Each year, when Halloween rolls around, I go hunting for tales of ghosts and the paranormal. This year, I stumbled across a haunt that’s as interesting for its status as an ecological oddity as it is for the spooky legends that surround it.

In the woods just outside of Siler City, North Carolina, lies the Devil’s Tramping Ground. In this bare circle of earth about 20 feet across, nothing but a few strands of grass will grow. More interestingly, it’s said that nothing at all grows in the outer ring of the circle because this is where the devil comes each night to pace as he dreams up new ways of tormenting humankind. Local legend has it that wildlife never enter the circle and that things left in the circle during the day will have been moved from it by morning.

Devil’s Tramping Ground
Devil’s Tramping Ground. Credit: Jason Home/Flickr

Legend even has it that the North Carolina Department of Agriculture studied the soils in the area and was unable to determine why nothing grows there. According to the North Carolina Museum of History, however, that mystery can indeed be solved by science. The patch of earth is unusually high in saline content and may have served as a salt lick for ancient buffalo and other wildlife. Lovers of a good mystery need not be disappointed, though. It’s still unclear, for example, how this land came to be shaped in a nearly perfect geometrical circle. Spooky.

Equally interesting is the question of how this small patch of land inspired such fear and foreboding. Years of spooky tales shared around the campfires and practical jokes played on friends have no doubt contributed to its eerie reputation, but what made the spot fodder for such ghost stories in the first place? I began recalling other tales of haunted forests and what they had in common. Places where no birds sing, where sunlight can’t penetrate and where dry, gnarly branches reach out from dead tree trunks to grab unsuspecting souls? Put bluntly, where vegetation doesn’t thrive, it creeps us out.

Humans have always depended on vegetation for everything from the simple needs of sustenance and shelter to higher needs like mental well-being and artistic inspiration. We already know that healthy forests clean our air, clean our water, provide habitat for wildlife that ecosystems depend on and even help cities save money on energy bills. Maybe we should add “ward off evil spirits” to the list of benefits that our forests provide.

For a spooky camping trip likely to boast some beautiful fall foliage along the way, visit the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s website for directions to the Devil’s Tramping Ground.