When The Blair Witch Project hit theaters in 1999, I’d just graduated from high school, and I went to see it to celebrate my newfound freedom from Hell.
Having grown up on television like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings, I loved it, and for a time, I was fooled. Everywhere you went, you saw the clip of murdered student filmmaker Heather Donahue sobbing to her camcorder in extreme close-up. I scoured the internet for every scrap of knowledge about Elly Kedward, the witch of Blair, and the fate of the three hikers. Who were these people, and what killed them? What was the significance of the stick-figures?
Then I saw Heather in a Steak ‘n Shake commercial, and it was like stumbling into the living room on Christmas and finding my mother putting presents under the tree.
But that experience stoked my life-long love for the occult, which is why The Blair Witch Project held a very personal resonance for me. Local legends have made the town where I grew up into its own horror ecology as compelling as anything Stephen King ever wrote.
In 1976, Charles Scudder, a professor of pharmacology from Chicago’s Loyola University, and his lover, Joseph Odom, left the big city for the Appalachian hills of Georgia, seeking a life away from the chaos of the inner city. There they built a modest castle deep in the woods, and named it “Corpsewood Manor.”
As America was dragged into the Satanic Panic of the Eighties, Scudder and Odom developed a reputation among the locals as “devil-worshippers,” aided by the garish occult decorations in their gothic dwelling—devil statues, stained-glass pentagrams, bedposts intricately carved with an orgy of demon figures, a pink gargoyle, and a wooden sign painted, “Beware of the Beast.” Mounted above the mantle was a self-painted portrait that depicted Scudder in a similar style to Francis Bacon’s tortured, nightmarish works, his hands bound behind his back, dead of five gunshot wounds. Not to mention the ludicrous amount of hallucinogens Scudder kept locked up in his desk, their two enormous Mastiff dogs affectionately named “Beelzebub” and “Arsinath,” and the fact that Scudder was an official member of the Church of Satan.
When visitors asked about the painting, he’d say, “That’s how I’m going to die.”
Over the next six years, teenagers from around the area wandered up to discover what would turn out to be two relatively ordinary men, inviting them to share a few beers around the fire.
This would eventually prove to be their undoing.
On a dark night in 1982, 30-year-old Tony West, 17-year-old Avery Brock, and two teenagers named Joey Wells and Teresa Hudgins ventured up to the castle. Brock had been there before, and had talked the other three into coming along. After hearing about Corpsewood and Scudder’s former career, West was convinced that the professor had cash on the premises, so he made plans with Brock to rob the two men.
At some point during their intoxicant-fueled evening, Brock went out to the car and retrieved a rifle, then used it to murder Joseph Odom and the two Mastiffs in the kitchen. Then he and West bound Scudder’s hands and took him to see the carnage, attempting to use it as leverage to convince him to lead them to the money. When the professor demonstrated there was none, Brock and West shot him five times in the head.
According to legend, as he was murdered, Charles Scudder cursed the county to never prosper. The official report says that his last words were, “I asked for this.”
After a cursory search of the castle, West and Brock took what little valuables they could carry and the four of them fled, leaving behind a grotesque crime scene that would traumatize Chattooga County deputies for years.
Escaping Corpsewood in Charles Scudder’s black Jeep, which had a pentagram painted on the door, they abandoned Wells and Hudgins and drove all the way to Mississippi, where they killed a Navy officer named Kirby Phelps for his car. Meanwhile, Hudgins went to the police and told them everything that had happened.
A short time later, perhaps feeling the Tell-Tale Heart heat, Avery Brock returned to Georgia and turned himself in. Not long after, Tony West did the same in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
If you want to read more about Corpsewood and what happened there, there’s a great writeup about it over at Sword & Scale, along with pictures of the castle, the participants, and Scudder’s death-painting.
Ever since that unfortunate night, souvenir hounds have dismantled the red-brick castle piece by piece, and a deep well of lore has sprung up at the foot of Little Sand Mountain. One of them is the legend of a hunter that ventured into the woods near the castle and went missing, and all the search party found of him was his face, nailed to a tree. Now he wanders those woods, a grinning red skull in coveralls, searching for it.
Another is that the ghostly Mastiffs still haunt the surrounding wilderness, chasing anyone unlucky enough to be there after dark. A family acquaintance once told me a story of how he and some of his friends had gone up there when he was a teenager to visit Charles Scudder when he was still alive. They left just after midnight, drunk as skunks, and halfway down the mountain, one of them had to relieve himself, so they pulled over and let him out to do his business.
As they sat there in the idling car, a pair of glowing green eyes loomed at them from the darkness, eight or nine feet tall. The man’s friends hauled him backwards into the car, still pissing, and sped away.
According to a self-described witch living in Chattooga County, Scudder’s curse is actually a demon that he summoned during the six years they lived there.
It’s the “Beast” referred to on the wooden sign that used to be displayed at Corpsewood, and the Beast still resides in the ruins to this day—which is why this witch won’t go back up there, having been confronted by a shadow-man in his bedroom after visiting the site. One night after missing curfew, the witch tried to take a shortcut across the mountain and ended up stranded there in the dead of night. He wrote in a post on Reddit about the incident (edited for clarity and length):
“It was approaching midnight. It was dark, cold, and I was already nervous. Figured if I simply kept my eyes on the road, and thought happy thoughts, that I’d be fine. The drive up the mountain went well enough, my nerves pulling taut as I began my ascent.
“For whatever reason, I happened to glance at the clock on the car stereo and watched as the little glowing numbers clicked over from 11:59 to 12:00.
“At that precise moment, things went bad. The car lurched, sputtered, back-fired and finally died roughly 50 feet from Dead Horse Road, the [unmarked] drive everyone knows takes you to Corpsewood. Fear boiled up in me like a geyser, hot and sickening. I tried for several minutes to crank the car, over and over and over, to no avail. I had no cell phone, which knowing my luck would’ve been dead or had no service, and was quite a distance from the nearest home that might have a phone.
“I was in near hysterics. Alone and on top of a cursed mountain at midnight.
“At the base of the mountain lived a family friend, and going to them would be the better bet as I was fairly confident they wouldn’t meet me at the door with a gun in hand. I waited several minutes, taking deep breaths, trying to stop the shaking in my hands, and finally pulled the keys from the ignition. I had no flashlight, no lighter, nothing that would help me see in the dark of the mountain’s tree cover, so I left the car lights on set to high-beam. [Opening the door,] I got out.
“I was met with absolute quiet.
“No chirping insects, no tree frogs singing, absolute silence that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention.
“[Taking] a deep breath, [I] looked back the way I had come, looked in the direction I was planning to go, said a quick prayer, and began walking, knowing if I stayed with the car no one would ever think to look for me where I was at. That thought alone, that I would be stuck so close to that damn road, was enough to get my legs moving.
“What happened next began gradually. At first, it blended well with the crunch of my steps on the gravel and rocks of the road, easily disguised, easily thought as just my imagination and discarded. The longer I walked, however, the more pronounced it became until there was no doubt that something, something large, was following me in the tree-line. It’s [sic] footsteps were heavy, growing louder, as if it were walking just beside me. A shuffling sound, heavy, and most certainly bipedal.
“Shortly after that, another extraordinary thing happened. I began to notice, faintly at first, the presence of glowing bits of light just bigger than a softball, maybe the size of a grapefruit or small melon.
“Initially, I chalked it up to fireflies and ignored it. Before long, however, there were more of the things than I could count, and they were everywhere. Above me, around me, in the treeline, even weaving in and out of my legs as I walked. No sound at all. No insect-like buzzing of wings, no feel of wind. A solid globe of light, each and every one of them.
“I kept walking. So did the thing following me. The orbs continued to flit about me.
“To be honest, I can’t say how I managed to keep myself from collapsing into the fetal position and crying for my mommy. Nonetheless, maybe halfway down the mountain, much to my surprise, I noticed car lights in the treeline, coming from farther down the road.
“As soon as the lights of the [other] car hit me, all the glowing orbs and the sound of footsteps faded all together.”
(If you’d like to read the uncut version of this tale, you can find it here.)
After a childhood filled with tales like this, watching The Blair Witch Project was like seeing my hometown on a theatre screen. Local legends have always held a special place in my heart—these old stories flow just underneath the veneer of small-town Americana like rotten blood under painted skin, in a way that lends a certain depth and edge to even the most quaint tourist trap.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go stand with my nose in the corner.
Originally published in December 2019.
S. A. Hunt is a U.S. veteran and speculative fiction author. They are also non-binary. They live in Petoskey, Michigan. Find them at their website, sahuntbooks.com, and check out the first volume of their horror epic, Burn the Dark.