The Creepiest Stories In Appalachian Folklore

One of the hallmarks of any culture is its folklore. And the Appalachian region, which spans 13 states from the southernmost counties of New York down into the northern regions of Alabama and Mississippi, is certainly rich in these tales and legends. Of course, like almost anyone, people in Appalachia also love a good scary story. Whether they're the ones doing the scaring or just enjoying a chill down their own spine, there are plenty of eerie regional folktales to choose from in this diverse region.

Travel anywhere throughout Appalachia, and you're bound to find a quiet hollow or out-of-the-way road that gets even more unnerving once the sun goes down. Perhaps it's these features of the landscape, along with folklore from both indigenous people and immigrants from Europe, that helped inspire the people of Appalachia to come up with the tales that still freak us out today. These are some of the creepiest of them all.

The Tailypo

The setup of the Tailypo legend may sound like the lead-in to a long joke. As YouTuber and folktale collector Dr. Luke Bauserman told The Columbus Dispatch, he first heard of this Appalachian beast in elementary school. It concerns an old man living alone in the wilds of West Virginia, except for his dogs. He's contemplating his scanty food supplies when an odd creature bursts into his home, roughly the size and shape of a weasel. But it has a thick tail, which the man chops off and adds to his meal. Things get even weirder when the creature returns, this time yowling for its "tailypo." For his violent act, the old man and his dogs meet an unfortunate end.

Bauserman notes that the legend of the Tailypo shares literary DNA with the likes of many stories in which a creature or person returns to seek out something that's been stolen from them. In some cases, grievous bodily injury or even death isn't enough to stop their vengeance. Writing in "Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore," Diane Goldstein, Sylvia Grider, and Jeannie Banks Thomas maintain that the Tailypo is probably not otherworldly, given that it shares more characteristics with a rage-filled animal than a specter or more paranormal cryptid. But if you were to encounter a screeching Tailypo, waving its tail stump and inexplicably hissing at you in your native language, chances are you would be deeply unnerved.

The Wampus Cat

Today, as Denver Michaels writes in "Strange Tales from Virginia's Mountain," most stories of the Wampus Cat maintain that it's some sort of mysterious cryptid that stalks the mountains, perhaps inspired by the very real North American mountain lion. Yet the Wampus Cat reads like a puma on steroids, sporting extra-large claws and the ability to stroll around on two legs and scream at you. 

One Cherokee legend has it that the Wampus Cat was once a human woman who spied on a ceremony meant only for men. Though she hid beneath the skin of a mountain lion, she was spotted and cursed by a shaman. Her punishment included being melded together with the puma skin and living as a half-feline, half-human monster alone in the woods, which she continues to stalk to this very day. She's understandably upset about her fate, meaning that you won't want to encounter the bad-tempered Wampus Cat alone at night.

Appalachian History offers up a different and somewhat more heartwarming version of this story, in which an insanity-inducing spirit known as Ew'ah was targeting a Cherokee village. The people's best warrior went out to fight Ew'ah, but he was mentally destroyed by the encounter. His wife, Running Deer, sourced a cat-faced mask from the tribe's shamans and defeated Ew'ah herself. Today, some might tell you that the Wampus Cat is actually the protective spirit of Running Deer, still ready to run Ew'ah off her tribe's land.

The Bell Witch

It's late at night in rural 19th-century Tennessee. You're in your electricity-free cabin, trying to go about your business. Then, the noises begin. Or, if you're really unfortunate, that's when the disembodied slapping starts. Such was the fate of the Bell family. 

According to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, the trouble actually began with the manifestation of an odd canine. Or, well, at least father John Bell thought that he had shot at a dog. Soon, the sounds of chewing, flapping, and knocking began to happen throughout the Bell house. The spirit grew more violent, moving furniture and then moving on to strike family members. Daughter Betsy became the locus of the activity, with some of the hardest slaps and pinches reserved for her.

Eventually, the family couldn't pretend that everything was hunky-dory, and word got out of the so-called "Bell Witch." Visitors came to the farm to converse with the spirit, which had started to talk though it didn't deign to materialize. Ultimately, the Bell farm turned into something of a haunted house attraction, though people who dared to taunt the spirit, tried to exorcise it, or simply got in its way stood to be seriously frightened or even harmed by the Bell Witch. As the legend maintains, John Bell was eventually killed by this spirit after years of mental torment and physical attacks. At his funeral, it's said that the witch's disembodied voice sang vulgar songs throughout the service.

The Black Dog

For some people, an encounter with a black dog is only an occasion to pet a friendly canine. But in the Appalachians, as in many other parts of the world, the appearance of such an animal spells something far more ominous. The infamous Bell Witch that hounded the Bell family of early 19th-century Tennessee sometimes sent out black dogs to attack people (via Tennessee State Library and Archives). 

Meanwhile, a tale published in a 1907 issue of The Journal of American Folklore relates the tale of a ghostly black dog that stalked a mountain pass in Virginia. Locals were frightened by the giant beast, especially when it appeared unaffected by gunfire. Eventually, a woman arrived seeking her missing husband ... and his black dog. The spirit of the animal promptly led her to the man's grave.

The scariest black dog of the Appalachians might be the snarly yow. According to author Denver Michaels, this creature is most often spotted around western Maryland and into West Virginia. It frequently appears as a black dog with a striking red mouth, though it rarely attacks people. Modern drivers report that a black, dog-like creature fitting the description of a snarly yow will appear in the road and is sometimes even hit by their car. Yet, no damage to the car or animal is ever seen and the creature is sometimes even seen standing in the road again, only this time it's behind the car that struck it.

The Moon-Eyed People

According to The Sylva Herald, many legends of North Carolina's so-called "Moon-Eyed People" seem to originate from the indigenous Cherokee people. As native tales have it, these small, blond humanoids were so sensitive to the sun that they could only bear to come out at night, hence the "moon-eyed" moniker. In some versions of the story, American Indian tribes come into conflict with the Moon-Eyed People and either push them out or force them to live underground. The second possibility is especially creepy, given the extensive cave networks throughout the Appalachian region that are already unnerving without imagining eerily pale people lurking inside.

Later folklorists have tried to make this legend work in the context of real history, with some claiming that the Moon-Eyed People might be the descendants of medieval Welsh explorers who crossed the Atlantic centuries ago. However, little physical evidence has presented itself to support this theory, apart from the statue on display at the Cherokee County Historical Museum (pictured). As director Wanda Stalcup told Roadside America, it shows two figures carved out of soapstone, with faces marked by large eyes. Are these the Moon-Eyed People? Or are they aliens, fairy-like beings, or even just artistically depicted standard humans? It's hard to tell, given that the striking carving only shows up in the historical record after it was excavated in the 1840s. But it's clearly been enough to get people talking about this eerie Appalachian legend.


When it comes to Appalachian folklore cryptids, few have reached heights of notoriety quite like West Virginia's Mothman. As the Point Pleasant Register reported on November 16, 1966, two couples experienced a harrowing run-in with the Mothman the night before. The four had been on the outskirts of town near a defunct National Guard Armory, around midnight. That's where they encountered a strikingly-tall winged humanoid with red eyes. The creature gave chase, keeping up with the group's speeding car as the cryptid flew through the air. It was only when they reached the brighter-lit areas of Point Pleasant that it backed off.

With its gray coloring and red eyes, the creature soon became known as the "Mothman." Since its 1966 debut, the Mothman has become not just a local folklore legend, but something much more widespread. And we all have Richard Gere to thank for it — sort of. According to the Smithsonian's Folklife magazine, journalists Mary Hyre and John Keel published "The Mothman Prophecies" in 1975, which included other allegedly true stories of this creature that had seemingly put down stakes in the Point Pleasant area. The book was then turned into a 2002 film of the same name starring Gere, which pushed the eerie Mothman even further into notoriety. As creeped out as some may be by the Mothman, it's now become so popular that Point Pleasant hosts an annual Mothman festival that brings thousands to an otherwise small Appalachian town.

Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Kids not eating their vegetables? Tearing up the house? Getting up past bedtime? Simply bring up the story of a monster who steals away miscreant children, and at least some of those tykes will fall into line. Even if that doesn't jive with your parenting philosophy, you can't deny that boogeymen are everywhere. There's the Brazilian Cuca, the devilish Krampus in the Alps, and the Inuit Qallupilluit, just to name a few.

Appalachian folklore is no exception. Some mountain children were frightened into good behavior by the tale of Rawhead and Bloody Bones. As country legend Dolly Parton recalled in "Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business" (via Appalachian History), her own mother would sometimes sneak outside and scratch at the window to get her children to stay in bed.

But what are the folktales behind these gory names? The Journal of American Folklore notes that this creature seems to have got its start in England and was first recorded around the 16th century. Many variations maintain that it's some sort of monster with the flesh fully or partially stripped off its skull, as children in North Carolina may have heard, as per "The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore." In Mary Hamilton's "Kentucky Folklore," two step-sisters encounter raw, bloody skulls in a well. The animate skulls ask to be washed and treated nicely, but one of the girls reacts with disgust. Only the one who keeps it together is rewarded.

The Brown Mountain Lights

You might think that the appearance of a few lights hovering around a mountain wouldn't be much cause for alarm. But the sheer uncertainty that surrounds the Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina, not to mention the many explanations and legends associated with them, makes for a pretty eerie experience.

As per the Encyclopedia of North Carolina (via the Encyclopedia of North Carolina), the Brown Mountain Lights behave strangely, appearing to float and change in size around, yes, Brown Mountain. According to researchers from Appalachian State University, the earliest confirmed sightings of these odd lights floating around the area were reported in a 1913 edition of the Charlotte Observer. Even if people have been witnessing these strange lights since an earlier time, no one's been able to come up with a definitive explanation despite more than 100 years' worth of sightings.

Some of the more romantic and mysterious stories say that the lights are those of long-gone Cherokee women searching for men who died in a battle, or perhaps those of a search party looking for either a doomed woman or a lost slave master (via North Carolina Ghosts). More practical-minded folks like those at the USGS say that the orbs could be the lights of cars or trains refracted through the atmosphere, though it's hard to feel chills when you believe you're observing misidentified headlights. For many, the notion of ghosts still wandering the mountain will suffice for a good eerie thrill.

Appalachian witches

The figure of the witch has an especially complicated reputation throughout the Appalachians. Some of the creepy folktales that speak of them assume witches are out to work evil on their neighbors. As Tom Peete Cross relates in "Witchcraft in North Carolina," many North Carolinians once believed that illnesses and livestock troubles were caused by evil witches. Someone might be especially creeped out wondering just who in the area might be working evil against them. Some might decide to fight back in an ominous fashion themselves. According to Patrick W. Gainer in "Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians," it was whispered that crafting an image of the witch, then taking that doll to the top of a mountain and shooting it with a silver bullet, would bring suffering and death to the evil magic worker.

Yet some witches aren't ill-intentioned in Appalachian lore. They have instead proven themselves to be valuable assets to the community. These are the granny witches, often elderly figures who act as folk healers and wise women in communities that once had poor access to doctors. Often encountered in the southern Appalachians, granny witches and other magic practitioners often combine folk practices with Christianity, according to Atlas Obscura. Some may even proclaim that all of their work is strictly a gift from the Christian God. Granny witches work to heal the sick, affect the weather, and protect homes against malign influences that were out to get seemingly everyone.

The Hopkinsville Goblins

For one group of family and friends, a simple night spent at home went seriously awry in 1955 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. As per the Courier & Press, several members of that family went to the police in late August of that year to report their encounter with what they believed were otherworldly visitors who had descended from a "flying saucer" to attack the family. A few even claimed to have fired guns at the small creatures with huge eyes, webbed hands, and pointed ears, though no bodies were produced.

Though some of these individuals may have believed they were fighting off aggressive goblins from outer space, others were immediately skeptical. It could be that they were simply lying. Or perhaps they were loudly misinformed and frightened by meteors or aggressive owls. And, this being rural Kentucky, some wondered if the witnesses hadn't indulged in a bit of moonshine. After a while, it seemed like it was all over.

Then, the Hopkinsville Goblins made a comeback. Well, maybe. As paranormal investigator Greg Newkirk wrote in 2015 for Week in Weird, a Kentucky man told him that creatures similar to those sighted way back in Hopkinsville were menacing him. Newkirk's investigation became increasingly labyrinthine, which may lead you to believe that either he's onto something or it's all a tangled mess of folklore and conspiracy theory. Still, the image of a three-toed, clawed goblin approaching is enough to put a chill down even the most dedicated skeptic's spine.

The Pitty Pat

Cute as the name may sound, you really, really don't want to come across Tennessee's Pitty Pat on a dark night. Luckily, according to Legends of America, this particular bit of Appalachian folklore seems restricted to one location: Shipley Hollow, alongside Sale Creek. The earliest tales of the Pitty Pat take place in the late 19th century, with many versions centering on a mother and her young child traveling through the area in a horse-drawn wagon. A strange creature rises up from a dark hollow and spooks the horse. The wagon overturns and, before the woman can do anything, the Pitty Pat grabs her child and runs back into the woods. No one sees or hears anything of the unfortunate young one ever again.

Other riders in the area have reported being chased by a mysterious creature while they were on horseback near Shipley Hollow. In some tales, they reach their destination and insist they're staying the night, lest they cross paths with the Pitty Pat again. The spot has also become known as Pitty Pat Hollow for the poorly described yet terrifying being lurking nearby.

But what the heck is this thing? Some tales make it sound as if the Pitty Pat were an odd but still tangible cryptid. Others hint that it's a more ghostly problem, with rumors of apparitions around Shipley Hollow. Whatever it is, it's said to be accompanied by a "pitty-pat" noise as it creeps through the darkness towards you.