Some places seem to have become so incredibly infused with weirdness that they push beyond even their own otherworldly boundaries to become breeding grounds for plentiful tales of the bizarre and urban legends. These are places in which reality, the supernatural, and the twisted imaginings of the human mind mash together into a mixture of oddities, half-truths, and potential real phenomena from which it is nearly impossible to extract what is really going on. One such place is a spooky little plot of woodland located within the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, where the real, the strange, and the surreal wastelands of our dreams and nightmares seem to twist together into one confounding, inscrutable entity. It is a place from which numerous odd tales and urban legends have sprung to life, and which in at least one case have firm, concrete roots in reality. This is Zombie Land, where eerie legends, potentially supernatural phenomena, and the truth collide.
Among the rolling hills, woodlands and quaint farms of rural Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, just a mile from the border of Ohio near the Mahoning River, is a small patch of quaint woodland measuring just about 2 square miles in area. It is a nondescript little wood similar to many others in the secluded region, and normally it would be possible to drive right on by it without really giving it a second thought. However, this little grove is much more than it appears, for from within its tree shaded recesses have long been spawned so many urban legends and stories of the paranormal and bizarre that is has more than earned its spooky nickname, Zombie Land. Lonely, desolate, and remote, with its tightly packed trees blotting out the sun to create an unnatural darkness, shifting shadows, and eerie, smothering quiet save for the occasional squawk of a bird or the haunting wail of train from the nearby tracks, this is no doubt a spooky place to begin with even without the many eerie tales associated with it, but it is these stories that really propel it to a place bursting with strangeness and terror.
The history of Zombie Land is a bit murky, and it is certainly difficult to separate fact from fiction, but the creepy stories go back some time. One tale claims that back in the 1920s, a mental asylum burned to the ground in a fire and that the crazed survivors escaped to inhabit the woods here. There was also the persistent story of a colony of people living here with large, misshapen heads, who all suffered from what was known as “water on the brain” back then, but which we now know as hydrocephalus, a condition which distends the skull to create a freakish, unsettling appearance. It was said that the “light bulb heads,” as they were rather callously called, would chase away or even attack anyone who trespassed onto their land. All the way up into the 1960s the mob was said to routinely dump dead bodies into the many old mine shafts which dot the countryside sound here, and there was also the inevitable talk of cults, occult rituals, and human sacrifice as well.
The list of weirdness from Zombie Land is extensive, and the place is littered with odd places steeped in the supernatural. One such place is an unassuming bridge covered in graffiti which is known as Frankenstein’s Bridge, and also Puerto Rican Bridge, due to the fact that many of the original taggers were said to be Hispanic. It is said that there was a suicide committed on the bridge and that the dark shadows beneath it are inhabited by shadowy wraiths that are called the “bridge people.” According to local lore, if one’s name should appear on the bridge in graffiti, the humanoid creatures living underneath will brutally kill them. Right next to the bridge there is an opening which leaks gas that when lit will emit a clear flame, which has come to be known as the Zombie Flame or the Eternal Torch. It is most likely a pipe put there by the gas company in order to burn off excess gas accumulation in low lying areas, but the story goes that if you light the flame it will attract the mysterious bridge people forth from their lair and send them into a murderous fury. In recent years, the original bridge has been replaced with a newer one, but there are still those who claim the bridge people still lurk there, and the Zombie Flame is apparently still there as well.
There is no shortage of mysterious places in Zombie Land. Tucked away in a secluded clearing is what is known as the Blood House. Although now a ruined, burned out husk due to a fire years ago, it was long believed that it was the residence of an insidious witch who would come out to abduct children, cast dark spells and hexes, and even to possess people. The witch’s yard was said to harbor the bodies and skeletons of numerous dead children buried in its blackened soil. Not far away from the Blood House are two fields on either side of East River Road which are ominously called The Killing Fields, from which ghostly gunshots and screams are said to be heard. The railway track that runs through the area is also said to be haunted, and that a spectral train occasionally barrels through blaring its horn, only to vanish into thin air. Other tales include various apparitions and shadow people or vaporous monsters roaming the woods here, as well as people being chased by phantom vehicles along the adjacent road, and anomalous sounds such as voices in the dark, heavy breathing, or even screaming, wailing, or shrieking. Additionally, the whole area seems to be tainted with a sort of negative energy, with visitors often claiming that they were overcome with a sense of dread, foreboding, despair, or panic, and the place just seems to create a general deep sense of disorientation and unease. Patty Wilson, who is the author of the book Haunted Western Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the central Pennsylvania-based Ghost Research Foundation, told the news site The Vindicator of Zombie Land:
If you’ve ever gone out there and stood at dark, it’s a very unnerving place. There’s that moment of, ‘Wow. This is a lonely, desolate place.’ It has always been kind of odd — somewhere people didn’t seem to want to stay or to live. It’s a place of sadness and a place of isolation. I wouldn’t be surprised at all [to learn it was haunted]. It’s a really uncomfortable place.
This secluded wood is considered to be so haunted and cursed that there is even a story of a statue that warns people not to enter. Out on nearby U.S. Route 224 and Churchill Road, there is a private residence which was once the St. Lawrence Church. Adjacent to the church is an old cemetery which has a statue of the Virgin Mary standing within it, depicted with her stone hands up in prayer. According to the local lore, this position of prayer is a warning to those who would venture into Zombie Land to stay out, as well as an effort to protect those who continue on anyway, and that when it is safe to enter the statue will open its arms in a welcoming manner. This cemetery also allegedly has a grave stone which is said to glow with an ethereal, otherworldly light.
One of the most famous stories of Zombie Land is the tale of what was referred to as the Green Man, also known as Charlie No Face, which was supposed to be a scary, ghostly figure with no face and glowing green skin that would terrorize the wooded roads of the area. The Green Man was said to have been terribly disfigured and blinded in an electrical accident, or in some versions of the story a lightning strike or industrial accident, and that his glowing skin was able to emit bolts of electricity. It was said that any car that the Green Man touched would stall or be unable to start, putting the occupants at the mercy of the hideous specter. In the impenetrable black of night, the only way to know that the Green Man was coming was by the incessant, approaching rapping of a cane upon the road guardrails, which was how he was said to find his way. With so many spooky tales and so much eerie lore associated with Zombie Land it is easy to simply file this one away as just another urban legend, yet in the case of the Green Man, the story is actually based on a very real person named Raymond Robinson.
Raymond’s story begins in the town of Monaca, Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1910 and raised like any ordinary kid. Despite marital problems between his father and mother, Raymond had a rather normal, fairly uneventful childhood until one tragic day that would change his life and mark the origin of the notorious Green Man. While out with his friends, they spied a bird’s nest nestled up in some power lines, and Raymond’s friends dared him to go get it. Powered by the reckless, carefree abandon of youth, Raymond took them up on the dare and climbed all the way up to where the nest was, subsequently hitting one of the lines and being lit up with 20,000 volts of searing electricity, sending him careening through the air and to the emergency room with horrific burns all over his body. The damage was so bad that at first the doctors didn’t even expect him to live, but somehow Raymond pulled through, although not quite the same as he had been before. Raymond’s body had become a twisted tangle of knotted, discolored scar tissue and his face had been badly disfigured, with the loss of his nose and eyes, and his mouth grotesquely twisted and bloated.
Raymond’s appearance had become so contorted and hideous that it frightened children and sent people crossing the street when he appeared, which forced him to become a recluse doing odd jobs as a handyman. The only time he felt it safe to venture outside was in the late hours of night when nobody was around. One of his favorite places to walk was along State Route 351, and he would use his cane to tap against the side of the road to find his way, since the accident had left him blind. On occasion, people would happen across the ghoulish site of the scarred, faceless Raymond hobbling along through the night and this became the basis for the legend of the Green Man, a spooky tale which would spread out until other areas of the region had their own versions of the Green Man legend.
To be sure, certain elements were exaggerated to say the least. For instance his skin didn’t really glow in the dark and it wasn’t even really green, although it did have an eerie pale discoloration to it and Raymond often wore green clothes. The stories of being able to electrocute people with his hands was an embellishment added over the years as well, and he surely didn’t go around terrorizing people, at least not on purpose. In fact, it was said that those who could get past his haunting visage and actually approach him found Raymond to be quite friendly and affable. Raymond would chat or have a smoke or beer with those who stopped to say hi. He was even known to take photos with people, and it became a sort of pastime for people to cruise around at night hoping to catch a glimpse of the “Green Man.” It got to the point where, during the 1960s, when he was at his most popular, the roads would become clogged with cars full of people hoping to see him. This would continue and the legend would evolve more and more, until Raymond’s walks became less frequent and he finally passed away on June 11, 1985, at the age of 74. Even in death the legends of the Green Man have continued on, with his wandering ghost said to haunt Zombie Land to this day.
The case of the Green Man shows us that real life and true events can have a considerable impact on local lore, and that even the most seemingly absurd campfire tales can be based on some nugget of truth lurking within. Other real life events continue to fuel the dark reputation of Zombie Land as well. In October of 2000, the news of the area was alight with the story of 12-year-old Shannon Kos, whose burnt and mutilated body was found under a decrepit, graffiti marked railroad bridge in Zombie Land at a place called Robinson's Crossing, with her body lying halfway in a small brook called Coffee Run. Three young men, William George Monday, 21; David Christopher Garvey, 20; and Perry Sam Ricciardi II, 20, were arrested for the murder and accused of raping and stabbing the girl, and then subsequently burning her body in an attempt to prevent a positive identification. Shannon was alleged to have been having a relationship with Monday for about a month, but the exact motive of the crime remains unclear. Whether this has anything to do with the strange forces said to be at work in Zombie Land or not, it is nevertheless a grim reminder that darkened, out-of-the-way locales can be magnets for danger, be it supernatural in origin or not. In fact, in recent years Zombie Land has become frequented more and more often by undesirable elements, including drifters, drug dealers and users, delinquents, and worse. Patty Wilson said of the dangers of Zombie Land:
There’s more to fear from the living than the dead. It’s still a very lonesome place, and bad people are drawn to lonesome places. Don’t go alone, don’t go at night, and say your prayers.
Indeed some places just seem to be magnets for the strange, be it from the world beyond our reality or the sometimes even scarier one that we know. These places have a way of brewing up high strangeness, reverberating with the paranormal, and also spawning fantastical tales from the dark depths of our imaginations with their surreal, gothic facades. How much of these stories is true is up for debate, but it does seem that reality can certainly have a hand in even the most seemingly absurd, farfetched of tales. I have always had sort of a fascination with the grains of truth that lie deeply embedded within the innards of many urban legends and campfire stories. To me it hints at an underlying basis for many tales of the supernatural or even what seem on the surface to be obvious myths. When exposing these truths, it becomes apparent that we cannot directly dismiss stories of the bizarre out of hand, that it is perhaps a good idea to recognize that the line between reality and fantasy is often blurry one, and that there is most certainly more to this weird world of ours than we sometimes give it credit for.