By: Laura Dzubay
I’ve spent a decent amount of time in my life exploring abandoned places. Not too much time, but a nice, healthy amount. I’m from Bloomington, Indiana, and late in high school, my friends started introducing me to abandoned spots around town: an observatory, a waterslide by the lake, a fire tower, a water treatment plant. These spots were all frequently visited — the fire tower was a common lookout point, and the observatory appeared in practically every other amateur photo shoot that got turned in at my high school — and, as a result, they never felt dead to me. Birds flew in and out of the wide, punched-out windows of the water treatment plant, and the water slide gained graffiti every day, graffiti that told of late nights out, of friendship sagas and love stories.
That’s why the scariest place where I’m from is none of these places. It’s just a clearing in the woods.
If you weren’t looking for it, Browning Mountain would blend right into the surrounding slopes of forest. There is no graffiti on Browning Mountain. There are no high schoolers wandering around with cameras, posing next to trees. But it doesn’t feel out of the ordinary until you start getting truly close to it.
The only time I’ve ever been to Browning Mountain, I was going with a group of staff members from my summer camp, but we weren’t spending the night. We were hiking through it during the daytime, stopping at the top to get lunch. As we got closer, our group grew quiet. Any speakers that had been playing music switched off, and our chatter died away.
In the silence, I became aware of the woods around me: as we gained elevation, the trees seemed to bend in toward the ground. They were still big, but they furled in on themselves and twisted, their trunks even seemed to darken.
When it finally registered with me that they looked unusual, I still couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, so I said all I could think of to say. “The trees,” I said, to no one in particular. “Look at the trees.”
I repeated myself because at first I thought nobody had heard, and then somebody shushed me — which scared me, actually, more than the trees had.
It might be useful at this point to explain the connotations of Browning Mountain within camp. It had been the subject of rumors for years. The most common legend was that cults gathered there on full moon nights, even to this day, to make sacrifices. I didn’t believe this, because I didn’t see how they wouldn’t get caught and arrested if everybody knew they were doing it. But I’d never been to Browning Mountain, and people who had would bristle whenever others seemed to doubt them. Camp organized trips there occasionally — strictly for older campers — and I knew senior staff members who’d been scared to the point of never returning. Everyone who went claimed to hear voices and footsteps around them in the night. I knew one guy who said he’d had to sleep on Browning Mountain in a hammock once, and he’d lain awake all night long with his pocketknife clutched to his chest.
Eventually we reached the top, and I saw the main attraction. It was what has often been called “Indiana’s Stonehenge”: a series of limestone slabs arranged in a circle. The story goes that the rocks, impossibly heavy, would have to have been carried up the hill from very far away, years earlier, by unknown people and for some unknown but definite purpose. It was this obscurity that frightened me the most: the idea that someone had had a goal in mind when they’d brought these here and set them up in this way, and the fact that I didn’t know whether or not this goal had been met.
This place didn’t feel dead, but in a much different way from the observatory and the water slide. It felt alive in a way I didn’t want to touch. It made me think of the nighttime in horror stories — how the evil spirits always back off when the sun comes out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not there. As we pulled out our sandwich supplies in the clearing, some of my friends sat down on the rocks while they started to eat. I didn’t — I couldn’t have said why, but for some reason I was thinking about the gnarled woods all around us and The Blair Witch Project, when the guy moves a pile of stones and then disappears the next day without a trace. I sat down at the trunk of the tree instead and ate my lunch, glad, for once, not to be staying in this haunting place any longer than I had to.