My Journey Into Zombie Land

As long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with stories about creepy things in the woods. The whole idea of leaving the paved road and hiking back into the woods in search of something strange and spooky always made me all warm and tingly inside. Of course, if the thing I was trying to find was an entire area filled with all sorts of ghosts, monsters, and mayhem, well, that took things to a whole different level.

As a child growing up in New York, I can remember obsessing over Connecticut’s Dudleytown, to the point where I was begging my parents every chance I got to let me visit (they eventually caved). When I moved to Ohio in the late 90s, it didn’t take long for me to become enamored with the area known as Hell Town, which resulted in me acquiring the moniker, The Man Who Debunked Hell Town.

It was somewhere between Dudleytown and Hell Town that I first remember hearing about a place in Pennsylvania known as Zombie Land. And it’s been lurking in the dark recesses of my mind ever since. With good reason, too. I mean, Zombie Land’s got a little something for everyone: ghosts, creatures, bloodthirsty killers, Hookman, and, of course, zombies.

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No, not this place!   –via Vintage Movie Posters

It didn’t start out that way, though. Truth be told, when I first heard the tale of Zombie Land and decided to create a reference file for it, it was filled with little more than a few vague references to a place in the woods where there was a magical torch (sometimes referred to as the Eternal Flame) that could be lit in order to summon…something.

Over the years, more and more stories were added to the point where today, it fills three file folders. What’s more, people will tell you that in order to fully experience Zombie Land, you need to visit a series of locations, all of which are said to be within the boundaries of Zombie Land. You must do this in order to be able to find and light the aforementioned Eternal Flame, since renamed the Zombie Torch. That’s right: in the 20+ years of my tracking the legends of Zombie Land, it had grown into something that appeared to have been ripped from the pages of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. So naturally, I knew the time had finally come for me to make a pilgrimage out to Zombie Land to try and experience things for myself. And in the summer of 2018, accompanied by my friend and long-time member of The Ghosts Of Ohio, Mark Delong, I did just that.

But before we get to all the details of our excursion, perhaps a bit of background history is in order.

History
The area that has come to be known as Zombie Land lies in and around the town of Hillsville, located in western Pennsylvania, close to the OH/PA border. Through research and interviews, I have personally been able to trace the stories back to the early 1970s. Earlier versions might exist, but I have yet to come across them (if you have any, please send them my way via email or in the Comments section below).

It is important to note that the initial stories only included a specific place in the woods—Zombie Land—that people, usually teens, would visit late at night to do the sort of late-night things teenagers like to do. Occasionally, these “origin stories” would include a reference to a “torch” or “eternal flame”, but by and large, the stories were simply about a spooky place to visit.

Before too long, the torch became known as the Zombie Torch and visitors to the area late at night were supposed to try and light the torch. If successful, the light of the torch would cause the woods to fill up with zombies, apparently lured there by the glow from the torch. Still, even with the addition of the torch lighting ritual to the legend, Zombie Land was still only the area of woods surrounding the torch. I say this because from this point on, the legend began to grow, expanding the boundaries of Zombie Land considerably. Indeed, the list of strange and spooky inhabitants of Zombie Land grew, as well. As of this writing, Zombie Land is said to be home to various ghosts, monsters, satanic cults, Melonhead-type creatures, serial killers, gangs, and yes, even the occasional zombie or two.

As Zombie Land continued to expand its borders and cast of ghoulish characters, additional locations starting popping up, too. Initially, these locations were simply places of interest and possible stopping off places whilst one was on their way to find the Zombie Torch. Most recently, however, all of these locations have been brought together into what I have termed “The Journey”. Essentially, The Journey represents the current locations, all seven of them, that one should visit within the confines of Zombie Land. What’s more, the current Zombie Land legend states that the seven “stops” must be visited in a specific order.

The Journey
Currently, there are seven locations, or stops, in the Zombie Land Journey, which must be visited in the following order:

  1. Virgin Mary Statue
  2. Haunted Railroad Tracks
  3. Hilltown Bridge
  4. The Killing Fields
  5. Coffee Run Stream Culvert
  6. Graffiti Bridge
  7. The Zombie Torch

It is said that if the stops are not made in the order listed above, “it won’t work”. Of course, there is no consensus as to what will or won’t “work” if you don’t follow the designated order. Most, however, believe that the goal is to be able to light the Zombie Torch. Of course, no reason is given as to why you need to visit the other sites, which is sort of important since, as we’ll soon see, most of them have no connection to Zombie Land other than being “on Zombie Land property”.

Personally, I find The Journey the most fascinating aspect of the Zombie Land legend. And since it was a recent addition to the legend, I thought it would be easy to figure out how it got started. Well, it wasn’t so easy, but I think I might have found its origins.

In October of 2015, Walt Stratton launched his labor-of-love blog, Zombie Land, Hillsville, PA. Stratton was using the blog to attempt and gather up all the known stories surrounding Zombie Land. But Stratton went further than that. He painstakingly compiled directions to each of the locations and, you guessed it, put them in the order that someone would encounter them should they start at the “entrance” to Zombie Land and drive towards the Zombie Torch. Mind you, this wasn’t an official order and they weren’t even “stops”. And Stratton certainly doesn’t imply these locations need to be visited in a certain order. But as we all know; good urban legends never die—they just mutate every few years!

To date, I haven’t seen or heard about a journey option that does not include all of the stops listed on Stratton’s site. What’s more, the stops are always in the same exact order as on his site.

To be fair, I have heard people tell me recent stories that do not include the multiple stops. But any time I’m told a story about Zombie Land and there’s a “journey” involved, the stops always follow the order on Zombie Land, Hillsville, PA. So if I were a betting man, I would say that the Journey variation of the Zombie Land legend came about as a result of people visiting Stratton’s web site.

How cool is that? A man who tries to keep the Zombie Land legend alive ends up become a part of the legend himself!

So armed with all this information (but foolishly, no tick spray), Mark and I headed into the woods around Hillsville, PA, in search of ghosts, ghouls, and a Zombie Torch!

Stop #1: Virgin Mary Statue
When you read the legend associated with Stop #1, it’s easy to see why this one’s first. That’s because it’s at this stop where you’ll be able to determine if it is safe or not to enter Zombie Land.
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Near the corner of 224 and Churchill Road/East River Road is the former St Lawrence Catholic Church. At the front of church is a grotto-like area, the focal point of which is a large statue of the Virgin Mary. According to legend, prior to entering Zombie Land, you must first visit the statue, paying close attention to Mary’s hands. If her hands are apart or “open”, then it is safe to proceed into Zombie Land. However, if her hands are clasped, then it is NOT safe to enter Zombie Land and you should make a hasty retreat from the area.

Of course, the statue’s hands are always clasped and it’s become something of a running joke that no one has ever seen the statue’s hands apart (probably due to it being a solid statue and all). None of this appears to deter people from continuing their journey into Zombie Land, though. Case in point, as you can see from the photo, Mary’s hands were clasped when Mark and I visited and yet we chose to continue our journey!
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It should be noted that while there is a legend surrounding the cemetery, it does not appear to be part of the Zombie Land mythos (yet). Legend has it that the cemetery is home to a “glowing tombstone”, although the reasons why it glows or even where the tombstone is located are open to debate. Regardless, the cemetery closes from sunset to sunrise and the church itself is now a private residence. So if you do choose to visit the cemetery, please do so during daylight hours, be respectful, and do not wander onto private property.

Stop #2:  Haunted Railroad Tracks
Continuing down Churchill Road, you will reach a set of railroad tracks. This is where people report hearing a ghost train, usually in the form of a train whistle or the roar of an oncoming engine. It is said that when these noises are heard, no real train ever appears. The sounds just keep getting closer and closer and then either stop suddenly or else slowly fade away.

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I’m not sure how this particular location ended up being part of the Zombie Land legend as the only connection is that you drive over these tracks on your way to the Zombie Torch. And as our next stop, a not-so-spooky-looking bridge, is right in front of us, let’s go ahead and cross the tracks so we can arrive at our next destination.

Stop #3: The Hilltown Bridge
Again, not a lot to go on at this location. But it is said that you will be able to see ghost lights around the bridge. From my research, the earliest reports I have on file are that the ghost lights could be seen “around” the bridge. More recent reports put the lights “under” the bridge. Either way, I’ve yet to hear any version that explains why the ghost lights are hanging around (or under) this bridge. I should also note that several reports I received of seeing the ghost lights here were eventually attributed to non-ghostly people hanging out under the bridge after dark.

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I’d also like to point out that this bridge is the first of several instances where Zombie Land locales have been altered since the legends began. In the case of the Hilltown Bridge, it has been modernized and the superstructure has been completely removed. What you will see today retains little of its predecessor’s spookiness:

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The original Hilltown Bridge  –via Zombie Land, Hillsville, PA

From Hilltown Bridge, you are within walking distance of the next stop; the foreboding Killing Fields.

Stop #4:  The Killing Fields
Almost immediately after the Hilltown Bridge, Churchill Road/East River Road comes to a T. As you sit at the T, look across the road and directly in front of you will be the area known as the Killing Fields.

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All sorts of odd things are said to be heard here, with “gunshots” and “screams” being the most prevalent, although not necessarily at the same time. There’s also the occasional sighting of “shadowy figures” moving about in the field.

Of course, without a doubt, the strangest thing associated with the Killing Fields are the “Hellhounds” said to inhabit the woods on the other side of the fields. I’m assuming that, based on their name, these creatures originated from hell. Other than that, I’ve got nothing—no reason why they are hanging around here or what they want.

Likewise, as is the case with the vast majority of the Zombie Land legends, specifics about the Killing Fields are hard to come by. In fact, unless you want to try and connect the gunshots and screams, there’s nothing in the existing stories that even hints as to where the location’s name came from. There is one thing about the Killing Fields that I can confirm, though: The location is home to one of the most creative No Trespassing signs I’ve seen in a long time:

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In all seriousness, the field is private property, so please respect that and don’t trespass. There’s nothing in the field that can’t been seen from the public road.

Turning left at the T and continuing down the road will bring you to our next stop, which also happens to be the first one that has dark history attached to it.

Stop #5: Coffee Run Stream Culvert
The next stop is the most recent addition to the Zombie Land legend. It’s also the only one that is tied to an actual event.

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In October of 2000, the charred remains of 12-year-old Shannon Leigh Kos were discovered under a small culvert near a dirt access road off of Hillsville Road. Arrested and charged with the crime were William Monday (21), David Garvey (20), and Perry S. Ricciardi II (20). Authorities would soon start piecing together the events of October 8, 2000. What transpired in and around that culvert that evening can only be described as brutal, tragic, and above all, utterly and completely senseless. Truth be told, it’s one of those cases that reaffirms my belief that I should be more afraid of the living than the dead.

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–from the 11/16/2000 Akron Beacon Journal

While all three men were to be tried separately, prosecutors announced they would be seeking the death penalty in all three cases. In late 2002, in order to avoid the death penalty, William Monday pled guilty before his trial began and received a life sentence.

In 2003, Perry S. Ricciardi II’s case went to trial. It took the jury 7 minutes to return a verdict of guilty, although the sentence was life without parole as opposed to the death penalty. David Garvey, the last of the three men, waited until jury selection for his trial was to begin before pleading guilty. He was sentenced to 20-40 years.

With such a dark event having occurred here, you would think that all sorts of ghostly activity would be reported. But currently, there are no reports of anything happening here—not a single ghostly sighting. Oddly enough, it makes me happy that there are no ghosts here. I’d like to think that means the young woman who was made to suffer here has found peace.

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Regardless, the fact that there is no ghostly activity reported here, or anything tying the event to Zombie Land, other than it having occurred in the general area of Zombie Land, seems to confirm that the tragic event at the Coffee Run Stream culvert was added to the Zombie Land mythos simply to create an air of authenticity.

This is a sad place. So let us take our leave and continue down Hillsville Road. We’re only two stops away from the end and are about to visit Ground Zero for the Zombie Land legends.

Stop #6:  Graffiti Bridge
From Hillsville Road, turn left onto Skyhill Road and follow it until you see a small concrete bridge in front of you: Welcome to Graffiti Bridge.

old graffiti bridge
–via Zombie Land, Hillsville, PA

By most accounts, this location is at the epicenter of all the Zombie Land legends and is one of the longest-standing stories, often predating the star of Zombie Land, the Zombie Torch (more on that later).

The earliest versions of legends concerning this bridge refer to it as Graffiti Bridge and state that you are supposed to try to find your name written on the bridge in the graffiti. Should you be unlikely enough to find your name on the bridge, the moment you see it, the “Bridge People” are going to come out from under the bridge and “get” you. Just who these Bridge People are is never explained, although I have several first-person accounts of people creating elaborate pranks where they would go out to the bridge, spray paint a friend’s name, then take said friend out to the bridge in the dead of night to watch them freak out when they spotted their name.

There is also a slight variation to the “find your name” legend stating you have to spray paint your own name on the bridge and that’s what will trigger the Bridge People to come out. But this is obviously a cautionary tale about not defacing or vandalizing property. Either way, don’t go writing your name on this bridge!

So where do the zombies come into play? Here’s where it gets interesting. For while the most popular name for this location is Graffiti Bridge, it has been known by various other names over the years:

  • Forbidden Bridge
  • Frankenstein Bridge
  • Ghost Bridge
  • Haunted Bridge
  • Hookman (or “Hookman’s”) Bridge*
  • Puerto Rican Bridge*
  • White Bridge
  • Zombie Bridge*

With most of the alternate names mentioned above, the Bridge People are still the ones who will attack you. However, in three instances—the ones marked above with an asterisk—the name originates from who is going to come out from under the bridge as opposed to the Bridge People.

For example, if you know the bridge at Hookman Bridge, seeing (or writing) your name on the bridge will cause the Hookman to come out. The name Puerto Rican Bridge appears to have originated during a time when there “were a lot of Puerto Rican names written on the bridge” (I should also note that in this case, it is a living, breathing gang that will come out from under the bridge as opposed to anything supernatural). So what happens if you go to Zombie Bridge and see your name? You guessed it: Zombies are coming to get you.

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Those who refer to the location as Ghost Bridge or Haunted Bridge usually will touch upon the notion that “a teenager committed suicide by jumping off the bridge” and that his ghost haunts the area around the bridge. To date, I have found nothing to substantiate that such an event took place here. The bridge is also only a short distance above Coffee Run, which would make the chances of a fatal fall or jump highly unlikely.

As for Forbidden Bridge and Frankenstein Bridge, those tend to be tied to points in time when the bridge wasn’t covered with graffiti and was used to describe it’s spooky appearance. And the name White Bridge seems to be a newer addition, possibly due to the fact that the old bridge has been replaced by a more modern, less spooky bridge:

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But back to the zombies!

While there is no doubt that this bridge is part of the original Zombie Land mythos, there is a bit of chicken-and-egg debate as to whether the bridge or where we’re heading next, the Zombie Torch, came first. All the stories I’ve collected so far having them changing names at essentially the same time, so there’s definitely a connection between the two.

OK, one last stop and you’re done! On to the infamous Zombie Torch.

Stop #7:  The Zombie Torch
Just on the other side of Graffiti Bridge is a small path that winds through the woods. A short walk down this path will bring you face to face with your final stop: the Zombie Torch.

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According to legend, anyone foolish enough to try and light the torch is in for the shock of their lives if they succeed. That’s because the lit torch will signify that the zombies are coming for you!

Before we go any further, allow me to point out that this “torch” is an old vent pipe, designed to vent fumes from an underground natural gas field. Keep that in mind should you decide you want to try and light it. I’m certainly not advocating you try!

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Without a doubt, the Zombie Torch is THE location in Zombie Land. I have yet to collect a single story that refers to the area as Zombie Land and does not mention the Zombie Torch. That’s not to say it was always called the Zombie Torch, though. For in much the same way as Graffiti Bridge was known by different names over the years, the same holds true for the Zombie Torch.

I have uncovered variations where the Zombie Torch is referred to as the Eternal Flame. These stories are usually tied to versions where the bridge is NOT called Zombie Bridge. Further linking the two locations, whatever the bridge is named determines who comes to get you when you light the Eternal Flame. For example:

Hookman Bridge = lighting the Eternal Flame summons the Hookman

Put another way, if you visit Hookman Bridge and don’t see your name written in the graffiti, you can still summon him by lighting the Eternal Flame.

Following that logic, you can see how both the bridge and the torch became zombified: Visit the Zombie Bridge and then go light the Zombie Torch to summon the zombies.

Whether the bridge or the torch got their zombie moniker first is still open to debate, but one definitely caused the other to change its name. As of this writing, I’ve been unable to find a Zombie Land legend that includes both the torch and the bridge and only one of them has “Zombie” attached (for example, visit the Hookman Bridge and then light the Zombie Torch). So whenever the change in names happened, it took place quickly at both locations.

Regardless, the current legend says that if you’ve made it all the way to the Zombie Torch, making sure to stop at each of the other locations in a specific order, you will be able to light the torch to summon the zombies.

One final note before we take our leave of the Zombie Torch. There is an old, seldom-mentioned offshoot of the torch legend that states there is a foreboding house—Blood House—nearby. Lighting the torch will cause the inhabitant(s) of Blood House—usually a witch or members of a satanic cult—to come out after you. And while there was indeed an old house nearby, it is long gone now, which might explain why witches and/or cult members are mentioned very infrequently.

And with that, your journey through Zombie Land is now complete. Hope you survived!

Conclusions
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I don’t believe there’s anything paranormal lurking in and around the area known as Zombie Land. And yet, these legends have been swirling around for decades. So how did these stories get their start?

Whenever I try to trace an urban legend back to its origins (or at least as far back as I can), I’m usually looking for that kernel of truth. That’s because I personally believe that the vast majority of urban legends have a kernel of truth to them.

What’s more, I believe that kernel springs from one of two things:
• An actual tragic event (murder, suicide, etc.)
• a strange/weird location or structure.
Either one of these provides fertile ground from which an urban legend can grow.

Concerning Zombie Land, there is only one of the locations that involves a tragic event—the Coffee Run Stream Culvert (Stop #5). However, the death of Shannon Leigh Kos occurred in October of 2000, many years after the Zombie Land legends were already in circulation. So in this case, the Kos story was an addition to legends that already existed.

Searching for evidence of other tragic events in the area that could have sparked the legend can get tricky because the boundaries of Zombie Land are pretty much non-existent and appear to be continually spreading outward. Still, I have been able to find two additional confirmed murders in the area, albeit some distance away from the unofficial Zombie Land epicenter, the Zombie Torch.

In March of 1906, Seely Houk became the first Pennsylvania Wildlife Conservation Officer to be murdered in the line of duty when he was “ambushed” by two men, Rocco Racca and Jim Murdocca. The murder was allegedly in retaliation for Houk shooting and killing Racca’s dog, which was being used to illegally poach.

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–from the 4/27/1906 New Castle News (note the typo; an extra “E” in Houk’s first name)

According to the report, Racca and Murdocca “ambushed Houk at a quarry near Hillsville and threw his body into the rain-swollen Mahoning River, where it remained until a train crew spotted it about six weeks later.” Racca was arrested, convicted, and hanged for the crime while Murdocca escaped by fleeing back to Italy.

Another incident occurred in the area on August 12, 1989, when the body of 31-year-old Joyce Ann Heskett-Washington “was found by three teenage boys in a strip-mine area just east of Hillsville Borough, Mahoning Township, Lawrence County. The cause of death was strangulation and the case remains open.

As I mentioned, neither one of these incidents took place on what could be considered Zombie Land property. What’s more, none of the past or current legends mention anything related to these cases. So until more evidence is uncovered, I believe it’s safe to assume that the Zombie Land legends did not get their start from a tragic event.

So in my mind, that means the stories got their start based on a spooky location and/or structure. And wouldn’t you know it, we’ve got both in Zombie Land—a bridge and a torch!

We’ve already established that the whole idea of having to visit the all the locations in order is a new wrinkle, most likely the result of people taking Walt Stratton’s Zombie Land blog as literal step-by-step instructions. But it goes beyond that because when you lay out all the different Zombie Land versions (and locations), the two that have been around the longest are the bridge and the torch. In fact, some of the earliest versions have you going to Graffiti Bridge and then looking to see if the Eternal Flame was lit. If it wasn’t, you could try to light it, which would make people come out from under the bridge (or the Blood House) to get you.

The whole idea of seeing it the flame was lit and then trying to light it is key here. When it comes to Legend Tripping—visiting locations said to be home to urban legend-type creatures and phenomena to see if you can have your own experience—all of the best urban legends make sure to include something resembling a dare. Think about it: who gets dared to say Bloody Mary in the mirror? Which one of your friends is going to flash their headlights three times to see the ghost car? Or honk their horn three times to hear the baby cry on Crybaby Bridge?

Looking back at all of the locations currently said to be part of Zombie Land, there are only 2 that include dares: The bridge and the torch. You and your friends dare each other to look for or write your name on the bridge. And then you dare each other to light the torch. And given that each location is in such an isolated area, I believe this is where the stories of Zombie Land originated.

But which one came first? Again, this is tricky. If I had to take a somewhat educated guess, I would say that while it was probably around the same time, it was the torch that first changed its name from Eternal Flame to Zombie Torch. I say this because Graffiti Bridge already had a well-developed legend around it without any mention of zombies. Some of the earliest versions of the story I’ve collected state that you had to drive over Graffiti Bridge and then walk down the path to find the torch “that was at the entrance to Zombie Land”.

Of course, I could be wrong. With a place as mysterious as Zombie Land, it’s very hard to separate fact from fiction, even though almost everyone I spoke with was pretty much convinced there’s not much fact and a whole lot of fiction in Zombie Land. But that hasn’t stopped carload after carload of people from visiting. And that right there, I believe, is the real point of Zombie Land. It’s not about going down into Zombie Land and finding zombies, hellhounds, ghosts, or any number of unsavory creatures. Rather, it’s a rite of passage for young adults—a bonding experience with friends where you all laugh, giggle, and maybe share a shiver or two.

Even without zombies, people went and continue to go to Zombie Land to make memories—weird memories that stay with you a lifetime, as evidenced on the faces of almost every single person I interviewed when asked if they saw anything scary when they visited Zombie Land.

“No,” they’d tell me, with a smile. “But it was a heck of a lot of fun!”

Note About The Green Man
Some versions of the Zombie Land legend incorporate stories of The Green Man (sometimes referred to as No-Face Charlie), with the most prevalent version being that you can hear the tapping of his cane on the road as he approaches.

There is some truth to this story as the person the stories are referring to is Raymond Robinson, who had been disfigured and blinded as a child in an accident in 1919. As an adult, Robinson lived in Koppel, PA, with his family and would often go out at night, walking the section of State Route 351 that ran between Koppel and New Galilee, PA, using his cane to guide him.

At the time of this writing, it is unclear how the stories of Robinson came to make their way to Zombie Land, which is roughly 30 miles away from the section of State Route 351 that he used to walk. Several individuals have contacted me and said they thought Robinson “liked to visit the area”, but I’ve yet to confirm this.

DISCLAIMER:
This probably goes without saying, but I will say it: If you choose to visit Zombie Land, you do so at your own risk. And not because of zombies, either. But there are all sorts of potential hazards in the woods (not to mention ticks). It is also incredibly hard to tell if you are on public or private property most of the time. And of course, the idea of stopping in the middle of a road/bridge/railroad crossing is not only incredibly dangerous and ill-advised, but in some cases, it’s a ticket-able offense. Lastly, if I need to caution you about attempting to light a natural gas vent pipe on fire, I think it might be a good idea for you to stay away from open flame in general.

Additional Information
Lawrence County Defendant Details How Girl Was Killed—The Vindicator (2003)

Lawrence County Memoirs: Black Hand Society (Seeley Houk Murder)

Lawrence County Memoirs: Zombie Land

Pennsylvania Haunts & History: Zombie Land

This Time, Zombie Land Tale Is True—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (2000)

Urban Legends Haunt Zombieland—The Vindicator (2013)

Zombie Land, Hillsville, PA

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