The Appalachian mountains are some of the oldest on the continent, with a history just a vast. Carved into every ridge and fen are tales of life, death, faith and fortitude. To kick off the official beginning of Halloween, here are some of my favorite ghost stories from those haunted hills.
Much of what defines folklore as a genre stems from spiritual belief. What happens when someone dies? Is there an afterlife, and what does it look like? The Protestant European settlers often believed that anyone who’d lived a wholesome life would have no need to linger after death. Those ghastly shadows and strange noises were typically thought to belong to the darker, restless souls. Nevertheless, native culture propagated the possibility of benevolent ghosts, family members sticking around to watch over their loved ones. The harsh wilderness bred many an unfortunate end, leaving some dearly parted in a state of unrest.
Since Europeans began settling near Cherokee land, the Cherokee taught them how to hunt effectively in the mountains. Above all else, it was important to remember to respect the animals they killed. But the Europeans rarely ever took this advice to heart, and didn’t ask for a blessing before killing an animal. Some believe the many stories of hunters being maimed or getting lost and starving to death are because of their lack of respect for the beasts.
Legend has it that those who hunt under the Hunter’s Moon will be doomed to a similar fate. One such story involves an arrogant hunter and his troop being warned against hunting bears while the Hunter’s Moon was out. Ignoring the advice, the men went into the woods and were quick on the trail of a massive black bear. No matter how close they came, they could never quite catch it. For days they trailed the bear, some near starved, missing hounds while others had been scratched up. But the hunters should’ve known better, for they’d been told that the bear was the ghost of a hunter who’d been murdered and was out for revenge.
There’s a decrepit little graveyard in Macon County that sits far from civilization. The graves here have stood since long before the Civil War, the eroded stone features barely discernible. Amongst the overgrown tombstones wanders the spirit of a lonely girl named Hannah. To those who’ve witnessed the ghost, she is beautiful and sweet. She seems eager to show herself to those who venture to this forgotten patch of land.
But Hannah is by all means and outlier here, for buried in this graveyard are a number of nameless vagabonds. Criminals and murderers and other unknowns who’s nasty energy is said to overpower Hannah’s. In one infamous instance, two young men had gone to the graveyard to purposefully taunt the ghosts, and had returned so shocked they would take the experience to their graves.
Many wonder why a sweet soul like Hannah is in such a place. The story goes that she was buried far from her family on purpose, punished by her husband’s parents for not sharing their faith. Outcast from the rest, Hannah’s bright energy seems to hide her true agony. It isn’t uncommon for visitors to see and hear her weeping, shrouded by a cool mist around her lonesome resting place.
In the early 1800s, North Carolina was seeing an influx of immigrants when the news spread that there was gold to be found in the mountains. Two Scotsmen joined the rush, buying a plot of land far away from any prying eyes. When the two struck a gold vein, they were of course ecstatic, but had to swear to keep it a secret. Their fortune seemed to grow and grow, until they could no longer keep it buried on the land without risking discovery. They each tried to bring some of it back to their houses, but soon rumors spread about the gold, and they grew paranoid.
The fortune put the two companions at greater and greater odds until one day they’re arguing on the mountain and one kills the other by near-decapitation with a shovel. On his way home with his multiplied gold, the living Scotsman heard his companion’s voice whisper a warning in his ear. Next he knew, he was being ambushed by thieves who demanded to know where the rest of the gold was. He’d die before he told them, and the thieves were accused of murdering both of the Scotsmen. Legend has it that the two greedy men are still wandering the mountain, perhaps searching for their hidden gold, or guarding it.
Ghost stories don’t always begin with a sad fate, or at least, that isn’t all that’s behind a ghastly presence. A stalwart respect for the dead is instilled in mountain folk from an early age; they’re taught to get in touch with the invisible forces around them but to never overstep. Nevertheless, we’ve learned to be weary of forces beyond our understanding. Some entities are believed to be as old as the hills themselves, or else invited here by dark magics. These are the tales that give one an existential chill, when the witnesses swear up and down that whatever they encountered was not human.
The Devil’s Looking Glass
This tale comes from Backwoods Witchcraft by Jake Richards, a collection of anecdotes describing the life and culture of the Appalachian people. The Devil’s Looking Glass is a high cliff overlooking the Nolichucky River in East Tennessee. There’s tale of a Cherokee woman who haunts the cliff and the waters below, having flung herself from the edge after her lover died in battle. She’s said to sing for her lover’s return, a song that eventually fades into gasping wails if you listen long enough.
Similar stories tell of a banshee, which is commonly known for its origins in Irish folklore. The creature has iterations in many cultures, though this one is believed to be the ghost of a woman who died during childbirth.
Perhaps spookiest of all is the legend of Ol’ Miz Wilson, a witch whose known to conjure up the spirits in the river and charm them to dance through the night. On Halloween night, Wilson’s ghost brings the river to life, and eyes are said to sprout on the cliffside in search of entertainment.
Plat-Eyes are ghostly creatures derived from African American folklore. These ghosts are particularly feared due to their ability to shapeshift, changing from humans to animals to strange clouds of smoke. But what makes them truly chilling is their apparent belligerence; unlike other specters of the dead, plat-eyes are consistently known to attack the living. There doesn’t appear to be humanity in these beings, only a desire to do harm.
One story tells of two boys traveling at night during the new moon, which is known to be a time when spirits are most active. On their travels, they are ambushed by a cloud of warm, white smoke, which begins to choke them until they flee. In Gullah culture, plat-eyes are known for often taking the form of a snow white animal with a single, red eye in the middle of its forehead. Some believe plat-eyes are the spirits of those who were not properly buried, and therefore whose souls do not have a defined shape in the afterlife.
Looking for more scary stories to spook your friends? Find some in this Bookstr article!
Every version of folklore finds its most iconic creatures in the yarns spun for children. One of the oldest genres is the parable, a cautionary tale meant to teach some moral lesson or else some common sense. Appalachian bedtime stories are no outlier in this regard: respect your elders, do your chores, don’t wander at night, don’t speak to strangers. In this the melding of indigenous and immigrant cultures shines. Whether or not the unfortunate souls in these tales were real is a truth lost to the annals of time.
This specter of Native American myth is one to be feared. It takes the form of a little girl, pallid and frail, her skin sallow with disease. She’s said to be the spirit of a child who once lived high in the mountains and died of a horrible disease. She makes her presence known by singing, and her distant yet distinct song is something all children should beware. This spirit seeks her revenge by bringing horrible illnesses to kids, but some believe that wearing bright red clothing protects against her influence. To this day, children know to turn the other way when they hear her strange song.
The Snow Witch
Many Appalachians take the danger of witches, or anyone involved in Satanic arts, very seriously. In a little town there lived a European woman with yellow hair and ice blue eyes, and all believed her a servant of the devil. Any devout Christian would scoff at the idea of being afraid of witchcraft, but when the witch threatened to put a hex on those who wronged her, people stayed away.
In this town there was a little boy named Jimmy, who never listened to his parents and killed some of the livestock just for fun. Winter has come and a relative has died of influenza, and all are suffering. One night Jimmy gets up to trudge through the snow to the outhouse, but feels a terrible presence behind him. The snow witch is upon him! He wakes, finding it was a dream. But as the days pass and it continues to snow, trapping the family in their home, Jimmy has the same dream every night. Only every time he dreams it, the witch is getting closer and closer, ready to snatch him.
Jimmy finally swears that he won’t disobey his family anymore, and the snow halts. When he goes outside, he notices two sets of footprints in the snow. One is his, going back and forth from the house. The other, slightly larger, begins out of nowhere and leads directly to Jimmy’s.
Vestiges of War
Tennessee and Virginia saw some of the bloodiest battles in both the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. The unsavory history carved into these lands over hundreds of years haunts us to this day. Those who died here could’ve left many a flagrant soul, prideful and painful, wishing only to return home from battle. While some seem to spite the earth they’ve made fertile with their blood, others are at peace, content to watch over the land they fought and died for.
The Cedar Creek Battlefield
The Treasury of Southern Folklore includes a number of collected anecdotes from those who’d been to battlefields not long after they’d been deserted. During the war, a nearby church had served as a hospital, as well as where the army band would practice and play. As locals cleaned up the Cedar Creek battlefield, they took out all the bodies that had been buried in the churchyard and put them into pine boxes. A local recalls taking off the lids to the boxes, seeing how at peace some bodies looked. Others, petrified. One, who’d seemingly grown a full beard while he was in the ground.
Before the cart came to carry off the boxes, strange lights like candles were seen moving back and forth from the bodies to the church. It wasn’t long after when, one night, the distinct sound of kettle drums and horns could be heard from the empty church. The sounds were somewhat discordant, but each instrument distinct, some ghastly imitation of a rollicking marching tune. Anyone who wandered the road nearby was liable to see troops of soldiers marching back and forth until they’d march right into thin air.
The name of this Revolutionary War battleground is perhaps meant to be ironic, considering it was home to one of Britain’s most humiliating defeats. Hundreds of British soldiers were slaughtered in this battle despite being pitted against no more than a hundred locals. The hill folk were intimately familiar with the harsh terrain, and used that familiarity to their great advantage. After the battle, the British soldiers were buried where they’d died, their bodies littering the deceptively serene field.
The hysteria of war sits right beneath your feet on King’s Mountain, and the plethora of ghostly sightings speaks to that unrest. Groups of visitors have witnessed soldiers marching to and fro, solid and sure as a living person. Sounds of battle resonate through the forest, great explosions and the roar of battle.
Bonus: The Snyder Homestead
And now, the obligatory anecdote. The subject of Appalachian folklore is important to me because these mountains have always been my home. My family’s history here dates back to the late-1700’s, when my great great grandfather George Snyder built the house that still stands in Johnson City, Tennessee. George was a keen businessman and his wife Bertha was a devout Christian, and with their modest wealth and influence they built a church in 1932.
When George died, his son inherited the Snyder homestead, but he never lived in it. Years passed where the house sat abandoned, falling into disrepair without the proper care and upkeep. Of course it fell prey to squatters in that time, though rumor has it that any stranger who stayed there quickly fled for fear of the strange sounds and ominous presence.
My grandfather Tony Snyder would inherit the house next, and planned to move in with his new family after some much needed renovations. Every day Tony went to the house after work and continued fixing it up, sometimes staying late into the night.
On one such night, Tony heard a strange noise. He shrugged it off easily; the house was old and creaky, and he was tired. But then it caught his eye: a small door he’d not noticed before. Curious, he opened the door to see a staircase. Now the thing about this staircase, it was pretty obvious from the sight of it that it wasn’t real, since that would’ve been physically impossible. On the impossible staircase stood a woman, frozen in the dark. Upon flicking the lights, the staircase and the woman were gone.
But beneath the very real staircase to the attic sits great-great-grandmother Bertha’s wheelchair. It’s been sealed into the wall all these years. Also sealed behind new walls is the attic door, which stood right outside my dad’s childhood bedroom. He tells me he had a lot of nightmares about that house as a kid.
A Living Legacy
My Nana, Trena, was like me– or rather, I’m like her– and had a fascination with history and the occult. She’d heard strange things in that house too. Using a Ouija board in the old family home was maybe not her best idea.
Her and Tony’s bedroom was on the bottom floor, where the old living room used to be. They’re asleep one night, with the streetlamp by the church making a line of light on their wall, over the old fireplace.
“It’s freezing in here,” Trena groans, so Tony goes to turn up the thermostat. It’s already up all the way. He goes back to bed. That’s when he notices a shape in the corner, blacker than black, blacker than the dark around it. It’s still for a minute before it starts to move up along the wall, over by the fireplace. Through the beam of light. Then, slowly, out the door.
When Tony gets his bearings, he wakes Trena to tell her. The first thing she says is, “Why is it so hot in here?”
I think the presence could be Grandma Bertha, protecting the house from miscreants and angered by Nana’s occult dabblings. My grandad thinks it could be a demon posing as the deceased, frightening them and ruining his marriage. Whatever the case, that house holds the legacy of my family, and- perhaps literally- the spirit of my ancestors.
Ghosts of the Past
If you’re interested in more tall tales from the area, check out Appalachian Mountain Folklore by Michael Rivers. It’s a compilation of local anecdotes that those familiar with the area might enjoy. Besides that, may this article encourage you to go diving into your own ancestry in search of spooky stories. Folklore is the living essence of culture. You’re sure to find a story that’ll keep you up on these long autumn nights.