VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu
Who's up for a terrifying vacation? For this list, we'll be looking at small towns in the United States that harbored disturbing secrets or histories. Our countdown of small American towns with dark or creepy secrets includes Sherman, Connecticut, Freetown, Massachusetts, Centralia, Pennsylvania, and more!
10 Small American Towns with Dark or Creepy Secrets
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re examining 10 Small American Towns with Dark or Creepy Secrets.
For this list, we’ll be looking at small towns in the United States that harbored disturbing secrets or histories. Obviously, these aren’t entirely secrets anymore, but regardless shouldn’t be the kind of thing to be on a brochure. We’ll also be framing our entries around Prime’s new mystery series, “Shelter,” which features a small town with quite the dark secrets itself.
Are there any other small-town secrets you know about? Let us know in the comments.
Bob Gordon was a seemingly innocuous seventy-one-year-old man living in this western Connecticut town. And then in 2016, state troopers arrested him. Turns out, Gordon was actually one Robert Stackowitz, who’d been on the lam for a whopping forty-eight years after escaping prison down in Georgia. Stackowitz had still roughly fifteen years left on his sentence at the time, having been incarcerated for being the getaway driver in a burglary. Both Connecticut and Georgia dropped their charges and extradition requests due to Stackowitz’s ill health, and he died just seven months after being discovered. It’s not a one-to-one parallel, but one can definitely liken Stackowitz’s story to that of the Bat Lady in “Shelter,” they both knowing what it’s like to be on the run.
Liberty Township & Independence Township, New Jersey
Kasselton, New Jersey, for all its darkness, may not seem like much to the characters in “Shelter.” But the folks in these real-life New Jersey townships know to beware of Shades of Death Road. Yes, that’s the real name of the road, which has inspired some fanciful legends, and some that are all-too-real. Even before there were cars to drive on the road, it’s said it was cursed by insects who nested nearby and annually spiked mortality rates with malaria. Then in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the road saw three murders, one of which saw a woman decapitate her husband and bury the head and body on opposite sides of the road. Then there’s the wildcat attacks that were known to take place there.
Sand Branch, Texas
Sand Branch is actually an unincorporated community in Dallas County, Texas. Yet despite being so close to a major US city, this town is completely without one of life’s most everyday amenities: running water. But wait, it gets worse. Sand Branch literally exists next to a wastewater treatment facility, yet can’t get access because it has absolutely no infrastructure to convey the water. But wait, it gets worse. This incredibly poor community of mostly African-American residents has to rely on directly transportable water, much of which they acquire through donations. It would seem that some officials would rather look the other way when it comes to the people of Sand Branch.
In the first episode of “Shelter,” new girl Ashley meets protagonist Mickey, sets a date, goes to cheerleading tryouts, and then… vanishes. Through the lens of the show, it’s an easy comparison to make when considering the tragic tale of Mary-Lou Arruda. In 1978, Arruda too was a teen cheerleader before she went missing while cycling. Her body was found nine weeks later, and a man named James Kater was eventually arrested on suspicion of murder. Through circumstantial yet damning evidence, Kater was eventually convicted after many retrials. However, the area would still be plagued by unsolved murders in the late ‘80s at the work of the New Bedford Highway Killer.
Ken McElroy was none too popular in the farming community of Skidmore, Missouri. McElroy was indicted twenty-one times, but escaped conviction all but once. And he was accused of pretty much everything you can think of. In 1981, shortly after townsfolk held a meeting about how to handle McElroy, the man was shot twice in broad daylight. Despite there being as many as forty-six witnesses, not a single suspect was identified. It’s been speculated that the witnesses saw it as a public service, and thus protected the perpetrator’s identity. To this day, no one has been charged with McElroy’s death. We definitely feel a similar kind of secret solidarity among the adult community in “Shelter.”
“Shelter” has a thematic tie to trains early on. But whereas those glimpses have a liberating underpinning, this rail disaster was anything but. Back in 1876, there was a bridge spanning the Ashtabula River in the namesake Ohio town. But on the night of December 29, disaster struck. As the Pacific Express passed over, the bridge collapsed. Only the lead car made it to the other side; the others plunged into the river below. Despite the water, a fire broke out when the passenger train’s oil lanterns met the coal-fired heating stoves. Many who survived the fall perished in the flames. In total, ninety-two of the 160 aboard died that night.
Attica, New York
If there’s one thing Attica, New York is known for, it’s the correctional facility of the same name. By all accounts, the maximum security prison has housed some of the most notorious criminals in history, such David Berkowitz and Mark David Chapman. But the environment there reportedly isn’t much better. In 1971, inmates took control of the compound in an effort to negotiate better conditions. The state eventually responded with force, leading to the deaths of forty-three, including nine hostages. Today, the word “Attica” has endured in popular culture in reference to people seeking better treatment.
Already, we can sense the residents of Kasselton feeling unrest in “Shelter.” But hopefully things don’t get as bad as what the town of Burke, Idaho endured in the late 19th century. Within just a few short years after the town’s founding in 1887, Burke was devastated by an avalanche and a labor strike. Tensions between miners and the owners got so bad that a shootout occurred, inadvertently setting off dynamite and exploding a mill, killing six in the process. Martial law restored peace, but more misfortune was to come. In 1889, disgruntled miners deliberately blew up a mill, killing even more. Couple that with two devastating fires, a flood, and another avalanche, and we can see why Burke is a ghost town today.
Speaking of fires and ghost towns, Centralia, Pennsylvania has Burke beat by a long shot. That’s because the Centralia mine fire has been burning since at least 1962. Yeah, “has been,” as in, “is still burning.” It’s been disputed exactly how the fire started, but at some point, the abandoned underground coal mines were exposed to flame. After cleanup attempts failed and the conditions above ground worsened, residents were slowly forced to vacate. At one point, Centralia had a population of over 2,700. As of the 2020 census, it had five. Kasselton may be replete with shady characters and murder, but at least it isn’t literally on fire.
“Shelter” has a host of suspicious characters, as any one of them could be involved with the town’s mystery. But at least the investigating protagonists don’t have a literal witch hunt to deal with. In what is surely common knowledge today, late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts saw a level of mass hysteria heretofore unheard of, whereby hundreds of people were accused of witchcraft. The motives for the claims are now known to be dubious, but this didn’t stop upwards of twenty-five people dying, many of whom were executed, despite - obviously - not being actual witches. The debate of whether to embrace its witchy history or suppress it remains a subject of debate in Salem to this day.