Sinister Sepulchre

Urban legends in the last century became very ripe source material for many movies and books. 

Pop culture loves its urban legends: the hook-handed killer on the lovers’ lane, alligators in the New York City sewer system, the menacing phone call to the terrorized babysitter from “inside the house!”

These horrors seem timeless.  And many of them are much older than popularly though.  The “hook-handed killer” tale, for example, dates back to at least the early 1920s; the “inside the house” phone call to the babysitter goes back at least to the 1930s.

But for every commonly known urban legend there are probably dozens of rural legends that are little known outside the small, remote communities in which these tales either originated or to which they were ascribed or adapted.  Many rural legends have their origins in other parts of the country and gradually become associated with a place or physical feature far removed from the story’s birthplace.  Similarities in local tales can point to many sources if picked apart carefully.

Oakey Street Methodist Episcopalian Church (abandoned)Credit:

One tiny church that features in a popular rural legend in south-central Alabama near the Florida panhandle has the misfortune of a plague of paranormal phenomenon: ghosts, hellhounds, and strange wailings, and other disturbances are told of the Oakey Streak Methodist Church near Red Level, Alabama.

Cry of the Banshee
Old European tales and traditions had been adapted as the immigrant hordes assimilated into the seething melting pot of America as it was colonized.  Among the better known is the Gaelic legend of the banshee, a shrieking female “presence” whose distinctive cry outside one’s door was a sure harbinger of death for a family member within.

Another omen concerned the Old World sightings of “black dogs”, spectral mastiffs with glowing red eyes.  To whoever the dog appears, it means death (either for the observer or one close to him/her).  These demonic dogs are sometimes called “hellhounds” (though originally in mythology, hellhounds were guardians of the underworld and not harbingers of doom).

Banshee (interpret)Credit: stock imageGhost stories, of course, are worldwide.  Ghosts’ characteristics are inconsistent (as are their agendas) and they differ depending upon who is telling the tall tale and from what culture the story originates.

Ghost riders—macabre drivers of black vehicles (usually cars) that can be seen on moonlit nights—have their origins in Old World lore.  In America, Washington Irving used the ghost rider myth effectively in his classic short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.  The first Ku Klux Klan in America (domestic terrorists after the Civil War who dressed in bed sheets as ghosts to terrorize notoriously superstitious freed blacks) could be typified as “ghost riders”; some even referred to themselves as such. 

Poltergeists (adapted from the German meaning “noisy ghost”) make their presence known by rearranging their physical environments.  These unseen forces hurl objects and otherwise torment a “possessed” house’s residents.

Physical features on the landscape may be possessed of a ghost.  Bridges are notorious places for hauntings—almost every county in the US has a “haunted” bridge.  The back-stories are similar; a typical one concerns Brazel Bridge in Hopkins County, Kentucky.  Allegedly, in the 1930s, a man killed a woman (a cheating wife, a stranger, the details vary) and dumped her body in the Pond River.  On moonless nights it is alleged if one parks on that bridge with one’s car’s headlights off the woman’s ghost will appear.

Finally, the very roads traveled can exhibit supernatural properties.  Among the most widespread of these are the “rising roads” of America.  Such a road is usually on a slight incline.  If one parks one’s car in “neutral” gear under certain atmospheric conditions (full moon, no moon, dark or starry night—inconsistencies abound) the car will mysteriously begin rolling uphill.  The clincher, of course, is that a ghost is pushing the car from behind; many people who claim this happened to their “friend”, and will insist mysterious handprints were on the rear bumper afterward (from spectral helping hands).

Little Church of Horrors
Banshees, hellhounds, ghosts and ghost riders, and even a haunted outhouse all coalesce into the rural legend of Oakey Streak Methodist Episcopal Church.
Oakey Streak location map (Alabama)

Red Level, Alabama, lies in the northeast corner of Covington County.  It is about an hour’s drive north of the Alabama/Florida state line. 

Red Level has three claims to fame. 

The first is that it is the home town of the former Surgeon General, Luther Terry, the man who engineered the famous “Surgeon General’s” warning on cigarette packages during the second Johnson administration in 1965.

The second noted feature of the town (population about 600) is its Armadillo Round Up, an annual fund-raiser for local civic groups themed around armadillos.

Its third shining light is a small church that, if all the stories about it are true, would make it more haunted than the infamous Borley Rectory or the iconic house in Amityville, Long Island (featured in the fiction franchise of movies and books, The Amityville Horror).

Oakey Street Church (current)Credit:

The church actually lies in what is called the Oakey Streak Community in southeastern Butler County, Alabama, but is more closely associated with the town of Red Level because of proximity.  The church’s community was first dubbed “Middletown” (from 1829-1843) because of it location midway along the route from Greenville, Alabama, to MontezumaOakey Streak Church Historic MarkerCredit: State of Alabama (Covington County), Alabama.

The geographical area in which this little church of horrors sits was renamed Oakey Streak by later settlers for the fantastic groves (or “streaks”) of oak trees in the area. 

The property upon which the church sits was once a 10-acre tract that had been signed over to an existing congregation for its use in 1850.  These congregants first met in a log cabin, a structure that was replaced in the very late 19th Century by the current building. It is a typical small-town Protestant church: white, boxy, relatively nondescript.  It has a small steeple on the front that faces a postage-stamp sized, fenced cemetery.

With no documentation (only rumors, innuendo, teenage pranks, and outright lies), this tiny church gained a reputation as a paranormal magnet. An amazingly diverse group of spooks and other phenomenon allegedly plague the place.

Oakey Streak Church (interior)Credit: flickrOne of the most-oft repeated details is that the church fell into disuse (date never specified, but likely about 1899) because of banshee activity: the Gaelic banshee made its presence known in Oakey Streak, Alabama!  The wailing and keening of the banshee (or sometimes “banshees”, though in the Gaelic legends one banshee is enough for a supernatural, and presumably ominous, visitation) was so great it drove the congregants out in fear. 

In addition to the typical banshee shrieking, wracking sobbing and whimpering coming from the church’s wooden walls were also alleged.  Female spirits delivered the blood-chilling message that someone within the church would soon die.

Another macabre claim is that “hellhounds” inhabit the little cemetery.  Their glowing red eyes tend to frighten away curiosity seekers who visit the cemetery at night.

Hellhound EyesCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2012

Perhaps one of the stranger things is an apparently haunted privy.  Behind the church stands an old-fashioned outhouse, painted white and complete with the requisite “crescent moon” cut-out in its door. [The “crescent moon” on outhouse doors, by the way, is a later affectation adapted from poplar culture’s impressions of such contrivances.  The earliest outhouses had no such shape incorporated routinely.] Oakey Streak Church haunted outhouseCredit:

The problem with the spooked outhouse, according to the tales, is that if anyone goes into it and closes the door, he or she cannot open the door from the inside!  A “spectral presence” holds the door fast.  However, a person standing outside the door may open it easily for the trapped (and presumably terrified) prisoner.

The little cemetery’s earliest confirmed grave sites date to 1820.  A handful of Confederate dead are buried in the plot.  Of these, only about seven seem to be casualties of war; the rest of the CSA graves contain men who died years later of illness or old age.  Most of the other burials, though, are from the late 19th to early 20th centuries.  A smattering occur from the mid 20th Century, with several burials as recent as 1991. 

More phenomena associated with the cemetery allege the ghosts of Confederate soldiers can be heard marching there (how one can decide that mysterious marching footsteps are specifically those of Confederate soldiers is unfathomable).  The new structure was built well after the Civil War (likely after 1875), so any Civil War-related hauntings seem improbable, but would be restricted to the cemetery.  And (despite the fact that dead Confederate soldiers in the area would also probably mean there were Union combatants killed nearby as well) no one ever reports hearing the ghosts of marching Union soldiers there.

Dead & GoneCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2012

As for ghosts that are not only heard but seen, there are two child ghosts that haunt the property. 

The first is of a small boy playing with a ball (sometimes only his laughter can be heard).  His appearance is accompanied by a sudden cold wave of air.  The story follows that if this spectral boy rolls the ball to a person, and the person picks it up and either gives it or rolls it back to the ghost that person will die soon.

The other child specter is of a little girl.  She appears from nowhere and spends her time skipping down the driveway leading back to the access street (a very short distance).  The tale claims if one is driving and overtakes this girl and attempts to pass her, one’s car will either stop or stall until the girl gains some more distance ahead of the vehicle. 

Adding to the mish-mash of phenomenon is a version of the ghost rider.  The story alleges that if one visits the churchyard on a night with a full moon and has somehow been determined by the Netherworld to have loitered too long (unknown if that time allocation is fifteen minutes, two hours, or fifteen seconds), a black 1964 Ford pickup truck will make an appearance.  [This scenario requires the visitor to be in his/her moving vehicle.]  The death truck speeds down the road behind the visitor—if the truck catches up with the interloper, then that person’s vehicle will fatally wreck, killing all within. 

Voice of Reason
As with nearly all “hauntings” the convoluted nature of the telling and re-telling of the possessions or hauntings at Oakey Streak Methodist defy any attempts at credibly finding the origins of any of the alleged events. 

It is certain that many of the elements of the total story are clearly borrowed or imported from other tales (the boy with the rolling ball as a harbinger of death is a common story and not unique to this tale).  Ghostly marching soldiers, regardless of locale, have featured in many popular ghost stories around the world for centuries. 

The ghost rider in his black 1964 Ford pickup is also not new—he is a modern version of The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. 

The most interesting thing about this haunted church is the presence of the “banshees” (always taken at face value as plural).  They are cited as the cause for this church’s abandonment.  Do they continue to wail?  It is unknown as all that can be gleaned is the simple hearsay that “they” ran the congregation off from its church.  More on point, though, is that the refurbished church still holds services (regularly at 9:30 AM), so the idea of banshee-induced abandonment is absurd.

The “possessed” outhouse is likewise easily explained.  It is unlikely that anyone believing such nonsense would go to the place alone.  It follows that he or she, if the story were true, would enter the privy, close the door, and be trapped.  Such a person would likely die of starvation inside the outhouse unless he or she was freed. 

The most reasonable cause of the blocked/locked door is also the simplest: most people would not venture there alone to be trapped!  A friend would be waiting outside to let the victim out once the door was closed and unable to be opened from within.  Knowing of the legend, it is the friend who “locks” (or leans against) the door, then claims innocence of any wrongdoing (as expected) once the victim is released.

The ghost legends and other stories associated with the church are all in good fun and are generally harmless.  Unfortunately, these tall tales are all of urban legend/“they say” origins.  There is no core story, no one event that might qualify the site as anything other than a target of hearsay, pandering, and lies.  No untimely tragedy is recorded for the site, just the “all-but-the-kitchen-sink” laundry-list of alleged phenomena.  That lack of narrative focus alone tends to discount any claims of paranormal activity. 

And, obviously, the myths have been inconsistent and certainly changed over the decades, certain elements discarded and others added (definitely, there would have been no 1964 black Ford pickup driven by a ghost rider in the story before 1964).National Historic Registry plaqueCredit: flickr

This church is, however, a fine example of small-scale, period Gothic architecture, and it was worthy of preservation.  In 1980, it was saved from certain ruin when it was accepted for, and placed upon, The National Register of Historic Places.  The Registry gives the church’s years of significance (flourishing) as 1875-1899.  There is no mention of banshees frightening away the congregation on record officially.  The true reason for its earlier abandonment may have been simply there were no longer enough members of the church to keep it going financially or to make it worth keeping open (this was a very sparsely populated area at the time). 

One thing is for certain, however: the church is privately owned, and any overzealous curiosity seekers or “ghost hunters” (whether amateur or “professional”) will be arrested and fully prosecuted if caught there outside the scope of normal, expected visitation, without permission.

Night WatchCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2012


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