Plenty of horror media base fear factors on the isolation one feels in rural locations. Campgrounds, cabins, farmhouses, and hiking trails come in for their share of creepy tales. Nothing is scarier than those that are (loosely) based on actual incidents, such as Cabin 28, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and The Strangers.
Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse teamed up to research and write Fear the Reaper, their third collaboration, along with the theme of horrible crimes that have occurred in rural America. Both have lived in farmhouses, and Taylor is known for his books on crime, the occult, and the paranormal. Both have investigated haunted sites and both are thorough researchers.
“The most important goal,” Kruse told me, “was not just to tell the stories but to get them right. The best places to look for accurate information were primary sources—going back to what was written at the time of the horrific events. Reading the words of people who were actually ‘there’ and interviews of others expressing how the events affected people, brought a new reality to what I was researching. These people deserve to have their stories told, to be remembered and maybe to be understood a little better.”
They include several classics, such as the Clutter murders that became In Cold Blood, and the Belle Gunness and Bender family serial killers. They also describe lesser-known but no less disturbing incidents. The “boogeyman” in many of the tales from earlier times was a farmhand bent on theft or revenge.
Is there anything creepier than an abandoned amusement park in the middle of the woods? North of Reading, PA, is where Dreamland Park once provided fun for kids while also hosting illegal gambling transactions. Closing in the 1950s, the “ghost park” became a haunt for biker gangs. On August 12, 1969, some Pagans spotted 20-year-old Glenn Eckert and 18-year-old Marilyn Sheckler at a lovers’ spot near Dreamland and decided to have some fun. They raped Marilyn before killing both teens. Months went by before their skeletons were discovered. Two of the culprits were tried and sentenced to life in prison. Dreamland now deteriorates, home only to ghosts.
Another serial killer popped up in West Virginia when a noxious odor from an area in Clarksburg in 1931 led to the discovery of five decomposing corpses. The police had already detained Herman Drenth, a furniture dealer, to inquire about a missing person. They discovered his ghastly side business. On his trips around the country as “Harry Powers,” he’d located wealthy widows via personal ads, married them, and brought them to Quiet Dell. Each went into his homemade gas chamber, equipped with a glass window for his sexual pleasure.
You’ll get a fair number of stories in this volume about family slaughters and murder-suicides, but one of the strangest happened a short drive from Pine Grove Furnace State Park, along Pennsylvania’s route 233. In 1934, three dead girls were found laid out under blankets in the woods. They were neatly dressed in nice outfits, but each had been asphyxiated. No locals could identify the girls, who looked like sisters, or could even guess where they’d come from. That same day, in Altoona, many miles to the northwest, a man and woman were found shot to death in a murder-suicide. Were they related?
The clue that tied it all together was discovered in a field near McVeytown. A 1929 blue Pontiac sedan had been abandoned there. It was traced to the missing Elmo Noakes, whose photo matched the dead man. The woman was his niece (and perhaps something more) and the children were his daughters. But why were they all dead? Who had killed the kids? This incident remains a mystery even today.
This collection of creepy tales is perfect for late-night reading, especially if you’re scared of axe-wielding killers. Many of these locations include ghostly tales and a bonus is the number of old photos scattered throughout. The cover alone says it all.
Taylor, T. & Kruse, R. (2014). Fear the Reaper: America's Rural Mysteries, Hauntings, and Horrors. Decatur, IL: Whitechapel Press.