There’s a children’s rhyme that starts, “If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise”—the surprise being a perfectly innocuous teddy bear’s picnic. None of the following woods and trees have a reputation for the sweet and innocuous, though. In fact, the legends surrounding these woods mean you’re more likely to be surprised by a headless spirit or hear a menacing voice calling from the beyond than find a group of fluffy bears eating their jam sandwiches.
1. The Llangernyw Yew // Llangernyw, Wales
In the medieval churchyard of Llangernyw, Wales, stands a 4000-year-old yew tree said to be inhabited by the spirit of the “Angelystor,” also known as a “Recording Angel” or “Evangelist.” Legend holds that the spirit appears every Halloween to announce the names of parish members who will die in the coming year. A local story says that after a night of drinking on Halloween, one disbelieving parishioner, Siôn Ap Rhobert, decided to challenge the notion of a spirit. Arriving at the church, he heard a voice reciting names—the first being his own. “Hold, hold!” he cried. “I am not ready yet!” He was dead within the year.
2. The Haunted Apple Tree // Douglass, Massachusetts
Legend says that, in the 1800s, a traveling peddler stopped to rest under this apple tree, and someone—likely the orchard owner himself—slashed the peddler’s throat and killed him. The victim’s spirit haunted the murderer, following him everywhere, until the man moved away to escape it. Passersby later reported seeing apparition standing under the apple tree, holding its throat and crying shrilly. The flesh of the apples grown on this tree are stained red, reminiscent of the blood that gushed from the peddler’s neck.
3. The Devil’s Tree // Basking Ridge, New Jersey
The stories surrounding this oak tree are seriously creepy. Often called “a portal to hell,” it’s linked to the New Jersey branch of the KKK in the 1920s, when it was allegedly a popular site for lynchings and cross burnings. Another rumor says that a farmer who lived near the tree murdered his entire family then hanged himself from its branches. And while there was an active branch of the Klan not far away, the stories of lynchings, cross burnings, and the murdered farm family are just that: unsubstantiated stories.
But people are still wary of the tree. Speaking badly about it is rumored to result in dangerous consequences, like causing car accidents, while other stories state that the souls of those killed at the tree give the site an unnatural warmth, meaning no snow will settle there in the winter. In the past, visitors have been warned not to try to cut the tree down for fear they will meet an untimely death.
4. The Great Wood // Norfolk, England
It’s said the spirit of Anne Boleyn, the beheaded second wife of King Henry VIII, appears in these woods on May 19 each year. Her decapitated ghost returns to mark the anniversary of her execution, riding in a coach driven by a headless driver with her own head resting on her lap.
Tradition states that when news of Boleyn’s execution reached the hall, four headless horses were seen dragging a headless man across the countryside nearby. Boleyn’s father, Thomas, is also said to haunt the woods. He must attempt to cross 12 bridges through the woods every year before the first rooster crows—a curse for not having stopped the execution of Anne and her brother George.
5. Isla de las Muñecas // Mexico City, Mexico
The trees on this island look like something out of a horror movie. Its name, which translates to “The Island of the Dolls,” clearly states why. Hundreds of dolls and doll parts dangle from the trees.
Over 50 years ago, the island’s only inhabitant discovered the body of a girl in a canal, and later found a doll floating in the water nearby. The man, Julian Santa Barrera, strung up that first doll, followed by many others, in tribute to the girl. Some people believe the dolls talk to each other and move their limbs and open their eyes; others suspect the dolls are evil, or perhaps safeguard the island. Barrera believed the dolls were possessed by the dead girl’s spirit. Fifty years after he started his collection and tribute, Barrera was found dead in the same place where he discovered the body of the drowned girl.
6. Hoia-Baciu Forest // Cluj Napoca, Romania
This wooded area in Romania is also known as the “Bermuda Triangle of Transylvania.” According to local lore, the 55,000-year-old forest is haunted. Legend has it that a shepherd and his flock of 200 sheep disappeared here without a trace.
There are also rumors of paranormal activity and even UFO sightings. In the 1960s, two different people snapped photos of disc-shaped objects flying over the forest. Others report entering the forest and getting mysterious rashes, feeling light-headed, and becoming ill, and also claim electronic devices malfunction in the area. Locals believe the circular clearing at the center of the forest is a portal through which you may pass but never return.
7. Aokigahara Forest // Japan
Aokigahara, also known as the “Sea of Trees” and “Suicide Forest,” sits at the base of Mount Fuji. It’s known for having the world’s second-highest rate of suicide after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The forest is associated with mythological Japanese demons and yurei, souls filled with hatred, sorrow, and a desire for revenge. These are said to be the souls of individuals brought to the forest to die by their families during times of famine to save food for others. With a dense population of mainly hemlock and cypress trees, the forest is so quiet it’s unusual to hear birds singing, which enhances the local belief that the forest is haunted.
8. Pine Barrens // New Jersey
Considered one of the most haunted forests in North America, the Pine Barrens span over a million acres and are made up of mainly oak and pine trees and a variety of ground cover plants. It was once inhabited by Lenni Lenape nation, then by European settlers [PDF]. The area was a hub of industry until coal was discovered to the west in Pennsylvania; settlements were then largely abandoned, creating more “ghost towns” than anywhere else in the U.S.
The most famous paranormal “resident” of the Pine Barrens is the Jersey Devil. This creature is alleged to be the 13th child of a woman named Deborah Leeds. It was born in 1735 with leather wings, a goat’s head, and hooves. The beast flew up the family’s chimney and into the Barrens, where it has been killing livestock ever since. Other ghosts are also said to inhabit the Barrens, including a small boy who was the victim of a hit-and-run and the headless spirit of the pirate Captain Kidd.
9. Devil’s Tramping Ground // Bear Creek, North Carolina
For as long as anyone can remember, no vegetation has grown at the tramping ground, a 40-foot circle in the deep woods about 50 miles south of Greensboro, North Carolina. The multiple legends surrounding the clearing say this spot is the devil’s dance floor. He comes to stomp and dance every night, his cloven feet burning so hot they scorch everything underfoot. Other stories say the place was the site of a battle between two rival Indigenous tribes. According to that legend, so much blood soaked the ground nothing could grow there again. It’s also alleged to have been the site of a UFO landing, and the radiation from the alien engines permanently killed all the local flora.
10. Dow Hill Forest // Kurseong, India
This forest is reputed to be the site of multiple murders. It’s home to the Dow Hill Victoria Boys’ School, known as one of the most haunted places in India. Locals report hearing footsteps and whispers in the school’s halls when it’s empty; others have witnessed a headless boy wandering through the trees on a path between the school and forest, known as the “Death Road.” Still more have claimed to see a mysterious red eye peering at them and reported being followed by an unseen entity. A ghostly woman dressed in gray is said to roam the woods, and some people have heard terrifying screams. Locals say if you try to follow the gray woman, you’ll get lost in the woods and later, she will haunt your dreams.