When I was first forwarded the Wikipedia page for Centralia, Pennsylvania, I was a little confused. The page cited Centralia as the town that inspired the horror movie, Silent Hill. But I thought Silent Hill was in West Virginia…isn’t there where all creepy horror films are set? Wrong. Centralia, PA is, in fact, the town that movie was based off of and surprise surprise, the movie was (kinda) based on a true story:
Centralia was a quaint little American town with thousands of residents not all that long ago. Then, in 1962, the coal mines in the town caught fire. People are still disputing how exactly this happened, but the most popular notion is that trash burned in abandoned strip mine caused a vein of coal to start burning. It has never stopped, in fact, it has only spread since then. Things started unwinding in Centralia from there. The families didn’t move out right away. But then dangerous gases from the fire started polluting the air, the amount of carbon monoxide spewing out of the mine began to reach dangerous levels, a kid fell into a HOT sinkhole (he survived!), and families generally started to worry about raising their families above raging mine fires. I can’t blame them. As cool as the idea of living directly above Hell is, I’d probably move out, too.
From a site devoted to the Centralia mine fire: “An engineering study concluded in 1983 that the fire could burn for another century or even more and ‘could conceivably spread over an area of approximately 3,700 acres.’” No one really knows how far it has spread, or how deep, or where new, hell-hot sinkholes could appear.
But not everyone wanted to go. SO what happened when good citizens didn’t want to leave a town deemed too dangerous to live in? The government stepped in and starting buying out families to relocate to a nearby town. Most families couldn’t turn down the money—in fact, almost all of them took it. There are only 5 families holding out in Centralia today, a town that, may I remind you, had thousands of citizens just a few decades ago. Their rationalization is the the gummint knows there’s rich coal deposits under there and is forcing them to move and give up their mineral rights.
This is all Scary Shit! Sinkholes swallowing up entire homes, steam and smoke billowing up from cracks in the earth; it is said that you can hear Satan joking around with Beezlebub just by putting your ear to the ground.
I just couldn’t resist that! I decided to go to Centralia myself. On the way to Centralia, I was already getting the feeling that I was being stared at. Maybe because the locals didn’t recognize my car. Or appreciate my giant Lyndsay Lohan sunglasses. There may have been zombies lurking in the shadows, too, I couldn’t really tell. I drove on anyway.
Imagine any suburban neighborhood you’ve ever been in. You make a left a Cherry Lane and a right at Oak Road and these small communities go on like this, with quaint streets squaring off the corners of the community, one evenly paved road at a time. I drove down roads that were once these roads, but they weren’t named. No homes existed in the overgrown lots of land. It was an empty grid of cracking, paved residential streets, sans houses. Nature had reclaimed the tar and plants burst out from the cracks in the streets. All that remains is a charred skeleton of a town.
Just beyond a graveyard, I climbed over a rock and dirt pile that had been built to keep people out of the area just beyond it. Not surprisingly, as I walked on past this dirt pile, the air started to smell funny. Noxious, even. There was an attempt to prevent sinkholes from form by relieving the pressure of the gasses building up underground by placing pipes in the ground for ventilation. A couple pictures later and I had enough of that.
Curious about the giant crack in old Route 61 that I’d seen pictures of online, I climbed over another barrier and ventured down the now feral highway, complete with graffiti from the local teens. Some disturbing graffiti at that. I left my car, which had just been inspected by my mechanic days ago and which was, he said, in “perfect condition”, on the side of the road in the care of the recently ankle-sprained fellow TAT editor and photographer Ben Britz.
I arrived at the crack in the road. Not seeing any smoke or smelling any gas, I leaned in closer, and: Heat. I felt heat on my face. “What the hell,” I said. “This town certainly is on fire!” Sweating now, freaked out, I headed back the mile or so to my car to find a bloody scene. Ben had died at the hands of zombies.
But also, transmission oil was everywhere! The car would start, but it would not go. “Great”, I thought. “Frickin’ zombies in in frickin’ Zombietowne USA gnawed through the transmission line!” And I wish I could say that with another attempt to start the car that all was fine…but all was not fine.
Not that I had to battle zombies or anything. A tow truck from the nearest town (SHOCKER: Centralia does not have a tow service or mechanic) came to my rescue, towed my cursed car away, and dropped me off at a Holiday Inn Express. The driver was a little funny, but probably not a zombie, I think. The mechanic ate Ben, though.
I don’t regret going to Centralia—it’s spooky as Hell (haha!). But I do kind of think Silent Hill was at least partially responsible for my car troubles. Be warned. The spirits of fire-demon town may not want you there. Go anyway. But maybe ride your bike.
By: Ben Britz and Elizabeth Seward