Discover the dark tales that lurk beneath the quaint facades of these small American towns.
There’s something about our species that savors, and even chases after a good fright. It might be a jump scare, like when a cat leaps out of a closet and startles you. Others might prefer something a bit darker, or more macabre, to send chills down their spines. If you ever have the chance to wander through an abandoned mental asylum for an hour or two, you’ll know what we’re talking about.
In the spirit of seeking out the creepy delights that come with confronting our fears, we’d like to offer you a list of eerie small towns. It’s here you’ll find those spooky, cobweb-filled corners of American life that frighten us the most.
In eastern Texas, near the Arkansas and Louisiana borders, would-be ghost hunters will run across the town of Jefferson and the haunted Jefferson Hotel. In operation since the late 1800s, this historic hotel and one-time brothel has borne witness to a healthy dose of Texas history. The hotel started recording the guests’ encounters with the ghosts haunting its rooms and corridors—like the Vanishing Man, who comes and goes and stomps around as he pleases—in the hotel’s “book of the dead.” A stay here could have you bumping into all kinds of tormented souls, including Judy, a sex worker likely murdered in the hotel. She now writes her name in the condensed steam left on mirrors after patrons take a hot shower.
Marianna, tucked up inside the Florida Panhandle, offers nature lovers in search of ghoulish apparitions a two-for-one deal too good to pass up. The Bellamy Bridge Heritage Trail, near the Chipola River, provides hikers with a lovely walk through the woods, as well as a chance to visit Bellamy Bridge. This small steel bridge, built in 1914, is famed for sightings of Elizabeth Jane Croom Bellamy. While accounts vary as to her demise, the general story is that she burned to death in 1837. The kicker is that she died at her own lavish marriage ceremony after her wedding gown accidentally caught fire. Her family buried her near the bridge, hence her fondness for this piece of forested Florida real estate.
Cimarron, New Mexico
Cimarron, in the northern reaches of New Mexico, is the closest “living” municipality to the once vibrant coal town of Dawson. After 263 miners, plus two rescuers perished in a coal mining catastrophe in 1913, and then another 120 lost their lives in an explosion in 1923, the town hobbled on until 1950. Cimarron was eventually sold, and most of the structures were knocked down or transferred to another location, save for the cemetery. To this day, the lingering spirits of dead miners are rumored to emerge come nightfall.
Alton is a favorite haunt (pun intended) for ghost hunters. It has served as a location shoot for several television shows about paranormal experts in search of ghosts. The big draw here is the Italianate-Victorian McPike Mansion, perched atop Mt. Lookout which, cleverly enough, overlooks the entire town. Founded in 1869, everything about this unoccupied mansion—from the knotted old oak trees strewn about to the unsettling wine cellar—screams “haunted house.” The phantoms of former owners and servants rambling about (if you believe in that sort of thing) should keep visitors well-occupied with the goings-on of the supernatural world.
Burke is a nearly abandoned mining town that boomed in the latter part of the 19th century, then later went bust. The settlement, wedged into an exceptionally narrow mountain valley, is 300 feet across at its most constricted point. The lack of space forced the railroad to run down the main street and forced builders to get creative when designing buildings able to fit into such a confined space. Due to a violent history, plagued by gunfights and dynamite sabotage between mine owners and labor, plus the deaths caused by avalanches, locals might advise avoiding Burke at night. Of course, if you happen to be looking for a run-in with a ghost or two, nighttime is when the dead come out to play.
Theater buffs who enjoy drama off the stage as much as one might want to catch a play at Wailuku’s historic Iao Theatre. This is a venue where patrons can combine the pleasure of watching a local theater production with talented actors, along with the shudders that come from knowing that a few ghosts might be in attendance as well. Iao, opened in 1928, has a benevolent female ghost in residence, as well as a few prankster apparitions that like to tinker with the lighting. And if that isn’t enough for you, the spirits of deceased soldiers reportedly wander around the basement.
One of Bangor’s most famous residents, author Stephen King, dwells in a mansion here. That’s surely reason enough to include Bangor on a list of creepy towns. Mount Hope Cemetery, where a college-aged King used to hang out, is another great reason to go. King is said to have come up with character names and some of his scariest story ideas here. Scenes from the 1989 film adaption of Pet Sematary were even shot at this site. The cemetery, founded in 1836, is one of the first garden cemeteries to ever open in the United States. Mount Hope is full old, distinctive tombstones that inspired one of America’s most famous authors, a writer who has spent his career creeping out a nation and a planet with his horrifying tales.
Old Cahawba, Alabama
Old Cahawba doesn’t shy away from its unearthly vibe, with champions of this abandoned locale declaring it “Alabama’s most famous Ghost Town.” From 1819-1826, Cahawba served as the state capital, but flooding, war, and other political concerns eventually caused the capital to be moved, and the town abandoned. Today, Old Cahawba Archaeological Park is home to the ghostly ruins left behind, including St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the slave burial grounds, and the skeletal remains of modest residences and a few stately mansions. The trees surrounding the town, laden with drooping Spanish moss, saturate the site even further in an eerie ambiance.
One of the biggest and most reliable tropes in horror is: never build a home or community on top of an ancient Native American burial ground. Well, Decatur did just that, setting up shop atop Native American burial grounds in 1829. One of the best places to experience the results is Greenwood Cemetery, where paranormal occurrences have often been reported. Greenwood, with the spirits of indigenous peoples and Civil War soldiers lurking about, is considered to be one of the most haunted cemeteries in the United States.
Seward is home to ruins of one of the most tragic incarnations of the Jesse Lee Home for Children. While other orphanages of the same name have operated in Alaska, this location, abandoned after 1964’s Great Alaskan earthquake (magnitude 9.2), has an exceptionally unfortunate history. Apparently the ghosts of children who perished during the earthquake still haunt the premises today. The pitter-patter of little feet running around, along with the sounds of skipping rope and giggling tots are the most common reports coming from those living souls brave enough to explore this decaying orphanage. A massive, gloomy feeling seems to descend upon all who spend any time here.
East Bethany, NY
The hamlet of East Bethany is home to a theme park of sorts that caters to ghost hunters and fans of the paranormal. The decaying Rolling Hills Asylum, which featured as a location in the television show American Horror Story: Asylum, offers ghost tours at night (some lasting until 4 a.m.) either with a guide or, for those with stout hearts, alone. The compound was founded in 1827 as the Genesee County Poor Farm. Over the decades, it housed orphans, and eventually became an asylum for the mentality ill, or those perceived to be mentally ill at the time. Apparitions still stray through the hallways, the abandoned psychiatric ward, and the expansive the grounds, where the bodies of former residents, unclaimed by loved ones, were buried in unmarked graves.
Thibodaux is a small town near New Orleans that has experienced its share of hardcore tragedy, and even massacre over the centuries. The Laurel Valley Plantation is rumored to be haunted, as is St. John’s Historic Cemetery, built on the former Ridgefield Plantation. Anyone versed in the history of the region will likely feel uneasy when visiting some of Thibodaux’s most haunted sites. This is especially true if they know about the 1887 Thibodaux Massacre, when African-American sugar cane workers went on strike, with many then heartbreakingly slaughtered for their unionizing efforts.
Deadwood, South Dakota
If you’ve ever caught an episode of the HBO series Deadwood, you already know who Sheriff Seth Bullock is. If not, a visit to the Bullock Hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota, will acquaint you with him quickly, as his ghost still spends an awful lot of time there. Bullock and Sol Star built the hotel in 1895. Being a sheriff, you might guess that Seth met a grim bullet-riddled demise—but he actually died of cancer in 1919. Bullock turns showers on and off, ensures that the living staff isn’t lollygagging about, and generally likes to make his ethereal presence known to all who venture inside his guesthouse.
The big spine-chilling draw to the tiny town of Adams (with a population under 700) is the story of the Bell Witch and the Bell Witch Cave. Legend has it that the soul of Kate Batts transformed into a witch upon her death. She then subsequently started to torment her neighbor John Bell and his offspring. The invisible witch scratched and yanked at the hair of John’s daughter Betsy to end her wedding engagement. She often jabbed at John’s throat as well, causing him great distress. After John passed away, possibly poisoned by the witch, Kate took refuge in what is now known as the Bell Witch Cave. Many people claim to still feel the unnerving presence of Kate to this day as they wander by or into this sinister cave.
Crescent City, California
At first glance, Battery Point Lighthouse, built along the wild Northern California coast in 1856, doesn’t have much of a creepy aura to it. In fact, the picturesque lighthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, seems quite charming. The location can only be reached during low tide because when the ocean comes in, the point it was built on turns into an islet. Despite its pleasant appearance, this spot has long been suspected of being haunted by at least one ghost, and possibly a few more. The dead like to clomp around, grab people’s shoulders, and employ that old supernatural trick of rocking back and forth in a rickety rocking chair to get your attention, and possibly freak you out.