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October 28, 2021
In my now thirteen years of fieldwork, I’ve had some pretty harrowing experiences, from bullets to bull charges. I have one true horror story though, from an autumn afternoon in remote West Virginia. It still looms in my mind as what I call “The Haunted Holler.”
It was an October day like most others in 2014. I was working at an environmental consulting company in West Virginia, where my main duties were wetland delineations, habitat surveys, and petroleum well inspections. This last task was the result of a catastrophic chemical spill into the Elk River in January 2014, which resulted in a lack of potable water for 300,000 people. The contract with the gas company and the necessity to inspect their equipment was brand new, so I often had to hunt for the wells armed only with a hand-drawn map or verbal description from the local well tender. Many wells were old and hadn’t been visited in years, and though some were easily accessible in the middle of a pasture, others were walled in with dense vegetation halfway up a steep, muddy mountain. I worked alone, almost always without cell reception, sometimes driving for hours without touching pavement.
We can likely attribute my crystal-clear memory of the Haunted Holler incident to adrenaline, but it also was a remarkably gorgeous day. It was clear and crisp, the blue sky complimenting a world gilded by either goldenrod in the fields or hickories in the woods. The cluster of wells I was inspecting were even more isolated than usual, and many were deep into the hollow (pronounced “holler,” a small valley usually nestled between foothills of the mountain) and only accessible by ATV.
I arrived at a site that looked like any other in the early afternoon. A few weathered outbuildings sat among small hayfields, and a rutted dirt road from the farm quickly disappeared into the woods. Taking the truck would be faster if the road was passable, but at this point in late October I had seen (and driven up) some terrifyingly steep yet also muddy well trails, and did not want to roll the dice on such a remote site. So I backed the ATV off the truck bed, grabbed my equipment, and zipped towards the forest. At the edge of the woods, to the side of the road, was a hand-painted sign on worn wood with large red lettering that read “REST IN PIECES.” Maybe I was not at a normal site after all.
Just inside the woods was a ramshackle shed with open barn doors, which appeared empty except for several large chains hanging from the ceiling. The shed was right next to the road, and as I passed I noticed a dark stain that swept from the middle of the structure to the door, where it stopped. Maybe that’s where they process their deer, I thought as I pushed my thumb harder into the throttle and thundered up the road.
The road was substantially better than they usually were; it was wide, pretty level, and had few ruts. The truck would’ve been just as good here as it was on the gravel roads I took to the site. It wasn’t a straight line, though. It had branches and forks and loops. I pride myself in a strong sense of direction but I found myself getting increasingly disoriented the deeper I drove. It was like the road was meant to be confusing, but why would anyone but the property owner even be back here? I supposed that it didn’t really matter. All I needed to do was look for a smaller path that should shoot uphill towards the well, according to the drawing that I was given.
But I kept seeing more things in the woods that were increasingly odd. And then beyond odd, and downright disturbing. Right along the road, scattered along its length but sometimes in clusters, there were objects hanging from trees. It was a menagerie of dummies. Some were homemade scarecrow-like figures. Others were fashioned from sheets, waving gently from 15 feet above the ground. Others looked a lot like people. Some of those had cheap plastic clown masks strapped to what would be the faces. Others had hoods over the heads, but still had boots or sneakers on what would be feet.
I passed a piece of plywood with baby dolls nailed crudely to it. I passed dangling sawblades, a machete stuck blade-down into the ground, and a semi-circle of more dummies wearing clown masks. I passed a few platforms that were a few feet off the road, some of which were empty and some of which were cluttered with rusty metal tools.
I’ve seen a lot of weird human artifacts in the woods, especially in super remote areas. This was beyond weird though. It was broad daylight, but that made the open displays of violence and malintent even creepier. I was slightly turned around in the maze of paths and utterly alone. Nobody in the entire world knew precisely where I was; I hadn’t had enough service to check in with anyone for hours. Either these landowners had a real penchant for horror movies, or I had just driven an ATV directly into the maw of a human monster. Or maybe both.
Suddenly, I could see the treeline not far ahead. A familiar sensation from childhood rose in my chest. Every time I went downstairs for some water in the night as a child, I’d be terrified. I knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but fear would utterly consume me. We call this being “afraid of the dark,” where a kid isn’t afraid of anything in particular but is in sheer terror simply because it’s dark. When it was time to ascend the stairs after that glass of water, I’d sprint. And as I ran, it felt like something was running after me. And like it was right behind me.
I pushed harder on the throttle, and shifted to the highest gear as I barrelled towards the field. As I broke into the sweet sunlight, I saw the back of the menacing sign from before. It read: “Thanks for visiting! Happy Halloween! Come back next year!”
Now that I had escaped the terror of the homespun haunted hayride attraction in full sunlight, it was time to turn around and find that well. This time, the disturbing tableaus seemed a lot cuter. I found the well, and it was in genuinely horrifying shape; it was so rusted out that I could see through the storage tank entirely.
I only worked one more month in the private sector after the “Haunted Holler” incident. My jobs became more complicated thereafter; I was no longer in the field all day every day, and my work was more with people and helping them manage their natural resources rather than with the plants and wildlife itself. That beautiful October marked the end of a chapter in my career and life. I hold it, and this not-so-spooky story, close to my heart to this day.
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