*A note of warning: the topic I discuss this week may not be suitable for listeners under the age of 13.
Would you ever climb a set of stairs you found in the woods? What do you think would happen if you got to the top?
This week I dive into the history behind this strange phenomenon and seem to come out with more questions than answers. From missing person cases to alien abductions, could the stairs in the woods be responsible? According to Reddit, the answer is yes.
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Hello everyone and welcome back to Strange Origins, your favorite podcast about all things weird throughout history. This week I put up a poll on Instagram, and you all voted on the subject of stairs in the woods. I have been wanting to write on this topic since I first started deep diving into strange subjects before the thought of a podcast had even crossed my mind. I remember telling my mom about it one day and was surprised that she had never heard of the subject. That’s when the idea that I could just research topics like this and record them so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself ten times came to me.
I don’t know if it’s the literature nerd in me, but I really like the idea of a good staircase. I feel like I include them in every short story I write because they can be used so well in different genres. Think about every time someone walks down a staircase to reveal their dress for prom or every time a hidden staircase has been revealed in gothic literature.
It’s not that strange to me that stairs could be such an important part of history, mythology, or storytelling. Even just explaining stairways is a great way to speak in a symbolic manner. Speaking in terms of dreaming, if you ascend a staircase, you are probably working towards something in real life, if you descend a staircase, you are probably coming home from a journey, and if you can’t seem to get out of a stairwell, you probably feel stuck in your life, unable to escape old tendencies.
There’s also a lot of cool staircases in film and literature. Some of my favorites are the moving stone stairs that exist in the Harry Potter universe, the Penrose stairs in the Christopher Nolan film Inception that go in a loop, and the stairway made out of chimney smoke in the original Mary Poppins film. Every time I watch the Fellowship of the ring, I get a little anxious watching the characters walk down the underground stairs with no handrails, a dark and endless pit awaiting anyone who trips.
Throughout religion, there have also been a few staircases that serve as fantastic metaphors for church teachings. In the Bible, there is Jacob's ladder, which was a ladder seen in a dream in the Book of Genesis. It’s believed to be a symbol of Christ, and thereby the bridge between heaven and Earth, spiritually speaking. In Judaism, it’s believed by some that the ladder represents the many exiles the Jewish people would go through before the coming of the Messiah.
There also is the Tower of Babel, which was a city that was constructed so that it could be tall enough that it could reach heaven. When it was built too high God cursed the builders to speak different languages from each other, so that they could no longer communicate effectively enough to keep building. In this case, the stairs to Heaven were an overreaching ambition that went against God’s word.
The Loretto Chapel Stairs
There also are, in history, stairs that simply defy logic. A great example of this is the choir stairs in the Loretto Chapel, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The story goes that in 1878, after the completion of a chapel in a school for young women, the church was still in need of a staircase to the choir loft. The architect had passed away before the completion of the chapel, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of room for a staircase.
When the nuns of the church prayed to God for a solution to their problem a man showed up on their doorstep with a bunch of tools and in need of a job. The man built the stairs, which feature two 360 degree turns with no visible means of support with what are believed to be wooden pegs instead of nails. When finished the man left without payment for his work. An ad was even run in the local paper to find the man so that the church could pay him, but he was never seen again. The nuns later believed that the man was St. Joseph, the legal father of Christ in the Bible and the patron saint of Carpenters, engineers, immigrants, and employment.
The Stairs in the Woods
Though those stories of stairs are interesting, even a little incredible, in my opinion, the stories involving the mysterious stairs in the woods are my favorite.
The tales are all fairly alike. Someone will be hiking deep in the woods where there is no sign of life except trees and maybe the sound of birds, and they’ll see it. A set of stairs that look like they were plucked from a house or a building, just sitting there. On occasion, the person passing by will then be inexplicably drawn to those stairs as if nothing else matters.
Generally, they will be found anywhere from 10-20 miles deep in the woods. The stairs are made of brick or iron, materials that would last a while in external conditions, but sometimes they will look as though they were just barely built like they are brand new and suspiciously devoid of any dirt or leaves. Other times they are older, looking as if they were built a thousand years ago. Sometimes they go straight up to nowhere, and other times they just spiral up to nowhere. Occasionally they even have railings. One of the creepiest stories mentions a perfectly white carpet that is draped over the steps. Of all the stories though, the most disconcerting reports are of the stairs that are upside down, and that is balanced somehow on one step.
Other than their looks, these stairs are reported to exist in their own protected area, where nature and animals seem to stray away from them. A few encounters with these stairs even state that small, forgotten cemeteries were found nearby.
There are also a few tellings involving people actually climbing the stairs. One person stated that when they reached the top they noticed a figure in the woods looking in their direction. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, the person had disappeared.
Another person claimed to get to the top of the stairs only to find that they couldn’t hear anything but deafening silence until they climbed back down. And lastly, some report that when climbing to the top of the stairs they will lose chunks of time. In most stories, the stairs are never seen again by those who report seeing them once, as if when they are once seen, they fear a second discovery.
Originally, the internet became fascinated with the story of the mysterious stairs in the woods through a Reddit post where a man claiming to be a Search and Rescue officer for the U.S. Forest Service wrote about their experiences recovering people who needed medical attention or who were lost deep in the woods. The writer had a lot of stories to tell, including one incident where a young boy was abducted by someone his sister called the “Bear Man.”
Another involved an incident where a young girl climbed up a tree and just vanished, never coming back down. One young man who was climbing was startled at the top of a mountain by a man wearing snow gear with no climbing gear in sight. When the strange man turned around it looked as if the man had no face. This startled the climber so much that he fell back off the mountain, landing in a crevice with a broken leg.
Other stories where they were called in to deal with freak accidents and missing persons cases with clues to the person’s whereabouts that didn’t make sense, or finding the person in places they simply couldn't have gotten to. One such case involved a young boy who was found fifteen miles away from where he vanished, up a treacherous slope that would be difficult for an adult to climb. The strangest thing was that his shoes were missing, he wasn’t dirty or scratched up, and he hadn’t died from exposure until weeks after he disappeared.
Though I’m inclined to believe the strange stories that are offered up by people working in the medical field, or anyone who works a graveyard shift where they witness other people’s behavior at three in the morning, it was upon further investigation that I found that the subreddit that these stories were written on was meant to be fictional, with commenters being obligated to react as if the stories were real, kind of like a Paranormal Activity discussion board. Some people knew it was fake, but the ones who knew weren’t going to spoil it for the ones who didn't.
Despite the story originating from fiction, I did find it interesting that quite a few people outside of the subreddit were begging to know more about the stairs-in-the-woods story. Though it was not, by far, the scariest story posted in that thread, no one could stop talking about it. Whether the fictional story was inspired by real-life events or not, it wasn’t surprising that other people had actually had real-life experiences that were eerily similar.
In a separate subreddit where experiences shared are meant to be real stories, the user CodedLemons told a story of their experience with a set of stairs near Ohio. In their story, they mentioned that during a solo camping trip to Lake Erie they arrived in their kayak on a small island.
After setting up their campsite, they wanted to do some exploring, so they ventured to the middle of the island where they noticed something that didn’t occur very often in nature. It was straight lines, made, as they got closer and found out, by an old stone staircase. It was around 10ft by 10ft, and there were a few markings of graffiti on it, which turned out to be from people signing their names. After looking around a bit to look for remnants of a building and finding nothing, they investigated the stairs further.
It was then that they noticed it was getting darker, and with a feeling of anxiety creeping in, they started looking at the stairs differently like something had taken over and was pushing them to the stairs. Taken over by a numb feeling, they walked up 3/4ths of the steps before realizing that what they were doing was strange, and possibly dangerous, so they ran off the stairs, and back to their campsite as fast as possible.
Seeing it was too dark to kayak back home, they decided to camp a little closer to the beach. When they finally laid down in bed, they began reading a book and eventually fell asleep. About thirty minutes before daybreak, they woke up in a cold sweat to the sound of nylon being scraped. They grabbed the machete they had taken with them for protection and made a noise in an attempt to scare off whatever was outside of the tent, which they assumed was an animal. Turning on their flashlight they saw that absolutely nothing is outside. No person, no animal. Circling the tent they saw the indentations of something scraping the material like an invisible person was touching the fabric with force.
Much like I would have done, they screamed, tripped backward, and decided to pack up and leave the island, shoving everything into a big garbage bag and strapping it to the back of their kayak. Later on, they went back with a friend to show them the stairs, after being convinced that they were insane in what they had seen. Sadly, they couldn’t find any stairs, despite the island being so small and them scouring it.
So what could explain the origin of these stairs? Most likely, they came from an abandoned, destroyed, or crumbled structure. But that really only described a few of them. And not the fact that people are so drawn to them.
In my experience, it’s human nature to want to explore. Hikers are well aware of this fact, with hiking being the fourth most popular outdoor activity in the U.S. In fact, around 40 million hikers hit the trails every year, meaning that a lot of land has been covered. So wouldn’t it track that this need to explore would also include the strange stairs that you can’t explain? I can understand wanting to do something normal like climbing the steps of stairs, even if they are there inexplicably. It would be fun, and maybe help you to feel a little less weird about the whole situation. But that still leaves the question of why they are out there in the first place.
Well, as any builder will tell, stairs are durable. Sometimes they’re the most durable part of a home. Even at an abandoned house near my family home in East Idaho, not a lot remains intact except the front stairs. They're outside, and used constantly, so they need to be long-lasting.
The internet, lately, has resorted to using all sorts of explanations in an attempt to shed some light on the stairs. These explanations range from cryptids, aliens, and even supernatural entities. Some believe that the stairs are used in occult ceremonies, and others think that they are helpful lifts for those being abducted by aliens. According to a psychic who took to the internet to relay her findings, the reason that search and rescue personnel so often are the ones who find these staircases is because the people they are looking for, the ones who are never rescued, are the ones whisked away by extraterrestrials.
A popular theory is that the staircases are a gateway. This makes sense as staircases are built to allow humans easy passage to another level. But what kind of meta-physical gateway would require a physical staircase? Personally, I like to think that the world has holes where things can fall through and end up in another time or dimension, kind of like the Bermuda Triangle.
In all reality, the mysterious stairs probably do exist. But they probably aren’t as mysterious as people make them out to be. People who are at the mercy of nature in their everyday lives, like miners, sailers, search and rescue teams, can see a lot of destruction caused by mother nature. People fall off of ships, people are crushed to death by landslides, people are never seen again after hiking deep into the woods. That’s why superstitions are so popular with people whose livelihoods are a little more dangerous than your normal 9-5 desk job.
The Whistling Rule
Sailors have their no whistling rule, as it’s thought to bring on bad weather. Miners believe that whistling could cause vibrations that could make the Earth move, endangering their work and their lives. And a popular belief for those who wander through the woods at night is that whistling will invite evil spirits to come and find you. These superstitions help us to make sense of things, to help us to avoid threats that are, unfortunately, an equal danger to all, whether you’re experienced or not.
One of the phrases used in the original subreddit constantly mentioned that whenever they received a call to go look for someone who had gone missing, was that the person who called always made sure to mention that the hiker was experienced, that they knew what they were doing, and had been doing it for a long time. Nevertheless, they needed help escaping mother nature.
So are these stairs real, or a fantastical story born from the horror-loving writers of Reddit? Or are they actually just stairs that were once a part of an existing household, abandoned by their owners and left to nature?
Non-Native American settlers had a habit of attempting to build and then being pushed out by circumstance. Gold rushes, failed economic pursuits, natural disasters. They all led to ghost towns that are scattered across the U.S. At least in the west where I’m from, it’s not uncommon to see abandoned structures or farming materials. I can think of at least three places where I have come across rusted-out machinery while walking around my home.
But when it comes to deep woods exploration, I don’t have a lot of experience. So, really, it’s up to you guys to tell me what you’ve seen. Have you witnessed a spiral staircase that leads to nowhere? Did you feel drawn to it? Did you climb them?
Thank you so much for listening, everyone. I really do hope that you remember to stay safe out there, whether you’re just cleaning your kitchen right now, or you’re driving across the country, or you’re twenty miles deep in the woods.
And most importantly, don’t forget to Keep it Strange.