Pretty much anyone who grew up in Kansas—or watches the show Supernatural—knows about Stull Cemetery, even if they’ve never seen it.
According to legend, this cemetery contains a stairway not to heaven ... but straight to hell. It is one of seven reputed places on earth where living people can descend to the realm of the damned. The staircase is said to appear only once a year—suddenly, a hidden staircase is revealed, descending into a grave, then into the underworld. Most versions of the story say it happens on the stroke of midnight on Halloween. Others say that the stairway to hell opens on the spring equinox.
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So if you ever find these stairs, you must never go down them … because you’ll never come back.
From there, the tales vary, with accounts claiming that Satan himself comes forth on Halloween night to hold court in the cursed cemetery. In some versions, Satan comes to visit the grave of his infant son, while others maintain that it is the grave of a witch that the Prince of Darkness visits, who was the mother of his son, who also appears on the scene as a werewolf.
Many of the legends surrounding Stull Cemetery center on an old stone church that stood there from 1867 until 2002. The Evangelical Emmanuel Church was built by the town’s original Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, who held their services in German until 1908. Then the church sat empty for much of the 20th century, its roof falling in, its walls beginning to crumble, even as strange stories clustered tight around it.
The church is said to have been used by Satanists, witches’ covens, and cults for their rituals. Though it had no roof by the time these groups supposedly convened there, it was said that rain would never fall within its walls. Other accounts claimed that it was impossible to break a glass bottle inside the church.
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Next to the church was a tall pine tree which grew up through and split a headstone. According to stories, the tree was used to hang witches before the land was consecrated as a churchyard. The church and the tree were often held to be signposts, helping to point the way to the gate of hell. In 1998, on the day before Halloween, the tree was cut down in order to dissuade thrill-seekers.
Stull’s status as the location of one of the Gateways to Hell is so well known that it inspired an album by the band Urge Overkill, featuring images of Stull Cemetery on the album cover. It was also used in the plots of several movies, including the machinations of the Satanic villains in Turbulence 3, who plan to crash a plane into Stull Cemetery in order to release Satan. The film also makes use of an urban legend that when the Pope visited Colorado in 1995, he diverted his plane around Kansas so as not to fly over unhallowed ground.
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In the final episode of the fifth season of the TV series Supernatural, the final confrontation of the Apocalypse takes place in Stull Cemetery (though it’s actually filmed in Vancouver).
Depictions like these have done nothing to dissuade amateur ghost hunters, thrill-seekers, and legend trippers from descending upon Stull Cemetery, especially on Halloween night. In spite of fences, no trespassing signs, and the fact that the area is heavily patrolled by police, the residents of the small community of Stull have had to deal with countless instances of trespassing and vandalism.
In 1978, more than 150 people attempted to go to the cemetery on Halloween night; in 1988, that number climbed to nearly 500. The cemetery today is home to as many broken headstones as intact ones, and many of the markers are gone completely, spirited off by vandals who wanted a piece of the famously accursed burying place.
Stories about Stull often claim that it is guarded by “mysterious people” in pickup trucks who “terrorize” visitors. Those stories, at least, are almost certainly true, though perhaps less mysterious than they might appear. The living residents of Stull aren’t exactly thrilled by the cemetery’s diabolical reputation, and the often less-than-respectful tourists, so residents frequently aid the police in patrolling the area.
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Tracing the origins of the stories about Stull is no easy matter. The area has had its share of odd deaths over the years, including a boy who was accidentally burned to death and a man who was found hanging in a tree. Yet according to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Stull Cemetery’s reputation as one of the Seven Gateways to Hell can be traced back to a professor at the nearby University of Kansas, who made it up as an urban legend to tell his students. As the story spread, it took on a life of its own, until it was printed in the University paper in the 1970s.
Whatever the origins of the diabolical legends, most people who still live in the community today–and have ancestors buried in the old churchyard–just want to see them rest in peace.
Featured photo: Ayleen Dority / Flickr (CC); Additional photos: American Ghost Stories