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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!

Sources in this Episode: The Monsters and Men of the Low, Low Woods This Mine Fire Has Been Burning For Over 50 Years Who Were the Molly Maguires? Execution of Molly Maguires Historical Marker

 

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