6 Appalachian Folk Stories That Will Keep You Up at Night

Appalachia is a region of rich culture in the Southern United States, with more than a few scary stories passed down through generations.

Oct 18, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor
appalachian folk stories scary
A close-up of the original sketch of the Flatwoods Monster, via braxtonwv.org; A supposedly haunted house west of Glenville, WV, via West Virginia University


Appalachia runs throughout the Great Smoky Mountains and encompasses seven states in the Southern US. Many of the original white settlers in Appalachia came from the British Isles, and they brought stories and superstitions that have evolved over the years. As time went on, white settlers’ stories mixed with Native American and African American legends and built the region into one of great mystery, where strange things always seem to be happening. These 6 tales are a snippet of the region’s spooky folklore.


1. The Brown Mountain Lights

brown mtn lights
A photo of the supposed Brown Mountain Lights, captured by Appalachian State University scientists, via WLOS News


Over two centuries ago, eerie ghost lights began appearing over Brown Mountain in North Carolina. The first eyewitness to report the lights was a German engineer, John William Gerard de Brahm, who wrote of lights over the North Carolina hills in his journal in 1771. Following Brahm’s account, several legends about lights over the mountains were passed down. Many who have seen the lights say the glowing orbs dance over the hills soundlessly until they silently dissipate or explode over the rolling peaks.


In 1922, the United States Ecological Society investigated the Brown Mountain phenomenon and determined that the lights were simply car headlights or lights of passing trains. However, this was disproven after a massive flood wiped out all the roads and tracks on the mountain, and the lights still appeared.


There are many theories about the Brown Mountain Lights, as with many Appalachian folk stories. However, the most common is the story told by Native Americans in the area. Cherokee legend claims that there was a bloody battle between Catawba and Cherokee warriors on Brown Mountain. Mothers, widows, and sisters set out into the mountains after the battle was over, carrying torches to search for their loved ones. This explains the glowing lights as the spirits of the Cherokee women who are still searching.


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Legends aside, Forest Service officers and scientists from Appalachian State University have also observed the lights in recent years. Current scientific theories about the lights speculate that they could be caused by natural gasses on the mountain or ball lightning. Whatever the Brown Mountain Lights are, they can be seen fairly regularly in North Carolina, most often during the night between September and November.


2. The Mothman

mothman state pt pleasant
A statue of the Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, via Daily Yonder


Beginning in 1966, a strange year of phenomena occurred in West Virginia and Ohio. It began with two couples who, while driving past an abandoned World War II TNT factory, saw a huge man-like bird with glowing red eyes flying parallel to their car. The creature had a ten-foot wingspan, and despite their attempt to flee, the car could not speed past the being, even while going over 100 miles per hour.


After reaching the city limits of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, the couples reported the sighting to the police immediately. Newspapers dubbed the creature “the Mothman,” and the story took off. Over the next year, the residents of Point Pleasant saw the Mothman at least eight more times. Every time, the description was eerily similar: a large man-like bird with huge red eyes. Many dismissed the phenomenon, claiming that the hysteria was simply over a sandhill crane that had gone off its normal migration route.


Despite skepticism, strange things continued to happen in Point Pleasant. UFO sightings increased significantly, and suspicious men in black were spotted throughout the hills surrounding the town. These peculiar occurrences continued until December 15, 1967, when the Silver Bridge, which connected Point Pleasant to Gallipolis, Ohio, collapsed in the middle of rush hour traffic. Forty-six people died in the disaster; some claimed to have seen the Mothman at the scene.


After the 1967 disaster, sightings decreased, but the legend of the Mothman remained. Though it remains unexplained, the Mothman has become a kind of mascot for Point Pleasant, where there is a Mothman Museum and an annual Mothman Festival in the autumn.


3. The Bell Witch

bell house bell witch
A woodcut of the Bell house as it looked in 1820 from An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era by M.V. Ingram, 1894, via the Tennessee State Library


The Bell family moved to the Red River bottomland in Robertson County, Tennessee, around the turn of the 19th century. About a decade after moving into their log-built home, the family began experiencing strange activity. Knockings, scratchings, and dragging of things across the floor disturbed the Bells at all hours. The activity continued to escalate, and the Bells’ daughters began complaining that someone or something was pulling on their sheets and pinching them when they tried to sleep.


John Bell was determined to keep the phenomena a secret, afraid of what the family’s community at Red Bottom Baptist Church would think. Eventually, though, he told the story to his friend, James Johnston. Johnston was skeptical until he stayed at night at the Bell farm and experienced the entity himself.


After Johnston’s visit, the story spread, and the entity started growing stronger, feeding off of the attention. The poltergeist had begun speaking and claimed that it was the spirit of a local witch named Kate Batts, which brought about the nickname of the Bell Witch. She constantly argued religion, sang hymns, and even once recited two sermons word for word while they were being told at their respective churches, which were 13 miles apart.


bell witch john bell dying
A woodcut from Ingram’s book depicting the death of John Bell Sr., 1894, via The Tennessean


The activity became so notorious that General Andrew Jackson and his men visited the farm and, after a night of harassment from the witch, departed quickly. Later, Jackson supposedly said he would “rather fight the British at New Orleans than fight the Bell Witch.”


After John Bell died in 1820, the entity claimed she had poisoned him. She disappeared and reappeared to the family several times throughout the 1820s, first to convince the Bells’ daughter not to marry and also to speak with the Bells’ son.


After her seemingly final departure from John Bell Jr. in 1828, the entity claimed she would return to haunt the Bell descendants in 1935. Dr. Charles Bailey Bell, a Nashville-based neurologist, was John Bell’s closest living relative. It is unknown whether he was haunted by the Bell Witch, but the legend has endured in Appalachia as one of its most famous ghost stories. The phenomenon of the Bell Witch has never been able to be disproven, and to this day, it is unknown what happened or whether the Bell Witch poltergeist was a hoax.


4. The Moon-Eyed People

statue of moon eyed people
A statue that is thought to depict two Moon-Eyed People, via All That’s Interesting


Cherokee legends have fueled the folklore of the Appalachian region for most of its history. One such story, an established part of Cherokee cosmology, is that of the Moon-Eyed People. The Cherokee described these beings as another race of humans who were different in appearance from the tribe. They were described as small and bearded, with incredibly white skin and huge blue eyes.


According to legend, the Moon-Eyed People were a race of nocturnal humans, as their eyes were too sensitive to any light, and they were forced to hunt, fish, and accomplish all other tasks during the night. Thus, they were called the Moon-Eyed People, as they could only see after dark. The Cherokee believed that originally, the Moon-Eyed People built large stone fortifications against the Creek Nation, but after they were defeated by the neighboring tribe, they retreated into a system of caves throughout North Carolina and northern Georgia.


The Moon-Eyed People, quite obviously, sound like European settlers. However, the Cherokee legends claim they were present among the tribe beginning around 1170 CE. Many conflate the Moon-Eyed People with legends of Welsh travel to the New World before the Spanish, but this was probably a combination of propaganda against the Spanish, as well as later racial diatribes against Native Americans.


The most compelling evidence for the existence of the Moon-Eyed People is a three-foot-tall statue found at the confluence of the Hiwasse and Valley Rivers in the 19th century. It is thought that the statue may be pre-Cherokee, and it depicts two conjoined figures. The statue is the best visual evidence of the Moon-Eyed People and is on display at the Cherokee County Historical Museum in Murphy, North Carolina.


5. The Flatwoods Monster

flatwoods monster kathleen may eugene lemon
Eugene Lemon and Kathleen May, two of the six Flatwoods Monster witnesses, stand on either side of a sketch of the monster, via braxtonwv.org


On September 12, 1952, four boys, Edward May, Freddie May, Neil Nunley, and Tommy Hyer, were playing on the field at Flatwoods Elementary School in Flatwoods, West Virginia. Right before dusk, the boys saw a strange flying object streak across the sky and crash into a hillside on a local farm. Curious, the boys ran toward the crash site, recruiting the Mays’ mother, Kathleen, and a National Guardsman, Eugene Lemon, along the way.


When the group reached the crash site, they saw an eerie, pulsing red light. Lemon shined his flashlight toward it, only to reveal a 10-foot-tall creature with a spade-shaped head and glowing orange eyes. The creature’s hands were gnarled and taloned, and it was wearing what appeared to be a dark metallic dress. A strange and sickening mist hung in the air around the creature as it levitated above the ground. According to the group’s account, the creature hissed and began gliding toward them. It was then that the witnesses fled, running to the Sheriff’s office immediately.


flatwoods monster drawing
A close-up of the original sketch of the Flatwoods Monster, via braxtonwv.org


Despite their immense terror and their physical symptoms–nausea, vomiting, and throat irritation–when the Sheriff’s office investigated the supposed crash site, they could find nothing that resembled the creature. People chalked up the witnesses’ reactions to hysteria, but their symptoms were also startlingly similar to the effects of mustard gas.


Today, there is still no answer to what the six witnesses in Flatwoods saw. Many think they mistook the creature for a large barn owl. However, the towns surrounding Flatwoods now commemorate the event and the monster with a museum and plenty of photo opportunities.


6. The Wampus Cat


The Wampus Cat is the name given to a feline creature with glowing yellow eyes and six legs. The legend involves the Cherokee but is not a story from Native American legend. Rather, it is a story about Cherokee people as characters in the tale of how the Wampus Cat came to be.


wampus cat statue
A sculpture of a Wampus Cat, which is a popular Southern school mascot, via It’s a Southern Thing


The name Wampus Cat is thought to derive from an old regional name for the Eastern Cougar, the catamount. In time, this transformed into the word catawampus, which described any strange animal that roamed the hills of Appalachia. Eventually, it further evolved into the Wampus Cat, and different versions of its origins are told throughout the region.


The most well-known origin story for the Wampus Cat says that a beautiful Cherokee woman was curious about the pre-hunting rituals that her husband and the other tribal warriors did before going into the woods. In an attempt at stealthy seeing the rites, the woman disguised herself in the skin of a cougar and hid behind a rock while the shaman performed the ceremony. However, she was found, and the shaman cursed the woman by changing her into a human-cougar hybrid.


She became known as the Wampus Cat and is said to roam Appalachia alone, wreaking violent havoc against other animals and frightening humans everywhere she goes. The Wampus Cat was also a term used in the 1960s when, in North Carolina, the Goldsboro-Argus Newspaper used the phrase to describe an ape-like creature that had been spotted in the hills.


The story attracted attention, and soon people began descending upon the woods of North Carolina in a craze to find the creature. In the end, though, the Sheriff called off the search and called the Wampus Cat a hoax. However, to this day, the Wampus Cat is used as a cautionary tale to frighten children, as she is said to angrily wander the region, searching for revenge in any way possible.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.