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October 26, 2021

USGS researchers frequently brave potentially haunted field sites and study spooky-looking creatures. Here’s a list of 13, right in time for Halloween. 

An owl rotating it's head in a circle repeatedly.
Our favorite interpretation of the Monster Mash. (Credit: Scott Horvath, USGS)

Equipped with maps, water and sunscreen, Kate Scharer was studying the active Simi-Santa Rosa Fault just outside of Los Angeles this past summer. While looking for the best place to park the field truck for the day, she opened her phone to check a map application when a shocking chill went up her spine.  She realized she was just uphill from the two-story mock Tudor house that featured prominently in the film, The Poltergeist. 

Although she doesn’t recall being attacked by the undead, she does recall the shock. ”The hair on my arms stood up. Poltergeist is the first and last horror movie I’ve seen!,” Scharer, a USGS research geologist, said.  

Scharer isn’t alone in being spooked while in the field. USGS researchers frequently brave potentially haunted field sites and study spooky-looking creatures. Here’s a list of 13, right in time for Halloween. 

1. A jolted cemetery  

In 2011, the most widely felt earthquake in the United States rattled the Washington, D.C. area. The Washington Monument cracked, pious statues fell off the Washington National Cathedral and tombstones moved in the Congressional Cemetery. From John Philip Sousa to J. Edgar Hoover, the cemetery is the final resting place for many famous (and infamous) people. To study future rattles in the area, the USGS installed a portable seismometer in the cemetery as part of the DC-SHAKE deployment in 2014. So far, the buried seismometer has yet to capture the rumbles from a zombie disco party.  

2. A creepy cave 

As you descend the many stairs into the gaping dark cavity of Mammoth Cave National Park, you might wonder, will I make it out alive? Fortunately for scientists doing research at the cave in Kentucky, the answer has been yes. The underground labyrinth of caves is the world’s longest system, with over 405 miles (651 km) mapped. The caves formed 10 million years ago when groundwater began to dissolve the region’s limestone and carve out openings. The groundwater also left behind minerals that then turned into speleothems like stalactites, which creepily hang in jagged protrusions from the ceiling and stalagmites, which rise from the floor. 

Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park
Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park

3. A morbid trench 

If you’re ever in New Zealand and keen to explore something a bit gory, be sure to add Dead Horse Gully to your list. “There was supposedly a dead horse many moons ago, but we never observed the dead horse itself,” Alex Hatem, a USGS research geologist, said. Hatem was at the site to look for evidence of movement along the Clarence fault over the past 10,000 years to try to figure out the recurrence of past earthquakes. She did not report seeing evidence of any horse ghosts. 

4. A skeleton in the deep sea 

With a name seemingly fit for a magical spell, aragonite actually describes the calcium carbonate that makes up a coral’s skeleton. The USGS, in tandem with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations, are exploring deep-sea corals, among other creatures, to better understand how they react to climate change. As the ocean absorbs more and more atmospheric carbon dioxide, sea water becomes more acidic, limiting the supply of carbonate. Without carbonate, corals and other shelled organisms have a harder time building and maintaining their structure, leaving them to haunt the seafloor in skeletal form.  

5. A witch’s eye view 

Humans can’t fly like witches, vampires and ghosts can, so we rely on imagery to see landmarks like cemeteries from high above. Horror movie Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, launching its filming site, Evans City Cemetery in Pennsylvania, into infamy. In 1969, the USGS captured aerial images of the iconic cemetery, which are archived among other historical images on the USGS EarthExplorer. Today, USGS and NASA scientists operate Landsat satellites for the most haunting aerial views.  

6. A shaky Halloween 

At 5:07 in the morning local time on October 31, 1895, an estimated magnitude-6.8 earthquake rumbled through Charleston, Missouri. People felt tremors as far away as Pittsburg, New Orleans and Topeka! Despite its widespread impact and fairly strong shaking, the earthquake caused no deaths and few injuries. It was the strongest quake to hit the central states since 1812. Because of that, all 12,000 telephone switches on the main Chicago exchange lit up simultaneously, creating a chaotic (and bright) scene for the telephone company operators. 

7. A new life for dead snakes 

They’re not exactly mummies, and not exactly zombies, but they’re decades old, desiccated, diseased and...dead. A recent USGS study of museum snake specimens shows that snake fungal disease, a skin infection threatening many important, living snake populations, existed in the U.S. over 50 years earlier than previously thought. Caused by a freaky fungus, snake fungal disease can lead to skin lesions, scabs and crusty scales, which can be deadly for some snakes. While the disease doesn’t affect humans, it’s a particular horror for species like the eastern massasauga rattlesnakeeastern indigo snake and Louisiana pinesnake, all of which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The discovery can help inform management decisions to better protect living snake populations before they join their ancestors in the dark corridors of a museum.  

Rat snake museum specimen
This rat snake is a preserved museum specimen with snake fungal disease that was collected in Tennessee in 1973. (Credit: Jeff Lorch, USGS)

8. A gauge near a morbid mystery

Lizzie Borden has a reputation. A rather morbid reputation. On August 4, 1892, her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden, were violently murdered. Although Lizzie was acquitted of the murder in June 1893, the killer’s identity is still unknown and the mystery continues to baffle and intrigue many. The (now called) Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts, sits a few blocks away from a USGS rain gauge, which monitors how much rain falls on and near that spooky house. The gauge is part of the USGS New England Water Science Center’s network of water monitoring throughout the region. 

9. A sign of things from the grave? 

Sampling Groundwater at Michigan Cemetery
The USGS sampled groundwater downhill of Mt. Hope Cemetery in Michigan. (Credit: Angela Brennan and Julia Prokopec, USGS)

The scene: Mt. Hope Cemetery in Lansing, Michigan, a picturesque plot of towering trees, its weathered headstones situated solemnly beneath the shadows of leafless limbs. Could tiny things be moving beyond the grave? A team of brave USGS scientists wondered if materials associated with decomposition and burial processes could affect groundwater quality downhill of the cemetery. They measured the amount of materials in the water that could be associated with burial, such as formaldehyde, pharmaceuticals, personal care products and bacteria that can be released through natural human decay. Formaldehyde and pharmaceuticals were not detected, but nutrient concentrations were elevated and trace metals like arsenic, manganese and aluminum were present in some water samples. Concentrations of bacteria like E. coli were also elevated and bacterial pathogens were present in several samples. The study did not raise the dead, but it did raise more questions and revealed that further research is needed to determine how greatly cemeteries might affect groundwater. But don’t all good ghost stories need a little mystery? 

Mt. Hope Cemetery, Michigan
Mt. Hope Cemetery in Lansing, Michigan (Credit: Angela Brennan and Julia Prokopec, USGS. Public domain.)

10. A bat battles one disease and avoids another 

Whether they’re hanging upside down in a dark abandoned mine or swooping suddenly from the sky, bats have a reputation for spooking those who seek them. Instead of terror, though, they should inspire sympathy. Over six million bats have died from white-nose syndrome, a fatal fungal disease, since 2006. On the bright side, big brown bats, a bat species common in North America, are resistant to infection with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, according to USGS researchers. The researchers collected big brown bats from peoples’ homes in Waushara County in Wisconsin, took them into a lab at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison and exposed them to the virus. None of the bats were infected, although the verdict is still out on whether any of them are able to transform into vampires.  

11. A swampy science  

Would a swamp by any other name be as spooky as the Great Dismal Swamp? Spanning 112,000 acres across North Carolina and Virginia, it’s the largest intact remnant of a habitat that once covered more than one million acres. USGS scientists work in the Great Dismal Swamp to collect long tubes of mud to better understand natural conditions before centuries of ditching, draining and harvesting in the area. Their work helps land managers as they determine how to restore and manage the system.  

Scientists are collecting core samples from the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia
Scientists are collecting core samples from the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia to understand natural conditions before centuries of ditching, draining and harvesting. (Credit: Debra Willard, USGS)

12. A mystery at the park 

During the winter of 1849, a group of pioneers lost their way in a vast, forbidding valley. When they finally made it out, one of the men turned back and said, “goodbye, Death Valley,” according to legend. Today, many USGS scientists say “hello, Death Valley” as they visit the now national park to research its faults, ecosystems and geology. The park was also the site of a mysterious phenomenon: rocks seemingly moving of their own volition and leaving a trail in their wake. In 2014, scientists discovered that the movement was a result of a rare combination of frozen water and wind rather than anything supernatural. Still, the sneaky rocks are spooky to see.  

Racetrack Playa
A sliding rock and trail on the south end of Racetrack Playa.

13. A ghoulish gorge 

If you’re looking for something magical to do while at Olympic National Park, look no further than visiting Goblin Gates, a narrow gorge on the Elwha River in Washington State. Its jagged weathered rocks and rushing water are a magical site, and despite its name, no goblins have been sighted guarding the entrance to the gorge with a series of riddles. The USGS runs a water monitoring streamgage on the river to measure the water’s height and flow. Researchers use the streamgage, among other tools, to contribute to the Elwha River Restoration Project, which is coordinated by the National Park Service.  

Additional reading: 


Thirteen Extra Eerie Images:

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