Sarah Winchester was running away from evil. Following advice from a medium after her husband and child’s death, she packed up her life and traveled west until she felt safe from the spirits she thought were haunting her. She ended up in California’s Bay Area, purchased an eight-room farmhouse in 1886 and began renovations many have speculated were meant to confuse the spirits; construction continued until her death 36 years later.
With staircases that lead to dead ends, miniature doors that open into normal-sized rooms and vice versa, and an estimated 148 to 161 rooms total, the mansion was dubbed the Winchester Mystery House and opened to the public in 1923. The allure of the unknown has drawn visitors ever since and there have been numerous reports of floating lights, doors that shut on their own and cold spots along with the overwhelming sensation of being watched.
The World of Lore: Dreadful Places explores locations that echo with the trauma of some of history’s darkest moments and is the third book adapted from author Aaron Mahnke’s podcast, Lore. For regular listeners of the podcast, it’s difficult not to read the stories in Mahnke’s trademark narrative style, both matter-of-fact and familiar in his monotone voice, as he delves into popular folklore stories like that of the Winchester Mystery House and the Stanley Hotel—the inspiration behind Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Lesser-known stories that may have been lost to time are uncovered as well through extensive research, with details pulled from dusty newspaper archives and ancient personal accounts. A bibliography is included at the back for those who would like to do their own digging.
In the same way some people consider King’s Pet Sematary to be his most terrifying novel, the most chill-inducing stories in Dreadful Places are those that aren’t about ghostly apparitions as much as they are tied to concrete truths, revealing the human desire to find meaning or patterns in tragedy. Readers can imagine themselves making the same mistakes of giving in to desire and searching for things that should have remained buried, consequences be damned.
Some stories also demonstrate how the tragedies used as inspiration for legends can be more brutal than any folktale could ever dream up. The legend of the Richmond Vampire was born when a creature was seen emerging from a collapsed train tunnel. Its skin peeled away from its body and its bloody mouth was full of sharp teeth. After it seemed to disappear into the tomb of a nearby cemetery, people told tales of the vampire and waited fruitlessly for its return.
The truth was discovered years later through hospital records that showed a man named Benjamin Mosby had arrived after the collapse with burns from a burst boiler causing his skin to peel and broken teeth falling from his mouth.
Dreadful Places is separated into five main sections: Cities of Shadow, Inside These Walls, Distant Shores, Deep and Dark, and Off the Beaten Path. As one might expect, many of the supposedly haunted locations are places where large amounts of human tragedy has occurred with insane asylums, prisons, castles, New Orleans and other cities with long pasts taking center stage and unsettled spirits playing the leads.
Mental health reform was a difficult struggle in the 1800s. Most people were placed in asylums unwillingly and treated more like prisoners than patients. Dorothea Dix called for the creation of humane facilities for patients through the 1840s and fought for a “modern, conscious approach to caring for the mentally ill,” which included better facilities with windows and courtyards. With that in mind, Dr. Thomas Kirkbride designed the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, which was “built on a foundation of naiveté and hope.”
The facility was meant to house 250 people when it opened in 1864 but the rooms soon overflowed with over 700 patients hoping for treatment just 16 years after opening. It was eventually renamed the Westin State Hospital and more rooms were built in an attempt to hold the 2,600 patients who had been committed by the early 1950s. Without enough consistent staff members, treatment quality fell, and the hospital gained a reputation for poor living conditions and inhumane treatment. In one case, two patients in an overcrowded room became fed up with their other roommate’s snoring and decided to end it permanently with help from the leg of a heavy bed frame, claiming ghosts did it when staff found the body.
Years after the hospital was finally shut down in 1994, some portions were opened to the public for historical tours and guides have reported wet footprints appearing in hallways on humid days with no owner to be seen. One historian claims a door which was always left unlocked was impassable one day. A violent shaking from the other side halted further attempts to enter.
It’s easy to imagine what sort of legends exist in a country with a deep history of slavery, deadly epidemics and genocide, and many of the stories Mahnke describes in Dreadful Places uncover shameful actions from the torture of slaves to forced removal of native tribes from their territory—but not before cursing the land being stolen from them.
Each story is told with careful consideration of the truth versus embellishments, and Mahnke notes when he is unsure of the origins or reliability of specific events while black-and-grey illustrations by M.S. Corley contribute to any visions conjured by the mind while reading.
The conversational tone used in the Lore podcast carries over to the book and, while it feels more fitting in the audio version, that tone still acts to relieve readers of chilling accounts like a friendly hand to encourage you through a particularly frightening section of a haunted house. When recounting a supposed Bigfoot sighting in 1978 within the Bridgewater Triangle, a portion of land in Massachusetts known for unexplainable phenomena, local man Joe DeAndrade says he saw a hairy, “apish man-thing.” Mahnke then adds, “Oddly enough, I went to high school with a guy who fits that description.”
Comic relief aside, the tales shared in Dreadful Places are less than fit for bedtime stories unless readers are prepared to be hyperaware of every creak and bump in the night.
For some, that’s part of the appeal though. Fear and adrenaline exist in childhood games such as Bloody Mary and Ouija boards and the retelling of legends can bring a history to empty walls.
“Without folklore, can any place really feel like home?” Mahnke notes.
Folklore continues to fascinate because of the way the tales evolve over time. Like history, new details are constantly being discovered or proved wrong. A preservation team found a hidden room at the Winchester Mystery House in 2016 which had remained untouched for over a century. While the contents of the room offered more of a snapshot of a past life than a secret hidden treasure, it proves there are still secrets to be uncovered in the darkest of places.
The World of Lore: Dreadful Places, published by Del Rey Books on Oct. 9, is available now. The stories were adapted from Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast and have also been turned into a television series on Amazon Prime. Visit www.theworldoflore.com for more information.