By Brent Swancer
AMONG the many cases of vanishing people on record, some of them seem to stand out as particularly odd. Some of these cases attract about them numerous weird clues, and there are even some occasions in which the missing suddenly comes back, although this does not always solve the mystery. On occasion, these reappearing people bring with them a whole myriad of new enigmas, with the victim missing time, unable to express where they have been, or appearing far from where they started with little explanation to as how they got there. One such case is that of a little girl who vanished off the face of the earth, only to reappear and make her disappearance even stranger than it already was.
Located in in Washington County, near West Fork, Arkansas in the United States, is Devil’s Den State Park, a 2,500-acre wilderness area that is a magnet for tourists in the region. Here people come to engage in all manner of outdoor activities, including picnicking, camping, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and seeing the numerous sandstone caves, bluffs, ravines, rock shelters and crevices that dot the area, as well as hunt for fossils, of which the area has many. The area is a popular destination for families looking to enjoy the great outdoors, and in 1946 the Van Alst family made their way here for a fun family trip to do just that, but it was soon to prove to be anything but fun. One day the family were near their campsite and the family’s daughter, 8-year-old Katherine Van Alst, was playing in the creek in her bathing suit as her brothers fished, when at some point she wandered off and seemingly just vanished. Her father and brothers had apparently been right near her, and basically looked away for a moment to look back and find her gone. It was just thought that she had gone off a bit or that she had gone back to the campsite just a stone’s throw away, and there was no alarm at this point, but little Katherine was nowhere to be seen, and would not answer calls to her. As they continued searching the woods and campsite with no sign of her, the panicked family then notified park officials and a large-scale search began.
Searchers launched a meticulous, methodical search of the entire area for several square miles, with every moment that went by seen as critical, since the girl was barefoot and dressed in nothing but a bathing suit, hardly the sort of attire appropriate for being out in the woods. This search went on for 6 days, with no sign of the missing girl and hope waning, until at one point a team of volunteers were in the forest and passed by a cave, from which little Katherine Van Arst suddenly appeared and casually waved at them. According to those who were there, she was extremely, spookily calm and almost in a daze when she simply uttered “Here I am.” What made this completely mind-boggling was that the spot where she was found was around 7 air miles away and 600 feet higher than the place where she had originally disappeared, which would be just the first of many odd details.
The most glaringly bizarre thing was that this 8-year-old girl had walked an estimated 30-mile zigzagging course to get to where she was found, all in harsh, steep treacherous wilderness terrain in her bathing suit and with no shoes on. The area is riddled with rocky terrain, thick forest, and steep hills, so one of the perplexing things for authorities was how she could have managed to cover that distance in 6 days through this challenging landscape barefoot. Her feet were described as swollen, and she was also covered with insect bites and scratches from briars, so it was apparent she had done some wandering, but she also didn’t seem to be in nearly as poor condition that one would have been suspected, and she had covered so much distance that even a properly equipped adult would have had a tough time matching it. She also seemed to have been in better shape than one would have expected from her ordeal, the cave she was in just happened to have a fresh water spring, and despite various cuts and bruises she was not much the worse for wear, all things considered. Another oddity was that the place where she was found had already been thoroughly searched by aircraft and tracker dogs twice without having found any trace of the girl, so why had she just suddenly appeared there and why had she been so remarkably calm after such a frightening experience? The strangeness would only continue from there.
According to missing person researcher David Paulides, author of “Missing 411-Western United States & Canada: Unexplained Disappearances of North Americans that have never been solved,” there were several oddities when police actually spoke to the girl. She allegedly claimed that she did not remember much about the 6 days she had been missing, merely saying that she had eaten berries to stay alive and found herself in that cave. Paulides has mentioned that the area was overgrown with many types of poisonous berries, so that she chose the right ones to eat has been seen as curious, especially since she had no real outdoor experience. The girl also supposedly made some strange remarks. She explained that when she had gone missing, she had simply been unable to find her campsite or her father and brothers, despite being right near them, and she would also claim that on several occasions she had shouted out to people searching for her but that they had apparently not been able to hear her. She also says that she had seen the tracker dogs but had been too afraid of them to approach. According to Paulides, she also made the strange mention of how she had slept in “warm grass” on the first night she went missing, without elaboration on what this cryptic statement meant.
All of these weird clues have fired up quite a lot of speculation as to what happened to Katherine, much of it quite sensational and leaning fully into the oddness. One is that she was lured away from her family by strange, unexplained forces, and possibly even carried to where she was found and taken care of by these entities. Everything from faeries, to Bigfoot, to UFOs have been suggested in paranormal forums, and much has been made of the fact that this area was once feared as a place of spirits by the local tribes. Yet, there has been some criticism as to how the case has been presented, that the more outlandish elements have been emphasized to make it more mysterious that it really is. However, all of these seemingly strange clues and the fact that a little girl in a swimsuit was found alive after 6 days in the wilderness have managed to keep this case making the rounds, generating plenty of discussion and debate. What happened to this girl? Is this all explainable or is there something more to it? No one seems to really agree on what the right answer to that might be, and the case has remained a mystery. MU
Strange Folklore, Dark Forces, and Mysterious Wilderness Vanishings
By Brent Swancer
Brent Swancer | Mysterious Universe
Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Br…
SINCE time unremembered, the remote and wild places of our world have attracted all manner of myths and legends. Nature has a primal allure for us, a sense of mystery that we cannot help but wonder at. Dark forests and dim wildernesses have attracted all manner of tales of monsters, ghosts, and imposing paranormal forces, spanning across cultures and geographical boundaries and ranging from benevolent powers to those that are decidedly more insidious. When looking through so much legend and lore, it is hard not to wonder whether any of it is based on something real, or the other way around. One area where this seems to be relevant is in regards to certain cases of mysterious vanishings in the woods, or at least in those cases in which people have seemingly been very close to disappearing off the face of the earth. In such cases there is often the feeling that something menacing and beyond comprehension is lurking out there in the trees, willingly pulling people in, and there is plenty of old lore that certainly at least suggests a connection between myth and reality.
If there are forces at work in the wilderness that serve to confuse, befuddle, or even take people away into another world, it would not be a new idea, as there are several pieces of lore from around the world that describe just such a thing. Perhaps one of the more well-known of these is from Irish folklore, and it is called the “Stray Sod.” This is usually described as a patch of grass imbued with magical properties, commonly attributed to fairies, also known as the Fae. According to the lore, if one is to step upon this enchanted grass, they will become disoriented and lose their way, no matter how familiar they are with the area. A person under the stray sod’s powers will supposedly wander around in circles or deeper into the wilderness, completely unable to figure out how to get back, and in some reports the entire landscape will seem to change, as if they have passed over some veil into a new realm. It is said that the only way to break this spell is to remove ones clothing and wear it inside out, which if one is lucky will lift the enchantment and allow them to find their way again, or to find certain herbs that will supposedly neutralize the effects. The book Ancient Legends of Ireland, by Lady Wilde, gives a rather dramatic description of the stray sod, saying:
There is an herb, also, or fairy grass, called the Faud Shaughran, or the “stray sod,” and whoever treads the path it grows on is compelled by an irresistible impulse to travel on without stopping, all through the night, delirious and restless, over bog and mountain, through hedges and ditches, till wearied and bruised and cut, his garments torn, his hands bleeding, he finds himself in the morning twenty or thirty miles, perhaps, from his own home. And those who fall under this strange influence have all the time the sensation of flying and are utterly unable to pause or turn back or change their career. There is, however, another herb that can neutralize the effects of the Faud Shaughran, but only the initiated can utilize its mystic properties.
Irish folklore is full of stories of people being held under the forces of the stray sod, or even disappearing forever, and some such cases are very interesting, indeed. One author who wrote quite a lot about supposed cases of this was a minister by the name of Diarmuid A. Mac Manus, who wrote several works on fairies in Ireland, including Irish Earth Folk (1960) and The Middle Kingdom: The Faerie World of Ireland (1959). His work includes several supposedly true stories of the stray sod phenomenon at work, with one of them being the tale of a Reverend Mr. Harris. In the summer of 1916, Rev. Harris allegedly went on a trip to go tend to a very sick man who lived not far away. It was only a 7-mile walk, which he had taken many times before, so he told his wife he would be back within 2 hours and headed off.
At some point, the Reverend went through a gate and decided to cut across the field beyond as a shortcut, where he expected to find a small stairway over the fence on the other side, called a stile, where the path would continue. He had taken this shortcut on many occasions before, so it was with some surprise that he reached the other side of the field and found no sign of either of these. In fact, he could not even see any evidence of the path anymore. He at first thought that he might have made a mistake and gone to the wrong spot, so he followed the hedge around the field and did a full circuit without finding the stile, and even stranger was that there was now no sign of the gate that he had entered through and the path he had taken was nowhere to be seen. He searched the field for hours without any sign of the gate, the path, or the stairway, indeed no way out of the field at all, the panic growing within him with every passing moment, until at one point things suddenly returned to normal just as quickly as they had derailed, the path and gate appeared again, and he found himself standing right next to the stairway he had been searching for in vain.
Another case written of by MacManus involves an unnamed woman who worked as a housekeeper at a sprawling estate in the Irish countryside. One evening she decided to take a walk back to her own village to visit her family, a walk that took her through an area with a hill called Lis Ard Fort, which was known to locals as a place where fairies dwelled. The woman passed through without incident and headed down the hill, yet she suddenly blinked and found herself walking the opposite way, back up the hill. She could not understand how this could have happened, and she turned back around and reached a ditch at the bottom of the hill. All she had to do was step over this ditch and she would be on the road to her village, but every time she tried, she once again found herself going the opposite direction, as if some barrier was preventing her from passing over. For hours she was stuck there like this, so it was with relief that she saw a search party approaching to look for her, but when she shouted to them and waved her hands, they could not see her. This would go on for another hour before, as with Reverend Harris, whatever spell had been cast was lifted and she was able to continue on her way.
A similar case from MacManus is that of a man who attended a party at an estate and left to walk home, his path taking him across a field. As he walked he noticed that not only did the field seem to never end, but that it had changed somehow to become quite unfamiliar to him, despite the fact he had gone through that field countless times before. In this case, the man apparently was quick to suspect that this was due to the stray sod, and so he quickly turned all of his clothes inside out, but this didn’t seem to work. He would walk around the field for hours without any sign of a way out before he finally found an exit and ended up at the house he had left, where it seemed only several minutes had passed despite the fact that to him he had been wandering for hours. MacManus presents these cases as being real cases, even having interviewed the witnesses himself, and we are left to wonder what to make of this all.
There are numerous other reports of this phenomenon happening outside of Ireland as well, and there are other versions of what appears to be the same phenomenon in the lore of other areas. For instance, in Finnish folklore there is what is called Metsänpeitto, meaning “forest cover,” which like the stray sod is a magical force produced by forest spirits that causes people to not only become lost, but to also become invisible to other people looking for them. Also like stray sod, one way to negate the effects is to either put on one’s clothes inside out or put their shoes on opposite feet. Japan also has its own similar phenomenon, called Kamikakushi, or “spirited away,” in which people are lured away by spirits to be abducted and brought to another realm.
Whatever one calls the phenomenon, it is almost always the same sort of thing, people getting lost, unable to find an exit, and very often unable to call out for help even when someone else is nearby, often also describing the sense of being in a sort of parallel realm, with the scenery changed or twisted somehow. There are many modern cases describing something like this. One case that is typical of these reports is that of Reddit user “Winter3377,” who claims that she lives in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest, in the United States and that she was captured by strange forces in the wilderness when she was a young girl. On this day she was walking with her mother and their dog along a wide, gravel trail, and she says of her bizarre experience:
I lived in a rural part of the PNW, and so there were a lot of trails just outside town that bordered on a lot of forest. This was one of those, but it was probably the biggest trail in my town— it was actually an access road to some stuff, so it was like 10 feet wide and gravel. At the time I briefly went missing, I was about 10 years old and had walked that trail every single day for 3-4 years. My mum was with me, as was our dog (85 pounds, Rottweiler/lab/Aussie mix). I’d been warned not to go off the trail and wouldn’t have normally, but there was a small sub-trail that had a rope swing over a creek. I loved to play there as a kid, and that day I crossed the creek (fallen tree bridge) to hang out on the other side while mum talked to a friend she’d ran into.
I was within sight of my mum (clear view across the creek) when all of a sudden it was like things swirled. My surroundings were completely unfamiliar, and there were plants that shouldn’t have been there (the wrong kind of trees, with the leaves at slightly the wrong point for the season). Of course I knew what to do if I got lost— I hugged a tree and shouted for mum. I was probably 300 yards away at absolute most, probably under 100 yards. She should have heard me, but she didn’t. I wasn’t there for very long before our dog came and got me. He wasn’t a very smart dog. With all love, saying he was as dumb as a bag of rocks would have been an insult to rocks. He also didn’t like me nearly as much as he liked my mum (total momma’s boy) and would have stayed near her. But he calmly walked up to me, nuzzled my hand so it was on his head, and walked me back out to the creek where I could see my mum. I thought I’d been gone for 15 minutes or so. Apparently it was an hour plus, and multiple people were looking for me— including walking directly on the path I’d never left.
This all seems to be very keeping with the lore of such mysterious forces in the wilderness. There are other equally strange and difficult to categorize cases as well. In August of 1897, a 6-year-old girl named Lillian Carney went missing in the U.S. state of Maine as she was out with her parents picking blueberries. According to the parents, she had vanished right under their noses. A preliminary search of the area would quickly expand to over 200 hundred searchers scouring the area and calling the girl’s name, all to no avail. After an extensive search, Lillian was found in the woods in a dazed, trance-like state. When asked what had happened to her, the dazed girl replied that she had been in a place in the forest where the sun had shone the entire time she had been there. This was rather odd considering the weather at the time of her disappearance had been partly cloudy, she had been enveloped by a thick canopy of trees far from any town, and she had been missing overnight, for around 46 hours. What was this continuous “sunlight” she saw, and what significance does it have in Lillian’s disappearance? It remains unknown.
Another good example of this is a report given by Reddit user “Rosetta 9,” who says that in July of 2016 she was on a personal retreat at a yoga center in Colorado, during which time she set out to take a hike in the rugged surrounding wilderness. The trail she was on is described as being well-traveled and clearly marked, so it should have been an easy hike with no complications at all, and at first it was all rather pleasant. At one point along the trail, she says she stepped slightly off the trail to look at a sign that had been posted on a tree, a rather innocuous action to take, but this is where things would take a sharp turn into the bizarre She says:
I walked maybe five feet off trail to have a look at a brightly colored sign attached to a tree which gave the name of the national forest I was in. I read the sign, turned around to get back on trail, and literally the trail was not there. I found myself in a different location. How could this be possible I thought to myself, and then of course, one begins to panic when things go so wonky. I calmed myself and circled the area trying to find the trail, or some way to get back on track, but it was not there. I made sure to not wander from the small area I was in, yet I was still searching for a way out. I retraced my steps to find the tree with the brightly colored national park placard as a way to reorientate my location, but it was not there either.
As I walked in the direction I came from, there was barbed wire fence all around. I then began to get what I can only describe as a very creepy feeling that I was being watched and the panic set in again. I knew I must not panic and that I had to stay in the area I was in. I felt as if there was an energy trying to get me to go in a certain direction, but my gut, my intuitive self, said NO, don’t go there. Then I thought to call 911 or my husband who was 30 miles away. Not sure if I could’ve gotten service, but again, my gut very strongly said NO, do not get on your phone. Then in the distance, I began hearing the voices of people talking. Oh good, I thought, I’ll call out for help, as I just assumed that if I could hear them, they would hear me. So I cried out for help, screaming for help as loud as I could. Then I began to have this terrifying feeling that the sound of my voice was going nowhere. The best way, in retrospect, I can describe it, is that I was very small, in a petri dish being looked at and the sound of my voice was being muffled. I literally thought to myself at this point, “oh, this is how some people go missing.
That’s when I knew I had to absolutely find a way out. I ran straight away and there in front of me was a field so I just began running in the direction of the yoga center. The grasses got taller and taller as I ran and were taller than me in places. It was a very dry and hot Colorado summer, but this field was like a marsh or bog with dips and holes. I was sinking in, as if in quick sand, as I was running and at one point badly twisted my ankle. It felt like I was going in slow motion, but I was running as fast as I could. Eventually, I got to a trail just near the facility. I sat down on a chair by a small lake that is on the property and was really in a dazed and confused state as to what I had just experienced. Mostly I was just incredibly thankful to be sitting there. I remember too, my eyes were burning badly, like I had been doused with some sort of chemical. For days they were quite red and still burning.
Reports like this are numerous. Yet another such account comes from Reddit user “jsstealthss,” who says he is a U.S. Armed Forces Veteran on the east coast, and that on this day him and his young son had set out on a leisurely hike on a calm, clear day, along a trail that was very clear and well-maintained, with frequent clear trail markers. Yet as they walked the witness says that things began to seem somewhat “off,” with the trail markers suddenly disappearing as they walked and a strange silence swept over the area. As he stood there puzzled by this sudden wall of quiet, the silence was broken by a loud, startling snap, and he says of what happened next:
This is where shit got surreal. As I looked back, I noticed that the trail I was walking on lost all sense of familiarity. There were trees I didn’t see, certain plants I know for sure weren’t there before, etc. But regardless, I kept my composure and stared deeply into the woods to see what made that snapping sound. I scanned the area and didn’t see any life forms, but for some reason, my eyes started to fixate on a particularly unnerving dark section of the forest. For whatever reason, my entire body started locking up, and every single alarm bell in my head was pinging. No matter how hard I tried to focus on this dark patch, I couldn’t see shit. I had the weirdest sensation of being able to see each individual branch and plant in high detail, but I couldn’t focus on the scene overall. It was super blurry. I also felt my internal fight-or-flight mechanism flipping between the two decisions faster than a coin in a coin toss.
I stood there for what felt like an eternity, trying to figure out why my senses were not working anymore. The instinctual part of my brain was screaming that there was something there, but I absolutely could not observe it. Whatever little light that was in this area seemed to bend around this one central point, somewhat like how a cloaking device works. It was a minor distortion, but enough to make it strangely obvious. I then noticed how I haven’t heard a peep from the forest this entire time, and I was feeling very cold even during 85+ degree weather. I could not shake this feeling of impending doom, probably what one feels when they are on their death bed. I felt exceptionally vulnerable because I was not armed and bad no way of dealing with whatever the hell this was. Eventually, I was able to snap out of my trance briefly to look down at my son, and saw that his body was contorted around his seat, frozen and staring exactly where this anomaly was, with his mouth agape and his eyes wide and dilated. This is when I KNEW that I wasn’t hallucinating, and that we needed to get the hell out of there.
I took advantage of my brief moment of clarity and ran like the wind, with my son in tow. I looked back only once, and saw that my boy was still looking towards the area, but not frozen in place anymore. It took all of about a couple minutes to get out past the tree line and onto a main road. For whatever reason, I broke down and started crying. My son looked at me like I was crazy lol. But anyways, I had never felt such sheer terror over what seemed like NOTHING in my whole life. I hadn’t felt that way at all in any point of my life, in fact. The feeling that my son and I are completely vulnerable, and that I wouldn’t have been able to defend either of us. I also never had that distinct feeling of being able to see things perfectly, yet not be able to register any of it in my head. My morbid curiosity wants me to revisit the place, equipped with a firearm and a GoPro to record any events that would arise, but I am still trying to get over this previous experience for now. I have been in scary situations before, but this trumps anything I have ever experienced before.
When looking at reports like these and many others like them, it is enough to make one wonder if such cases and unusual experiences may have contributed to legends such as the stray sod and others like it. Whether it is the doing of magical patches of land or forest spirits or not, is there a chance that strange cases like these could have at least been the origins of such folklore? Are there perhaps forces beyond our understanding that have been around so long as to sprout their own legends and myths? If so, what is behind it all? What mysterious phenomena might be pulling these people in and confusing them like that, and why? Whatever the case may be and whatever connection there may or may not be, such spooky tales certainly make it clear why the wilds of the world have long attracted awe, wonder, and fear, as well as eerie legends that have stood the test of time. MU