Places of death, suffering, and strife have long been considered to be wellsprings of the paranormal. This darkness seems to imprint itself onto these locations, and these include those areas that have been host to tragic disasters that have claimed countless lives. Here in these places of pain and suffering have sprung up many stories of encounters with the paranormal, and it seems that disasters have a way of drawing to them tales of the unexplained.
Many paranormal phenomena gravitate towards natural disasters, with strange forces gathering about in the aftermath of nature’s wrath. One such case involves the terrifying, tragic tsunami of December 26, 2004, which was triggered by a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean and caused mass devastation across 14 countries, in the end causing the deaths of over 230,000 people. Thailand was also hit hard by the tsunamis, losing at least 5,000 people in this country alone, and it is from here where strange activity would be reported in the days after the devastation. In the six most affected provinces there began to creep in numerous reports from scared locals saying that they had seen the specters of what appeared to be foreigners roaming about the wreckage of the coasts, often wailing or crying out in anguish.
Some of these bizarre accounts came from rescue workers picking through the rubble looking for bodies, who claimed that they had heard unearthly laughter, screaming, and wailing from the beaches when there was no one there, as well as cries for help that would emanate from the debris, only for the source of the sounds to be dug up to find no one there. There were also reports from taxi drivers in the Patong area, of picking up phantom foreign passengers who seemed to be very real and usually asked to go to the airport, yet would somehow vanish into thin air before arriving. Some families complained of being harassed by anomalous phone calls, in which the other end of the line would be filled with foreign voices crying out for help only for the line to go dead. Some well-known accounts came from guards at a beachfront plaza in Patong, who claimed that one of their ranks refused to come back to work after hearing the disembodied voice of a foreign woman screaming out for help, and another guard claimed to have seen a ghostly woman walking out along the beach calling out for her child before evaporating into thin air. There were many other reports from scared locals, some of who were afraid to even go out anywhere near the disaster areas for fear of running into these wandering spirits, and one local woman said of this:
After visiting Wat Baan Muang (a temple where hundreds of bodies are still stored) I'm very scared. I can't sleep at night and when the wind comes I'm sure it is the spirits coming. I believe in ghosts and I always will. [The tsunami] happened so quickly, the foreigners didn't know what happened and they all think they are still on the beach. They all think they are still on holiday.
It’s a chilling thought, to be sure, that these people were swept away and killed so quickly that they haven’t had time to process their passing even in death, perhaps lingering about thinking they are still alive. Were these ghosts or something else? In an APF news report, Thai psychologist Wallop Piyamanotham explained what he thinks was going on, saying thusly:
This is a type of mass hallucination that is a cue to the trauma being suffered by people who are missing so many dead people, and seeing so many dead people, and only talking about dead people. This is when people start seeing these farangs (foreigners) walking on the sand or in the ocean. Thai people believe that when people die, a relative has to cremate them or bless them. If this is not done or the body is not found, people believe the person will appear over and over again to show where they are. Foreigners make a big impression on Thais. They’re physically imposing, and often seem rich and powerful. If people like that die in terrible circumstances, it’s not surprising they should come back in people’s minds as ghosts, especially when they have so far to get home.
Whether this was a mass hallucination or not, the reports were numerous, and a very similar phenomenon can be seen in the wake of the giant tsunami that hit Japan in March of 2011. On this day, a massive magnitude-9 earthquake tore through, generating a devastating tsunami that battered the coastal Tohoku region of the country’s eastern coast and left death and destruction in its wake. As if the potent quake and resulting wave weren’t bad enough, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was so badly damaged that it went into a nuclear meltdown that was to be one of the worst in history, poisoning the environment, it’s animals, it’s people, and causing lasting ripples that reverberate to this day. It felt like a surreal nightmare being viewed through the lens of sleep, as it it couldn’t possibly be happening, but it was.
On the ground in the affected region things were much more real, although many of these people perhaps still thought of it all as some sort of bad dream from which they might wake. Thousands upon thousands of people dead and many more injured or left homeless, the sound of screaming and crying the background score to all of the carnage. The landscape had become a wasteland of broken debris, carcasses, smashed buildings, and shattered dreams, a shadowy skeleton of what it had once been. The ruthless tsunami had tossed cars, trees and houses about as if mere playthings, upending and dashing them haphazardly about the scene, with trees cast far inland or cars and boats dashed upon the tops of tall, destroyed buildings; a splendid illustration of nature’s terrible power. Those structures that had been left standing had only been slightly luckier, being gutted and defaced by the devastation so as to be left uninhabitable ruins only vaguely reminiscent of what they had once been, and all of it withering under the specter of leaking radiation from the crippled nuclear plant. It looked like an absolute war zone, as if it had been bombed into oblivion, and where once there had been thriving, vibrant community now lay only haunting, broken reminders of its past.
Similarly to what happened in Thailand, in the aftermath of all of this death and destruction there were various reports of paranormal activity going around. Witnesses spoke of seeing the phantoms of people lining up at abandoned supermarkets and shops that had been left in shambles, the ghosts of people lingering around places they had frequented in life, and specters skulking about the barren, jagged rubble that had once been their homes. There have also been terrifying visions of ghostly figures frantically running inland as if from the waves, only to dissipate into thin air as they flee. Many people claimed that they had been approached by people they had known in life but knew to be dead, who spoke to them briefly or asked for help before fading away right before their eyes. One elderly woman from Onagawa who had died in the disaster had the rather unsettling habit of showing up at a refugee camp for a casual cup of tea, with witnesses claiming that they hadn’t had the heart to tell her she was dead. She apparently would leave behind wet splotches of seawater. Some even complained of sinister presences sitting heavily upon their chests as they lie in bed at night.
Some of the creepiest reports have come from the affected region’s taxi drivers, who increasingly claimed that they were picking up the spirits of the dead. Such accounts were especially prevalent in the city of Ishinomaki, in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, which had been hit hard by the tsunami and lost an estimated 6,000 people to it, many of whose bodies have never been found. Here on these dark streets taxi drivers have even now claimed to have picked up spectral passengers. One driver described how he picked up a young woman a couple of months after the disaster who had wished to go from Ishinomaki Station to the Minamihama district, an area that had been thoroughly erased from existence by the tsunami. When the driver told the woman that there was nothing left there to drive to, she calmly asked him “Have I died?” before dematerializing before the driver's eyes. Many other taxi drivers in the area reported similar experiences of picking up passengers, only to have them vanish during the drive, and in every one of these cases the drivers had been convinced they were carrying a living, breathing person. In one case a passenger gave specific instructions to go to an address which turned out to be a leveled house, but when the driver turned around the passenger was mysteriously gone. Interestingly, none of them reported having felt any sense of fear at the time, most likely because they were convinced they were transporting real people, and in all cases the phantoms were reported as being quite young.
Other ghostly tales plagued the area for some time. Offices, homes, and shops were said to be haunted and frequented by the dead. Emergency services, who were in overdrive trying to provide relief to the survivors, reported being called to locations that had been long destroyed and abandoned, with no one even sure of how anyone could have made a call from the spot in the first place. People all over the area frequently complained of having ghosts cause mischief in their homes or suddenly appear to startle or frighten. In Richard Lloyd Parry’s book “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” one local witness gave a very frightening account of seeing the area around his home besieged by shambling spirits of the tsunami dead, of which he says:
They were covered in mud. They were no more than twenty feet away, and they stared at me, but I wasn’t afraid. I just thought, ‘Why are they in those muddy things? Why don’t they change their clothes? Perhaps their washing machine’s broken.’ They were like people I might have known once, or seen before somewhere. The scene was flickering, like a film. But I felt perfectly normal, and I thought that they were just ordinary people.
Another scary report comes from a local woman by the name of Kansho Aizawa, who would say of her experiences in the disaster area:
There are headless ghosts, and some missing hands or legs. Others are completely cut in half. People were killed in so many different ways during the disaster and they were left like that in limbo. So it takes a heavy toll on us, we see them as they were when they died.
Another disaster haunted by the ghosts of its victims is that of Hurricane Katrina, which on August 29, 2005 cut a swath of utter chaos and devastation across New Orleans, Louisiana, in the United States, as well as its surrounding areas. Nearly 1,500 people would die in the ferocious storm, most of the city would be either leveled or flooded, and thousands were forced to evacuate. It is a tragedy that even now the region struggles with, and it seems only natural that there should be reports of ghostly activity tied to it all. Like in Thailand and Japan, besides shadowy apparitions lurking about and anomalous voices from nowhere from various locals, there were some accounts from rescuers in the area as well. According to a report in San Francisco’s CBS 5, National Guardsmen stationed at a staging ground for rescue missions set up at the Sophie B. Wright Middle School in New Orleans claimed that there was some seriously spooky stuff going on there at the time. The soldiers reported all manner of strangeness, including the laughter or giggling of children from the dark when no one was there, shadow figures, and disembodied footsteps. One of the men would tell his account saying, “I was in my sleeping bag and I opened by eyes and in the doorway was a little girl. It wasn't my imagination.”
In addition to natural disasters are those that are manmade in nature, and which are every bit as spooky. A very odd case comes from farther back in history, revolving around the the Austin Dam Flood of 1911, which occurred in Austin, Pennsylvania, in the United States. The dam itself had been built in 1909 to generate power for the Bayless Pulp & Paper Mill, and it was a death trap waiting to happen from the beginning, as it had been cheaply made with only 20 feet of thickness rather than the recommended 30 in a mad dash to save money and meet the deadline. After just a year in operation is was already showing a noticeable bulge, bowing out considerably and cracking to an unsettling degree. On September 30, 1911, the dam, which had been causing concern among residents for years, finally failed, releasing a deluge of water that destroyed the paper mill and wiped out much of the town of Austin, killing 78 people in the process. It was a tragedy, and in the coming days there would be reports that seem to show that it could have been avoided, as a mysterious stranger had apparently been seen right before the catastrophe.
It would turn out that a strange apparition had been seen in the days before the disaster, lurking about at the nearby Buffalo & Susquehanna Railroad yard. Here there was seen a very tall man, dressed all in black, who would roam about the yard, ride in trains, and could sometimes be seen “crawling between and running over the cars,” always moving about in an otherworldly, disjointed manner. He was seen frequently right up until the disaster, after which he suddenly disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared. There have been those who have speculated that this could have been some paranormal harbinger of doom leading up to the dam failure, but it is really hard to say, and it remains an anomalous little historical oddity.
Another old account comes from the year 1915, from the Great Lakes region of the United States. July 24, 1915, the S.S. Eastland was docked on the Chicago River and loading up on passengers to ferry employees from The Western Electric Company to a company picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. It was by all accounts a joyous event, a calm, clear day, and passengers filed aboard the ship to crowd it way past maximum capacity, stuffing in 2,500 souls onto a vessel only meant to hold 500. Even as the ship left port there was an ominous sign when it began to list to the side from all of the weight, slowly but surely going into a complete roll. The revelers were soon alarmed at the situation, going from a state of cheer to terror, as the ship continued to roll over, scattering panicked passengers all over the place, many of them jumping overboard and others hiding within. One writer would say of the horrific scene:
I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy.
Not even an hour into the excursion, the S.S. Eastland completely overturned and sank to the bottom as screaming people jumped overboard and shouted from the depths of the ship. Before anyone could even register what was going on, people were drowning and dying despite desperate attempts to rescue them. In the end, 844 people would lose their lives, entire families lost, all on what was supposed to be a happy family day out. Boats and divers fanned out into the river retrieving the dead, of which there were way too many, so many in fact that makeshift mass morgues wee set up in the area to house all of the corpses. Considering all of this death, it is perhaps not surprising at all that this would be ground zero for hauntings.
The vessel itself went on to be successfully raised and salvaged, after which it found itself placed near the Halsted Street Bridge and strange ghostly tales would begin in earnest. Moaning sounds and loud banging noises began to plague those who were on the ship, and this would continue on until it was sold to the US Navy and eventually sold for scrap in 1945. Yet, even then stories of hauntings persisted. To this day there have been varied reports of people passing the disaster area to see apparitions by the river side, as well as faces floating about in the water and shadow figures lurking below the surface. In other cases buildings built in the area have attracted these hauntings, such as the structure used by Harpo Media Productions, which is the base for the Oprah Winfrey Talk Show. Here there have been many accounts of employees coming across the ghost of a woman in a long, gray dress, with some even saying that she seems to be soaking wet and will even leave behind wet footprints, and various other paranormal activity are reported from here as well. It seems that although the S.S. Eastland is in the past, the ghosts are very much still with us.
A far more well known and ominous manmade disaster from modern times with its own share of ghostly activity in that of Chernobyl. One of the the worst nuclear plant disasters ever recorded in history occurred in Ivankiv Raion, of northern Kiev Oblast, Ukraine, in the city of Pripyat, in what was at the time the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union, near the border with Belarus. It was here where on 26 April 1986, a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which would claim the lives of 31 people, plus many more in later years, send radioactive material spewing all over the western USSR and Europe, clear the immediate region of most of its inhabitants, affect nearly 7 million people, and cause environmental and health problems that still echo through and affect the area today. The region has since been a wellspring of strange reports, including those of UFOs, Mothman-like entities, mutant animals, and even giant vampire spiders, but there are of course the ghosts as well.
The abandoned ruins of the Chernobyl area are dripping with reports of phantoms and shadowy figures prowling the wreckage of what once was. This might come as no surprise from spooked curiosity seekers picking through the gloomy remnants of the towns here, but one very interesting report comes from an actual nuclear physicist who visited the location in 1997. Physicist Andrei Kharsukov claimed that he had been poking around the perimeter of the gutted remains of Reactor 4 one morning taking radiation readings when he had a bizarre experience he would not soon forget. He would say of what happened thus:
I arrived at the abandoned power station at about 7:30 am. I proceeded directly to the Reactor Four sarcophagus where the explosion took place. I could not enter, due to the radiation. I stood by the entrance taking radiation and roentgen readings. I know no one could be inside the old reactor core, but I could hear very distinctly hear the sound of someone screaming for help, shouting that there was a fire inside. I ran upstairs to tell someone, but they said that when I entered the reactor control room, I was the first person to open that door in three years, and the only way to get inside the old reactor is through the doors I came in through. If someone had gone inside the reactor when I was not looking, they would have tripped an alarm that goes off when the reactor door is opened mechanically. The reactor door requires a password and a handprint, yet someone, or something was inside. Later that evening, as we were eating dinner outside the building by the river next to the plant, a flood light turned on in the room of the installation. There was no way anyone could be inside. As we ate we figured there was a power surge or something. Then just as my colleague said that, the light turned off.
Reports of paranormal activity are so common at Chernobyl that it has become a destination for ghost hunters, and has even appeared on the SyFy Channel’s show Destination Truth. When the team went into the area wearing protective garments, they claim that they encountered some bizarre phenomena indeed, such as spotting multiple unidentified figures moving about the rubble and anomalous thermal images of a humanoid entity lurking about near Reactor 4, even though at the time no one else should have been there. There were also EVP readings and several strange noises heard during the excursion. Does this place of so much death and suffering still hold these spirits to it?
One very intriguing and modern report of paranormal activity connected with a place with tragic history comes from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York City, in the aftermath of the 2001 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now retired Lt. Frank Marra claimed to The New York Post in 2013 that while sifting through the rubble and debris of the fallen towers that had been brought to the Fresh Kills landfill, in Staten Island, he had seen something he could not explain. While picking through the rubble looking for survivors and human remains, he claims that on several occasions he saw a spectral woman wandering about dressed in a World War II-era Red Cross worker uniform and holding what appeared to be a tray full of sandwiches. He said that the woman always appeared 50 yards away and would vanish into thin air if he approached or stared at her for too long.
Not believing in ghosts and thinking his mind was simply playing tricks on him, Marra then apparently put the encounters out of his mind until he began doing research and interviews for a book about 9/11 called Hallowed Ground. He says that during one interview with a policeman the officer asked him if he had ever heard about the ghostly Red Cross worker trying to hand out sandwiches over at the landfill. Mara would say of his feelings upon hearing this, “It hit me like a ton of bricks — I had put that dormant – and it just reminded me that I remembered seeing her.”
It would also come to light that a few other policemen had also seen this figure, and that there had also been reported black, shadowy shapes and “large black masses” skulking amongst the ruins and rubble of ground zero right after the attacks. One spirit medium who Marra talked to suggested that these entities were “soul collectors” who were responsible for bringing the dead over into the afterlife. Some of the shadow figures may have even been ghosts of the victims themselves, confused and wandering about. This is especially chilling when considering that some of the victims’ bodies were never found. Marra would say of this, “How many had their ashes and remains uprooted and brought to this place? Why isn’t their presence believable?”
Indeed, it can be seen that among the haunted places of the world, the sites of fatal disasters stand high amongst them. Is it the pain and terror that tethers them here, or simply the fact that they were gone so suddenly that they cling to these locations thinking they are still amongst the living, going through the motions of their last moments and persisting on, perhaps indefinitely? Or are these just mass hallucinations spurred by all of the madness and death? It is hard to say, but if there was anywhere that could qualify as a potentially haunted area disaster sites are definitely among them, and as long as such reports come in we will be forced to ponder just what forces there are that holds these phenomena close.