There are a lot of haunted houses. Just about every small town in the country has one that looks the part. But what about an entire town that appears to be the gateway to hell? One that looks like Lucifer himself is swallowing it whole? In Pennsylvania there is a town just like this: A town with streets cut into asphalt ribbons by fissures in the earth. It is a town where fire burns beneath the surface and plumes of smoke and ash shroud it in an otherworldly mist. The noxious fumes and state government mandates have chased away most of the residents. But there are still some that dwell there. This hell is there home. They have become inured to it like those poor souls the devil reigns over. This is the lot of the remaining residents of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Their peculiar circumstance has inspired several spooky stories. The most current and most famous is the film adaptation of Silent Hill (2006).
A Horror Writer’s Playground
When approached to write a screenplay based on Silent Hill, the video game, Screenwriter Roger Avary discarded the graphic backdrop and much of the game’s storyline and used Centralia for inspiration. To him it seemed like “a town of people trapped in dark dreams.” Just looking at the town (what was left of it) made it easy to conjure supernatural reasons for their predicament. What if their lot was the result of a curse from a vengeful soul, who the townspeople wronged? That soul would inflict “onto the town what those people did to her body. That is, to me, the meaning of darkness. The appearance of the town is corrupted in the way that her own flesh was wounded,” Avary stated in a post-production interview. The monsters that haunt Silent Hill would be the memories of bitter feelings. (Seeing the few residents of Centralia, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that those who remained were only there because of bitterness.)
In Silent Hill, a little girl (Sharon) is troubled by nightmares and sleep disturbances. Her parents take her to the abandoned town of Silent Hill, which becomes enveloped by fog and ash shortly after their arrival. The earth fractures trapping them in the town limits. Although the residents of Centralia are not physically trapped, this is their everyday reality. Except the ash-filled smog is not produced by a supernatural force. It is the result of a coal mine fire that began in the early 1960s. Since then the fire has gradually spread under the town. The town’s residents tolerated the noxious fumes until the ground beneath parts of the town was hallowed out to the point that fissures began to form. Large cracks in the highway made the state take notice. Eventually the underground fire spread to one of the town’s gas stations, causing the temperature of the gasoline to spike to unsafe levels.
The Journey to Hell
In the film, the coalmine fire is the ‘recorded’ reason the town was abandoned. It is later discovered that the fire began as a result of the townspeople burning Alessa to ‘cleanse’ her soul. But in many ways, the reality is spookier. The coal mine began to smolder in 1962. At the time, the population of Centralia was a little under 2000 residents. After the fire began, the coal mining outfits around the town shut down operations and there was very little work to be found in the area. In 1980, the population had dwindled to 1000 residents. But such a population decline was typical for that time period when coal mining groups were shutting down everywhere, not just in Centralia.
Much like in the movie, it took a kind of human sacrifice for the town to be abandoned. In 1981 a massive sinkhole opened up, swallowing a 12 year-old boy. This led to bitter division amongst the townspeople (many of them dating their lineage back to the early 19th century) over whether the coal fire posed a threat to the town’s existence. But none of the now mostly older residents gave abandonment any serious consideration. By then the highway going through the town had been closed and rail service had been discontinued due to safety concerns. Ultimately the county forced their hand. All roads leading to the town, not just the highway, were shutdown. Centralia’s zip code was revoked. Using eminent domain the county seized most of the property, declaring it unsafe, and evicted the residents. All houses on seized lands were demolished. By the mid-1980s a ghostly field sectioned into neat squares by the remains of blacktop avenues – the same avenues that used to enable thriving commerce – was just about all that remained. Today, almost thirty-five years on, the forest is aggressively overtaking it.
The Town of the Damned
But even creepier is not what was taken from the town, but what remains. Despite the county’s pressure a few were able to cling to their property. As of the 2010 census the town’s population is ten. Ten people. Like the monsters in Silent Hill they are the bygone memories of what once was. Despite a lack of working roads, power, gas for heat, or a postal service, the ten left will remain there until their last days. They have an agreement with the county that allows them to reside in what’s left of the town until they pass into the next life. One house (pictured below on the left side) was partially owned by a resident that left and partially owned by one who fought to stay. The state demolished one-half of the house. (Notice how the chimneys are exposed.)
In the movie, Rose and Cybil seek refuge in the town’s church to escape the monsters. Oddly enough in reality, Centralia’s remaining church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church (pictured below), is still maintained in good order by the townspeople and seems to be on relatively stable ground.
Also on the considerably more eerie side, the town’s four cemeteries are pristinely cared for. One in particular, the Odd Fellows Cemetery (pictured below), is near where the fire started and although an ashy mist is ubiquitous throughout the town, it is even more common to see it covering the cemetery.
A Cursed Town with a Violent Past
In Silent Hill a cult secretly ran the town and ensured it’s moral purity by ceremonially murdering several of the town’s wayward residents. There is nothing like moral purity in the history of Centralia, however the Molly Maguires, a secret society, was just as bloodthirsty. They waged a campaign against unfair labor practices in the latter half of the 19th century and killed many citizens on the wrong side of workers rights in order to intimidate the others. But they themselves were ultimately executed after a series of trials in the 1870s. Of special retrospective interest: During their years of terror, the Molly Maguires assaulted Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, the 1st Roman Catholic priest to call Centralia home. In retaliation, he cursed the land and swore that the town’s Catholic church would be the only structure left standing… Few would argue that the land seems to be cursed and it is quite remarkable that of all the buildings in Centralia, the church is the only one without a threatened foundation. Once the forest has completely overtaken the remains of the town, St. Mary’s will probably be the only distinguishable man-made structure remaining.
So, why can’t they extinguish the coal fire?
That’s an interesting question. There have been several attempts to smother the fire and deprive it of oxygen by sealing off known mineshafts. But in the process of doing so, many collapsed, preventing crews from reaching the burning coal. It is estimated that there is enough coal under Centralia to burn for another 250 years. So for all those who are seeking inspiration for horror tales, fear not, this hellish ghost town, complete with it’s ever-present smoke clouds and noxious gases, will be around for some time… Unless, of course, the underground fires that have caused cracks and sinkholes eventually swallow up Centralia entirely.