There is a good chance that small towns are probably the same everywhere in the world you go. Life moves at a quieter pace, religion thrives, and developments from the outside world don’t show up for years, sometimes decades after the fact. But for whatever reason, American small towns have a unique sense of the eerie all their own. But for all the ways in which they seem unwelcoming or backward, your average American town is really just a place like any other where ordinary people go about their ordinary lives.
But there are a few out-of-the-way places along America’s forgotten highways that have something else going on entirely. Whether it’s just a quirky local habit, a legend that won’t die, or an unfortunate event that got out of control and caused irreversible changes, these places are unlike any other. If you’re looking for places where every day captures the ominousness of late October, then plot a course for these five undoubtedly odd small American towns.
5) Burt Corn, AL
What makes the unincorporated town of Burnt Corn, Alabama so uncomfortable to contemplate? It may lie in the origins of the name. While “Burnt Corn” sets the mouth watering with anticipation for everyone’s favorite yellow vegetable, roasted to perfection and dripping with butter, its origins seem to be incredibly dark. Seems to be, because no one can remember just what they are. All the theories are unpleasant, however. They range from a tale of a dying man left abandoned in the wilderness by his comrades, left with with nothing but corn to eat and to burn for his fire at night, to theories about a variety of different atrocities committed during the Creek Indian War of 1813, all of which involve corn burning and sometimes people along with it.
But lots of cities and towns have unusual names lost to history and subjected to gory legend. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Burnt Corn is that no one seems to care that it’s there. The town has not been subjected to a U.S. Census since 1880! For more recent information, however, you can always visit the town’s official website… which hasn’t been updated since 2004!
4) Ong’s Hat, NJ
Ong’s Hat is a literal ruin lying in the wilderness of the New Jersey Pine Barrens with just a few small piles of rubble to indicate anything ever stood there at all. The supposed settlement supposedly gained its name from a local dandy with the surname of Ong, who one fateful night got his trademark top hat ruined in a lover’s quarrel. In a fit of pique, Ong threw the damaged hat into a nearby tree where it hung for years to come, eventually giving the town its name. An alternate story tells there was never a town by the name of Ong’s Hat at all. Instead, Mr. Ong was a traveling merchant and the ruins seen today are actually the remains of a traveler’s’ waystation he built for his own personal use. Maps marking the the location were misread, and the temporary shelter of “Ong’s Hut” became the phantom town of Ong’s Hat.
Interesting local legends surround Ong’s Hat, such as it having served as a bootlegger’s hideout, as well as a chilling tale of murder and disappearance involving a local couple. But Ong’s Hat found itself bizarrely at the bleeding edge of burgeoning internet culture when it become the subject of what may be the first ever ARG, or alternate reality game. Starting from the 1980’s and continuing up to the present day, reports have persisted that Ong’s Hat is or was once the home of a secret cabal of scientists who have perfected the secret of interdimensional travel. By now it is more or less universally accepted that the Ong’s Hat Conspiracy was nothing more than a brilliant work of early collaborative, viral fiction. But like the mysterious Mr. Ong and his hat dangling from the tree, it proves that nothing persists like a good story.
3) Gibsonton, FL
The community of Gibsonton, Florida, is synonymous with the life and culture of the carnival. When these traveling attractions now ingrained in the American psyche were at their peak, their performers and employees found themselves in need of a place to call home and that understood their unique culture and life experiences. They found it in Gibsonton, where carnies and sideshow performers of all stripes would settle down together for the off season. The town’s post office once boasted a special counter for dwarves, and the city’s generous zoning laws allowed circus trailers and elephants to be housed on residential lots. The town’s connection to the carnie trade endures to this day where it hosts a massive annual trade show for the carnival industry. It also boasts the impressive International Independent Showmen’s Museum containing many artifacts and exhibits about carnival history.
Sadly, it was a high-profile murder case and not the town’s fascinating history that brought Gibsonton to national attention. Gibsonton citizen Grady Stiles Jr. – who bore a genetic mutation that endowed him with pincer-shaped hands and feet – went from performing in freak shows as the Lobster Boy to running his own midway operation. Behind closed doors, however, he was a violent psychopath. In 1992, after years of abuse at his hands, Stiles’ wife, stepson, and a neighbor conspired to put a bullet in his head. The resulting murder case has inspired numerous books, documentaries, and fictional works. A fascinating crime story for certain, but in the grand scheme of things just one moment in the storied history of Gibsonton and the fading artform it strives to preserve.
2) Centralia, PA
Would any list of small towns with strange stories be complete without Centralia? It is truly a unique tale: the unexplained fire in the coal mine beneath the town’s surface that began in 1962 and has not stopped since; the town’s split and shattered pavement eternally leaking poisonous smoke into the forest that surrounds, and the controversial decision by the State of Pennsylvania to seize all land in the township and drive its few remaining inhabitants out.
Centralia fascinates and repulses, standing as a testament to how quickly man’s endeavors can go wrong and nature’s vengeance can begin. The fact that the town’s roads are literally a fissured hellscape oozing poisonous smoke do nothing to dissuade such speculations. The dying town’s imprint has seeped into pop culture too, with it inspiring the title location as depicted in the Silent Hill film franchise and Slenderman-themed found footage horror series EverymanHYBRID filming a memorable episode there.
1) Stull, KS
There are few towns with legends more fantastical and weird than that of Stull, Kansas. For it is said that this dreary little town on the edge of a Kansas highway was once the home of a coven of satanic witches, one of whom birthed the Devil’s half-human son before the coven was exterminated; their corpses strung up from trees by vengeful locals. It gets worse, for twice each year Lucifer himself makes a pilgrimage to the village’s desolate cemetary to mourn his lost wife and son.
It may come as no surprise that residents of Stull don’t appreciate out-of-towners snooping around about this ghoulish legend. Over the years they have gone to great length to dissuade visitors, razing the graveyard’s ruined church and towering pine tree that were said to be the hubs of demonic activity. Signs dissuading trespassers are posted everywhere and the local sheriff’s department are said to relentlessly patrol the area to shoo would-be paranormal investigators away. One would think the town would welcome the chance to have the unflattering legend investigated and thoroughly debunked once and for all. But for whatever reason, they seem intent upon the opposite.
Many legends have sprung about around Stull and it’s supposedly demoniac legacy. In all likelihood, it is nothing more than a town full of normal folks who want their privacy and wish the outside world would just leave them alone. But the veil of secrecy that covers the town only adds to its enduring central mystery.
Then there’s also that time when a couple of journalists went to see the haunted cemetery for themselves and found the ground inexplicably on fire. But hey, it’s probably just some crazy campfire story.