Hell’s Got a Big Mouth

When I lived in a village in the Louisiana piney woods I wondered why there was a Baptist church on every corner. I found out it was because every couple of years some guy would have a falling-out with the preacher, declare himself a preacher, and march off to found a new church with those of the congregation who agreed with him (for the moment).

I attended the church nearest our house for a few years, till I got tired of explaining to the kids that most of what the preacher said wasn’t in the Bible and was, in fact, baloney.

One of the things this preacher believed was that Russian engineers had dug such a deep gas well that they punctured the roof of Hell, and through this hole one could hear the screams of the damned (which would be pretty much everybody who didn’t belong to that particular church).

Unlike that one, the story of Centralia, Pennsylvania, is true.

A fire spreading underground through a coal seam has been burning since at least 1962. (There are other underground coal and gas fires in Germany, Canada, Australia, and Central Asia, for instance, some of which have been burning for centuries.) The Centralia fire, said to be the inspiration for the “Silent Hill” movie, covers over six square miles and is still spreading. In some places cracks in the ground emit steam and sulfurous fumes.

The full extent of the danger to the town became obvious in 1981 when a sinkhole suddenly opened in a back yard, right under a 12-year-old boy. When I first read about that I pictured the poor kid falling like Lucifer into a fiery pit, screaming all the way and disappearing in a poof of flame. The truth is less lurid, although in the end it wouldn’t have mattered, because the steam from the hole contained enough  carbon monoxide to kill a moose. Fortunately the boy’s 14-year-old cousin pulled him out of the hole and saved his life.

As streets cracked open, sidewalks buckled, and foundations faltered, almost all the town’s residents were evacuated and the buildings demolished, so that Centralia is a ghost town today. The streets are still there, but not much else except a church, and cemeteries from which smoke and steam were said to rise like restless spirits.

My daughter had read about Centralia and navigated us there on a trip East. I was less enthusiastic than usual, maybe because we had just seen “Silent Hill” and I kept picturing disfigured, deranged mutants lurching from the buildings, a creepy underground city full of traps and dead ends, and horrifying burning-coal golems wrapping me in their red-hot arms. Highway 61

I knew it was ridiculous to picture Centralia that way but I couldn’t seem to help it. It was like waiting your turn for the Dungeon Drop: The mind tells you it’s perfectly safe but the gut says, “Run away!”

With the town gone there was nothing to see but typical Pennsylvania countryside, green and tranquil in the summer afternoon.

Except for Highway 61.

“Graffiti Highway” is closed to traffic by wooden barriers and a high dirt hill, but pedestrians can and do still use it. My daughter immediately started down the road, and I went along–at first.

There was writing on the pavement: “It’s Burning!” “Welcome to Hell” “666”–and artwork, such as the outline of a sprawled body. Not reassuring.

I started walking slower and slower. Still nothing to see but a wall of trees on each side. The road was cracked, but not in a major way; there was no steam, no smell of sulfur.

Suddenly it was like I had hit an invisible force field. I literally stopped in my tracks, unable to take another step, filled with a feeling of choking horror. My daughter, unconcerned, ambled on down the trail taking pictures of the graffiti.

I tried to force myself to take a few more steps. No dice. I gave up and retreated to the car, where I sat on the hood and tried not to look like I was sure my daughter was lying unconscious on the highway while I sat there, too chickenshit to go and drag her to safety.

A fast-walking couple entered the forbidden realm and soon re-emerged. I asked if they’d seen my daughter, and they said yes, she was on her way back. Sure enough, in a few minutes she came unhurriedly back down the road, having seen nothing not of this reality, just some badly cracked and buckled asphalt.

After I told her about feeling like something had barred my entering, we came up with a theory. The sinkhole story provided a clue: Even small amounts of CO + me = That’s all folks. I come near to fainting in a room full of smokers. If it had been me that fell in that sinkhole, I wouldn’t have been able to hold on till I was rescued, and I’d have been unconscious before I hit bottom.

So something did warn me not to go in–not a devil or a guardian angel, but a colorless, odorless, deadly gas that fortunately only made extra-sensitive me freeze in my footprints and didn’t affect anybody else.

I least I think that’s what happened. It still skirts the edge of paranormal.


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