The Straight-Up Creepiest Places in America

Everyone has their own distinct threshold for creepiness. A person who enjoys the thought of prowling around an abandoned asylum might blanch upon setting foot on a carnival midway. Someone who gets a charge from admiring the death-sneers of old taxidermy might walk double-speed past a cathedral. There's an entire Rorschach test embedded in the mere phrase "Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch."

But if we may defer to the experts: few outfits in the world have spent more time cataloging macabre, demented, inexplicable, or simply unnerving places than the crew at Atlas Obscura. We've collected the most creepiest sites via the newly published Atlas Obscura, a compendium of curious geography, curated and written by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton. You can find the book here; you can find these and many other creepy places by getting in a car and heading in virtually any direction in America.

University of Tennessee Rotting Corpse Farm
John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corporation

The University of Tennessee's rotting corpse farm

Knoxville, Tennessee
There is a 2.5-acre forest full of rotting human corpses at the University of Tennessee, but it's nothing to worry about -- the bodies are meant to be there. The Knoxville institution is home to the country's first "body farm," a facility where forensic anthropologists and FBI agents get a close-up view of what happens when you die.

Anthropologist Dr. William M. Bass established the body farm in 1971 to advance the study of decomposition. Bodies are buried or left exposed within the wooded plot so they can be observed at various stages of the postmortem process.

By analyzing the effects of weather and insect activity on decomposition, students and researchers are better able to estimate the time of death. Law enforcement agencies also use the facility to sharpen criminal investigation skills -- FBI agents, for example, practice exhuming and identifying human remains. The body farm is not open for tours, but its staff members give talks, and the facilities are open to researchers.

There are around 40 bodies in the farm at any one time, and donations are welcome (provided they're properly sourced). If you're interested in someday becoming part of the farm, make your intentions known to the university.

World's Quietest Room
Steven Orfield of Orfield Laboratories

The quietest room in the world

Minneapolis, Minnesota
You may think silence is peaceful until you visit Orfield Laboratories. The lab is home to an anechoic chamber: a room that has no echo. About 99.99% of all sound made inside the chamber is absorbed by bouncy 3ft-thick foam wedges that cover every surface.

Within seconds of entering, you will notice sounds you don't usually hear: the beat of your heart, the flow of your breath, and the gurgling of your digestive system start to become unnerving. Visitors often become disoriented, especially if lab founder Steven Orfield turns out the lights. Most don't last beyond a few minutes. Half an hour is unimaginable.

Manufacturers use the quiet room during product testing to gauge the volume of switches, displays, and other components. The chamber has been Guinness-certified as the quietest place in the world, with an ambient noise level of -9 decibels. (A quiet bedroom at night is around 30 decibels.)

California City
© 2016 Google, Imagery © 2016 DigitalGlobe, Landsat, U.S. Geological Survey

The failed town of California City

California City, California
From the air, this collection of streets resembles a printed circuit board. Its carefully planned cul-de-sacs and concentric curved roads are neat and densely packed. The layout of streets and services is logical, aesthetically pleasing, and well-suited to a major city. There's just one thing missing: people.

In 1958, a former sociology professor named Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres of land in the Mojave Desert. His grand plan was to create California's next great metropolis -- a thriving, car-centric city to rival Los Angeles. Mendelsohn mapped out a network of roads, named them all, and oversaw their construction. The streets surrounded Central Park, an 80-acre green expanse incorporating an artificial lake. Model homes and architectural drawings showed an enticing, affordable version of the American dream.

By January 1959, there were 65 homes in California City. But this influx of people did not herald a mass migration. As the years went by, a trickle of families established homes, but for the most part, the carefully laid out streets remained quiet and empty. Mendelsohn bailed on his planned city in 1969, selling it to a Denver-based sugar and mining company.

By 1990, the population was hovering at just over 6,000. In 2000, it was 8,388. As a major metropolis, California City was a total failure. But its cracked, sand-sloughed streets now attract off-road adventurers, who enjoy careening around the curves of the uninhabited roads on motorcycles and ATVs. The current population is around 14,000, but the houses are spaced oddly. Some blocks are crammed with homes, while others have just one dwelling. All are buffered by a swath of streets that carve up the vacant lots.

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
Edwin Remsberg

Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Baltimore, Maryland
In 1943, Frances Glessner Lee began working on a series of detailed, dollhouse-style dioramas. Working at a scale of 1in to 1ft, the 65-year-old forensics expert filled her mini-rooms with hand-sewn textiles, color-coordinated furniture, and bottles with hand-painted labels. Posed in each room was a mini-corpse exhibiting just the right degree of decay.

Lee's dioramas were known as the Nutshell Studies. Created to assist forensic science students at Harvard, they depicted murder scenes, suicides, and lethal accidents. The clues in Lee's nutshells -- such as blood spatter patterns, the position of the body, and the items found around it -- allowed students to analyze and determine the nature of each grisly death.

To make each scene authentic, Lee read crime reports and police interviews to compile details. She was unflinching in her interior decoration: in one scene, "The Three-Room Dwelling," a husband and wife lie dead in their bedroom. Crimson footprints separate them from the corpse of their blood-spattered baby.

All 18 nutshell dioramas are displayed at the Maryland's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The gory tableaus are still studied by detectives in training.

James Allen's Biography
Boston Athenæum

James Allen's biography… bound in his own skin

Boston, Massachusetts
Among the rare books, maps, and manuscripts of the Boston Athenæum, a private library established in 1807, is a small publication bound in leathery light gray material. Titled Narrative of the Life of James Allen, it is a well-preserved example of autoanthropodermic bibliopegy: a book bound in the skin of its author.

James Allen was a New England bank robber and highwayman. His brazen ambushes during the 1830s landed him in Massachusetts state prison, where he died of tuberculosis in 1837 at the age of 28. As ill health tightened its grip on the illiterate criminal, he began to dictate his memoirs to a warden, instructing him to deliver a skin-bound copy of the finished book to a man named John Fenno.

Though Allen had only met Fenno once, the circumstances of the encounter ensured he would never forget him. In 1834, Allen attacked Fenno on the Salem Turnpike. To the surprise of the highwayman, Fenno fought back, only fleeing after Allen scrambled for his gun and fired a shot, hitting the victim’s torso. Miraculously, a buckle on Fenno's clothing deflected the bullet.

Arrested in 1835 based on a tip by Fenno, Allen nonetheless maintained an admiration for the target of his attempted robbery. As a token of respect, Allen bequeathed a unique gift: his life story, bound in his own tanned, dyed skin.

Museum of Death

The Museum of Death

Hollywood, California
Your visit to the Museum of Death begins with a test: look at the photo on the wall next to the front desk. It shows a man's freshly mutilated body, parts of it scattered across a road following a truck crash. If the picture makes you feel queasy, this place is not for you.

Established in 1995, the museum is a graphic, shocking ode to the myriad ways humans shuffle off this mortal coil. A 45-minute self-guided tour through the small building takes in capital punishment, cult suicides, traffic accidents, and serial murders. A display of body bags, coffins, and mortician instruments serves as a reminder that death is the great equalizer.

Standout exhibits include the Heaven's Gate room, a re-creation of the scene that greeted investigators when they entered a San Diego mansion in March 1997 to discover 39 cult members had committed suicide. Each person had swallowed a lethal dose of phenobarbital and -- covered in a purple shroud and wearing brand-new Nikes -- lay neatly on a bunk bed, believing their soul would be transported to a higher realm on an alien spacecraft. In the museum version, mannequins lie on a set of beds taken from the actual house. They wear shrouds and Nikes removed from two of the deceased followers.

High-profile cases such as the Black Dahlia, Charles Manson, and John Wayne Gacy receive name checks, but the more fascinating artifacts belong to lesser-known murderers. On one wall is a set of photos taken by a couple. The images depict the duo grinning at the camera as they hold up the shredded body parts of the man they have just killed. This being the days before digital cameras, the twosome were caught and charged with murder after they took the incriminating film to a lab to be developed.

St. Roch Cemetery and Chapel

St. Roch chapel, yellow fever shrine

New Orleans, Louisiana
There's a cemetery in the neighborhood of St. Roch (pronounced "rock"). At the center of that cemetery is a chapel. Inside that chapel, in a small room behind an iron gate, rows of prosthetic legs hang from the peeling walls. On shelves beneath sit plaster feet and false teeth, and a few pairs of artificial eyeballs.

Dedicated in 1867, the chapel honors St. Roch, who is associated with good health and healing. Born in the 14th century in Montpellier, Majorca -- now part of France -- St. Roch is said to have cared for and cured plague victims in Italy.

When a yellow fever epidemic hit 19th-century New Orleans, Reverend Peter Thevis, the pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church, prayed to St. Roch for relief and promised to build a shrine to him if the members of his parish were protected from the disease.

Though 40,000 New Orleanians succumbed to yellow fever, Father Thevis' community recorded no losses. The reverend held up his end of the bargain and built the St. Roch chapel and the surrounding cemetery. The gates opened to the public in 1876.

A room in the chapel has since become filled with offerings left by those in need of healing -- as well as people who have prayed to St. Roch and recovered. Bricks on the ground are inscribed with the word "thanks" and littered with coins. Children's polio braces, crutches, and false limbs line the walls, interspersed with praying hands, rosaries, and figurines.

Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden
Flickr/Stuart Borrett

Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden

Wilmington, North Carolina
Named in memory of Wilmington horticulturalist and carnivorous-plant lover Stanley Rehder, who died in 2012 at age 90, this garden is chock-full of meat-hungry flora. You'll see pitcher plants -- which are known to swallow the odd frog or shrew -- as well as Rehder's favorites: Venus flytraps.

In 2013, the garden took a major hit when thieves made away with approximately 1,000 flytraps -- 90% of the population. Fortunately, enhanced security and patient cultivation of replacement plants have seen the flesh-eating garden flourish once more.

Villisca Ax Murder House
Flickr/Jo Naylor

Villisca Axe Murder House

Villisca, Iowa
For a unique overnight stay, book a night in the home where eight people were once slaughtered in their beds as they slept.

In 1912, this house belonged to the Moore family: married couple Josiah and Sarah and their young children, Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul. On the night of June 9th, the family returned from Children's Day services at the local church, accompanied by two of the girls' friends: 8-year-old Ina Stillinger and her 12-year-old sister, Lena.

Sometime between midnight and 5am, an unknown person entered the house and murdered every person inside by striking their head with an ax. From observations at the crime scene it appears that all were asleep at the time they were killed, apart from Lena, who exhibited a defensive wound on her arm and was positioned across her bed.

Over a century later, the case remains unsolved. The main suspect, traveling minister Reverend George Kelly, had taught at the church on June 9th and left town at approximately 5am the next day. He was tried twice but never convicted.

The Villisca Axe Murder House, as it is now bluntly known, was purchased in 1994 by Darwin and Martha Linn and restored to its 1912 state. You can tour the home by day, then spend the night in a room that was once a blood-soaked crime scene.

Racetrack Playa
The Beautiful Lashes

The dry lake of sailing stones

Death Valley, California
When no one is looking, the rocks on the dry lake bed of Racetrack Playa move. Some have only traveled a few inches. Others have journeyed half a mile. All of them leave telltale trails -- some straight; some curved; others erratic and jerky, as if the rock changed its mind along the way.

Until December 2013, no one had ever witnessed the rocks in motion, but plenty had offered theories to explain their movement. A 2010 NASA study concluded that melted snow had streamed from the surrounding mountains and flooded the playa. At night, according to NASA, the water froze around the bottom of the rocks, creating an "ice collar." Over the next month, more water from the mountains arrived, creating a slippery surface and allowing the ice-collared rocks to float on the playa. Fierce winds of up to 90mph sent the stones skidding across the plain.

It was a sound enough theory, but actual evidence was hard to come by. No one is allowed on the playa when it is wet, as their footprints would scar the ground, and research must be noninvasive -- meaning rocks can't be disturbed and cameras must be hidden in the landscape.

Then in 2013, paleobiologist Richard Norris and his cousin, research engineer James Norris, happened to be in the right place at the right time. In front of their eyes, wind pushed an ice floe across the playa, causing one of the rocks to slide along the slick surface of the lake bed. From their position on the mountainside next to the playa, the Norris cousins began taking photos. The evidence was in and the mystery solved.

National Museum of Funeral History
Flickr/Robert Kimberly

National Museum of Funeral History

Houston, Texas
"Any day above ground is a good one." So reads the slogan of the National Museum of Funeral History, which celebrates life by showing how we honor its loss.

Founded in 1992 by undertaker Robert L. Waltrip and attached to an embalming school, the museum displays the country's largest collection of funeral artifacts. Items range from 19th-century horse-drawn hearses to memorabilia from Michael Jackson's memorial service.

The exhibit on 19th-century mourning customs provides a fascinating look at the Victorian response to death. Among the items are a wooden clock that reminded family members to mourn on the hour, a quilt made from ribbons that bound the flowers at a funeral service, and jewelry made from the hair of the deceased.

Other exhibits cover the history of embalming, papal and presidential funerals, and "fantasy coffins." Look out for the Snow White-inspired glass casket and the roomy coffin built for three.

Atlas Obscura

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