Can a place cause crazy ideas and illogical actions like #suicide or even #murder?
Listen to #TOL’s ep. 35, A Gloomy Sunday at the Fairchild Oak
There’s something to the Name Game, but there are times when a legend plants itself so deep into the minds of residents it forces them to actually name the place for the odd folklore born there. We recently came across something like this with Bloody Bucket Road in Wachula, Florida, a road named after a story which then inspired a story which inspired an urban legend. We’ve also found our way to places informally named after the weird happenings there, like the Devil’s Tree and Thrill Hill. Rarely does a crazy story, known by the people living in the area if not fully believed, make the powers that be change the name of a place to reflect the popularity of a story.
The Devil’s Tramping Ground in Bear Creek, North Carolina is one of those places. As we heard more about the story, given our obsession at the time with all things named after the Devil, we knew if we were going to North Carolina to look for phantom trains and hitchhikers, we were going to have to stop in and see if we could glimpse something unknown and supernatural making circles in the middle of the woods.
It started with a search into an area of North Carolina known as the known as the Piedmonts. While looking for something else, I stumbled upon Craig Payst’s Web site North Carolina Ghost Stories. He has a whole section of his site dedicated to the odd stories from that area, including a weird legend that has gained popularity among the people there over the last few decades. Some of the details were familiar in that way a good piece of folklore should be, but one of the most interesting slants to the story was that the legend was shifting, adapting with the times to conform to changing ideas. As we changed as people, the little tale of a patch of land where nothing would grown changed with them.
The basics of the story should sound like something you’ve heard before. In the woods near an area known as Harper’s Crossing there is a patch of land where things would not grow. The infertile pattern was in an almost perfect circle, so people said there had to be something sinister and supernatural about it. The first stories, which is said to date back at least two hundred years, tell of the Devil himself cast down, or up, to earth to contemplate what evil deeds to commit against the people of the Piedmonts. Payst attributes this foundation to the strong religious ideas of the Scotch-Irish immigrants who made their way to the State. No reason is given as to why these people should be a target for him, but there he walked in a circle debating and scheming what to do and tearing up the ground as he walked.
There is more than just barren land in the story though. Men and beast avoid the spot for reasons they can’t explain. People who have dared to try and stay there at night have left with terrible visions. It is also said that anything placed in the middle of the circle, living or dead, will be cast out by unseen hands. Some have seen unexplained lights, and like many sites like this one, people have reported seeing hooded figures, either dark souls or Satanic cult members, walking the circle and the surrounding woods.
If that was end of the story, it would make for an interesting tale. But there is more to the story. In the past few years, every trend in the paranormal has been used to explain the site or offer up a backstory for the unexplained. According to Payst and some others who have looked into the stories, over the years the story has shifted to aliens, a witchcraft hotspot, and an ancient Indian burial location. Each variation reflects the fears and the interests of the people who are making the story their own, evidenced by the newer idea that the spot is actually a vortex. Whether to keep the deep folklore alive or just to claim a little ownership in the story, the little patch in the woods transforms itself into what people want.
This, along with the idea of being pushed by unseen hands drew us to the site.
When we got there is a warm summer day with clouds and a slight breeze. It was not hard to find, especially considering the street is named for the legend. We set up a stationary camera to capture the whole thing and walked the perimeter of the circle. It was littered with garbage, convenience store cups, and beer bottles. There was a metal chair set up roughly in the middle and a makeshift fire pit. Someone had been there recently, confirming the Devil’s Tramping Ground as a party place.
We walked a ways into the woods and found evidence of other activity. There were animal bones scattered in different locations, proof of either cult activity or people wanted it to look like there was cult activity. Other than the bones and tarps, there was not too much to the area itself. We spent time in the circle itself to see if we could feel anything trying to get rid of us, but our feet remained firmly planted. Natalie had the idea to make a cross out of some of the local vegetation to see if it would get tossed from the circle. We stayed for about an hour, mainly to say we had been there, and made our way to the hotel to get some much needed sleep.
The original plan was to go back that night and see if we could talk to some of the people who partied there or even interview the dark forces, but we spent too much time looking for the hitchhiking Lydia and were not able to get back. A follow-up the next day revealed nothing else out of the ordinary and our cross was in the same place. In fact, after the being molested by ghostly redheads in Greensboro and getting new Pukwudgie reports in Indiana, the Harper’s Crossing and the Devil’s Tramping Ground felt mundane.
It was not until we reviewed the camera some time later that things got eerie. One of the things I noticed, and we had not talked about it at the time of the trip, was how little time we spent in the middle of the circle. Most of the time we were there was spent trailing the woods, but we seemed to unconsciously avoid actually being where the Devil was believed to walked. It was subtle. We had travelled 1,000 miles and didn’t spend much time in the middle.
You can’t put your hands on that kind of idea or hold it up. It could just be an overactive mind wanting to justify having touched a legend. The camera, however, picked something up which almost defines the eye. At one point the lighting completely changes (perhaps due to the clouds overhead), but then several odd noises are heard. These climax with a clear clanging of metal. At that exact moment, something flies through the frame and out of the circle. We have broken it down and determined it was not a bird and was too big, even in perspective, to be an insect or something else hanging out in the woods. This, mixed with the sound heard right before the movement, leads us to believe one of those beer or soda cans was kicked out of the circle while we played in the woods.
Like the legend itself, there is no clear cut answer to what we saw. The Devil’s Tramping Ground has exist for decades, and if every bit of folklore is born from some truth, there might be more to the story than just some dead vegetation and some odd lights in the woods. People will continue to tell their stories about the place, odd first hand accounts with their choice of background to give it context. The legend will continue because we want it to, but just when you think it’s safe to sit back and think of it all as just a story, a swift kick and clang might happen and make you rethink whether a ghost story, or even a tale of the Devil, has more fact than fable to it.
Like every state in the Union, Tennessee has its local legends, ranging from First Nations stories that predate the arrival of Europeans to the land to modern urban legends the likes of which reflect modern fears and unease. Among these legends are legends of local monsters. Given the centuries of human habitation in the state, […]
Some interesting side stories to follow up on if we go to Tennessee…
And here I thought I was doing it right all along.
I set nets and lobster traps out there. I publish a story I hear in the hopes that a person keywording something they experienced or were told about will fall in and tell me their version of the story. I then document what they experienced. I go out to the places where things happen and try to experience it myself, maybe asking a few people nearby if they’ve heard about it. I’ve been doing that for more than twenty years, since I first asked people what they had heard about my haunted dorm, Charlesgate. If I’m looking at a place I don’t know, I send out e-mails to the gatekeepers of the tales; librarians, members of town history groups, professors at local colleges. It’s my way of trying to get my hands on what Charles Johnson once called, “our human inheritance.”
Today I received a response back from a doctor of folklore studies from a university in Pennsylvania. Nine words if you don’t count our names.
This is not the way to conduct folklore research.
Years ago Tim Weisberg from Spooky Southcoast gave me the label of Analytical Folklorist. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded official and important and close enough to what I do for me to embrace. After all, I was slowly moving away from investigating the paranormal and had long held to the idea that the value in looking into the paranormal was in finding what it had to do with the people who experienced it and those who sought out their stories. Tracking down a good ghost story was an exercise in recording oral and written history, and writing it down was capturing more about society than capturing a ghost (or a Ghost on Film). I believed then that tales of the paranormal and supernatural were a major part of our modern folklore, and my work over the past three years has done nothing to change that.
It’s not that I think ghosts don’t exist. There are unexplained things in this world, and those things will always remain that way. The paranormal is our way of trying to make sense out of the unseen, and for every story where we see a possible reason for the ghost, there are ten more that only point at our existing ideas on ghosts or the growing new mythology we are creating concerning the unknown. There is much folklore in how we look for ghosts, including the people who do it, as there is in the ghosts they look for.
But that’s a story for another day.
This is more about the Legends Project and its goal of searching out stories to trip this summer outside of Florida.
I had started the project a few years ago and restarted it about six months ago with the goal of traveling to sites I could trip and collect stories from. The idea was to find places where the locals knew of a story, ghost or just off-center, and then go to the location and see what I could collect by talking to people and enacting any ritual connected to the story.
For example, you go to a cry-baby bridge. You turn your lights out like the tale tells you to do. Honk twice as instructed and be ready to see the bride appear before you with the dead baby in her arms. Before that, you hit the Internet finding variations of the story and ask people about it when you get to the town.
Perhaps the best example of Tripping on Legends doing this would be the case of the Devil’s Tree in Port St. Lucie. We searched the Net for hours, and when we got there we asked everyone we could find the stories they had heard about it. We were able to record four or five variations of the story or little add-ons (the serial killer lived in a shack near the tree) and this led us to other mysteries, like what were the ruins near the tree and was the whole thing signal some kind of disturbance in the area where serial killers, sketchy asylum owners, and random acts of violence would find their way to the same spot.
To me, that’s what modern folklore is about. Find a story, look into the story, try to connect the story.
This is what I learned from reading the people who inspired me. Food for the Dead was one of the most influential books to my early work because Michael Bell set out to find the stories and experience them himself, even though he never really thought there were vampires out there. Jan Harold Brunvand laid out similar methods in collecting as many versions of urban legends as he could. The same could be said for Charles Robinson in prepping New England Ghost Files. I would even say hearing Joseph Campbell describing connecting myths follows a similar pattern.
So what am I doing that’s wrong, Doc?
The logical first step is to find a story. This is a copy of the e-mail I send out to get the pot stirred:
My name is Christopher Balzano, a folklorist living in Southwest Florida.
I am starting a new project looking to explore and celebrate the stories that have become the foundation for the rich oral and written tradition of this country. I am looking for the folklore that has contributed to the development and tradition of America, and I am hoping for your help.
I believe the journey of a folklorist starts with asking a question to get the adventure started, so today I am asking you.
Is there a story in your area that your citizens view as folklore or local myth?
Having done this for more than two decade, I understand how difficult that question may be. It involves sifting through old stories and urban legends to try and sort things out. I am not asking you to go that far, mainly because that’s where the love of the trip lies for me. I’m just searching for whatever information you might have and perhaps a lead.
I am looking to document the more obscure stories, the hidden John Henry of your area.
The story may be familiar but region specific, creepy or spooky, or just plain entertaining or important. Folklore, urban legends, or just regional legends are all fair game.
I am especially interested if you know of storytellers who make these tales come to life or know of local archived audio files of them.
I thank you for your time, and I hope to hear back from you.
I have sent this to countless libraries and historical societies. I have sent it to paranormal investigators and professors. It’s a feeler, and more often than not it gets ignored. The goal is to have someone get the e-mail and remember a story, or be bored enough to look through their files and find something that might fit the bill. Sometimes there is a near-forgotten story in a drawer somewhere, like the Haunted Schoolhouse case a few years ago. The bigger hope is that I get into their mind, so when something comes along, they think of me and what I am doing and get back in touch.
Almost every legend trip I have done in the past six months was born of this letter. A librarian told me about the Singing River. A newspaper writer pointed me towards the Mini Lights. A member of the historical society asked me if Talking Mary fit into what we were trying to do.
So what do I do differently, Doc?
I have since sent a return e-mail asking what more I need to do to warrant a moment of his time and a lead on a story, but when I look at what I do, I am confident I’m going about it the right way. I do it with a love of the story and an eye to what it says about us. I do it with respect and awe. I do it with the hope of experiencing what people have claimed to be their town’s truth but with the realization that more often than not I’ll just be shouting into the wind.
The first paranormal story I can remember involved a retelling of a Devil’s Footprint in New Hampshire. I was living there at the time (seven years old), and as I read how the town had created whole mythos around this imprint in stone, I became fascinated with what was the truth behind the story, especially after the writer gave several different account of the legend. Then he put his socked foot into the print and it fit exactly. I was hooked. Years went by and the same idea of the Devil’s footprint kept coming up.
Maybe I’m not going about this the right way, but methods have to shift. We do not tell our stories the same way, and we do not hear them like the days of old. Smart phones are handheld campfires, and Reddit is your sketchy cousin letting you in on the haunted house down the street. Folklore is happening as we live and changing as quickly as we can switch apps. There is history in the ghost story. There is societal knowledge in the cryptid still wandering in the woods. The best way to hold this knowledge is to experience and squint and look for the strings.
Here’s hoping that’s good enough for you, Doc.
Was the Cherokee Beloved Woman a desdendant of the Corn Goddess?
The Mini Lights of St. Petersburg ended up being one of the most interesting legend trips we’ve done, not because of any evidence we got, but for the rich insight it gave us into the community and the challenges it provided for trying to figure out where things happened and what the straight story might be.
Ends up there isn’t one location and there isn’t one story. You can spend your time trying to straighten out spaghetti or you can devour the bowl and ask for some garlic bread and meatballs.
Check out the episode we did on the way and after… http://triplegend.hipcast.com/deluge/triplegend-20170326103541-9630.mp3
As well as some follow up on that case and the Devil’s Tree in Port St. Lucie… http://triplegend.hipcast.com/deluge/triplegend-20170327012736-6406.mp3
…and hear the show where we first talk about it…http://www.hipcast.com/podcast/HtJFN9GQ
…and more about the Devil’s Tree and the mysterious draw to the ruins. http://www.hipcast.com/podcast/HQRrNrBQ
Subscibe to the full show at http://triplegend.hipcast.com/rss/tol1.xml or search for us on Sticher, TuneIn and Itunes and Google Play.