Native American burial grounds are among the most fascinating and terrifying themes in both horror films and real-life hauntings. Pop culture and reported events have made these ancient grounds appear mysterious and magical. But are they really haunted or is there a reasonable explanation?

Although stories existed beforehand, the idea of the Indian burial ground really became popular in the 1970s after being featured in a number of horror films, such as The Amityville Horror and The Shining. The stories of families being forced to flee their homes because of Native American spirits haunting them are endless.

One of the most popular stories is that of the Lake Shawnee Amusement Park in West Virginia. Opened in the 1920s, the park offered fun and entertainment for local families before it was closed in 1966. During the forty-something years that the park was open to the public, six people died in horrific accidents inside its gates, two of them being children.

In 1988, an archaeological dig revealed thirteen bodies thought to belong to the Shawnee tribe. A further investigation exposed the violent past of the land. In 1783, Mitchell Clay, the first white settler in the area, had built his farm alongside the Shawnee tribe. He soon began having disagreements with them. In an act of retaliation, the Shawnee tribe murdered Clay’s three children, even going so far as to kidnap the eldest and burn him alive. Mitchell Clay sought revenge by killing several members of the tribe. Reportedly, the Shawnee fled the area, knowing that the government would not protect them.

Also in West Virginia, the construction of the town of Ridgefield is said to have been plagued by strange occurrences. The town was originally a Native American village called Cathapoodle. Once construction began, builders reported numerous unexplained equipment failures and acts of vandalism. Psychics who supposedly visited the area reported seeing the unhappy spirits of Native Americans. While it hasn’t been confirmed, it’s thought that Ridgefield sits on top of a Native American burial ground.

In Decatur, Illinois, several skeletons were dug up during the construction of the Common Burial Ground in 1895. The bones were thrown into large coffins and buried together in a common grave. After this event, nearby families began reporting sightings of apparitions of young Native American girls and older men. Some families have also reported unexplained knocking and the sound of footsteps in their home.

But are these burial grounds really haunted? Or does our own fear make them appear that way?

One of the main reasons that Indian burial grounds are seen as such hotspots of paranormal activity is a lack of understanding of Native American culture. People fear what they don’t understand. Because Native American culture is so unfamiliar to many people and not present in their daily lives, it’s often seen as being almost magical. It’s frequently implied that a Native American spirit doesn’t fit into the same category as most spirits, that it’s somehow more powerful or knowledgable. Many people have never experienced a Native American burial, so they imagine that something different happens during the funeral, something paranormal.

The truth is that each Native American culture is so different that many don’t even have rituals surrounding death. Some tribes quickly bury their dead for fear of the corpse and some Arctic tribes even leave their dead out in the open for a hungry predator. There are also many other cultures that have specific rituals for burying their dead, but for some reason aren’t viewed with the same fearful awe as Native American cultures.

Native American burial grounds also play on guilt and the fear that people don’t own what they think they own. Americans value private land and the idea of Indian burial grounds confronts people with the fear that their land might not belong to them. While people may not be personally guilty or have been accountable for the violent actions of the past, the idea of a haunted Native American burial ground forces people to confront the fact that they are not the original people of this land; there were others before and their spirits could be angry or disappointed.

Lastly, Indian burial grounds cause so much fear and curiosity because people generally don’t know where they are. The graves were not marked in the way graves are marked today, so we could be on top of one of these ancient sacred spaces and not even know it.

But are Indian burial grounds really different from any other horror film theme or paranormal occurrence? Why do they seem to be so much more ominous? Whether actual hauntings have occurred on Native American burial grounds is up for debate, but it does seem plausible—just as a haunting would happen in a cemetery.

While the deaths at the Lake Shawnee Amusement Park could have been the result of disturbed Native American spirits, they could have also been a coincidence or the result of a lack of safety features. The machinery failures during the building of Ridgefield also could have the rational explanation of a natural phenomenon or pure coincidence. Are Native American burial grounds feared because they are legitimately haunted or because of our own perceptions? We’ll let you decide…

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