men walk down cracked highway with billowing smoke
Where there's smoke, there's most definitely fire... | DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
Where there's smoke, there's most definitely fire... | DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

8 Places that Prove Appalachia Is America’s Haunted Playground

Unexplained lights, urban legends, and an underground coal fire still haunt these hills.

If you like horror movies, you’re no doubt familiar with the setting: a small, isolated Appalachian mountain town, swarming with ghost stories and an air of sinisterness. The densely forested ridges that form the backbone of this often-overlooked American region are marked with the ruins of the Gilded Age, from defunct railways to deserted mining towns 60 years ablaze. Factor in urban legends born in desolate caves and sprawling woodlands, and you’re looking at an unquestionably chilling backdrop.

Though as a born-and-bred Athens, Ohioan, I can tell you the reality of Appalachia. The region spans 13 states from New York to Mississippi, each one brimming with warm and inviting people and sweeping expanses of breathtaking nature. It’s also true that we have our fair share of authentically scary parts. This mountainous terrain was once a bustling corridor of hardworking company towns and hulking sanitoriums. But when the mines closed, much of that was abruptly abandoned. 

Where I'm from, curtains still hang from the windows of the state's largest psychiatric hospital, long left to whither and crumble in the elements. Peak through the barred windows and you might see a single, sepia-toned bed amid peeling walls—a familiar scene in these haunted parts. From a nearby ghost town purportedly frequented by ill-fated railway workers to the ruins of a rural Tennessee institution, you won't have to look too hard to find a fright around here.

graffiti tunnel over old railroad tracks
Enter if you dare. | Hannah June/Shutterstock

Cycle with spirits on a chilling Southeast Ohio rail trail

McArthur, Ohio
Even the name of this abandoned town evokes the creeps. Moonville was briefly populated by mining families and railroad workers in the 1800s, but it hardly ever exceeded 100 residents. One reason for that was that there were never any actual roads leading to it—only the Marietta and Cincinnati Railroad, which many townfolk traversed on foot and, subsequently, met their ends doing so. Walking the tracks was especially dangerous due to the trestles hovering over Racoon Creek. More than 20 people reportedly died falling from that suspended stretch, and even more were killed in head-on train collisions or otherwise mysteriously found themselves belly up on the tracks.

Since the 1940s, the village has been left behind by everyone except those lost souls, and the Moonville Tunnel is notoriously haunted. Its most famous spirit is a brakeman who is said to carry a lantern as he lurks in the tunnel’s dark shadows. Some also report seeing the ghost of the town bully, Baldie Keeton, standing on top of the tunnel, watching visitors from above. Today, the tunnel and town are accessible via a 10-mile rail trail that’s (thankfully) replaced the ominous tracks, welcoming any pedestrian, horseback rider, and cyclist looking to test their bravery.

Track down North Carolina’s mysterious Brown Mountain lights

Burke County, North Carolina
No one truly knows the origin of the illuminated orbs sporadically spotted casting their eerie glow over North Carolina’s Brown Mountain, yet the so-called ghost lights have been perplexing onlookers since the early 1900s. According to witnesses, the Brown Mountain lights appear as fireworks coming off the ridge, or like stars floating over the vast Pisgah National Forest.

Even the US government remains stumped on the source of the lights, conducting several different investigations over the past century. Though their reports say the lights are most likely not of “unusual nature or origin,” a clear cause has never been identified. Instead, about 47% of official findings claim them to be automobile headlights, 33% say locomotive headlights, 10% point to stationary lights, and 10% blame them on local brush fires. Well, which is it?

Want to see for yourself? The best vantage points are at the Brown Mountain Overlook between mile markers 20 and 21 on Highway 181, and from mile posts 301 to 310 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

ominous abandoned prison building
Unsettling doesn't even begin to describe this looming relic. | karenfoleyphotography/Shutterstock

Get up close and personal with formerly incarcerated ghosts

Petros, Tennessee
Something about seeing a sprawling, neglected institutional complex surrounded by the rolling hills of Appalachia cloaked in a fall mist sends chills down the spine. Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was Tennessee’s first maximum-security prison, and it went down in movie history by housing the headline-making criminal Dr. Hannibal Lecter. But the site is probably best known for James Earl Ray’s very real prison break. 

In 1977, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin jumped a fence with six other inmates and remained at large for two and a half days. Bloodhounds eventually sniffed him out, revealing his hiding place under a pile of leaves in the woods more than eight miles from the prison. Today, you can find “Brushy” in Petros, about 40 miles outside of Knoxville. The building closed in 2009, then opened for public tours and events about a decade later.

Curiously enough, it now houses a museum, restaurant, distillery, and gift shop. Guests can either hop on a self-guided or get led around the joint by a former inmate, as well as book private overnight paranormal investigations for groups of eight or more.

road sign pointing to haunted blair witch town
They say the Blair Witch is only fiction... Or is it? | GEORGE BRIDGES/AFP/Getty Images

Search for the Blair Witch in Maryland's Black Hills

Burkittsville, Maryland
Since 1999, paranormal enthusiasts have frequented an unassuming Maryland town looking for the ghost of Elly Kedward—a.k.a. the Blair Witch. And the fact that the Kedward is a fictionalized character concocted by the makers of the 1999 indie cult classic doesn't stop swarms of horror movie fans from searching for Kedward's spirit in the Black Hills outside of Burkittsville each year. 

Nearly 25 years since the film’s debut, Burkittsville, population 170, is still known as the beating heart of Blair Witch Country. Stashed deep in the forest, you'll find the famous Coffin Rock, a flat boulder boasting a creepy backstory that also made an appearance in the film. As the local legend goes, members of a search party combing the woods for a missing eight-year-old girl were found disemboweled and bound at this very rock after the child mysteriously returned. Soon after, their own bodies vanished without a trace.

interior of abandoned asylum
You guys can go on ahead—I'm just going to wait outside. | Jeremy McGowan/500px/Getty Images

Find out what haunts the Trans-Allegheny Asylum

Weston, West Virginia
The tiny, industrial town of Weston, West Virginia lays claim to Appalachia's most famous psychiatric hospital. Like many institutions of its era, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum features long, rambling wings joined by a looming clock tower-topped central block. And the enormous complex sits on—wait for it—666 impeccably manicured acres.

At its most extreme, the asylum was packed with thousands of patients, at times exceeding its 250-person capacity tenfold. Thousands of inhumane experimental procedures were performed at the hospital, resulting in many unfortunate deaths, so it's no wonder the place is now a magnet for ghost tourism. Today, you just might meet the ethereal remnants of patients past on one of the foundation’s paranormal tours offered from April through mid-November.

centralia Pennsylvania underground coal fire smoke
An abandoned coal mine beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania has been burning for more than 60 years. | DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Feel the heat emanating from Pennsylvania’s eternal underground inferno

Centralia, Pennsylvania
Centralia, a once-buzzing borough in eastern Pennsylvania perched on the edge of Appalachian territory, has bid adieu to 99.5% of its local population since the early ‘60s. Why? An old coal mine nestled deep beneath the town’s desolate streets caught fire… and has been continuously burning ever since. 

For decades, the strangest scene in Centralia was a splintered highway, covered in colorful graffiti, smoke constantly billowing from its cracks. The thoroughfare was dubbed Graffiti Highway, because everyone who visited seemed to tag it. But in 2020, the proprietors laid the post-apocalyptic attraction to rest, burying it under tons of soil they hope will one day generate new woodlands. But if you visit, you can still detect smoke seeping out of hotspots around town, revealing the ongoing flames some 300 feet below.

mammoth cave entrance
There's no telling what awaits inside this creepy cave. | Hannah June/Shutterstock

Wander the darkness inside Mammoth Cave

Edmonson County, Kentucky
Caves are inherently creepy, with their pitch-black bends, tight spaces, ambient sounds, and the lurking eyes of creatures too concealed to name. Appalachia happens to have a high concentration of these natural voids, including the world's longest. Mammoth Cave in west-central Kentucky spans 420 miles—more than twice the size of the second-longest, Sistema Sac Actun in Mexico. 

However, research suggests that Kentucky's underground tunnels are, in fact, much longer. Laymen explorers and scientists alike are constantly discovering new passages, tacking on even more miles to the cave's already-astonishing dimensions. Just this past October, the National Park Service announced the discovery of a tooth from a previously undocumented petalodont, or “petal-toothed,” shark encased in the cave walls. Tours are offered in a very small portion of the cave near Brownsville.

mothman statue towers over west virginia
Yep, it's a human-sized bird monster. | The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Come face-to-face with the Mothman

Point Pleasant, West Virginia
In the center of a small West Virginia town where the Ohio River meets the Kanawha, you'll see a human-sized statue of a red-eyed, birdlike figure, its beaked mouth agape and four pointed fingers outstretched. That's Point Pleasant's local celebrity, the Mothman, reportedly spotted in the area from November 1966 to December 1967. Toward the end of the winged creature's reign of terror, the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant collapsed, killing 46 people. The creature’s connection to the deadly incident was subsequently captured onscreen in The Mothman Prophecies, a 2002 thriller starring Laura Linney and Richard Gere.

Today, Point Pleasant cashes in on its urban legend with Mothman-themed cafe specialties, a museum and research center, and an annual festival where locals dress in their best moth-inspired garb.

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Olivia Young is a freelance journalist, slow travel advocate, and vanlife expert. Her favorite travel days usually involve vegan food, wildlife sightings, and an occasional liability waiver.