ing punch­line. I thought about it for a sec­ond, then began my own ghostly tale.

The next morn­ing, I stepped out onto the deck and gazed out across the peace­ful water. I re­mem­bered the laugh­ter from the pre­vi­ous night, and turned to­wards where I re­called see­ing the light of the camp­fire, hop­ing to catch a glimpse of an­other cabin. I scanned the far shore for sev­eral min­utes be­fore my cousin joined me.

“Where’s the other cabin?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “there are a few down that way—” He pointed to­wards the north end of the lake. “You can’t see them from here, though. I think there might be one at the south end too.”

“What about di­rectly across from here?”

Ben stared out in the di­rec­tion I was point­ing. “No, there’s noth­ing over there. It’s all swamp­land that way.”

“Huh,” I grunted, try­ing not to sound too sur­prised. What had I seen last night? I had heard of swamp lights be­fore—a nat­ural re­ac­tion when gases were re­leased into the air—but what about the laugh­ter? What had I heard? I de­cided to tell my cousin about it.

“Are you sure it was laugh­ter?” he asked. “It could’ve been an­i­mals. Rac­coons, you know…

Had that been all? I could not be sure if it was just my brain try­ing to make sense of things, but think­ing back the sounds had seemed a bit off, less than human.

“We could go check it out today, if you want,” my cousin said. “Our dads said they wanted to go fish­ing, but we can use the old row­boat.”

“Sure,” I agreed.

The water sloshed lethar­gi­cally against the side of our lit­tle boat as I dipped the oars in and out of the murk. I imag­ined, even when the wind ripped across the open water of the lake, that this cor­ner re­mained still, and that the wet slap­ping against our bow was the swamp’s out­rage at our pres­ence.

“Look at that,” Ben pointed. Two sickly trees grew out of the water, and wedged be­tween the pair of rot­ting stumps was a ru­ined old row­boat. The hull was de­cayed be­yond hope, up­ended so it formed a canopy over the dark water, and I imag­ined all man­ner of frogs, snakes, and other slimy things mak­ing their soggy nests un­der­neath its pro­tec­tive dome.

“Do you think they drowned?” I asked, won­der­ing at the fate of the row­boat’s own­ers.

“Who knows,” my cousin an­swered. “Prob­a­bly.”

Some­thing splashed un­der­neath our boat, and I tried not to imag­ine what it might have been.

Ben took over the row­ing once we were under the trees, and he guided our lit­tle ves­sel through the maze of moss-cov­ered trunks until our stom­achs began to growl from hunger.

“I’ve never ac­tu­ally been here be­fore.”

I looked at my cousin, sur­prised, as we dug out the sand­wiches his mom had made for us.

“When we were younger, Uncle would tell us sto­ries about it, try­ing to scare us. I al­ways pre­tended to be brave, but I guess the sto­ries worked, be­cause when­ever we came out in the boat, I would tell my dad not to get too close to this place.”

“What kind of sto­ries?” I asked.

“I guess you couldn’t re­ally call them ghost sto­ries, not re­ally, but…scary sto­ries. The gist was that chil­dren who got lost in the swamp were cursed to live there for­ever, trans­formed into some­thing not quite human. Uncle said that at night you could hear them, and if you weren’t care­ful they’d lure you into the swamp, and you’d be­come one of them, lost for­ever. When­ever we’d hear a strange noise from across the lake, Uncle would say ‘The swamp chil­dren are play­ing.’ Of course, it would re­ally just be rac­coons fight­ing.”

I fin­ished my sand­wich, all ex­cept the crust, which I crum­pled up and dropped into the water. I peered over the edge of the boat, try­ing to fol­low the re­mains of my lunch as it sank into my re­flec­tion. My grimy twin stared back up at me, al­most tak­ing de­light in block­ing my view, nearly smirk­ing as I tried to make out the bot­tom. “Do you think there’s any truth to those sto­ries? You think some kids did get lost here?”

Cranesville Swamp Preserve in Maryland and West Virginia
Cranesville Swamp Preserve by Bohemian Baltimore, Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

“It’s pos­si­ble,” Ben replied. “Maybe that ru­ined row­boat be­longed to them. More than likely they drowned, like you said ear­lier.”

I con­tin­ued watch­ing my re­flec­tion as it danced in the rip­ples below. It smiled a big, mis­chie­vous grin, and its arms slowly reached up, threat­en­ing to break the placid sur­face.

“Watch it!” Ben warned, yank­ing me back. “You nearly fell in!”

“What?” I replied stu­pidly. “I thought…nev­er­mind.”

Our lunches fin­ished, my cousin turned the boat around, and we began row­ing for home.

A cool breeze rus­tled the leaves over­head, and Ben looked wor­ried. “It’s the evening draft,” he said. “Comes every night just be­fore dusk. We should’ve been out into open water by now.”

A cold fist squeezed my chest at the re­al­iza­tion that we were lost. I tossed my head back and forth, try­ing to catch a glimpse of open sky, but there was noth­ing but wa­ter-logged trees, draped in vines and moss, as far as I could see.

With a dull clunk, our boat shud­dered to a halt. “What was that?” I asked.

“We hit some­thing.” Ben prod­ded under the water with an oar. “Feels like a rot­ten log. This isn’t good. Here.” He handed me the other oar. “Help me push, see if we can get free.”

I thrust my oar under the boat, and al­most in­stantly felt it dig into some­thing soft. “Are you sure that’s a log?” I asked. “It’s aw­fully squishy.”

“It’s got to be,” my cousin replied, rock­ing back and forth in an at­tempt to shake the boat loose.

Sud­denly, with a soft splash, we were free. The un­ex­pected move­ment threw me off bal­ance, and I grabbed onto the edge of the boat, sav­ing my­self from being tossed over­board. In my panic, how­ever, the oar slipped from my fin­gers and landed in the water. With­out think­ing, I reached out to grab it, mo­men­tar­ily dip­ping my hand be­neath the sur­face. My fin­gers wrapped around the wood, grimy from the swamp water, and an­other hand, slimy and bloated, wrapped around mine.

I yelled out in shock, re­coil­ing from the water and bump­ing into my cousin who, with a shout, tum­bled over­board. I was alarmed at first, but be­fore I could even catch my breath, Ben’s head popped back up with a gri­mace.

“This water tastes awful. You need to be more care­ful.”

“Sorry,” I apol­o­gized breath­lessly. “You al­right?”

“Yeah. It’s not too deep, ac­tu­ally. I can stand.”

I helped him climb back into the boat, where he sat shiv­er­ing. “I’m re­ally sorry,” I apol­o­gized again. “When I reached in to get the oar, some­thing grabbed me.”

“It was prob­a­bly just a fish. We have big­ger things to worry about, any­way. It’s get­ting dark.”

In­deed it was. Under the trees, night­fall was ac­cel­er­ated. Al­ready, the bright greens and browns of the swamp were be­gin­ning to bleed to­gether into a muddy gray. “What are we going to do?” I asked.

“Prob­a­bly just wait here. I wouldn’t be sur­prised if our par­ents have started search­ing for us al­ready.”

And so we waited. Be­fore long it was com­pletely dark. The tiny traces of moon­light that man­aged some­how to find their way down into the swamp were hardly enough to see by, and we were sur­rounded by vague dark shapes.

“Do you smell that?” My cousin’s voice, trem­bling as he shiv­ered in his wet clothes, star­tled me. I sniffed the air. A rot­ten odor as­saulted my nos­trils, faint at first, but steadily grow­ing stronger.

“Yeah. What do you think it is?”

“Swamps smell some­times, I guess.”

Some­where in the dark­ness, leaves rus­tled, fol­lowed by a tremen­dous splash.

“What kind of an­i­mals live here?” I asked, fail­ing in mask­ing the fear in my voice.

“Bears, deer. But they wouldn’t hang out here. They def­i­nitely wouldn’t go in the water.”

A steady, rhyth­mic slosh­ing started up, grow­ing louder, like some­thing walk­ing through the water to­wards us.

“It’s prob­a­bly just a boat wake from out on the lake,” Ben said.

“Who would be out on the lake at this hour?”

The slosh­ing stopped a few feet from us, al­though we still could not see any­thing, and then some­thing thumped hard against the side of our boat. I inched away from the noise, and I could hear Ben doing the same. The row­boat tilted dan­ger­ously as our weight shifted.

The thump­ing con­tin­ued, again and again, like a fist on the wooden hull, pound­ing re­lent­lessly. Sud­denly, it was joined by an­other, on the other side of the boat where my cousin and I cow­ered. We scram­bled to the cen­ter, as far from ei­ther side as pos­si­ble, feel­ing the boat shud­der under the as­sault of the un­seen hands. A few more joined in, and a few more again, until we were com­pletely sur­rounded.

And then we heard laugh­ter. It came from all around, like count­less lit­tle chil­dren mock­ing us.

A bright light sud­denly ex­ploded to one side, and the noises abruptly stopped. In the or­ange flick­er­ing glow, we could see our sur­round­ings. The water was per­fectly still, like a layer of black-coated glass, and not ten feet away from us was the shore. There, hov­er­ing above the ground, was a blaz­ing fire.

“That looks warm.”

I glanced over at my cousin, who was shiv­er­ing vi­o­lently in his wet clothes. “Is it real?” I won­dered out loud.

“Who cares,” Ben replied, grab­bing the oars and start­ing to row. “I’m freez­ing!”

Our boat slid gen­tly onto the shore, and be­fore I could stop him, my cousin jumped out and ran to the fire. Be­fore my very eyes, his sil­hou­ette blurred, and be­fore long he was lost in the glare.

“Ben!” I tried call­ing out to him, un­cer­tain whether or not I should fol­low. “Ben!”

An­other voice an­swered me, not Ben’s, from the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

The scene was plunged into dark­ness. The fire, as if star­tled by the voice, had gone out. A smaller light ap­peared, bob­bing up and down as it grew closer and brighter. A flash­light.

“Son, is that you?”


“Son, are you al­right? Every­one’s been wor­ried sick. We’ve got to get you back.”

“Wait,” I protested as he started to help me into his boat, “what about Ben?”

“It’s al­right,” my dad said. “We al­ready found him.”

“What?” I replied, look­ing back at where the strange fire had been with a con­fused look on my face. “But—”

“I know,” my dad in­ter­rupted. “His body floated back to the sur­face. That’s how we found him.”

“What?” Some­where in the back of my mind I un­der­stood the words that he was say­ing, but I could not make sense of them. “What are you talk­ing about?”

“Ben fell over­board, don’t you re­mem­ber?”

“Yeah, but…” I looked again at the dark shore­line where the mys­te­ri­ous blaze had been only min­utes ago. “He’s not…”

“Come on, son, let’s get you back to the cabin.”

I will never be able to for­get that sight. There was Ben, laid out on the kitchen table with his eyes closed. He was sop­ping wet, and his skin was a nau­se­at­ing shade of pale green. I still wanted to deny it, but how could I with his drowned corpse lying there in front of me?

I had no ex­pla­na­tion for what hap­pened. When Ben’s par­ents asked me about it, I sim­ply said he had fallen over­board, and that the row­boat had drifted away when it got dark. That was what they ex­pected to hear. It was what I told my­self over and over again, and what part of me wanted to be­lieve. I wanted to for­get our foray into the swamp, along with all its strange sights and sounds and feel­ings, but to this day I can­not seem to put it from my mind. When­ever I go near a pond or lake or soggy wood­land, I swear I can hear laugh­ter.


Leave a Reply

This Post Has 41 Comments

  1. Drago

    I think this story was really amazing, the tension was really up there. When Ben’s ghost got back in the boat I thought it was actually him. If you haven’t read the Salem Witch Trials, or the Jersey Devil, you should.

    And sorry if my punctuation is wrong. Thanks for the Story

    Oh and “person” doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.

  2. Sandra

    As a published writer myself, “Mr. PERSON”, you need to go back and finish school. I doubt you have gotten more than a third grade education judging the ignorant way you write and spell.

    This was an EXCELLENT STORY. It kept me captivated from start to finish. I was shocked at the ending. Apparently, the boy who fell overboard was a ghost that climbed back into the boat. This story was very well written and well told.

    Ignorant things like “Person” should just be ignored.

  3. HitchcockMadFan

    Two words for you James Colton …….. Awesome Tale….. And keep up the fantastic stories……PLEASE!!!!!

  4. Elyssa

    Omg amazing????

  5. KAKU

    This was amazing !!!
    An amazing piece of art: so perfectly carved

  6. magical girl


  7. Bill

    This was AWSOME I got scared and stopped reading and continued it was so scary but I’m ok

  8. James Colton

    Thanks, Sara. Glad you liked it!

  9. Sara

    I liked this a lot, so much I went and read more of your stories on your website 🙂

  10. James Colton

    @Bill: That’s my favorite out of everything I’ve written, and definitely the scariest, in my opinion.

  11. Bill

    Oh man, just read ‘The Forgetful House’ on your website. One really creepy story, loved the atmosphere it projected.

  12. Bill

    Fantastic story. Growing up in South Carolina near swamps, this story hit home.

  13. James Colton

    @Derrik: Thanks! It’s good to find someone who really gets it. I think stories that make you use your imagination can be a lot scarier because they stick with you better.

  14. Maddy

    I really liked it! 🙂

  15. Derrick

    I think this was very well written. Very descriptive and the swamp picture really added to that. I could see this being told around a campfire by a lake. Murky, creepy lake surrounded by woods. Some people don’t get that not all stories are meant to scare you all on their own. It’s your own imagination that is supposed to do that. I can tell you a story about anything, true or made up, if you don’t have the imagination to put yourself in the story and creep your own self out, then you need to get you thrills some other way.

    Thank you for the good story!

  16. Anon Writer

    It’s a very good story! It was descriptive, well-paced, and the ending took me by surprise. I was actually scared a bit myself when I was reading it! I love reading and re-reading this story whenever I can.

    @ ‘person’: Not only do your spelling/grammatical/punctuation skills leave much to be desired, but I also believe that James Colton (the writer) was far too patient and kind with you when responding to your comment.

  17. h17

    this story sucked!!!!

  18. Oh my gosh, I am in love with this story! Your imagery is fantastic, and I was thrown right into the scene. I loved how the tension built up, then fell with an explanation, all while keeping a lingering suspicion and fear. The only part that confused me was when I envisioned the flashlight appearing from the sight of the fire, so I had assumed it was somebody luring him to the fire. Other than that, this story is incredible! Have you ever read Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”? This vaguely reminds me of it…I think you might like that! 🙂

  19. anon

    the same thing happened to me for real except me and my cousin were high on shrooms when it happened

  20. GB

    wow you guys bitch a lot, its just a story

  21. ...

    How is this supposed to be SCARY?????

  22. Nick-E B.

    OMG!!!!! That was really good! Once I was in my room, and I blinked twice and in between I saw a black silhouette of a man. It was WIERD!!!!

  23. James Colton

    @maddi: I think the ambiguity is half the charm. You can piece it together if you think about it, even if you have to use some guess work. The best ghost stories will always make you use your imagination.

  24. maddi

    it was great but it would be a good to add a longer ending that kind of explained what happened. – maddi 😉

  25. Shraddha Manvi

    This story captivated me. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  26. Jared

    Awesome! I like the feeling of Isolation it gives you, like the two kids out in the middle o the swamp.

  27. Danielle

    great story,really got me there at the end

  28. Dave

    Not bad at all. I’m not generally a fan of the genre but this story was well told.
    With regards to the fellow who used the name “person”, from you’re spelling and sentence structure I don’t believe you are qualified to critique literature.

  29. lynne

    I Loved it.very well written.spooky.

  30. Gabs

    It reminds me to Zelda… xD

  31. James Colton

    @Rupal Santos: Thanks for the feedback!

  32. Rupal Santos

    A very nice story! Enjoyed it! But frankly speaking- it missed some climax

  33. sparkling dust

    it was nice!

  34. James Colton

    @kaycee: Glad you enjoyed it!

    @person: If you have any suggestions for how it could be improved, I would be glad to hear them. I am always open to intelligent, constructive criticism.

  35. person

    hey u person that wrote this no offense butt i really thenk its stupid

  36. kaycee

    Enjoyed reading this one