Most of you living in the New England area have likely either heard of or visited the town of Newport Rhode Island at some point and are aware of its much touted stunning sea views, its gilded age mansions, and its elegant restaurants. But not all of you may be aware of a fascinating, darker side to Rhode Island that can be found just a 15min drive from Newport. Situated on 100 ft granite cliffs near Jamestown are the remains of Fort Wetherill, a former coastal defense battery and training camp. According to the Rhode Island State Park’s website, the site has been of importance for 200 years-originally built during the American Revolution, and then further developed during the 19th and 20th centuries, until it was finally decommissioned after World War II and essentially left to rot.
But this is no carefully maintained historical site, with helpful text, safety ropes, and wheel chair ramps. It is a wreck, a ruin, and a true joy for an intrepid urban explorer. None of the rooms are blocked off, no fence keeps you from entering, and you could spend much time in the surrounding park without knowing the fort is even there, unless you happened to walk past the belt of trees along the coast. Here the graffiti artist holds court and their brightly colored signatures, statements, and images, aged by sea wind and rain, seem to take on the character of historical inscriptions as ancient as the fort itself. Open doors gape like mouths and crumbling steps descend into dark corridors, blind passages, and gun rooms. This is most definitely a proceed at your own risk sort of location, rusted metal doors sag on their hinges, broken glass is everywhere underfoot, and ankle-snapping holes abound. It is a strange place…remote, unpreserved, like the remains of a moldering corpse, slowly sinking into the cliff.
On my first visit I came during the day, and even then found the fort to be more than a little eerie as there are rooms that even the strong sunlight cant penetrate into and each building’s floor plan is the exact copy of its neighbor so that after a while you feel that you have visited the same room again and again, traversed the same corridor over and over without getting anywhere. Only the graffiti and degrees of decay change as you walk through the complex.
This past weekend, after spending the day in Newport, Jeff and I decided to make another visit to the fort. Unfortunately the dusk caught up with us and we didn’t make it to the park until nightfall. We were afraid that our lone car would be glaringly obvious if we left it in the parking lot, so we stashed it a couple streets over and proceeded the rest of the way on foot. This time I was smart enough to bring a small flashlight in my purse though at first there was still enough ambient light left that we could make it through the park and to the fort without having to use it. By the time we had reached the fort, all objects had taken on that indistinct cloudy quality where depth perception starts to fail and a simple pocket of shadow can appear to be as deep as a well. There was a soft wind and we were constantly accompanied by the far off ringing of a buoy’s bell and the low moan of a fog horn off the coast.
It had rained recently and the pocked walls were slick with moisture, the rooms like damp caves, full of the echoing sound of dripping water. The flashlight barely kept the darkness back, just illuminating enough of our surroundings to keep up from tripping. After night fell completely, I began to become confused every time I walked through a door….were we entering another room or had we emerged through one of the exterior doorways. Only the sounds of the nearby trees moving in the breeze helped me to tell the difference. I found that I could only tolerate five minutes inside each building at the most, every hair stood on end, my skin crawled in anticipation of running into something, and I couldn’t help but speak in whispers. For one of the first times in my life I understood the primitive fear of the unknown darkness that our ancestors were all too familiar with. My intellect told me that there was nothing to fear beyond perhaps falling on glass but my reptilian brain screamed at me to watch my back, to protect myself, to get the hell out of there. Its amazing to truly experience how much of our ancient flight or fight responses are still intact, even in this modern world. Take away the comforting electric lights, the well known streets, and leave us in the wilderness and we will become the frightened animals that we try to convince ourselves we left behind so far back on the evolutionary ladder.
I don’t think a drew a steady breath until we were back in the car and most of the way home I kept having the same eerie thought, what if somehow, somewhere, there was another version of myself still in the fort, but now every dripping corridor turned in on itself like a mobius strip and I was trapped forever, vainly bouncing off the walls like a rat in a maze.
I realized later that my experience was just part of a grander tradition, familiar to all of us and played out in countless films and novels…the story of the haunted house and the hero who must survive it. The novel House of Leaves, the films The Abandoned, The Haunting, The Innocents, Event Horizon, The Triangle, Session 9, Alien, Silent Hill, A Tale of Two Sisters, and many more all depict a character confronting this darkness, this fear of the unknown within the ruins of a once familiar place. It can be a house, a town, or even a spaceship, but in all cases we see the hero faced with the specter of primal fear that exists where our world begins to break down. If our human architecture is an extension of our physical selves, then these haunted places represent the house as a body, containing the internal wilderness of the psyche. There we are left vulnerable and the beasts that hunt us are our own ghosts and demons
So let me leave you with this (before I turn every light on in the house and make sure that my back is safely pressed against a wall.)….
A long time ago, I think it might have been in elementary school, I was reading a book of short stories and came across one that has really stuck with me. I don’t remember the author or the title (if someone else recognizes its identity please let me know!) but I cant forget the essentials of the plot. A young man found lodging for the night at a house that reputedly had a haunted room. The old man who owned the house was reticent to talk about it or answer his questions, but he rented it to him just the same, of course with the disclaimer that nobody had ever been able to spend more than a single night there. The young man was skeptical of the supernatural and he looked forward to debunking the legend. He lit a candle in the room and cheerfully settled in for what he thought would be an uneventful evening. Try as he might though, he couldn’t stop thinking about the stories he had heard, and the more he thought about it, the more the room seemed wrong to him somehow…the shadows seemed darker, the proportions of the walls odd, sounds were magnified. Pretty soon the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up and he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was standing just behind him. Again and again he turned to look, only to see the empty room, but the feeling persisted and intensified, until he felt positively threatened, like something was bearing down on him. Suddenly a gust of air caused his single candle to blow out and the room was plunged into utter darkness. The young man came barreling downstairs, eyes wide with extreme terror and shouted at the old man “Dear god, you must tell me, WHAT is in that room??” The old man looked at him sadly and said shaking his head, “Fear. Fear is in that room, that and nothing more.”