Midnight in the middle of nowhere. Once the car headlights go out, there is nothing except the light on the phone as I start a Facebook Live and the flashlight my partner demands to hold on every trip. Tonight, I don’t argue with her or demand less light to make it more real. This cemetery in a corner of the Midwest might as well be in a foreign country and not less than an hour from her grandparents house a little further to three cities large enough to host multiple sports teams. But the lights of those stadiums are far from where we are at this moment. It’s just two lights, a clock quickly approaching midnight, and a ghostly legend so popular and such a part of the fabric of the community it has been considered one of seven gates to hell built to act as a direct link to the Devil.
That and lots of frogs.
Indiana may be the Crossroad of America, but Clay County in the Central Western part of the state, is about as far from the big cities which lay hours away as you can get. Only about an hour outside of Indianapolis and situated about halfway between Chicago and Louisville, the rural townships that make up the area are more known for their history during the rise of the National Road than anything happening among the 30,000 modern residents. Despite its obscurity in an area which defines the term Fly-Over Country, one spot has laid claim for being the most documented haunted location in the United States. The titles come not because it has been the most researched or explored by modern day paranormal enthusiasts or even because of the particular cemetery in question has produced Instagram or YouTube videos that have lifted it beyond places like Wavery Hills, Goatman Bridge, or the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast.
Instead its fame comes from a frightening, everchanging legend and the work of a college professor.
Cloverland Cemetery is the definition of legend tripping. More well known as 100 Steps Cemetery or Carpenter Cemetery, the location has been the source of haunted stories since the Civil War. No one can quite remember when the ghost stories began to be told, but by the 1950s, just about the time teens were finding their ways in cars to spooky places to excite their dates and challenge each other’s manhood, the rituals of 100 Steps had become solidified within the community.
Most of the tales involve the steps leading from the entrance, now gated, into the main part of the cemetery. The hill which makes up the majority of Carpenter is modest enough. There is nothing remarkable about the headstones and memorials aside from their age and poor condition, and the graves located on the hill itself offer no hint as to its dark reputation. There have been sightings of the occasional woman in white and some odd grave desecrations. There is even a news report of the missing body of a woman named Emma West buried there in 1892. People who go there during the day report nothing odd. In fact, most people report it as a peaceful, serene place.
During the day.
That all changes at midnight. The legend says you need to climb the stairs at exactly midnight, counting each step as you go. When you reach the top, you should have counted 100, and if you do, the ghost of the original caretaker of the cemetery will appear to you and tell you the date and nature of your death. The story continues that you must then climb down again, still counting, but if you do not count 100, the caretaker returns and kills you on the spot. Other stories say hands will come out of the ground to try and trip you up or the cries of children or people who need help will echo in your ears, all in an attempt to disrupt your counting. One misstep and the last step opens you up and drops you into hell.
The details of the story and the variations spring off the original story (it should be noted that the cemetery is technically closed from dusk until dawn). One tells of the caretaker refusing to tell your future and the steps disappearing. Another talks about how your feet will sink into the steps, even though they are stone, and you’ll get stuck there as voices around you start to get louder. Another says no one can make it up the steps at midnight because unseen hands push you down harder with each step. The most rational one, the one told by those who don’t believe in ghost stories, is that there is no way to count the same amount of steps on the way up as the way down, no matter how many times you try.
Then there is the reputation as one of the Gates of Hell of the Midwest and another nearby location we did not know about at the time. Actually located in Brazil is an old train overpass known as Hell’s Gate Bridge. The train no longer runs above, but below is the sort of spooky place that lures teenagers to explore its odd stories. Driving through will act as a direct passage to Hell. People are said to go under and are never seen again. It’s not always that dramatic. According to TerrorHaute.com (which is an amazing source for Indiana folklore and a damn witty name for a Web site), blood has been seen dripping from the walls and the sounds of restless spirits, most said to be left behind after a train wreck nearby, can be heard when you pass under. There’s a guardian, a dark figure who is over 7 feet tall, who protects the property and who can be summoned by flashing your lights three times and waiting directly under the bridge. Flashing your lights has also be known to force some of the graffiti which stains the entire location, to glow in the night. It is said if you see your name glowing you will die before the morning sun.
Both Hell’s Gate and 100 Steps are said to be linked to 7 passageways to the underworld. Going through all 7 will open up Hell itself, although these are the only two known for sure or at least still known to survive. There was a plotline very similar to this on the television show Supernatural, although the legends predate the show so they would seem to have influenced it. It also seems many people get the details of the two locations confused, which may account for why 100 Steps is often said to be in Brazil and where the opening to Hell at the bottom comes from. It might also account or the dark guardian at the site. When either one is talked about, it’s almost understood the other will come up.
Tripping on Legends went to Cloverland Cemetery as part of our Summer 2017 road trip. We were in Indiana mainly to visit the Pukwudgie haven in Mound State Park in Anderson and visit with her family. In fact, we had just had one of the most profound experiences of my life in the park, the kind that shapes your ideas about the paranormal and provides some odd feeling of balance with the unseen world. As we drove the two hours or so to Clay County, our mood changed dramatically. What had been a light rain, one that had almost framed the profound experience we had at Anderson, started to get heavier. Against this backdrop of a dark and stormy night, we read the many accounts of 100 Steps, getting a bit more weirded out with each tale and almost creating a feeling of dread between us. We even talked about scrapping the trip so we could document what had happened to us earlier in the day. Little did we know we actually had something on our tail, although our experiences later that night back at her grandmother’s house with a suspected Pukwudgie really had nothing to do with what experienced in the cemetery.
We took a short video at the bottom and climbed the steps at exactly midnight…
By the time we got there the rain had stopped. Cloverland is a rural location, and as we left the main street and drove along the dirt roads leading to the graves, we were forced to dodge trenches in the road and were hit by hundreds of frogs. We parked and approached the fence feeling scared out of our minds. This was in the middle of nowhere and there were no streetlights or nearby houses. I am not sure if it was the continuous storytelling, the fear of the living who could jump out at any moment, or the excitement of what had happened earlier in the day, but this was oddly the most frightening place I have ever been too.
…and nothing happened.
There was no caretaker or hole to hell. The stairs themselves were so slippery and broken and the night so dark you could not tell if where you were putting your feet down could be considered a step. One thing is certain, ghosts or not, we had no desire to be there and left after only a few shaking moments.
Why then is this location so popular and well covered. Unlike other ghost stories, this one begins in a classroom.
Jan Harold Brunvand, considered by many to be the father of modern folklore and the inventor, if not at least the popularizer of the terms urban legend and FOAF (friend of a friend) tales, began his education compiling stories and making connections at the University of Michigan in the mid-1950s. He then started his graduate and PhD work at Indiana University, essentially making that school the center for the study of urban legends. Many of Brunvand’s papers and collected stories from locals are still kept in a library on campus. His work there as a professor and archivist changed the landscape of the study, even after he left to teach at the University of Utah and publish some of the most important books on the study of modern folklore. Indiana became the center of modern mythology, and the local stories became the representation of those being told across the country and the starting point for any story coming out.
In many ways, 100 Steps Cemetery was born of that. Indiana is the Midwest of the Midwest. Think of it as a magnet attracting and reflecting the attitudes of country. Just as Brunvand was making urban legends popular and collecting stories, teens and college kids were driving out to supposedly haunted locations in secluded areas to avoid hookmen but hook up if they could. Across the country, more and more paranormal hotspots were increasing in popularity as hangouts and dares, making the stories more infamous and the number of people who had been there increase. Whether through exaggeration, mass hysteria, or a genuine experience, more stories were being told about these places. There was now a safe place for spooky folklore to be told, and as the center of study, Indiana tales were well documented. Person after person came up to tell the version they had heard, and when a study of Cloverland and Hell’s Gate was revived in the 1990s, the stories became solidified just as the Internet was giving the breath of these stories a wider blow.
Which only has a part to do with being there, on those steps, counting to the top at midnight. It is easy to pass these stories off as just a place to scare yourself and a date, like sneaking into the bathroom to try out Bloody Mary. There is more to it than that though. Stories and belief may create the very things they claim to document, but that’s for the logical mind. Instead, try this legend trip for yourself. Before you go, stop of at Hell’s Gate Bridge and honk your horn and flash your lights. Tell yourself it’s all just a good ghost story and turn off your flashlights as you climb. Just make sure you count the steps right and look before you put your foot down on the last step.
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