If someone ever asks me what the scariest experience of my life was, I tell them it was my first year at summer camp when I didn’t just hear, but became fully immersed in the mother-of-all ghost stories.
When I was nine, my parents decided that a month away at summer camp would be good for me (and undoubtedly them). So they sent me off to Camp Becket in western Massachusetts. I was assigned to a cabin with other first-time campers, and became instantly enraptured with the whole experience. Woodworking, archery, camp songs fashioned after popular show tunes: what was not to love? I have forgotten more about those days than I remember, but one thing I will never forget is the legend of the “The One-armed Brakeman” that all new campers got to hear.
Early in our first week, we stumbled upon the story almost by accident. We were being particularly rowdy one night while getting ready for bed, and Eric, our junior counselor, muttered something about behaving ourselves or the one-armed brakeman would come for us in the middle of the night. Silence enveloped the room as we all turned immediately to Dave, our senior counselor. “What’s the one-armed brakeman?” we asked. “Oh it’s nothing. I don’t want to talk about it. Just forget it,” replied Dave, which, for a kid, is like someone slapping you across the face with his gloves and challenging you to push the issue. Relentless in our begging, we finally persuaded Dave to relay the story, which he did in a very non-theatrical and disappointingly “un-ghost-story-like” way, getting through it like a disgraced congressman reading a prepared statement at a press conference.
The story centers around a railroad brakeman who, almost 100 years ago, worked on the old railway line that ran through the woods behind camp. Taunting and teasing this brakeman was a favorite pastime of some of the younger campers. And during one particularly nasty episode, the kids chased the brakeman until he tripped and hit his head on the tracks, rendering himself unconscious and, therefore, unable to see or hear the train that eventually severed off his arm. When he woke missing said arm, he was enraged (Well, who wouldn’t be?), and he vowed to spend all of eternity walking through the woods at night with his lantern, exacting revenge by searching out Camp Becket boys, marking their foreheads with a red “B” while they slept and then, the next night, snatching them away, never to be heard from again.
Dave finished the story as unceremoniously as he started it. He did not take questions and told us in a convincingly unconvincing manner that it was all just a legend and we should forget about it and go to sleep. Again with the gloves slapping the face.
As the weeks rolled on, the story unfolded for us, piece-by-piece. One evening, on a night hike, we came across an abandoned, lit lantern in the woods. We wondered out loud what it was, while Dave and Eric exchanged worried looks and then hurried us back to our cabin. In the camp library one afternoon, a bunch of us came across a ledger (mysteriously sitting open on the table) that listed out the “Campers Abducted by the OABM” since 1914. And one morning, as we all headed to the wash house, we stumbled upon a tipped-over can of red paint and red foot prints that ran off into the woods, clearly in some evil and hasty retreat.
At some point, as we uncovered more and more elements of the story, it stopped being just a story and had become, for us, a complete experience: one which we bought into hook, line and sinker…as only nine year olds can do. With each discovery of a new detail of the story, we became that much more immersed in it. We had moved beyond just hearing the story; we were now living it.
The pinnacle of this experience occurred the night before our overnight campout. Just after lights were turned out, we couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between Dave, Eric and another counselor outside our cabin. “The police were here earlier to say that the one-armed brakeman’s been spotted again.” “Seriously? Do you think we should cancel the camp out?” “I don’t know. There’s an all-staff meeting about it at the counselors’ shack. Let’s go.”
By this point, each of us was utterly gripped with fear, so terrified that one of my fellow campers peed through a hole in the floor versus risking going outside to relieve himself. None of us could possibly fall asleep, and we hotly debated whether we should go on the campout, ultimately deciding as a group that we should not. When Dave and Eric returned to the cabin a couple of hours later, we were all still awake. Calmly and with the thoughtfulness and maturity of an eleven year old, we informed them that, given the circumstances and our parents undeniable desire to see us come home alive, we felt it best if we skipped the overnight campout this year.
While Dave respectfully nodded his head in contemplation, Eric burst out laughing. The jig was up. Dave and Eric confessed to the whole thing being a hoax and explained that it was a pseudo “right of passage” for first time Becket campers. We were not amused. But as the sun rose the next morning and our preparations for our campout began, we quickly forgave and forgot…that is until Eric decided to mess with our heads one last time by walking through the woods around our campsite that evening swinging a lit lantern. The bastard.
I’ve been thinking of that story recently as I sit here in San Sebastian Spain, preparing for a symposium tomorrow with our strategic partners, Cookie Box. We’re talking to marketing executives and the media about the power of storytelling to engage and align employees, focusing in particular on transmedia storytelling. In his book, “The Art of Immersion,” Frank Rose describes transmedia as “a new type of narrative…one that’s told through many media at once in a way that’s nonlinear, that’s participatory and gamelike, and that’s designed above all to be immersive.” In looking back on that experience with “The One-armed Brakeman” story, I realized it was, in many respects, my first experience with transmedia storytelling. The way in which Dave and Eric fed that story to us through different mediums and experiences added depth and richness to it, making it all the more compelling and profound.
Hollywood has been practicing transmedia for some time, using video games, guerrilla marketing tactics, experiential websites and comic books to wrap around a movie and create a completely holistic entertainment experience for anyone who wants to dive deeper into the story (e.g. “Avatar,” “Star Wars,” etc.). Cookie Box, based in Barcelona, has been doing the same for the past four years, using a variety of different media (dramanagement films, video games, comic books, apps, etc.) to connect a company’s brand story and strategic vision to the employees needed to bring both to life.
I’ll write more about transmedia storytelling later, as I think this is where the future of strategic storytelling and employee engagement is heading. I am glad that BB&Co and Cookie Box will be charting this future together. Our strategic prowess and their creative skillset are perfect complements to each other, and we’re thrilled to call them partners…and friends.
It’s one thing to tell a story. It’s another to completely immerse people in it, moving them beyond simply hearing the story to actually experiencing it. For when you experience a story, it becomes that much more a part of you, melded to your psyche, forever roaming through the recesses of your mind…maybe at night, swinging a lantern.
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