Paranormal State: Hexes and Hauntings of Pennsylvania

A snapshot of Pennsylvania's mysticism

Paranormal State: The Hexes And Hauntings Of Pennsylvania
Image credit - Ron Zanoni. The Witness Tree at Devil's Den, Gettysburg

Pennsylvania has a long tradition of religious tolerance that brought diverse settlers to the young colony, so it’s no surprise that the state has become known for the various modes of religious expression of its people. But these very traditions brought with them their own unique ideas about magic and the supernatural, and the state’s central position in national affairs and wars has drawn plenty of ghosts to the region.

The Pennsylvania Dutch emigrated from Germany and nearby areas in Europe in the late 17th century. These people stuck together, but they came from a number of religions and some chose to live simple lifestyles rather than blend into Pennsylvania culture. As a result, modern Pennsylvania Dutch communities are rural, but it isn’t uncommon to see Pennsylvania Dutch influences even in large cities like Philadelphia.

Image credit - Colin Gallagher
Image credit – Colin Gallagher

However, because the early communities were relatively closed off, their own cultures developed. And with these cultures came magic. Pow-wow is a system of folk magic unique to the Pennsylvania Dutch, but with heavy European and Christian influences. The charms and spells offered by Pow-wow offer protections from illnesses, witches, and other dark forces. A book about it was written in 1820 by John George Hohman, called Pow-Wows, or The Long Lost Friend, contains descriptions of many spells, that give an idea of the Pennsylvania Dutch way of life at the time. For example, if your horse refuses to eat, here’s a Pow-wow spell that will fix the problem: wrench open your horse’s mouth and knock on its palate three times. If you want to apply Pow-wow to your life, get your Bible in hand and read through Pow-Wows, which contains incantations to remedy diarrhea, headaches, colic, sore mouth, parasites, and more, and also has charms that will guarantee the success of your lawsuit and prevent criminals from getting near you. You can find the full text of the book online.

Many Pennsylvania Dutch barns are decorated with large circular symbols that usually have some kind of five-pointed design inside of them. These are hex signs, which were once thought to be Pow-wow talismans that would bring fortune to the farm, but are really just designs that grew out of a Pennsylvania Dutch art tradition. The symbols that are used to bring fortune to the household were called barn stars, large metal five-pointed stars. Hanging a barn star on your house is similar to nailing a horseshoe above your door in other cultures. You can buy hex signs and barn stars from Pennsylvania Dutch craft shops if you want to bring a little extra luck into your life.

The modern age may have decreased belief in magic power, but it seems to have had no effect on the belief in life after death. Pennsylvania is littered with pre-Revolution buildings that still contain their original inhabitants. Many born long after then still remain with us.

Paranormal State: The Hexes And Hauntings Of Pennsylvania
Image credit – Sugargliding. The decapitated remains of Eastern State Penitentiary

Philadelphia is home to many of these lingering spirits. Eastern State Penitentiary, a prison dating back to 1827 and now located well within the city, is a famous paranormal landmark, with every ghost hunting team you can think of probably having taken a sweep of its cellblocks. Al Capone had a brief stay in the penitentiary, and even he claimed to be haunted by a victim of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Visitors interested in the paranormal should visit what is reportedly the most active cellblock, Cellblock 12—but personally, on my visits, I can’t go into Cellblock 14. Going through the entryway fills me with an inexplicable sadness and a sense that I’m intruding.

Eastern State Penitentiary is a famous, publicly-accessible paranormal site, but another famous location that can only be entered with special permission is Pennhurst Hospital. Pennhurst was formerly an asylum for people, mostly children, whose mental illnesses or disabilities rendered them incapable of caring for themselves (or their families were too embarrassed to keep them around). Conditions for patients were notoriously bad, and Pennhurst employees, understaffed and intolerant, frequently abused their charges. These atrocities were eventually exposed and Pennhurst was shut down, but many believe the hospital is still haunted by the ghosts of patients and caretakers who suffered there mentally and physically. Workers hired to help maintain the site often report seeing shadow people, hearing crying, and feeling presences when they should be alone.

Paranormal State: The Hexes And Hauntings Of Pennsylvania
Image credit – Praline3001. Gettysburg, where the ghosts of civil war soldiers are said to still walk the battlefields

Pennsylvania is also home to another site of misery and despair, though this next location claimed more lives in three days than Pennhurst did during the decades of its operation. Cited as one of the most haunted cities in America, Gettysburg is a small town surrounded by beautiful, rolling fields. These fields, hills, and forests were once where one of the most important engagements of the Civil War was fought, and it may still be living that history, as numerous sources claim to see both Confederate and Union soldiers marching there. Ghosts of soldiers have been spotted at every major location of the battle, and many ghosts are spotted inside buildings within the city proper. Even the sole civilian casualty of the battle, Jennie Wade, is reportedly haunting her home. But spirits aren’t the only relics from the battle you can find in Gettysburg: to this day, visitors can stumble upon bullets laying quietly in the grass. But perhaps the most haunting aspect of Gettysburg is how peaceful and serene is. Though statues and monuments commemorating the battle now dot the landscape, it has remained mostly unchanged; imagining the area as it must have sounded in the chaos of war is horrifying in its own way.

Paranormal State: The Hexes And Hauntings Of Pennsylvania
Image credit – Kelly Michals. The town of Centralia, under which burns a massive coal fire that forced the city to be abandoned

These are famous haunted locations, but there are plenty of lesser-known hauntings in Pennsylvania. York, for example, was once home to an asylum that burned down before firefighters could arrive. Seven gates were built so local authorities could rescue (or capture) patients that had escaped. According to a legend, anyone who walks through all seven of the gates goes straight to Hell. Another haunted town is Centralia, under which burns a massive coal fire that forced the city to be abandoned by all except a stubborn few. The fire is still burning decades later, and the smoke attracts tourists and ghosts. Even Hershey Park has its share of paranormal encounters to its name.

Pennsylvania may be known today for its sports, sports fans, food, cities, and being strangely conservative in a very liberal region, but maybe it’s the state’s observance of tradition and rich history of tolerance and brotherhood that keep old magic alive and souls animated.

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