The campfire is lit, marshmallows are toasting, and there’s a chill in the air. You and your friends hush to prepare for the evening’s main event. Someone is about to begin a scary story. Wherever you’re from, this scenario probably sounds pretty familiar to you, with perhaps a couple variations. Maybe you’re not outside, or not making s’mores. But what probably varies most between your memories of this event and others’ are the stories themselves. And usually, they vary by region.
All across the US, people are spreading urban legends and rehashing folklore based directly on the location they’re closest to. Since campfire season is just around the corner and we at Nightmare on Film Street have been focusing on folk horror this month, we thought we’d bring you some of the best of those spooky tales, separated by their state of origin. We’ll be bringing you them in a four part series, going through all 50 states in order from oldest to youngest. So turn on your flashlights and ready your graham crackers, this is part one of a little something we call STATES OF HORROR: Creepy Folk Legends Across the US.
Lighthouses, for some reason, always have ghost stories about them. However, very few of those stories actually involve the ghost of a lighthouse. The Corpse Light is one of those exceptions. Said to be the result of a vengeful curse, the Corpse Light is an apparition that appears off the coast of Delaware, leading unsuspecting sailors to their doom. This folk legend has a real, historical bodycount, having sunk the Devonshireman in 1665 and the deBraak in 1778. Thankfully, ships don’t need lighthouses to get to shore anymore, meaning the Corpse Light can’t get any more victims. Then again, maybe it just counted those poor souls as enough.
Take one look at Cossart Road in Pennsylvania and you’ll immediately notice something strange going on. The trees, it seems, are leaning away from the road, as if reeling in horror. The reason for that, and the supposed paranormal activity in the area, is the story of the DuPonts. The DuPonts were, according to legend, a family of cultists who practiced weird, horrific rituals just off of Cossart Road, in a home now known as “the Cult House.” Not only is the Devil’s Road a source of horror for the locals, but for horror filmmakers worldwide. If you think the Devil’s Road trees look familiar, it’s because you see them in M. Night Shymalan’s The Village, which was filmed there.
Moll DeGrow, resident witch of Newark, New Jersey, was kind of the opposite of a local celebrity. Instead of being loved by a community, the people of Newark hated and feared her. They’d blame her for minor, inexplainable things, like milk going sour or things going missing. Then, really terrible things started happening in Newark. Livestock disappeared, children started dying. But when the townspeople formed a mob to confront the witch they blamed for all their misfortunes, their plots of revenge came to nothing. They found Moll dead in her bed, having escaped to a place they couldn’t reach her.
However, there are some that say Moll could still reach them. In fact, if you visit Moll’s shack outside Newark, the locals will tell you that Moll could reach you even today.
Even without its supernatural component, the legend of Rene Rondolier is freaky enough. According to Georgia folklorists, Rene was born in the early 19th century in Savannah, Georgia. He was immediately different than the rest of Savannah’s citizens, reportedly possessing abnormal size and weight. By 15, they say, Rene stood at seven feet tall. But what was really different about Rene was his mind, his desire to kill that first manifested in his interactions with small animals. When children started showing up dead, the citizenry blamed Rene and put him to a quick death, even though proof of his guilt was shoddy at best. Now, witnesses claim to see a massive, hulking shadow appear at night near where Rene was supposedly executed. And the really scary question is; is this the ghost of an early American serial killer… or an innocent man?
Just like the Corpse Light, this story proves that not every haunting has to be human in origin. The story of Gardner Lake actually doesn’t even involve death at all, at least, not how we think of it. The legend goes that in 1895, a wealthy family wanted to move their house from one side of Gardner Lake, (near Salem, CT) to the other. They decided the best way to do this was to literally pick the entire house up and walk it across the frozen lake in the dead of winter. And at first, their plan worked, getting the house about halfway across the lake. That’s when the ice began to melt. The family was able to get a lot of their possessions out…except for their piano.
Now, visitors to Gardner Lake claim to hear music coming from the bottom of the lake, though no family member actually died in the crossing. But I mean, in today’s world, is a ghost piano really that unbelievable?
Alright, we’ve been on this paranormal track for quite a while. So for Massachusets’s entry, let’s talk about cryptids. Specifically, the Dover Demon.
Over the course of 24 hours in April of 1977, three people witnessed a creature unlike anything they’ve ever seen. It was tall, lanky, had glowing eyes and a massive head. As their story got out, national news networks began to pick up tales of the sightings, dubbing the creature “the Dover Demon” after the town in Maryland nearest the sightings. Since 1977, several people have claimed to see the Demon, but no one has ever been able to offer a suitable explanation for what the strange, terrifying creature could be.
While we’re on the subject of terrifying creatures, here’s one that will have you looking at most farms differently. The Goat Man of Maryland is a half-man, half-goat monstrosity with a thirst for blood, supposedly inhabiting a lost cabin in the woods of Prince George’s County. What makes this legend especially creepy is that there’s no rumors of the supernatural at all. No, the Goat Man is supposedly the result of a mad scientist’s evil experiments, damning not just the people of Prince George County, but the misshapen creature itself to a bloody and terrible existence.
Straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe novella comes the story of Julia Legare, who lived in South Carolina in the late 18th century. Tragically, Julia became very ill. Her family watched her condition worsen and then the life pass out of her. She was buried on the family mausoleum.
Horrifically, Julia actually hadn’t died. A later entrance into the mausoleum revealed Julia had only gone into a coma and had been entombed that condition. She was reportedly found out of her coffin, her body lying underneath scratch marks on the tomb’s walls. Ever since, it’s been said that Julia’s spirit remains at the mausoleum, keeping its door from ever completely closing.
We should give credit to New England for giving us some pretty great witch stories. One of those is of Goody Cole, a master of mysticism who lived in Hampton, New Hampshire. The ironically named Goody was shunned and scorned by her community, and if the legends are true, took revenge on them by magical means. The curse of Goody Cole was so bad that in 1938, almost 300 years after Goody died, the community finally came together and publicly exonerated the witch. Since then, unexplainable activity has still been attributed to Goody’s spirit, but it’s been a lot more benign than what it once was.
Under a bridge called the Colchester Overpass, you’ll find the heart of the legend of the Bunny Man. An axe-wielding, bunny-suit-wearing serial killer, The Bunny Man is said to be the ghost of an escaped convict from a nearby prison. The legend goes that if you come to Colchester Overpass at midnight on Halloween and make a bunch of noise, you’ll wind up dead and hanging from the bridge. So far, there’s never been a recorded incident of this happening, but hey, there’s always next Halloween.
Choosing the spookiest story from New York folklore is a bit like choosing the best Keanu Reeves character. Because, of course, they are all equally the best. What I chose to do instead was tell you the weirdest folktale that comes out of New York, the story of the Mystery Spot. According to visitors to Lake George, NY, there is a specific place along the lake where the rules of physics begin to break down. Those that stand directly on it find that sound doesn’t work the same way, nor does their perception of space around them. Come to think of it, this might actually be the spookiest NY urban legend anyway. Ghosts we can all explain, after all, but physics?
That’s a different level of terrifying.
Closing this first entry out with a haunted house tale might seem like a bit of a copout, but Biltmore Mansion in North Carolina is a different level of haunted. The home, which once belonged to George Vanderbilt of the wealthy Vanderbilt clan, served as a Great Gatsby-style summer home. George and his family died around the turn of the century, but it apparently didn’t stop them from vacationing at Biltmore. Guests report hearing everything from disembodied voices to people splashing around the pool to full on dinner parties in the dining room. It just goes to show you that rich people don’t stop flaunting it just because they’ve passed away.
That concludes the first entry into our series on American Urban Legends and Folktales state by state. Check back in the following weeks for parts 2-4, but for now, why not check out the other folk horror articles on NOFS? A few personal favorites of mine are Rachel Prin’s piece on the 10 Greatest Folk Songs of Horror, Mary Beth McAndrews’s list of 7 Folk Horrors from Long, Long Ago, and Jordan Mulder’s look at the Best Dressed Cultists in All of Horror. But for even more than those, make sure to keep an eye on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. And for all the best horror discussion, folk or not, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.