The Strange History Behind America's Creepiest Zombie Road Legends... And How You Can Find Them

The Strange History Behind America’s Creepiest Zombie Road Legends… And How You Can Find Them

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There’s something strange said to be found along the road found within two square miles of rugged woodlands in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. That’s where you can find a little spot known by the locals as Zombie Land. And in the center of the United States lies a much more infamous abandoned street just outside of St. Louis. Its real name is Lawler Ford Road, but for at least 50 years it’s been known by a much more eerie name: Zombie Road. What’s so special about these sites? Are they really places that happen to be home to undead, brain-eating monsters? Sadly, no, you’ll have to go to your nearest annual Zombie Walk for that. But even so, these spots each have a strange story to tell.

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Zombie Land is found only a mile from the Ohio border near the Mahoning River southeast of Youngstown, Ohio. The area, mostly woodlands dotted with farm fields and a few houses, sounds like your typical Spooky Hollow full of scary stories. Some folks say it all started when a group of patients from a mental hospital escaped when the building caught fire and settled in the area. Older tales claim the “zombies” were a group of people suffering from hydrocephalus—or “water on the brain”—built houses here on the shore of the Mahoning to avoid harassment for their deformities. The “Light Bulb Heads” as some people called them would chase away anyone who went there to bother them. But that’s just the beginning of the stories.

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The praying angel on Churchill Road

At the Killing Fields (two fields on either side of East River Road), legend says you can hear gunshots and screams. Reports of ghost train whistles on the trails through the woods are also common; supposedly, if you park your car on the existing railroad tracks, “strange things will happen.” Hopefully, they mean something other than getting hit by a train. Some locals still remember “Blood House,” the alleged former home of a witch, even though it burned to the ground a few years ago. The story goes that she only came out to hex people… or to abduct the occasional child. The St. Lawrence Church (now a private residence) has an angel in the year which prays when it’s unsafe to venture into Zombie Land; the adjacent cemetery is also home of an alleged glowing tombstone. There’s the story of the Green Man (you can read more about him here), an abandoned gas well people dare each other to light, and abandoned mine shafts dotted across the area used by mobsters from Youngstown as convenient places to dispose of bodies.

Puerto Rican Bridge in Zombie Land

Another popular story from this place deals with Puerto Rican Bridge, also called Frankenstein’s Bridge. Many names and symbols are spray painted onto the sides; a young boy supposedly committed suicide by leaping off the bridge. Rumor has it that if someone puts your name on the bridge, you’ll be murdered by the people living under the bridge. In 2000, the urban legend came a little too close to home. The body of 12-year-old Shannon Leigh Kos was found on October 11th in Coffee Run beneath an abandoned graffiti-coated railroad bridge just 700 feet west of Hillsville Road. She had been raped and stabbed to death; the murderer attempted to burn her body to hide the crime.

Historic view of the Mahoning at Zombie Land

Back when the Pittsburg & Lake Erie (P&LE) Railroad still had tracks running through this area, there was a tiny whistle stop called Robinson’s Corners here. The “gravel road” curious visitors walk down is actually the old track bed. The Stavich Bicycle Trail follows an old interurban trolley route. The current railroad tracks follow the original route of the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal, a rather short-lived shipping canal that existed from 1840 to 1872 connecting the Ohio & Erie Canal to the Beaver & Erie Canal.

Zombie Road in Missouri has a history of just as weird legends, though this place was kicked into the spotlight when it was featured on Children of the Grave, a documentary by the “I’ll add gratuitous exclamation points if I want to” duo: the Booth Brothers. It’s located near the former town of Glencoe, an old mining & quarrying town now incorporated into the city of Wildwood, about 20 miles west of St. Louis. The real name of Zombie Road is Lawler Ford Road, and it did, at one time, end at a ford across the Meramec River. Just before the road met the water was the whistle stop of Yeatman Junction on the Missouri Pacific Railroad. This is where the Hudson Brothers operated a sand and gravel quarry.

But as early as the 1950s, Lawler Ford took on the name Zombie Road. Most stories agree that this stretch of road was always dark and eerie—even in the light of day—and a strange silence fell over the place. Some well-known urban legends (like the killer with a hook for a hand) were attached to the place. There were tales of a boy who fell from a nearby cliff and was never found, a crazy woman living in a house near the river who would scream at trespassers, and satanic cults wandering the woods. People said that ghosts of Native Americans wandered the path; another ghost was supposed to be a man struck by a train in the 1970s. The last one might be rooted in exaggerated fact. In 1876, Della Hamilton McCullough (wife of tanner and shoemaker Henry McCullough) was struck by a railroad car on a nearby spur. Some believe it’s her ghost that haunts the tracks at the bottom of Lawler Ford Road.

Tom Halstead’s best known 2005 photo of “shadow people” on Zombie Road

The biggest story, and the one responsible for the road’s nickname, is that of an escaped mental patient turned serial killer who lived in the woods along the road. It’s claimed that his bloodied hospital gown was found on the road. Aside from the many accidental deaths rumored to have happened where the road met the tracks, other teenagers and children were supposedly murdered by the man, nicknamed “Zombie.” These dead people are said to wander the road and woods surrounding the site. They’ve been dubbed “shadow people” by paranormal investigators who’ve encountered them in the area. You can find a variety of photographs of these dark figures online.

Lawler Ford Road is no longer open to traffic. The Rock Hollow Trail—open during the day to hikers and cyclists—follows roughly the same route today while some sections have track operating a scale model railroad called the Wabash Frisco & Pacific. Your best bet to catch a glimpse of the area is by hiking along the trails (which close half an hour after dusk) or taking a ride on the train.

What do both places have in common? Well, just like Lawler Ford Road, that stretch of Hillsville/East River Road bordering the southern end of Zombie Land used to be a popular lover’s lane. Many of our urban legends and creepy tales—from escaped lunatics with hook hands to ghostly women in white—seem to be attached to places where young men and women used to park in the 50s, 60s, and 70s for a little uninterrupted loving. A good ghost story or scary ax murderer rumor is a good excuse to crawl a little closer in the front (or back) seat.

Perhaps these really are just collections of modern folklore, stories told as a warning for anyone thinking of doing something viewed as immoral or bad, attached to places where you might find teenagers doing things their parents wouldn’t want them to do. Or maybe it’s the creepiness of any isolated stretch of road near the woods that makes our minds spin out wild and fantastic stories. As much as we may say these tales are too bizarre to be real, we can’t rule out the possibility that some truth—no matter how far it’s been stretched—could account for these places as well. But do zombies roam parts of Pennsylvania and Missouri? If they do, they’re not on these roads.


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3 Comments

  1. Michael

    09/26/2011 at 11:12 PM

    Great article.

    It’s weird how every area seems to have one or two rural roads that have some sort of urban legend attached to it. I can think of at least 4 in my area and probably could find more if I really tried. Like you said, it seems that most of these legends occur on “lover’s lane’s” roads and are used to get closer to your significant other. I just wish I had thought about this when I was in high school. Not sure it would work for me now being that I’m 34.

    • Ken Summers

      09/27/2011 at 3:39 AM

      Thanks, Michael. When we only take stories on a case-by-case basis, sometimes we miss the bigger picture. I’m sure ghost stories would reveal a lot more if we just started looking at them in different ways.

      I was painfully shy in my teens, so it wouldn’t have done me any good. Then again, I still can’t manage a date to save my life. lol

  2. Miss_Majic

    09/30/2011 at 3:08 PM

    I concur. Every town has urban legends of scary blokes with a hook for an arm or some other deformity, when I was in primary school we had “raggy arm” who was said to run around on the hill opposite the school looking for victims. I do agree that there may be real spooky goings on in some places but chances are most of it is urban myth embellished over time as the stories are retold

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