Camp Monsters

The Signal Cabin

Episode Summary

You're walking in the rain down a lonely old railway line in Tennessee when you see a light in the signal cabin up ahead. Usually a light in the darkness is a sign of safety, help and rescue but that may not be the case this time.

Episode Notes

A light in the darkness is usually a sign of a good thing—especially when you’re walking in the rain down a lonely old railway line in Tennessee. In this case, the light ahead is calling you toward something much less comforting.

Welcome to Camp Monsters Summer Camp. Over the past few seasons of the show, we’ve gotten tons of suggestions on the monsters we should cover. We noticed that a lot of these take place at a summer camp. So we’ve collected the best of the stories you’ve sent — and researched a few of our own — to create our first series of legendary summer camp creatures. Hopefully you can take these episodes with you to summer camp or they’ll bring you back to when you were a camper, scared of what might be lurking outside of your cabin.

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Episode Transcription

There’s a light up ahead. A light in the darkness. When you’re lost in the rain and night… when you’re cold and scared… when you don’t know where you are… a light in the darkness can mean the difference between life and death. It can mean safety, help, rescue. But in this case, along a lonely old railroad line in Tennessee… in this case that light up ahead… means something much more sinister.

This is the Camp Monsters podcast.

Of course if you are lost on a stormy night in the woods, there is always a temptation to panic. And panic will get you nowhere. So stop, take a deep breath, and sit down for a moment if you can-- preferably in a YETI Trailhead camp chair. Its strong but lightweight construction and handy carrying bag makes it comfortable to bring along wherever you are, and its ultra-supportive FlexGrid fabric prevents pressure points while you’re sitting down to ponder your next move. And the Trailhead camp chair comes with a reposition-able cup-holder, so you can keep that ever-important hydration close to hand. Check it out online at, or try before you buy at your local REI. Thanks, YETI!

Hey! Hi! We’re telling this week’s story up here in the cab of this old steam locomotive. Come on up!

We’ve got a fire, that’s for sure– but not our usual campfire. Here, press your foot down on that pedal…

Startling how bright and hot that firebox is, huh? We’re just getting the steam up. Here, press the pedal and open it up again--

That shovel-full of coal ought to do it. She’s working her way up to twenty-five hundred degrees in there. A little bit warmer than our usual campfire, huh?--

But of course you’ve learned all about that here at railroad summer camp. It’s sooty work, keeping these old steam engines running for this living history museum-- sure is fun, though. Once she’s got her steam up we’re going to run her up the old valley line and back. Have you been up there yet? Beautiful ride, on an evening like this, up through the woods and wilderness of the valley, with glimpses down onto the creek below. Years ago it used to be a fairly busy branch, when it led up to the old Southern Railway mainline. But when the new tunnel went in further north the railroad gradually abandoned this run, until it would just be a trail through the woods today if the museum hadn’t got it and kept it up. There’s a… kind of a colorful old story about that branch line, too… I only mention it because one camper earlier this summer brought the old tale back into folks’ minds…

The story starts with a number: one thousand five hundred and eighty six. Or was it one thousand five hundred and eighty seven? One thousand five hundred and eighty eight…

Eula was counting railroad ties as she walked along, though she’d actually come a lot further than the number of ties she’d counted. She hadn’t even started counting until the darkness had become complete and the rain had started to fall. Now that rain was coming down in unseasonably-cold sheets, plastering her hair to her face and sometimes gusting so heavy that she had to stop for a moment and bow her head under it, so that she could keep her eyes open and gulp air into her lungs without getting a mouthful of water.

Regret? Oh yes, she felt it. Tonight wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be a lark-- a pleasant stroll through a star-lit Tennessee night. Sure, she had known it might end with a gentle slap on the wrist the next morning, once the rail-camp leaders caught on that she’d hiked down from the upper camp to bunk with her friends at the main depot, but she didn’t figure a harmless little stunt like that would merit very serious punishment.

But she would have welcomed any consequences now, if it meant she could come in out of this mess. Lightning sizzled so close above her that she didn’t have to wait a second for the thunder, so loud that she swore her chest was about to split with the sound. She hadn’t counted on this violent summer thunderstorm racing in so quickly to blacken the clear night sky.  She hadn’t even brought a rain jacket.  And she’d misjudged the distance-- it was so much farther to walk than it had seemed when she was riding up on one of the locos. Plus the awkward spacing of these ties-- after a couple of miles it was really slowing her down, wearing her out, and she was in constant fear of stepping into one of the gaps and wrenching an ankle.  The weak little circle of light that her flashlight made was barely enough to help her squint for each next step through the sheets of rain.

Eula was miserable-- wet and cold. But there wasn’t anything else to do but keep going. One thousand six hundred five, one thousand six hundred six… She found herself trying to remember the name of that old poet, or whoever he was, from the 1950s, who had died of exposure walking along a railroad, counting the ties until he collapsed. Never someone she’d wanted to emulate.

One thousand six hundred and thirteen… It was just about then that she first saw the light. It appeared suddenly, up ahead in the middle distance, just after another blinding flash of lightning. In fact, at first Eula tried to blink the light away, mistaking it for the after-image of the lightning’s blast on her retinas. But after another step or two she stopped and squinted up ahead. Because this light was moving. Swinging jerkily from side to side like… like the flashlight of someone walking along the tracks, coming in her direction.

Eula might have been relieved to see some other person heading her way down these wet and lonely rails, only-- who could it possibly be? Who would be out here on a night like this? She doubted that her absence from the Upper Camp would have been noticed yet, and even if it had been and they’d sent people out to search, they would have sent them out in groups-- that wouldn’t explain this lone flashlight coming up the tracks.

The first small hint of unease struck Eula’s mind-- just enough that she switched her small flashlight off. As soon as she did, the other light down the tracks stopped moving, and shone directly toward her. She was fifty or sixty yards away-- much too far off for the light to reach her. She knew she was perfectly invisible right where she was. Still, the feeling of that light pointed right at her made her feel exposed, and she had to wrestle back the urge to slide down the loose ballast and into the water-filled ditch beside the tracks. Instead she stood still just where she was, and after a few long seconds the light swung away again, and she watched it move around the area where it had first appeared, like someone was pacing up and down the tracks there. After another thirty seconds or so, it disappeared.

Eula stood still and kept her own light switched off. What did this mean? Someone was there, down the track, doing something. But who could it be? Should she carry on? Get closer? Risk being spotted by… whoever it was who had business along railroad tracks out here in the middle of a storm-soaked night? Feeling with her feet, she crept forward a few more ties without turning her light on. Maybe if she left the tracks now and tried to find her way through the brush, she could creep past whoever it was without being seen…

As she was trying to figure out how she’d navigate through the thick bushes in pitch darkness, the light re-appeared… but this time it was… floating, eerily, fifteen feet or more in the air. The light flitted and hovered about, and Eula tried to understand what she was seeing. And then another light appeared, suddenly: stronger than the first and steadier-- and Eula let out a little exclamation of relief and recognition.

The signal cabin. A tall narrow hut beside the tracks with windows on the second story, for switchmen in the old days to watch over a junction and control the signals and switches that routed the passing trains.  Eula recognized the pattern of the windows up above the track, illuminated from inside by the light that had just been turned on.  Eula had often wondered about that derelict old tower, as she sped past it one of the museum’s trains, up or down the line. She’d always assumed that it was what it appeared to be-- an abandoned relic, left standing for scenic purposes beside the defunct old junction that it once presided over. She had no idea that the rail museum still used it for anything…

If they still did. She reminded herself that she had no idea who was up there. What legitimate purpose could anyone have out here on a night like this? But Eula decided to investigate. She was shivering cold, and the light from the signal cabin shone with such a soft, warm glow…

She kept her light off, though, and she approached the cabin slowly, feeling out the ties ahead with her toes. She could see someone up there-- a figure that moved slowly around the little room, but through the gusting rain she couldn’t see any more than that. When she got to the base of the signal cabin she had a terrible time finding the stairs up to the door, which turned out to be around the back of the building, away from the tracks. Whoever it was with the light must have known a trail from the tracks to the stairs that Eula couldn’t find-- the brush around the base of the cabin was so thick and clinging that twice she had to risk turning her flashlight on to disentangle herself from the prickly branches that trapped her.

The stairs themselves, when she finally reached them, were made of rusty iron grating. In the light that reflected down from the window at the top of the stairs, Eula could see streaks of dark red on the old white paint of the building… she figured it was rust that had flowed down from the stairs and stained it. The lower steps were almost impassable, with bushes growing up through the gaps in the stair-grating. Eula tried to step over and through these without making too much noise, then crouched as she quietly gained the top of the stairs. Holding her breath, she peeked through the small window set in the wall beside the door into the cabin.

What a treasure! What a cozy-looking little room! It must be kept up by the museum after all-- it looked like an old photograph come to life in warm and brilliant colors. The light that streamed out into the night came from an old-fashioned kerosene lamp, sitting on a battered but clean table in the middle of the room. There was a fire in the grate of the black pot-bellied stove off to the left, and the tall switch-handles that had once been used to control the signals and the points of the old junction looked as ready to do their work as they had been eighty years ago.

And in a spindly wooden chair across the room, beside the big windows that looked out onto the blackness of the rain-swept tracks, sat the little crumpled figure of a very small, very old man. He sat with his head fallen down against his chest, like he was deep in thought… or napping. And though the chair was small the old man’s feet barely touched the ground-- he looked about a hundred years old, and Eula doubted whether he could weigh a hundred pounds soaking wet. All her apprehensions disappeared and she tried the handle of the door. It was unlocked, and she rapped on it with one hand as she opened it with the other.

If the old man had been sleeping he awoke as she came in. She saw the flash of his pale eyes opening, and as she stepped shyly into the room he heaved himself out of his chair and took a slow step or two toward her, smiling and bobbing his head. He was the only thing in the room that looked dusty. Thin wisps of white hair floated up around his head, while his clothes and… even the skin of his face and hands seemed washed out and yellowed, faded like a crumbling old snapshot. But as he stepped into the warm lantern light, Eula recognized his face. She couldn’t remember where she’d met him, but she knew he was connected somehow to the railroad museum.

He smiled again, apologetically, and mouthed a few silent words while pointing to his throat, which had a wrinkled red kerchief rolled up and tied around it. He was obviously indicating that he’d lost his voice– he couldn’t speak. Eula sympathized with him, and then poured out her own predicament and asked if she could possibly stay in the signal cabin for a little while, until morning or at least until the storm broke.

A look of hesitation passed over the old man’s face, and Eula rushed to assure him how she wouldn’t be any trouble at all-- she was just looking for a little shelter from the storm. The old man looked out at the rain that was still hammering against the windows. He stared for rather a long time before finally shrugging and nodding his assent. He hobbled over to a little cupboard and presented Eula with a towel that was as old and tidy as everything else in the room. He motioned her into a big wing-backed chair that was pushed up against the wall beside the door, on the opposite side of the room from him. Then he moved slowly back to his rickety old chair by the window, sat down and consulted a big pocket watch.

As Eula watched him glance at it, she realized that she’d been hearing the gentle tick of that timepiece ever since she’d first entered the cabin. She could hear it still, even when he’d replaced it in his pocket. That and the rain pattering on the roof, and the occasional settling of a log in the fire were the only sounds.

Eula sat in the cozy chair and did her best to dry her hair and clothes with the towel. The stove made the whole cabin warm, and the towel had a strange, pleasant scent like an airy, sun-warmed room. The pocket watch ticked on… and Eula must have dozed off… anyway she found herself in a dream. One of those rare ones, where you’re immediately aware that you’re dreaming. She dreamt she was in the cabin, this same little signal cabin, but the lamp had gone out and the room was much darker. The storm was over, and moonlight was streaming through the large windows that looked out on the track. And as she looked at the windows she saw that there was a light moving around out there-- she could see the shadows shifting in the trees across the tracks. She went over to the window and looked down, and saw the old man standing down beside the gleaming rails, holding an old-fashioned lantern and checking his watch. And then she heard the most unexpected sound, at this time of night, on a track where nothing ran but daytime excursion trains from the museum… she heard the sound of a distant train whistle. And the forest up the tracks began to glow with the approach of a locomotive’s headlight.

Eula watched in amazement as a train rounded the bend. It was a big old steam engine, black, larger than anything the rail museum had. The roar of it built as it rolled down the line toward them-- Eula felt the floor of the cabin tremble as the train roared past. Down on the little platform below the cabin, the little old man was passing a message to the engine crew with a train-order stick-- a long pole with a loop of string around its forked end, and the message tied to the string. The fireman stuck his arm out of the locomotive cabin and thrust it through the loop as the train roared by, snagging up the string and hauling in the message without the train having to slow down at all.

Then quick as it came, the engine was gone, away down the line in the moonlit night, and the big freight cars were rattling by. The old man turned back toward the cabin and Eula saw him smiled up her in the light of his lantern-- just as there came a sharp sound and an ominous rumble from somewhere nearby, and Eula turned her attention just in time to see a load of huge steel pipes begin to roll loose from their snapped bindings on a flatbed car up the line. She watches the piled pipes begin to tumble down each other, and one of them rolled off at an angle, right as the train passed the cabin… right toward the old man smiling sweetly up at her… right into his neck… she turned her head and closed her eyes in that instant, and screamed--

– and then she was awake, leaning sideways halfway out of the big wing-backed chair, and for a moment she was swept away by a wave of terror even more intense than the last moment of the dream… because the real world, the real interior of the little cabin seemed to have transformed into the cabin of the dream. The lantern was out, and the storm was over-- moonlight streamed through the large windows looking out on the track. She sat up stared out the windows, listening… watching for the orange flicker of a lantern on the trees across the track, straining her ears for the distant hiss and roar of an antique train…

But the only light in the windows was moonlight, and the only sounds from the world outside were the soft patter of water dripping off the eaves and trees onto the foliage below. There was no sign of lantern light out there, no whisper that the dream was anything but a dream. She began to calm down-- and even when she sensed movement there in the cabin with her it didn’t immediately disturb her. The lantern must have just gone out, for some reason-- maybe the sudden darkness had woken her.  The old man was probably stirring himself, about to shuffle over to the table to attend to it.

But an instant after she’d sensed the movement she also heard it, and from the sound she decided that it wasn’t the old man. It couldn’t be-- though it came from the direction of his chair over by the window, whatever was moving was coming too fast, and too low along the floor. Like a little dog running from the windows toward her. Had there been a little dog in here when she came in? Sleeping by the stove, or by the old man’s chair? Or a cat, maybe? She tried to remember, but before she could-- the sound had leaped up off the floor and landed gently in her lap.

She reached down for it, more startled than frightened. Whatever the creature was, it was small-- just the weight of a little lap-dog. As her fingers brushed it she felt a cool wetness, like a friendly dog’s nose… but… no… there was much more wetness than just a cold little nose would have… maybe the poor creature had just come in out of the storm. Anyway the little thing was cold-- terribly cold. She closed her hands around it, then instantly withdrew them. Something was wrong. The thing had hair on at least part of it, and flesh under the hair, but it didn’t have the soft angles of an animal-- beneath the hair it was hard, hard and cold and… round.  And the wetness she had noticed at first seemed… sticky on her palm.

She moved her hands to fling whatever it was away from her-- and as she did there was another movement in the little cabin: this time from the space between the big windows where shadows hid the old man’s chair. Eula looked up in time to see the old man stand, rise suddenly and awkwardly… and much more quickly than she could imagine a man of his age moving.

As soon as he started up Eula realized that something was wrong with him. There was the sudden lurch of panic in his movements-- he staggered, and she saw his arms reach out into the moonlight like he was trying to take hold of something to keep himself from falling. He didn’t find anything to grab, and yet he didn’t fall, and his arms kept searching out in front of him. And then he tottered forward, with his whole body tripping out of the shadows and into the moonlight, turning toward where Eula sat.

And then she saw two horrible things at once. In the faint blue light that streamed in through the big windows, she saw what was wrong with the old man-- she saw what he was missing, what his desperate hands were groping toward her for. And she saw the fear and the desperation on the old man’s face: the face that was on the head… that she had just pushed out of her lap.

The awkwardness was gone from the old man’s body now. It moved with incredible speed toward its head… and toward Eula. She didn’t have time to scream-- she didn’t have time to breathe. She tore herself out of the chair and ran toward the door… she could hear the rapid, running footsteps of the headless body dashing up behind her… but she’d barely gone three steps before her foot landed on it– on something round, and hard and…  squirming. It rolled away from under her, threw her off balance and sent her flying through the air toward the wall…

And for the second time, Eula woke up in the signal cabin. But it took her a while to recognize where she was. Sunlight streamed through the rain-streaked, partly shattered windows, onto the floor that Eula shared with a thick layer of dust, broken glass and rodent droppings. What furniture there might have been years ago was now piled in a broken heap in one corner of the room, and the old signal switches were a rusted red tangle where a roof leak had let decades of water drip down on them. Eula took all this in, but it didn’t make any impression on her. Her head was throbbing so badly that she couldn’t think at all. She dragged herself into a sitting position and sat for a long time, staring down at the marks in the thick dust on the floor.

Eventually she realized that the marks she was staring at were footprints, and some long time later her mind had recovered enough that she recognized one set of prints as her own. But there was… another set, made by a very small pair of old-fashioned hard-soled shoes. These other prints were as fresh as her own but much fainter, as if… as if the other person barely weighed anything at all… and it was not long after seeing those prints that Eula made a hasty exit from the lonely old signal cabin, and began stumbling as quickly as she could down the tracks toward the main depot.

Eula made one other discovery, once she made it to safety and was treated for her injuries. It was an old black and white photograph that hung on the wall in the rail museum’s lobby-- one that she’d glanced at many times before, but never looked at closely. This time it caught her eye-- the figure of a little, hunched old man with pale eyes, in the uniform of a railroad employee of a hundred and more years ago, leaning against the doorway of a signal cabin– with a small, sweet smile on his face. It was a face that Eula could never forget. 

She asked the museum’s archivist about the photo, but unfortunately there was very little information about it. It had been found completely out of context, inserted in the midst of a set of apparently unrelated photographs that recorded a railcar accident of about the same era. The archivist was very surprised when Eula correctly guessed that the accident had involved a poorly-secured load of large iron pipes…

Well-- look at that pressure gauge. Steam is up, we’re ready to roll. You want to come with us? Like I said, that valley branch line is beautiful on an evening like this, with the sun just setting behind the hills. And we’ll go past that old signal cabin, too-- but… no matter what the signals say there, we aren’t going to stop. Especially if we see the warm light of a lantern burning in the windows…

Come on, let’s go.

And if you find yourself working on the railroad, all the live-long day, consider taking a Roadie 24 Hard Cooler by YETI along with you. That way when break time comes you’ll have ice-cold drinks to look forward to. And the Roadie 24 is the perfect size for easy transport-- it’s built tall and thin, with a Heftyhauler handle for comfortable carrying, and Anchorpoint tie-down slots so you can make sure it won’t rattle off the locomotive as you roll along. Check it out at, or at your local REI. Thanks, YETI!

Camp Monsters is part of the REI Podcast Network. Driving this train is our very own brave engineer Nick Patri, who, like his hero Casey Jones, always remains at his controls no matter what train wreck he sees up ahead. Beside him, fiercely shoveling coal into the roaring firebox is our Associate Producer, Jenny Barber. Back in first class, glancing apprehensively at the huge pocket watch she always carries on a tick gold chain is our conductor and Senior Producer, Chelsea Davis. Back in the freight yard, the burley yard jockeys that are our Executives Producers, Paolo Mottola and Joe Crosby, argue over who was supposed to secure that load of big iron pipes.  And standing on that little sighting up ahead, train order stick held dutifully in both hands, is yours truly, writer and host, Weston Davis. Here comes the express, listen to that big steam whistle moan. 

Next week you’ll wake in your cozy bunk at summer camp, in the middle of the night… and find that you can’t move. You can’t make a sound. And the cabin door is open. In the doorway you see a shadow. A tall, thin shadow… silent and featureless and terrible…. A nightmare, coming slowly toward you… and you realize… there’s only one thing you can do… one thing you need to do...

You need to listen next week.

Please like, share, review, and generally spread the word about this podcast. It’s word of mouth and recommendations to friends that have made Camp Monsters podcast the success that it is. Thank you. And remember that the stories we tell here are just that: stories. Some of them are based on things that people claim to have seen and experienced, but it’s up to you to decide what you believe… and how to explain away what you don’t. Thanks for listening. See you next week around the campfire.