Foggy, Spooky, Witchy: Ceres Bethel AME Church

December 27, 2014 — “Hey. Fog.” We don’t actually say those words, but any looming thickness outside the window has always been the signal for my wife and I to jump into the car so she can take awesome photos of gray-mantled things. Last week it happened again.

“Do you know where we could get some good shots?” My wife did say those words. At the time of this particular blurring we were staying at my parents’ house in Maryland for some of the holiday. As it was an area I myself had lived in for about five years, both with them and on my own, I had a pretty good idea where we should go.

“Oh yeah. Let’s take the Blair Witch Trail.”

I’ve written before about living near Burkittsville, MD, the fictional home and real-life filming location for the 1999 horror film The Blair Witch Project and about how my first apartment in the adjacent town of Brunswick (home of Beans in the Belfry) overlooked the street where most of the interview footage from the beginning was taken just a few years before I moved in.

So I knew a route that would look good in the fog. I’m calling it the Blair Witch Trail. Nobody else does. We drove through the crumbling town of Knoxville to Brunswick, where we stopped by my old apartment, on the top floor of a building that had seen better days beside a train station and, apparently, above an abandoned Mexican food joint. When I first moved there it had been an abandoned bar. When I left, it was a Chinese restaurant run by a young Asian couple and their six-year-old boy who was always the one to take my orders. I only bring it up because it was in that ramshackle apartment with its cigarette-burnt carpets and rickety balcony that OTIS was first dreamed up (although it didn’t evolve into a website until I moved to Fairfax, Virginia, a year or two later).

Why did I have to break in? I only came here to talk.

From there, we headed past farmland to Burkittsville, down Spook Hill, and on to Gathland State Park, which is a Civil War site, an Appalachian Trail segment, and home to a towering and medieval-looking War Correspondent’s Memorial that dates back to 1896.

The fog stuck with us the entire time. A great fog. A real John Carpenter-worthy fog. We don’t often get those kind of heavy, wet, enveloping fogs where I live in New England, and this one was perfect, looking exactly like the intersection of dimensions that the best fogs do.

Between Burkittsville and Gathland, on the side of the road across from a trio of historical signs explaining the origins of Burkittsville and the historical significance of the area in general, is a small abandoned church and graveyard set just below the plane of the road. I’d passed the church many times when I lived there, but had never stopped to visit. No reason, really. But this time the fog and the memories of horror movies past and the wet forest and curvy roads and all the lessons learned from OTIS since I’d moved away conspired together so that after we visited Gathland, we doubled back to investigate.

In front of the church is a tiny graveyard with just a smattering of stones. It dates back to the construction of the church, around 1870, although I did see one interment that dated to 2010. Still, this was one of the rare occasions where the church was more interesting than its graveyard.

I’d always assumed the place was boarded up, but on closer inspection the large plywood plank that had once shuttered the front door was lying on the concrete-block porch, the entryway gaping and dark. Inside were massive spider webs and pervasive decay and crooked pews all facing an organ that had been picked to pieces like some carcass in the desert. Holes in the floorboards warned us to step lightly, and the inevitable graffiti that adorned the walls was relatively restrained. In one corner, a rent in the roof had allowed the weather to rot the wall clear down to the floor.

In the opposite corner a short stretch of stairs led into the basement, which also had an outside entrance. There we found rows of connected folding seats made of wood and iron decomposing into ambiguous softness. A pentagram painted on the back wall gave the whole scene a nice flourish.

The church was originally an African Methodist Episcopal Church built by freed slaves. I’m not sure when God started hating it. Today, it seems isolated, but is only isolated in the sense that Burkittsville itself is isolated, as I could see houses through the thin belt of bare forest that surrounded it on three sides, as well as across the road from it.

When The Blair Witch Project phenomenon’d, the fans and the bored and the opportunistic descended upon Burkittsville, stealing its welcome signs, filling its cemetery, and discovering to their chagrin that the place was more quaint than scary. Since the nearby abandoned church was the closest thing in town to a horror set, they vandalized it, I guess, hastening its deterioration considerably. Websites often state that the church shows up in the movie, but it doesn’t. Maybe people would’ve had more respect for the place had it, as opposed to it being a mere holy and historic place.

Knowing there was no way we were going to top an abandoned church on a foggy day, we headed back home. The whole trek spanned little more than a lunch break. But sometimes that’s all you need to make a memory...and get some great photos.