(above: Hinton, West Virginia; Ellicott City, Maryland; Holbrook, Arizona; and Oregon City, Oregon)
There’s some places you visit and you want to pass through the town quickly and hopefully not have to stop, or if you’re like me, you stay for a while and observe the locals, pick up the ambiance, and try to figure out why the heck it gives you the heebie jeebies.
Being on road trips and vacations, we all end up eventually in some godawful town that “has no name” but has a Motel 6 at midnight. That’s a whole different story. This story I’m about to tell you is one about towns that unsettle, feel possessed, have dark secrets. You know, the kind of town that in old movies would have had the locals pulling their shutters closed when you come down the cobblestone street. Yeah, that kind of town.
If you stay long enough, you pick up a weird affect amongst the people, sometimes like they’re pod people, other times like they hate outsiders, or perhaps they rarely see out-of-towners in their neck of the woods, in the most unsettling ones you feel as if you're invisible to them or in a parallel universe.
On any trip, the air smells different, the food tastes strange, the streets don’t connect right. It just feels askew. The kind of towns I’m fixated on are the ones that aren’t just foreign to you, like traveling to Italy when you’re from the Midwest. I’m talking about towns that feel geologically, architecturally, and even spiritual whacked.
Now, don’t get me wrong. These are plenty fine places, even friendly places, but just have something a bit…wrong. When you can feel it in your bones and your senses are super alert, there’s something there. I tend to think it’s along the lines of the geology and architecture as in haunted places, but I guess we’ll never know what really sets off our protective instincts.
On my list of 4, I’ll count down backwards to the most creepy town I’ve been in:
4. Ellicott City, Maryland (west of Baltimore). This town (I’d call it a village myself) is strangely nestled between deep grooved hillsides. The descent into it is somewhat like driving Lombard Street in San Francisco. You can feel not only narrow streets like you might find in a place like Jerome, Arizona, but last time I was there, they still had water marks where a great flood put the town under. No wonder. It’s kind of a water trap. The buildings lining the street look much like what you find in an Old West town, all attached to each other, built mostly in the 1800s. In a nowadays world, this might look like a hip artist colony retreat, but it’s so strangely hidden it takes on a more “alternate reality” feeling, like a town you stumble upon in “Twilight Zone.” The people seem quite happy to live in this out-of-the-way spot that really only locals know is there. It even had a little creepy amusement park (now abandoned) called “Enchanted Forest” (can be seen in the movie “Cry-Baby” with Johnny Depp). It’s interesting to me, but when I was growing up and visiting there in the 70s, it wasn’t a time people or towns gloated about ghosts, but since that time, the town council now has ghost tours. Yes, I knew the place was haunted! My spi-dee senses told me at a young age. If you wanted to get lost from the world in the greater DC area, this is your place.
3. Holbrook, Arizona. More than likely, unless you decide to follow Route 66 or are headed for the Meteor Crater, this town will never be in your sites. Pity, that. Anyone who follows Oprah, probably saw her road trip with her buddy, Gayle and their stay over at the Wigman Motel. What you don’t know about Holbrook is the feel of the place. To get there, you’re basically driving across lunar landscape for miles and miles and miles, feeling as if you’re at some high point on the world, able to see the curve of the earth. The town itself is based upon the railroad tracks, showing you its earlier origins long ago. On a family road trip, I begged to stop somewhere else and stay the night. Anywhere, but this town. Checking into the hotel felt like I was checking into my doom. The whole town feels depressed and very very bleak. This is pod people weird. Soulless, strangely lifeless, drones wander about. Not that there aren’t pockets of niceness and cheerfulness, but think about it—this place is neither here nor there. It’s nestled between more and more vast high desert and nothingness, except a giant hole in the ground and Flagstaff. What in the hell would these people have to look forward to day after day in such a lonely setting that was never a destination, but only a drive-through spot? We looked for a place to have supper and I refused every place we drove by. My hackles were rising by the minute and I just knew there was something not right about any of it. We found a strange steakhouse place, a dark spooky cave of a restaurant and found a booth. The people didn’t feel right. The music didn’t sound right. The entire meal was a mind-numbing experience in the surreal. I’ve never done hallucinogenic’s, but I swear it felt like a very weird trip into an alternate universe. I truly didn’t feel like I was part of the Earth any longer, but some other life space running alongside the one we normally participate in. It’s hard to describe other than to say, I didn’t sleep that night and the minute we left the town, I felt myself again. I’ll never forget that feeling, nor do I want to experience it again. At the time, I attributed it to the kind of Native American aura that probably surrounds places of strangeness like Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. Whatever kind of magic was practiced there, it certainly left the place feeling rather beaten down and exhausted (myself included).
2. Hinton, West Virginia. This stop on the train rail is nestled between small remnants of the Appalachian chain with the New River rushing through it, bisecting it into even smaller villages. The downtown area is a tight little street with shops attached and crowded in like creepy shuttered viewers of the elderly men shuffling around out front having a smoke and watching the traffic (all 3 cars) go by. This is the town that time forgot. It’s not on the way to a destination so it therefore is a dead end or a purposeful destination (even more chilling). I’ve been going there (relatives in the area) for over 40 years and the only thing that’s changed, I believe, is the addition of a McDonald’s. The same said McDonald’s that when my family visits there, the entire crowd inside stills and stares at us. The restaurant becomes silent. We get our food and eat on the kiddie porch outside, where diners resume their conversations again. The local gas station attendant asks, “ya’all take a wrong turn?” When I was a child and we had to visit relatives here, I would sob and fight the whole way. I hated going there. It’s the most beautiful place and the people really are quite warm and friendly (even when they find out you’re not fundamentalist), but it has an undercurrent of bad energy in the water and the hills that corrupts what looks like a very gorgeous place, wonderful for rafting, fishing, and recreational boating at the dam. Perhaps it’s the dam, the geology, the north-running river… It just has very bad mojo. In fact, I used the town as the model for “The Lower” in my manuscript “The Thicket.” I used the town above it, Nimitz, for “The Upper” which has an equally strange feel in a rolling farmland. If you ever wanted to get lost from the rest of the world in a place that will never change one iota and the average person is about 60 years old, this is your place.
1. Oregon City, Oregon. Creepiest! We went on a family vacation before I had to have surgery on my Achilles tendon rupture. I wasn’t able to walk much, but we were able to drive the countryside and decided to explore Lake Oswego area and ended up stumbling across a river with a hydroelectric plant smack dab in the middle of the rushing water. It was very picturesque with a tall green hillside and buildings nestled into the hill overlooking it. I thought it was a picture-taking opportunity and nothing more until we followed the river across a bridge and saw the plant up close. I spotted a sturgeon hanging from the post on the bridge (they look like sharks!) and all of a sudden I got a rush through my body of “past life déjà vu.” We turned to drive away and (I am not the hysterical type in any sense of the word) I told my husband, “if you don’t go back to that town, I’ll jump out of the moving car.” (It's scary because I really meant it!) He did a fast u-turn. I’ve never done something like that in my entire life. We edged across the bridge, passing fisherman after fisherman lined up, sturgeon dangling from the posts. The churning water from the hydroelectric plant caused a constant static feeling in the air, a crackling and energy, the hillsides locked it in with the geology of the area, and the buildings were quaint and looked well established in age along a narrow roadway lining the river. The people seemed odd. They didn’t even glance over or see us. It was as if we were invisible. It was another unsettling feeling. When I stood there and breathed the air, felt the energy of the place, I realized this would be the setting of my next erotic horror novel. Something incorporating the town’s isolation, the hillside, the geology, and the hydroelectric plant. I think about that town still and I shake my head. It was unsettling and yet at the same time, so unsettling that I would love to go and rent a place for a few months and finish the novel just to be in with the locals and figure out how the elements of this town make it feel the way it does, both dynamic and energetic and yet zen-like without thought. I had a particularly hard time opening up to the minds of the people there when I tested it. I wonder if the energy of the geology/waterway make it impossible to do psychic reads? Intriguing thought. It was relaxing to be amongst people whose internal chatter didn’t make me uncomfortably “busy” feeling inside. I was truly able to clear my mind and feel the energy from the earth in my body, so I was alert and silent simultaneously. Yeah, this was the creepiest most visceral town I’ve been to and yet the one I’d most like to spend the rest of my life living in. In other words, it’s just strange enough for me, which says a lot.
Please feel free to mention your creepy towns, I'd love to find more with these vibes