Image from although honestly this could be any house in Connecticut.

It’s October. Every door creaks, every picture has eyes that follow you, every call is coming from inside the house. Night falls sooner, mist swirls, dry leaves – or footsteps? – whisper along every path. Bats fly out of the tower on the old house at the edge of town, and surely phantom hitchhikers wait along every lonely road. 

Picture these spooky scenes. Where do you see them happening? Everybody knows a spooky place. A place that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Not just dangerous, but eerie. Maybe not now, but years ago when you were a child, you knew a place like this – the haunted house, the old cemetery, maybe just the basement or attic. 

Remember it, then ask yourself: have you really outgrown spooky places? What scares you, and where is it? Maybe it’s Area 51. Or your favorite Bigfoot hotspot. Or Point Pleasant, West Virginia, or (the former) Edmonson, Kentucky. 

We’re justified in fearing some places, because they are contaminated, a scarier scare for the fully grown than whatever’s going bump in the night. Paranormal or aliens or radiation, eerie places are fascinating in a way that your run-of-the-mill dangerous place is not. Show me a dangerous intersection, and I’ll show you a place you avoid but never think about. But what’s eerie combines fear with mystery – and mystery is a potent, enduring universal attractant. 

Mystery, in fact, is one of the aspects of landscapes we find attractive, according to research on the subject. That general rule is this: that we are intrigued by scenes that we can’t immediately understand fully, because they invite exploration and hint that there’s more to be learned from them. Spooky places are mysterious, but they also scare. Two reasons to notice them, remember them, and care what happens to them, for good or ill. Another general rule: we place less value on what’s overgrown and unkempt, because those places look like no one else values them. But what good is a well-maintained spooky place? It’s just ordinary. A greater feeling of abandonment makes an eerie place eerier, and perhaps that much more mysterious/frightening. Our feelings about them are, in a word, contradictory. 

Also contradictory is that spookiness can protect a place. We aren’t indifferent toward places we fear, and indifference is the real enemy here. Indifference is what makes a place invisible, and that invisibility makes it ripe for a new Wal-Mart or subdivision or what have you. That protection can create a space for nature. To see this in action, you wanna see something really scary. Like Chernobyl.

In 1986 an accident at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused one of its reactors to explode. At least 50 people were killed immediately, and 120,000 residents were evacuated. The site remains radioactive today. A vast 1,000 square mile exclusion zone surrounds the site, including the abandoned city of Pripyat.  

Today, Chernobyl is famous not just for the disaster, but also as a haven for wild horses, elk, boars, bison, and most especially wolves. There’s room for them to live and thrive (radiation notwithstanding) because we humans are too afraid to enter that place enough to disturb them. Chernobyl is the perfect example, because we’re afraid not just of the place, but of objects and resources, like timber, that might be extracted from that place, and it’s a big place – 1,000 square miles! Big enough for wolves to thrive. 

Nuclear contamination is authentically terrifying, but there’s also a thousand horror stories about mutants, people or animals or viruses, and about you yourself becoming mutated. We can’t see radiation or contamination, so we can’t tell if it’s gone or increasing or creeping up behind you. That’s sinister. At this point, thirty-odd years on, the sheer size of the abandoned area around Chernobyl is unnerving because who knows what’s really in there? If you go in and get into trouble, no one can hear you scream. It’s self-perpetuating spooky.

Bring contamination closer to home, subtract the radioactive wolves, and you come to Love Canal. Love Canal is a former subdivision near Buffalo, NY, made infamous as a toxic waste disaster. The homes and, incredibly, an elementary school, were built on the site of an abandoned canal project (hence the name) that was used as a chemical waste dump in the 1940s and 1950s. A disease cluster in the neighborhood prompted grass-roots investigation, revealing that chemicals were leaching through groundwater into area basements and yards, as well as the school playground (!). A lengthy and intense struggle by neighborhood activists (mostly women) led to the relocation of over 900 families, and eventually to the creation of Superfund by the federal government in 1980. The disaster exponentially increased public awareness of the dangers of industrial pollution, particularly in working-class areas (like Love Canal) and minority neighborhoods.

Today the site of these vanished homes is a parcel of approximately one square mile, comprised of meadow, more or less, and scattered trees. It’s a savanna with crumbling driveways and roads, surrounded by chain link fence. A landscape that’s terrifying, if you’re old enough to remember Love Canal as breaking news; unsettling, if you are one of the residents across the road wondering about the genesis of their ailments; welcoming, if you are a rabbit or possum or deer. 

Industrial contamination is scary stuff, and the nature of pollution underground, in ground water, or in the soil, or in your basement courtesy of your sump pump, is, again, hidden and mysterious in its extent and severity. They say it’s gone. Is it? The idea that we’ve unleashed dangers we can’t control, be they industrial or nuclear, is a very disturbing one – and a fascinating one, as illustrated by most Twilight Zone episodes, a lot of science fiction, and any scary story about repeating names while looking in a mirror.   

Spooky/ nature spaces don’t have to be famous. I used to live near Split Rock, an overgrown abandoned quarry and industrial ruin in Syracuse, New York. Already you see the eerieness, right? – “abandoned quarry,” “industrial,” “ruin” – but there’s more: in 1918 a factory making explosives for World War I exploded, creating a horrific fire that killed fifty men and critically injured fifty more.

Today the Split Rock  quarry is a big blank spot on the map, approximately 900 acres of woods and brush – and according to some, paranormal activity. It’s a place where roads dead end, with a few rusty “Danger – no trespassing” signs for atmosphere. There’s plenty of good reasons to leave the place alone: old quarry cliffs and holes, industrial ruins, worrying contamination from that munitions plant, and the very real danger of getting lost in the deep, dark, possibly haunted woods.  While not truly urban, Split Rock is close enough to the city to keep me alert for urban ills. There may be a few of those there, plus the occasional ghost hunter, and surely mountain bikers using the unofficial trails. But mostly, Split Rock is left to the deer and the coyotes and smaller creatures. 

Set aside the specters and the chemicals, look at these places as natural landscapes, and you’ll find they look pretty good. Sinister places benefit us just like any natural area, benefits like cleaner water, reduced flooding, less urban heat island, and carbon sequestration, the whole ecosystem services  bundle. These processes are going on in each of these places; some of them are doing all three. They benefit us even while we fear them, and their enduring mystery helps keep us from destroying them, thus protecting their ability to continue helping us. 

Fear can create space for nature to recolonize, recover, even thrive. Contaminated sites are especially good at discouraging development, partly because they tend to have sticky legal issues about what’s there and whose fault it is and who should do what to clean it up. 

Yet plenty of eerie places have no natural value. Most buildings reputed to be haunted are just buildings – ecologically speaking, the most haunted house is just a house, unless it’s got an overgrown yard. Lots of horrifyingly contaminated brownfields are redeveloped  into utterly mundane things, like freeways or strip malls, and people forget what they were. Even the sites of authentically horrific events like Civil War battles, can struggle against encroaching development. Sites like Chancellorsville, where 24,000 men died in 1863, arguably could benefit from being more spooky, thus helping preserve them. 

What makes the difference, turning an unsettling place into a natural space as well? Is there a way to harness spookiness to help preserve natural areas? Can we use this without it backfiring and creating a place so eerily fascinating that people love it to death? 

Back in the ‘90s, there was an interdisciplinary effort to design a warning landscape to scare away humans (or any other intelligent life) in perpetuity from nuclear waste storage sites like Yucca Mountain and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, has since gone kaput as a doomsday nuclear storage facility, but the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in neighboring New Mexico is socking away nuclear waste underground, and still asking how to keep people away long after our civilization and language have crumbled into dust. 

Fear, made to act as a warning. Spookiness to save your life. Think about it, maybe while you ignore the tapping at the window and tell yourself the shadows on the stairs aren’t moving.

Also posted on Medium.