Get out of town.
If you have the opportunity or privilege, take a day off and go somewhere.
For me personally, I find that scary stories and horror movies are cathartic and have always been an antidote to the heaviness of politics and one’s personal life. I also love road trips around Virginia, and if you need a dose of something spooky, here are a couple spots that Virginians know about. If you’re a Washington/Nova transplant, drop one of these on your native co-worker and they’ll know you’re one of them.
But seriously, do yourself a favor and get out of your town for a little while, no matter where you live. It’s been a rough year so far politically, and you should take a mental health day if you can. Self-care is a thing for a reason.
The Bunnyman Bridge – Clifton, Virginia
This is the site of one of Nova’s most notorious urban legends; it’s gained local iconic status. (Indeed, a Nova resident even made a quilt about the Bunnyman.) I’ve known about this place – and heard the story (usually around Halloween) – since I was a child, but it was only in this past year that I finally managed to get there. The Bunnyman, like most scary stories, has many different versions. There’s possibly a grain of truth in some of them, although Washingtonian magazine wrote a research piece on the legend and found little to corroborate the stories. The one I know best is that a man escaped from a nearby lunatic asylum, dressed in a bunny costume, and terrorized residents with an axe, although I don’t remember any murders actually occurring in the story. The Bunnyman is a vague figure, but the bridge still attracts people like me that enjoy something a little creepy and other-worldly. It’s relatively small, in the middle of an area with windy roads and isolated homes. Something feels ominous about it, of course, but that’s the draw.
Cornwallis’s Cave – Yorktown, Virginia
This spot, right off the beach of downtown Yorktown, has a basis in historical fact and is reputed to be haunted. As you can surmise from the name (and the location), General Cornwallis of the British Army had his last stand in this cave during the Battle of Yorktown, which effectively ended the Revolutionary War. He was reported to have hidden here, along with other Yorktown residents, during the siege that decimated his army, the citizens, and the town itself. His decision to move his army so close to the river helped guarantee an American victory. Jackie Behrend, author of The Hauntings of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown, interviewed Yorktown local Dorothy Fuller, who describes her story thusly: “I’ve always prided myself in not believing in the supernatural…[but] I was just a few feet from the entrance, when the sounds of panicked voices stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn’t imagine what was happening. I waited a short while, then got up the nerve to peek inside. No one was there! Although I’ve been criticized by skeptics, I’m convinced Cornwallis’s Cave holds the horrified spirits of the siege of 1781” (120-121). You won’t know until you try it! They’ve blocked off access to the interior, but you can still get to the spot easily. Maybe you’ll hear something, too.
The Exorcist Steps – Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
For April Fool’s Day, my girlfriend and I went to an a cappella performance in Georgetown, and passed by the infamous Exorcist Steps in this D.C. neighborhood. The notorious landmark is the location of a famous scene in The Exorcist, where a priest falls down the stairs to his death. It’s more of a local/moderately national tourist attraction that takes you away from the mall and into the city (although Georgetown is getting busier every single day); the creators have referred to the on-location shooting as a “hymn to Georgetown.” The film has a reputation for being “cursed,” due to various creepy events that occurred during shooting, but that’s all kind of apocryphal (as must scary stories are). But it certainly gives the steps that ominous feel, especially since they’re so shaded and dark. Nearby Georgetown University boasts all kinds of atmospheric architecture – such as Gaston Hall’s cathedral-like design – to satisfy any dramatic imagination, too.
Other Spooky(ish) Sites
- Since Virginia is one of the first and oldest places in the country (in terms of colonization), you can find a lot of historical sites that are reputed to be haunted. I’ve had several friends talk specifically about their weird experiences at the Manassas National Battlefield (and, honestly, most battlefields anywhere have these kinds of stories circulating around). One of them told me that handprints appeared in the dust on her car while she was idling on one of the driving trails.
- In Hauntings and Happenings of Loudoun (1978, out of print), Frank Raflo talks about the Balls Bluff National Cemetery in Leesburg, Virginia, which used to be the hook up spot for teens in the 1950s. A story he recounts involves, strikingly, another incident of handprints appearing out of nowhere, this time on the car of adolescents awkwardly trying to copulate. “Vicious screaming” (40) erupted in the empty area and they quickly drove away. Since then it continues to hold its reputation of being haunted, although I doubt it’s still a place to hook up.
- Colonial Williamsburg (where I graduated from The College of William and Mary) has a lot of nighttime/seasonal ghost tours. One of the hauntings has to do with the wheels of a prison cart in colonial times continuing to creak and be heard down the Duke of Gloucester Street to this day.
Photo: The Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C., which looks particularly Gothic in the winter