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Haunted Towns (pt. 2): The Low Low Woods & Centralia, PA



Ghouls are exploring the fictional and real-life towns on fire. Gabe explores Carmen Maria Machado's Low Low Woods which tells the tale of Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania, and the terrible secrets brewing there. A story where sinkholes and towns on fire pale in comparison to the horrors of generational trauma. Kat covers the real-life Silent Hill inspiration, Centralia, PA. Surprisingly, the fact that it's actively been on fire since before the Ghouls were born is not the most interesting thing about this town. We cover the horrors of company towns, the lawless new world, the Molly Maguires, and the importance of unions!

 

Media from this week's episode:

The Low, Low Woods (2020):

When your memories are stolen, what would you give to remember? Follow El and Vee as they search for answers to the questions everyone else forgot. Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania, is plagued by a mysterious illness that eats away at the memories of those affected by it. El and Octavia are two best friends who find themselves the newest victims of this disease after waking up in a movie theater with no memory of the past few hours. As El and Vee dive deeper into the mystery behind their lost memories, they realize the stories of their town hold more dark truth than they could've imagined. It's up to El and Vee to keep their town from falling apart…to keep the world safe from Shudder-to-Think's monsters.

Writer: Carmen Maria Machado (aka Gabe’s new fave)

 

The Low Low Woods: Inhaling the Fumes of Generational Trauma by Gabe Castro


RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


The Low Low Woods


The Low, Low Woods is a graphic novel by Carmen Maria Machado. It is one of my all-time favorite horror comics and features BIPOC queer girls. The story highlights the toxicities and impact of generational trauma and the patriarchy on our communities. It follows two best friends, El and Octavia (Vee), who wake up in their small, local theater with entire blocks of time missing from their minds. They do not know what happened before they woke up or why there is dirt and mud on their shoes. Where did they go? Their town is full of questionably spooky things that no one quite acknowledges. It reminds me of Appalachia, and how people there say if you see or hear anything scary, no you didn’t.


The entire town operates on this idea that if we don’t acknowledge the harm, then it isn’t actually harming us. Which simply isn’t true. There are creatures in the woods, shown hauntingly beautiful in the graphic novel thanks to the artist Dani. There are rabbits with human eyes, deer-women, skinless men, and the truly terrifying sinkholes that occur within young girls. One of which opens up in the middle of Vee’s girlfriend. However, the town exist in such an odd place of bizarre occurrences that you can’t even point to the culprit. At one point, the two girls encounter a deer with the head of a woman and later ponder where she came from saying, “Maybe someone fucked up a spell. Or maybe it came out the crevice in the park.” to which Vee replies, “Maybe we should tell someone.” Then El explains, “What, and set off a curfew like last year? Fucking forget it. I don’t feel like evading monsters and cops at the same time. My legs are not that long, dude.” This conversation and approach to the peculiar sets the tone for the complicated town of Shudder-to-Think, plagued by monsters and the true horrors, men.


Shudder-to-Think, Pennsylvania is where the story takes place and this town is a reimagining of Pennsylvania’s own, Centralia. Centralia is an old coal-mining borough and near-ghost town. Its population declined from 1,000 in 1980 to 5 residents in 2020 because a coal mine fire has been burning beneath the borough since 1962. An article on DC.com, The Monsters and Men of the Low, Low Woods, by Juliet Bennett Rylah explains, “There are conflicting stories as to how the fire began. Some say firefighters set the town dump on fire to clean it up, during which the fire spread through an unsealed opening into an abandoned coal mine below. Others say the fire started when someone dumped hot coals or ash in a trash pit. In the 1980s, after a sinkhole that belched lethal levels of carbon monoxide nearly swallowed a 12-year-old boy, most residents accepted federal relocation money and skipped town. Some refused, stubbornly declaring Centralia their home, but today, there are fewer than ten remaining residents.” There are other troubling histories that shadow the town of Centralia, which Kat will discuss in their section. This includes the poor treatment of the mine workers and the inevitable uprisings and revolts by the Molly Maguires. Machado references them briefly in the story and makes other connections between the fictional and real on-fire town throughout. She mentions the town’s proximity to Philadelphia and even tells tale of a boy falling victim to the fires, swallowed by a sinkhole. The environmental stresses and social issues of the real Centralia permeate the pages of the graphic novel. Residents suffer ailments due to the mines, including bootleg mines set up in their own basements. An older woman explains her blackened lungs having lived her whole life inhaling the fumes, never knowing that air wasn’t supposed to smell like fire.


Shudder-to-Think is also on fire but it’s residents refuse to leave. As terrifying as it is to have their town burning below, the real horrors come from the town’s curse. Many years ago, the town was plagued by a strange ailment. Women in the town had a tendency to lose time, much like our protagonists. They wake up in strange places and in strange ways, with no recollection of how they got there, what had been done to them, or by whom. And just as the spooky creatures in the woods go unspoken of, so too do these occurrences. The girls begin investigating and make some jarring discoveries about their town.


I truly don’t want to spoil this book because I want people to read it. Please support a local comic shop and grab the comics. El and Vee learn about the burning town’s secrets while exploring their own turbulent teen emotions.


Spoilers be found here for In the Low, Low Woods! The best friends can’t agree on how to address the missing time. El wants to investigate, to learn the truth, and ultimately do something about it. In a moment of vulnerability, she reveals to Vee that when she returned home from the theater that day, her underwear had been inside out. As alarming as this is to hear, Vee reacts in a way to save her own sanity. She simply does not want to know what happened, to have her peace of mind destroyed by the truth. Vee talks with a local witch, an older woman who has the appearance of a young girl. This witch shares a remedy for the worries, a concoction that would allow Vee to forget that she even forgot. It softens the edges of the memory to appear as if there is no tear there. She remarks that this is a remedy she makes most often. After a fight and reconnection the girl’s find themselves at the witch’s house once more. While there, they learn the truth about Shudder-to-Think and the missing memories of women.


The witch tells them a story from her youth. As a young girl, she would watch the mine workers walk to and from the mines. One day, one of the men stopped by and knocked on her door. He asked if she would go with him to see something beautiful. He takes this young girl to the Sanitorium for those of delicate sensibilities (usually women and sometimes queer folk). He brings her to a fountain in the woods and asks her to drink the water. She yells no and gets help from a woman in the Sanitorium. The man is arrested and the investigation begins, however it doesn’t get far before the man hangs himself in his cell. The gossip in town was one of anger, the town’s women suspecting a cover-up. To help this young girl heal they send her to the Sanitorium where the woman who saved her begins teaching her witchcraft. This woman is trans and explains her power. The witch learns magic and is told about the water at the Sanitorium, of how it makes you forget.


The witches search for a remedy and one day find a magic mushroom. The witch takes a small sip of the concoction and learns of things she didn’t know she had forgotten. You see, the time the man took her to the fountain was not the first time at all. It was only the first time she’d said no. With her rage from learning the truth and from the violence the town inflicts on her friend and the other women she works on a new spell, one that erupts the town into flames. The town’s men had gotten so terribly corrupt with the water, women were forced to forget so often that some of them forgot their own names. The men grew lazy and wouldn’t bother returning them to where they found the women, instead simply leaving them in the spaces of assault and in questionable conditions. The spell dragged these poisonous men to the fires resulting in the skinless men. And to help the women forget and be free? The witch transformed them - resulting in the rabbits with human eyes and the deer woman.


In a rage, El explains that it should be the women’s choice to remember or forget they forgot. So the three of them concoct two remedies, one to forget, and one to remember. They leave them for every woman to find, even the changed ones.


The Low, Low Woods is ultimately a haunting tale of societal suppression and abuse. Reflected in the simmering fires below, the hurt and pain is not something easily abated. If left unchecked, it will fester and infect the generations to come. And those girl’s won’t know that the air shouldn’t taste of fire until it’s too late and they can no longer breathe.

 

Centralia, PA: Horrors Worse Than a Town on Fire by Kat Kushin


RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


What’s haunting Centralia?

Centralia, PA is fairly well known for inspiring games like Silent Hill, and is now abandoned due to a mine fire that forced the evacuation of the town due to carbon monoxide leaks and sinkholes. In fact, the town has been burning since 1962. I’ll get into that more in a bit, but what’s very interesting about Centralia is that it has a pretty complex history that would give some more cause to be haunted. Before the invasion of settlers, it was land that belonged to the Lenapehoking (Lenni-Lenape) and Susquehannock. I found this information on the https://native-land.ca/ map. It’s said that Pennsylvania seized the land and sold it to colonials for 500 pounds in 1749. On centraliapa.org, there is some information on the town's history. It was populated by colonial settlers by the 1770s, and then by 1793 acquired by Robert Morris - a Revolutionary War vet and signer of the Declaration of Independence. As a fun fact: he went bankrupt in 1798 and was sent to debtors' prison. It was many years before the town was heard about again.


In 1830, the land was sold again at an auction in Philadelphia to Stephen Girard. They purchased the entirety of Morris’ lands for $30k because they theorized that coal could be found in the area, validating the creation of mines. Girard didn’t do much with the land, so his purchasing wasn’t that much of note other than an additional fact. After the Bull’s Head Tavern was founded by Johnathan Faust in 1832, the town was then named after the tavern. The land was then purchased by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron company in 1842, which is when the land started to be worked on and transformed into a mining town. This is when everything started to build conflict, in that building a mining town, resulted in mining workers being taken advantage of. A colliery was built, and coal mining began in 1854 after the completion of the Mine Run Railroad.


A mining engineer at The Locust Mountain Coal and Iron company, Alexander Rea was given charge of the town and tried to rename it Centreville with the hopes that it would become a center point for commerce in the area. However once the post office was established and it was discovered the name was already taken, it was named Centralia instead. As the mining industry grew, so did the population of the town, as well as the railroad industry in the area. Additional mines were built in surrounding towns, and a branch of the Lehigh and Mahoney railroad enabled transport and expanded sales of Coal from Centralia to markets in easter PA.

With the growing industry, and the greed of companies operating the railroad and mining operations, discontent surrounding working conditions began to increase. Specifically, the Molly Maguires operated in and around Centralia and were a group of Irish-American immigrants that were working to organize unionization of mine workers to improve wages and working conditions. Apparently the Molly Maguires were known for a fair amount of violence taking place across Centralia throughout the late 1860s, in response to the unfair working conditions. According to history.com, “the Molly Maguires are suspected to have committed a rash of violence within Centralia.” Including the murder of the town founder Alexander Rae, that was murdered in his buggy in 1768 by the Molly Maguires. It is theorized that it is possible the press and documentation of this union group was falsified by mine and railroad owners to dissuade further unions from forming. “As Pennsylvania historian Deryl B. Johnson notes, the Molly Maguires were implicated in everything from the murder of the town’s founder, Alexander Rae, to the death of the area’s first priest. “Some believe that the Mollies were guilty, while others claim that the Mollies were framed by owners of the mines who feared that the members of the Mollies and [other organizations] would organize the mine workers into unions," writes Johnson. Eventually, after a brutal attempt to subdue the Mollies and the execution of some of the groups’ suspected leaders in 1877, the crime wave ended.”


The attacks against unionization is something that haunts Pennsylvania and other industry heavy states in that many unions were stomped out by big corporations with violence, and thus had to enact violence back to make progress towards reform. The Molly Maguires had a long history extending back to “north-central Ireland in the 1840s as an offshoot of a long line of rural secret societies including the Whiteboys and Ribbonmen, who responded to miserable working conditions and evictions by tenant landlords with bloody vengeance.” What was very interesting about this is how the Molly Maguires, the handling of their trial, and the exploitation of the mining and railroad industry all tie into a violent period of civil unrest in eastern, PA and in the town of Centralia. The History.com article outlining the origins of the Molly Maguires goes on to outline how we got to the incident where the founder of Centralia, Alexander Rae was murdered. Irish Catholics that immigrated to Eastern Pennsylvania faced discrimination on their religion and heritage, unable to find different employment because of the “Irish need not apply.” designations on help wanted ads. As a result they were forced to accept the physically demanding and dangerous mining jobs. “The men and their families were forced to live in overcrowded, company-owned housing, buy goods from company-owned shops and visit company-owned doctors. In many cases, workers wound up owing their employers at the end of each month.” At the start of the Civil War in 1861 when the draft began, many Irish miners were drafted to join. Already financially disenfranchised, the Molly Maguires and other irish unions allegedly threatened “coffin notices” to all mining supervisors and scabs that were planning to fill their roles during strikes. As the working conditions worsened, the violence escalated. It’s said that in all, “24 mine foremen and supervisors were assassinated.” Including Centralia’s Alexander Rae.


Of course, instead of asking why this civil unrest was happening, the industry heads doubled down in their plans to destroy the unions, and set a precedent to all others interested in unionizing. In 1873, Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to infiltrate and destroy the Molly Maguires, whose union organizing became an impediment to increasing railroad profits. Using the alias James McKenna, native Irishman James McParlan spent two and a half years living alongside the coal miners, eventually gaining their trust.

Despite the conflict of interest, Gowen served as the chief prosecutor during the subsequent trials. Based almost entirely on McParlan’s testimony, 20 men were sentenced to death—10 of whom were executed on June 21, 1877, also known as Black Thursday. Although the existence of the Molly Maguires as an organized band of outlaws in America is still debated, most historians now agree that the trials and executions were an outrageous perversion of the criminal justice system. In 1979, more than 100 years following his hanging, John Kehoe—the supposed “king” of the Molly Maguires—was granted a full pardon by the state of Pennsylvania.

The case in which the Molly Maguires were destroyed by the Pennsylvania government is one that definitely haunts the town and area surrounding Centralia. In fact, the Maguires were later pardoned by the state of PA as they were not granted a fair trial, nor was the evidence collected against them done legally. In explorepahistory.com’s the Execution of Molly Maguires Historical Marker article they say, “What took place, according to historian Harold Aurand, was "one of the most astounding surrenders of sovereignty in American history. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency; a private police force arrested the alleged offenders; the coal company attorneys prosecuted them. The state only provided the courtroom and hangman."


What followed was the cementing of Gowen’s control of the coal industry, and the crushing of union activity in the coal regions for close to a decade. The exploitation of the population there, and the wealth that followed is what grew Centralia in size and recognition for the rest of the 1800s and into the 1900s. The executions of the Molly Maguires did not stop the great rail strike of 1877 however that took place in Pittsburgh and continued across other rail yards throughout the state. However it did start the precedent of unmonitored industry led violence on unions in PA, as well as against workers in railroad, coal companies, and steel companies that continued to use Pinkerton agents to enforce their will upon workers and their families. The article goes on to explain that “ Henry Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, used Pinkerton agents in 1884 to guard his coalfields and strikebreakers, in 1891 to protect Italian strikebreakers, and again, with disastrous results during the Homestead Strike of 1892. Only then did the state of Pennsylvania become alarmed that private armies rather than public servants were wielding police powers in William Penn's Commonwealth, including the powers to enter private homes, disperse crowds, and arrest and imprison citizens.” In the early 1900s, and at the start of World War 1, many young men were drafted and left Centralia leading to a decline in its prosperity. In addition, many strikes led to industries pulling out of mining. The great depression cemented this, as well as the transition to oil for fuel. Many mines in and around Centralia closed, and the town shrank down in size. When all of the industry run mines closed, what followed was bootleg mining, where individuals took coal from the mines without training or regulations. “The Centralia Council, still holding onto the prospect of coal’s future riches, acquired the rights to the minerals beneath the town in 1950. The town’s population was 1,986 that year. Still, anthracite coal mining was slow to die in the region. It continued through the early 1960s, at which time nearly all of the remaining companies shut down. With little work, people began to leave.”



In my research, I found it very interesting that none of that was specifically highlighted in what haunted Centralia, PA, as well as PA in general. I had to look up the Molly Maguires separately to get the full picture of what took place, as well as the why for Alexander Rae’s murder. The belief that the Molly Maguires were nothing but rogue gangs dedicated to causeless violence seems to be perpetuated still on the Centralia Pa website, and the mine owner Alexander Rae, who contributed to worker exploitation and disenfranchisement, is still looked upon as an innocent well-to-do victim. On the website, the information about the strikes, reasonable violence and battling is not really explained.


Mine Fire

Finally on to the Mine fire that is what most people think of when they think of Centralia. On May 27th 1962 the city of Centralia’s local firefighters set fire to the town landfill in attempts to “clean it up” in preparation for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. What the firefighters didn’t realize was that the landfill connected to the mines underneath the town. They attempted to extinguish the fire, and left ash and water in its place. A few days later they were shocked to find that the fire continued to burn. They made many attempts at putting out the fire, but the connection to the coal mine had already been established. As the mines were filled with unmined coal, it would make sense that the fires were inextinguishable. The town coexisted with the fire for many years, two decades specifically, and it continued to grow and spread. It wasn’t until a boy apparently fell into a sinkhole, and when carbon monoxide gas began seeping into homes that the government had to evacuate residents.


Many of the local residents were evacuated voluntarily, and the rest forcibly evacuated. On the CentraliaPa website, detailing the event it states “Many accepted buyout offers for their properties and moved elsewhere. After leaving, their homes were leveled. In 1992, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania used eminent domain to take control of all the property within the town. The remaining buildings were condemned and the residents asked to leave. Many did, but a few remained and sued for their right to stay. The lawsuits would last for nearly another two decades. During this time, the town’s population continued to decline as residents willingly left or were evicted from their homes. In 2013, the lawsuit ended and the eight remaining residents were allowed to stay as long as they lived. Today only a few buildings remain within the borough.”


Today the town is mostly abandoned, and covered with graffiti. The fires have started to finally dissipate so the ash and steam is less present. It has become a tourist attraction as a result of the attention that Silent Hill and other media pieces have drawn.

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