It’s almost spooky season so let’s get into the season with a strangely varied case – what screams autumn more than a haunted forest? Virginia has such a long and storied history, it’s no wonder that it’s home to what just might be the most haunted forest in the United States. Buckle up folks, we’re going to take a metaphorical hike through the Old House Woods. Let’s explore.
By all measures, the old house woods is a small forest. According to Our Community Now, it consists of only 50 acres of land. To put this in context, that’s half the size of the Mall of America. Though it is definitely on the small side for a forest, it definitely is dense. When you look at the Old House Woods on a map, you can hardly see the ground through the treetops. Pine trees occupy most of the space and the ground is marshy where they do not grow. I can only imagine how creepy it would be on the ground there – the trees crowding in, fog slowly rising up from the marshland.
Obviously, being on the east coast of the United States, the history of this area of Virginia runs very deep. The history is dotted with stories of “American” settlers (note: I dislike the term “American” when only referring to the United States, as it dismisses the other aspects of the Americas such as the rest of North America, Central America, and South America) and the indigenous peoples that came before them. With history comes blood, especially when the land was the setting for several wars.
Old House Woods stood through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, acting as a sorely needed refuge to weary soldiers who needed cover to rest. The dense trees shielded them. But it was not only soldiers who hid amongst their trunks. A longstanding rumor is that pirates also took cover in the woods. And it is from these pirates and soldiers that we begin to hear the rumblings of something not being quite right in the Old House Woods.
The stories of hauntings in the Old House Woods begin with the paranormal staples. Travelers through the woods and curious hikers report hearing things such as whispers, voices, and laughs that have no apparent source. There are footsteps with no feet on the path. There are shadows that dart between the tree trunks and figures seen from the corners of eyes. Really, this is the kind of paranormal fodder we hear about in almost every story, and it’s the kind of stuff that is very easy to write off as paranoia and fear, which results from being in such a claustrophobic space. And if that was all that was reported in the woods, I’d scoff and write this whole thing off. But we’re just getting started.
The story of the Frannie Knight House is a local story that has helped put Old House Woods on the map. The small house once sat in the middle of the dense forest, abandoned and decrepit. Apparently, the house mysteriously went up in flames one day. And when I say mysteriously, I mean there was no starting point from the fire. The blaze was totally spontaneous and eventually put itself out. Then, it caught fire again and burned completely. Strange, since the legend doesn’t mention who observed this, or how the story has reached us today, or whether the ruins of the house still remain at the center in the woods. A strange story, for sure.
Another local legend is that of the Storm Woman – a spirit who is often seen flying over the treetops, screaming at the top of her lungs. Why? To warn off sailors who may meet their deaths in the woods. Terrifying. She apparently is a woman with light-colored hair (reports vary from white to blonde to light brown), wearing a nightgown (again, reports vary to the condition and time period of the nightgown). She most often appears during thunderstorms and times of high winds, hence her being christened the Storm Woman.
Perhaps the strangest reported phenomenon in the Old House Woods is the appearance of skeletons among the trunks. Now this is WILD. I can’t find any indication of whether these are the spirits of skeletons or actual, corporeal bones walking around the woods. The skeletons reportedly wear armor and approach anyone nearby asking for directions – or, at the other end of the scary spectrum – rush spectators while waving old-fashioned weapons. Casual.
An interesting theory brought up by the History channel program Buried Worlds is that the haunting of Old House Woods is somehow related to the lost colony of Roanoke. The main facets that tie the two together are the idea that the lost colonists moved north towards Chesapeake Bay, and that something perhaps happened to them there. I don’t personally prescribe to this belief, but it’s definitely an interesting train of thought.
The most pervasive and wide-reaching stories that come from the Old House Woods, however, involve phantom Pirate Ships and buried treasures. There are several legends that tell of chests overflowing with gold coins being buried in the area. The who varies from King Charles II to unknown benefactors to Patriots during the United States’s early wars, but the gist of each legend is the same – the ship carrying the treasure mistakenly went up the wrong waterway and ended up in the Old House Woods. They then unloaded their cargo and were either attacked by robbers or the treasure was buried for later retrieval, only for the ship to capsize before the return trip was possible. So, basically, there may be several treasures in the area, who knows?
Onto the ghost ship! This is by far the strangest haunting I’ve covered yet on this blog. When we hear the term ghost story, we’re used to hearing about people and maybe animals. But a whole ship? That’s practically unheard of. The first recorded sighting of this ship took place in the late 1800s, when a local fisherman saw a ship hovering above the water. A whole ship, fully lit, just gliding there with no ripples on the water. The fisherman heard music from the ship as it passed. People still see this ship all the time – you can read more encounters from locals and visitors alike at Seeks Ghosts here. What I find most interesting about all of this is that it seems to be a residual haunting in some aspects: the ship is intact and the sailors are all performing their duties as usual, apparently. On the other hand, though, there seem to be intelligent aspects of the haunting, especially evident in the fisherman’s account from the 1800s – the ghost ship nearly hit him, but turned at the last moment. Either that was an incredible coincidence, or the spirits aboard the ship intelligently reacted to the fisherman’s presence.