The Appalachian Mountains are some of the oldest mountains on Earth – and if these mountains and valleys could talk, one can only imagine what stories they could tell!
The rich history and culture of the region is also home to many supernatural tales and folklore that stem from a culture that for many years was geographically isolated from the outside world. Long before settlers found their way into the Appalachian region, only dense, uncharted and rugged mountain wilderness was found. Being located in such an isolated and difficult-to-reach area resulted in the formation of a unique style of people, culture, and heritage – including storytelling.
A story’s origin is often taken from one’s own experiences, and for mountain folk, daily life had its own hardships that played into the creation of their tales. They often lived a self-sustaining lifestyle, which is represented in symbols and archetypes – like the mountaineer, who represents individualism and self-reliance. This way of life is featured in countless songs and stories to this day. At the same time, the isolation in the Appalachian Mountains also inspired its residents to carry on and create stories focused on the strange and the supernatural.
Let’s take a step back in time: Imagine you are living in rural Appalachia over 100 years ago, and one of your main forms of entertainment was storytelling – you might hear stories of a ghostly experience or something spooky that might not be able to be fully explained! Over time tales are passed down from generation to generation, and the subject matter in these early ghost stories was often said to have been inspired by personal experiences with the unexplained. After all, it’s human nature to relate something you can’t fully explain to something you understand, even if it is supernatural!
And so, with Halloween approaching, what better time to dive into some of these strange tales of Appalachian ghost stories? Today I’m featuring a few tales and mysteries that are sure to leave you in spooky spirits. Once your appetite has been whetted, check out this link for more on Appalachian history and culture.
The Brown Mountain Lights
“In the days of the old covered wagon
When they camped on the flats for the night
With the moon shinin’ dim o’er the old canyon rim
They watched for that brown mountain light.
High on the mountain
And down in the valley below
It shines like the crown of an angel
And fades as the mists come and go”
(Partial lyrics to “Brown Mountain Light,” courtesy of BluegrassLyrics.com)
Our first tale is one of mystery. The odd and alluring “Brown Mountain Lights” are known as a supernatural phenomenon and have been the inspiration for many songs in folk music. The mysterious lights can be found in Burke County, North Carolina, in the Pisgah National Forest. For centuries tales of these lights have been recorded, but no one has yet to uncover what is causing the puzzling event.
There have been multiple versions of the lights’ origin story throughout the years. For instance, one legend stems from the native Cherokee people where it’s told that the lights are actually the souls of women who are searching for the men they had lost in a war on Brown Mountain. In the 19th century, another version of the story claims that the lights were the spirt of a young woman who was murdered by her husband. And in a country music song of the early 1950s, a version of the story tell us of a man who went hunting on the mountain and never returned home. In this legend, a slave was sent to search for the missing man, but neither were ever seen again, and the lights are said to be the light of the lantern used to continue the search beyond the grave (today this version in song is problematic with its romanticization of slavery).
Even the U.S. Geological Survey investigated the myths surrounding the lights, and in 1922 they published an extensive report concluding that the lights were a combination of automobile and locomotive lights, light from natural brush fires, or light emitted from other explainable sources. While the study might be correct for the time, the legend does date back much further than the time of automobiles, and the lyrics in the song state “In the days of the old covered wagon,” leading one to believe the mystery may have been around much longer.
Even though sightings of the lights are now a rarity, many people still flock to the mountain to try to catch a glimpse of the strange occurrence. Check out the Country Gentlemen’s version of “Brown Mountain Light” below. I’ll leave it up to you to decide the true origins of this mystery!
The Bell Witch
What’s October without tales of witches? Arguably the most famous witch to come out of the state of Tennessee is the Bell Witch, now a familiar tale in American folklore. The story takes place in the early 1800s when John Bell and his family moved from North Carolina to Tennessee. Bell was a very successful farmer, but his family was burdened with strange and unexplainable occurrences that ended up haunting and terrorizing the family and children for several years. The first notable events began in 1817 when Bell saw a strange creature in the fields. During this time unfamiliar noises in the house occurred and the family began to experience terrifying hauntings, including voices, various afflictions, being pinched or hit by an invisible entity, and more. All of these activities were blamed on what became known as the Bell Witch, who seemed particularly focused on father John Bell and daughter Betsy – eventually Bell died from what was claimed to be a poisoning by the witch and Betsy broke her engagement to a young man based on the witch’s entreaties and actions. Check out this link for more details of this well-known Tennessee tale.
The First Ghost of Bristol
Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, like many southern and Appalachian towns, has a fair share of unique and strange tales. The town exists primarily because of railroads, bringing people and trade to the region for decades. The book Ghosts of Bristol: Haunting Tales from the Twin Cities by V. N. Bud Phillips features ghost stories and lore of the local region and relates an intriguing tale of an early ghost in Bristol.
The story is set in 1854 and features a man by the name of John H. Moore who owned a store and a small smokehouse located near Lee and Moore Streets in Bristol. While in preparation for opening the new store, the family made arrangements to dig a new well. One morning Mrs. Moore went to the smokehouse with a butcher knife and was alarmed to see the apparition of what appeared to be a Native American spirit who was advancing towards her as if to attack her. The spirit disappeared and was never seen again, and the knife also disappeared after the incident. Mrs. Moore then protested the digging of the new well, saying that the spirit she saw was a warning not to disturb this area. Chalking this all up to simple superstitions, John Moore proceeded with the digging, and sure enough, after the well was dug a Native American grave was found on the site.
While this might seem like a simple ghost tale, according to Phillips, it’s the first recorded one in Bristol, making it worthy of our October Appalachian ghost tales featured list! I hope you enjoyed a few of these spooky Appalachian ghost tales – and I encourage you to go out and read more of the ghostly tales that can be found in this area – just in time for the Halloween season!