How I Fell Into the Bottomless Pit of Tabloid Journalism Sleaze, Without a Parachute–and Survived!
A Youth Camp Somewhere Lonely in the Midwest
There were an even dozen pre-adolescent girls gathered around the campfire–and their seventeen year old councilor just thanked God that they'd given her the smallest group. It was a good thing that they were the younger ones, too, because that made them easier–and more fun–to scare. Scary stories around a campfire were a fine old tradition, and if she could keep the little twerps shaking in their bunks all night long, too scared to make the short trip to the outhouse, so much the better.
The teenager's name was Melissa (she insisted on being called 'Missy'–a fact that was going to get more and more ridiculous as she grew older–and fatter). She'd passed out the peeled sticks and marshmallows, and waited till most of the campers had set at least one marshmallow on fire before casually mentioning a horrid true story that had happened 'just up the road from here'. "But maybe I'd better not tell you about it," she said solemnly. "It's pretty gruesome. If they made it into a movie it would be, like, rated R. You guys couldn't even get in to see it."
Well, of course they had begged and pleaded, swearing that they could take it. She told the story in a hushed voice, with many a dramatic pause and significant glance at the dark surrounding woods. "...so the couple was parked on Lover's Lane, making out, right? They're going at it, hot and heavy, and the guy left the radio on for, like, mood music. Well, all of a sudden the music stops, and there's this emergency bulletin. They say that a maniac has escaped from the asylum just a couple of miles away. Maybe some of you saw it when you came here–it's this really big brick building, with bars on the windows?" Some of the campers nodded nervously. No need to tell them that building was actually owned by company that manufactured cough medicine, and the bars were to keep out the codeine fiends. "Any way, he killed two guards, just ripped 'em to pieces, and escaped. Everyone should stay home and lock their doors and windows till further notice, and if they saw him, contact the police right away. He'd be easy to recognize, because he'd lost his right hand, and it had been replaced by a HOOK! Not only that, but he'd secretly SHARPENED the hook till it was like a razor, and that was how he killed the guards."
Melissa saw with satisfaction that several of the campers were clinging to each other, their expressions filled with dread. "So the girl is 'oh, m'gawd, we have to get home right now!', and the guy is 'don't worry, baby, he won't come here, and if he does, I'll kick his ass for you'." There were several faint titters at the word 'ass'. "See, he wanted to keep making out. He even told her that if they stopped, he'd hurt real bad from all his unfulfilled lust." Her voice became matter of fact. "That's a lie, by the way. All guys say that, and it's a crock. They might not be comfortable, but it isn't gonna be anything mortally damaging."
She got back to the story. "But the girl was 'no way, take me home NOW'. The guy was all pissed off, but he knew he wasn't gonna get anywhere that night, so he drove the girl home, but he was so mad that he really peeled out when he started the car. I mean, it was like he was at a drag race–sprayed gravel everywhere."
"They got to the girl's house, and he was feeling a little ashamed of himself, which is really rare, believe me. So he decided to be a gentleman, and open her door for her. He gets out and goes around to the passenger side, then suddenly he faints. He just passes out cold, drops flat. Well, the girl gets out to see what's the matter with him. She swings the door open fast and jumps out, and kneels down by him to check him out, and she hears this 'clink, clink, clink' sound. She looks back at the car..." Melissa let her voice drop dramatically, and said slowly, "and there was a razor sharp hook hanging from the passenger door handle."
She felt smug gratification at the horrified squeals from most of the little girls. One or two of the littler ones were even near tears. But there was one...
It was that Verity Carmichael. At barely thirteen, she was the oldest of the group. Verity was sitting there with an expression like she'd just bitten into a lemon. Melissa didn't like the way she was looking at her, either. It was... Melissa wasn't very bright. She wasn't really sure of the concept of 'contempt', but she knew that Verity didn't think much of her. "So, Carmichael, that didn't scare you?"
Verity shrugged, brown pigtails (and what girl over the age of six or seven wore PIGTAILS, unless they were a cheerleader, Melissa thought) shifting. "Oh, it was pretty well done for a STORY. But that's what it was–a story. Why do you have to pretend like it's real?"
"Hey, it IS real!" Melissa protested, indignant.
"So, if I go down to the local newspaper and dig through their files, I'll find articles about it?"
Melissa hesitated. "Well, they had a lot of news to cover when it happened. But I KNOW it's true, because out cleaning lady's son dated a girl who knew the girl it happened to."
"Uh-huh. Let's see–I first heard this story when I was seven. That time it was in Florida, and the maniac only killed one guard. Then when I was nine we moved to New Jersey. In that one the guy made the girl open her own door, and when she fainted, he got out and found the hook. Then we moved to Indiana when I was eleven, and the maniac had been locked up for killing people on Lover's Lanes to begin with. And that one was true because the guy who told it to me had a cousin who used to shoot pool with one of the guards who was hired to replace the guard who was killed."
By now all the girls were looking at Verity, open mouthed. One of them said slowly, "You know, it seems kind of funny that the same thing happened in so many places, so many different times."
"That's because it didn't," Verity informed her. "It's what's called an 'urban legend'. It's a story that gets told so often that people will swear that it's true, but it's usually just a load of hooey. Maybe sometime, a long time ago, there was an itty bitty, teeny tiny bit of truth, but the more it got told, the farther from the truth, and the more... I don't know... extreme it got. Heck, they even have a movie out about that sort of thing, called Urban Legends. It's even got that cute guy from Mighty Ducks in it, and BOY does he get killed in an icky way. Now, if you wanted to tell a scary story that was REAL, you could tell us about the serial killer that buried the bodies of a couple of his victims probably not a mile from here. You can still see the dip in the ground where they dug them up."
Melissa, irritated that the girls no longer seemed terrified, now that they had a logical explanation for the story, stood up angrily, hands on her hips. "Okay, so maybe it isn't one-hundred percent gospel. Why do you have to make such a big thing over it?"
"Because I enjoy a good story, but I don't like it when someone tries to pass off a load of, um, manure as the real deal. It just grates on me. Fact is fact, and fiction is fiction. There's such a thing as dramatic license, but Missy, you not only didn't have a license, you were hunting out of season, and you were WAY over your limit."
"I don't know why you have to be such a SNOT about it!"
Verity stuck another marshmallow on the end of her stick and began to turn it carefully over the flames. As it puffed up and turned golden brown, she said, "Blame it on my mother. She believed in doing like the Puritans used to–naming a child with a virtue or quality she wanted them to have. You know, they used to have Patience, Chastity, and Charity? Well, my Mom named me Verity." Just before the marshmallow could catch fire, she pulled it away from the flames, removed it from the stick, and popped it in her mouth. "And Verity means truth."
I truly attended a camp in Zavalla, Texas, where this actual gruesome place was pointed out to me. I didn't sleep well the rest of my stay.
"What are we doing here, Warrick?" Verity asked the boy with her.
Warrick was seventeen–a year older than Verity, and the current editor of the school newspaper. Verity was one of the reporters. She hadn't really wanted to be–journalism didn't interest her, but the creative writing class had filled up quickly. She wanted any elective that would let her write, so she took what was available.
They were at the local mall's food court, in front of the Sophisticated Smoothies bar, to be exact. Verity was sipping a strawberry-banana smoothy–which she had paid for herself. Warrick had bought himself a large Power Punch without asking her if she wanted anything, so she'd made her own purchase. He seemed to be engrossed in the drink, so she tried again. "Look, Warrick, I know this isn't a date, so why are we here?"
"It's your first assignment." He sucked up the last few drops of liquid. Verity made a sour face at the crude slurping sound. "You're going to cover a fine old school tradition."
"I didn't think I was going to be allowed to write this early," she said. "I thought I was going to be stuck proof reading and making layouts for at least the first month or so."
"Usually you would, but right now you're the only girl we have on staff, and this is something that calls for a feminine angle."
"Well, what is it? As far as I know they're not holding any public service activities here. They're not even having any good sales right now."
There was a murmur of voices approaching from the entrance that was just around the corner from the court. "You'll see in a minute. This is going to be hilarious."
Verity blinked as a group of about a dozen girls came around the corner. Six of them were dressed in the school's navy-and-gold cheerleader outfits. The others were wearing...
The word 'hodgepodge' came to mind. A couple of them were wearing pajamas that HAD to belong to their fathers, or big brothers. Their faces were slathered with some sort of green goop. One was wearing a long poncho, and her legs were bare under it. Verity hoped that she was wearing a swim suit under it–at least she was if she didn't want to risk an indecent exposure rap. One was wearing Daisy Dukes, a tube top, and about a pound of make-up. The last two were wrapped in very threadbare, very gaudily printed sheets, and they had pictures of the school mascot (which was a bumblebee) drawn on their cheeks and foreheads in what looked like magic marker. Most of them were smiling, but they all looked positively mortified.
The cheerleaders led the other girls to the middle of the food court, only a few yards from where Verity and Warrick were sitting. The head cheerleader, Cindy-something, clapped her hands and said brightly, "All right, Newbies! It's time to prove yourself worthy of the position to which you aspire. I want to see plenty of spirit, here. Remember, enthusiasm counts. One, two, three..."
The girls began to do an awkward, exaggerated dance–one that involved a lot of knees and elbows. The noises they made was something between a chant and singing. "We're the Newbies, not worth much. Just to make you laugh or such." They turned, and shook their behinds in unison. "But if we learn to move our booties, we can earn some other duties." They turned back around. "And all those other teams are rubes," they grabbed their own breasts. Several of the girls looked like they were about to cry, "So we'll distract them with our boobs."
The food court wasn't very busy, but there was still a good deal of laughter–and it had a nasty edge. There was also clapping, wolf whistles, and a few crude comments. Cindy chirped, "Well done, Newbies–though some of you could have been a little more cheerful about it. Dismissed."
The girls in costume all left, some moving so quickly that it was almost a run. It was just as well, because a security guard was approaching. He went to the cheerleaders and said, "Hey, you girls have been warned about creating public spectacles."
Cindy gave him a wide-eyed look. "What public spectacle, sir?"
He shook his head in disgust. "Just get out, and don't do it again."
"Right! Our mission here is accomplished, anyway. C'mon, girls. We still need to take photos before they can get out of costume." The cheerleaders trotted away.
Warrick turned to Verity. "There ya go, Carmichael. Your very first story is going to be about one of the oldest school traditions–Hell week for the new cheerleader candidates. The cheerleaders keep a lot of it secret–they think they're some sort of society, like that Skull and Crossbones thing they have at one of the Ivy League schools. Still, they'll let you cover some of the other parts of the trials, and maybe the initiation. That's a big thing for a first year staff member. You can tell me thank you, now."
Verity stared at him. Finally she said slowly, "Did we just see the same thing, or were you, like, looking into an alternate reality?"
"I don't know about you, but I just saw six teenage girls forced to look and act in a crude, humiliating manner, all for a CHANCE at what's probably an outdated position. A CHANCE, mind you. They aren't ASSURED of a place on the squad."
Warrick blinked at her. "What's your problem? Nobody made them do it. I didn't see a single gun held to anyone's head. They WANTED to do it."
"Yeah? Well, I didn't see a single one of them who looked like she was just having the time of her life, and couldn't imagine any place she'd rather be. Why was that necessary? I mean, it would be bad enough if they just held a private party, and no one but the cheerleaders saw it, but this..."
"Carmichael, what's your problem? Are you some sort of," he put a disgusted twist on the next word, "feminist?"
"Well, let's see... I believe in equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity between the sexes, women in the army (if they can meet the physical and emotional requirements), and I think there are some female politicians out there who make a lot of sense, and might make a better president than the one we have now. Oh, but I still shave my legs and armpits. What does that make me?"
He stared at her. "Weird. Just write me a piece on what happened for the end of the week issue." He paused, then said suspiciously. "You aren't going to refuse to write it for ethical reasons, or something, are you?"
She gave him a sweet smile. "Why, no. Believe me–I'm EAGER to write this story."
Six hours before the school paper was due to go to the printer, Verity turned in her article. The headline read HUMILIATION–A NEW WAY TO RAISE SPIRIT? 'Our political science classes speak to us about the deep necessity to respect each other, despite race, religion, or creed. They left out sex. Earlier this week I witnessed an event that can only be termed archaic and exploitative. It...'
Warrick looked up from the paper at Verity. She crossed her arms and stared back defiantly. "Why?"
"Because the only thing I hate worse than presenting fiction as the truth is trading on someone's humiliation, as long as it isn't the result of some illegal or unethical act on their part."
"Can you rewrite this in time for it to go to press?"
There was a pause. "But you're not going to."
"How about if I order you to?"
"I'll refuse. And maybe I'll use one of the hand gestures I learned from watching the football team at practice."
Warrick wadded the paper into a ball, then pulled another couple of sheets out of his desk drawer. "It's a good thing we keep an emergency story ready to go." He looked at it. "Oh, crap! I forgot to write a new one. Well, hopefully no one will notice that it's been used before. By the way–you're off the staff."
"Shock, shock. I've already made arrangements to help out in the library." She turned and left.
The substitute story ran on the front page of the school newspaper. A good portion of the student population DID get very confused. They were CERTAIN–that Vice Principle Harding had retired more than a year ago, and not within the last month.