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When I was in the 6th Grade, I went on a school sponsored camping trip with my class mates. It was kind of like an immersive science lesson. The trip was chaperoned by our science teacher, homeroom teacher and Language Arts teacher, and there were sixteen of us in my class. It was a really small private school in the city and I guess they felt like we needed to get out and experience nature first hand.
Their solution was to take us out into central Pennsylvania to a campsite called The Sanctuary. It was actually a hawk sanctuary and it was really beautiful. There were trees and mountains for miles and miles. We went on hikes, studied trees and birds and learned basic survival (camping) skills.
The best part of the trip was that we all got to sleep over in cabins and make s’mores and wear street clothes. By street clothes I mean jeans and sweatshirts and baseball caps. We had to wear uniforms to school and wearing jeans to a school function felt strangely rebellious.
We stayed two nights and I was really scared of the dark. Actually I still am, and darkness in the wilderness is much different than the “dark” of the city. I remember having a hard time falling asleep because it was just so dark and the cabins were more like wooden platforms with an arched roof, open on each end. We had mosquito nets and bunk beds and then just woods all around. I seemed to be the only one who had a problem with it so I didn’t say anything.
I forced myself to close my eyes and I felt somehow a little bit more secure with the net. It really didn’t make any sense because it was only protective against tiny insects, but I felt like I had a shield somehow. I didn’t get much sleep the first night and every time I heard a stick crack outside I jolted awake.
The second and final night came and everyone was excited about the Night Hike. The Night Hike was exactly what it sounds like. We went for a walk through the woods on a tiny, winding path, only perceptible to the camp guide. He went first and then the teacher and students followed in a single, winding line holding hands.
We had to be silent so that we could hear all the sounds of the night. Needless to say, I was terrified. It was kind of exciting, but man, I was scared. I was glad that we were able to hold hands, but I’m talking about a pitch black, middle of nowhere, surrounded by fifteen other twelve-year-olds kind of night hike. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
We walked for a while and a few kids squeaked here and there when strange noises, which were usually birds, erupted from the darkness around us. I was for sure one of the squeakers. We finally made it to a clearing with a rolling field that stretched about a mile away to another line of pine trees.
The moonlight illuminated everything. It cast a bone-white shine over the grass and the ground seemed to shimmer in some places. It was beautiful and strange. I felt like I was in a dream world. Everyone stood in a silent, huddled, circle.
I remember the guide talking in a whispered voice about the nocturnal animals and the sounds of the owls in the surrounding trees. I looked to my right down the steepest slope of the meadow and I stared off into the blackness between the trees on the other side. I felt safe being with my group and I was comfortable enough to let my mind wander to darker things.
To this day I don’t know why, but I imagined a woman, pale as the moonlight in a white nightgown emerging from that dark spot into the clearing. She was old and insane. She was running towards me very fast and she was screaming. Her screams were silent. She ran towards us and I could see that her screams had turned to cackling. She was utterly deranged and coming right towards us.
My eyes widened and I turned away and buried my face into my friend Lisa’s back. I started to cry and she turned to me and shushed me. A teacher came over and pulled me aside and asked if I was alright. A few of my classmates were giggling at my outburst. I looked back at the hillside and saw nothing. I told the teacher I was alright and the teacher stayed close to me the whole walk back.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I knew I had imagined it, but it was so clear and horrifying that I felt it had to mean something, and at night, imagined things seem very real. I kept my tiny flashlight on inside my sleeping bag and prayed for morning to come.
We packed up the next morning and I went home and never went camping again. I’m twenty-seven years old now and I still think about that crazy woman in the woods. She’s running towards me with fire in her eyes and her white wrinkled skin shines in the moonlight. I can’t get rid of her.
Long story made longer, I did some research on the area today and of course, there are tons of ghost stories about The Sanctuary and the land around it. Apparently it has a long history of violence. Originally, it was inhabited by the Lenni Lenape Indians and there are even the remains of a ceremonial ring on one of the mountains there.
To make things worse, European settlers tried to inhabit the area and tensions between them and the Native Americans led to a bloodbath in 1756.
I then found a story about Matthias Schambacher and his wife who owned a cottage in that area in the 1800s and rented rooms to travelers. Rumors state that many travelers that stayed the night there were never seen again and some that stayed and lived through it, reported strange noises in the night and just an overall feeling of unease.
There is a report of one man who was brave enough to get close to the cottage to spy on the Schambachers and claimed that he saw Matthias scrubbing blood off of the wall of the barn. Apparently, on his deathbed, Matthias confessed to robbing and killing more than thirteen travelers. He also said that he committed the murders not just for the money, but because an evil force that resided on the hillside spoke to him, urging him to kill.
Some, if not most of this is probably just rumor or exaggeration, but I was surprised by how many stories there were about paranormal experiences in that forest. That was just the first story I read.
I wonder now if I had imagined the ghostly woman or if I really saw her. How could something like that pop into my young mind? The only thing I’m certain of is that I’m glad I didn’t know the history of that place while I was there. If I had, I would have never walked into that black forest all those years ago.