I’m not sure when I became a creep. Looking back on my adolescence, all the signs were there. Halloween lover? Check. Creepypasta enthusiast? You bet. Collector of all things Jack Skellington-themed? Absolutely.
It’s no surprise that as an adult, I scour parkland for animal bones and fungi, leave out shiny gifts for crows and listen to far too many true crime podcasts. I also subscribe to the superstition that letting spiders live undisturbed in your house is good luck. And I’ve said more than once that if covering cemeteries were its own beat, I’d be the first to throw my hat in the ring.
Luckily, Baltimore is one of the coolest places for a creep like me. There is no want of the macabre in the city that birthed the Ouija board and Edgar Allan Poe’s most seminal work, where grave robbery once ran so rampant cemetery caretakers were forced to fortify defenses.
In the words of Poe, who was paraphrasing Francis Bacon: “There is no exquisite beauty ... without some strangeness in the proportion.”
Here are some of my favorite weird places to be in my favorite weird city.
Divine’s grave at Prospect Hill Cemetery
In an unassuming graveyard tucked between office buildings at 701 York Rd. in Towson, the legendary Harris Glenn Milstead — more popularly known as Divine, dubbed posthumously as the “Drag Queen of the Century” — lies six feet below. Divine was launched into fame after being cast in female roles in short films and experimental feature length movies by pinnacle Baltimore weirdo John Waters before branching out into the national film scene.
I rented my first apartment at age 21 next door to Prospect Hill during my senior year at Towson University. Occasionally, on warm days, I’d take a stroll through the cemetery — the closest bit of green space I had — and lounge under the more-than-a-century-old copper beech tree that, wrought with disease, was removed in 2020. I never left any treasures for Divine myself, but Milstead’s grave is frequently decorated with mementos — including, once, a pair of Jimmy Choos, according to the Baltimore Fishbowl.
For almost nine years, this Hampden gift shop on Chestnut Avenue has offered up the creepiest artifacts for your curio cabinet. Entomophiles will enjoy perusing display cases of well-preserved moths and beetles (for $85, in April you could have snagged one of the so-called “murder hornets” that have been cropping up in the Pacific Northwest) and get a kick (or an “ick”) out of wet specimens like the stillborn Geoffroy marmoset or a kinkajou available for sale. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better local source for antique leather prosthetic arms and embalming sets. And if you’re a plant mom like me, Bazaar often carries reasonably-priced skulls that you could, if so inclined, fashion into little homes for your air plant.
Over the years I’ve snagged raccoon and fox skulls, a cocaine prescription from the 1920s and artwork featuring plague doctors and various fungi. At the top of my Bazaar wishlist is an articulated rat skeleton (meaning that all the bones are still attached and “arranged” correctly).
Who says mindfulness can’t be macabre? Macabre Yoga was conceived by Baltimore-based yoga instructor Hillary Harris to challenge the notion that enlightened yogis must “exude love and light all the time,” in Harris’ words (qualities probably encouraged during your last yoga class with your local CBD-cigarette-smoking, kombucha-guzzling guru). Harris’ philosophy is that the emphasis by meditative guides on being a ball of pure goodness overshadows “aspects of ourselves that shouldn’t be hidden away,” she writes on her website. With her partner Marco Gonzalez, Harris has held yoga sessions at various graveyards and other spooky sites on her travels, including the old Patapsco Female Institute, an all-girls boarding school built in the 19th century. It’s now an eerie historic Ellicott City park used for ghost tours during Halloween. Sometimes she combines her practice with ghost stories. Learning meditative yoga was one of my many ambitious 2020 ideas for self improvement — but no one tells you how boring it is trying to clear your mind. Macabre Yoga, which I only discovered virtually during the pandemic, added a new flavor to my (attempted) practice. Harris is taking a hiatus right now, but expects to begin hosting classes again this year.
What list of Baltimore’s strange sights would be complete without a shout out to Papermoon Diner? Combining two of my favorite things — breakfast food and ironic kitsch — stepping inside Papermoon feels like entering a fever dream (or maybe a kaleidoscopic acid trip). You may get the feeling you’re being watched, but don’t worry, it’s just the doll heads and ostentatiously decorated mannequins. I come for the dizzying array of Pez dispensers; I stay for the Monte Egg Breakfast Sandwich.
Modeled after the Pantheon in Rome and built in 1812, University System of Maryland’s Davidge Hall is the oldest building in the Western Hemisphere still used for medical studies — including corpse dissection. The building was named after Dr. John Davidge, who went on to chair the medical school’s anatomy and surgery departments, where he stayed until his death.
Okay, do I hang out at Davidge Hall dreaming of dissecting decomposed bodies? I do not. But the building’s purpose — allowing medical students to observe human dissection as part of their curriculum — was taboo and a source of much contention in the early 1800s. And Davidge Hall’s origin is particularly gruesome.
Then, medical schools were reviled by many who felt that dissection amounted to desecration and sacrilege. And they had a point: The medical school fueled widespread grave robbing — especially of African American Baltimoreans — by paying criminals for bodies used for academic instruction, according to state records and newspaper archives.
Davidge Hall was built to replace a similar anatomical theater where Davidge once performed dissections during lessons. That building, in 1807, was stormed and reportedly destroyed by an angry mob who removed the cadaver and dragged it through the street, according to the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places.
By some accounts, the destruction prompted Davidge to seek the state legislature’s approval to establish Maryland’s first medical training school, according to news reports. Davidge Hall was constructed “to ensure secrecy during human dissection,” according to the National Register of Historic Places, and features a concealed spiral staircase and several hidden dissecting rooms.
Sideshow at the American Visionary Art Museum
With books, art and oddball novelty items, who could not be happy? Sideshow has got to be the coolest museum gift shop around — John Waters even said so, according to the museum store’s website. And you can shop without buying a ticket to the museum (although that’s your loss). I’ve bought prints of fungi, flora and fauna for $8 and shockingly affordable framed paintings. It’s a great resource for gag gifts — rubber chickens, hand buzzers and whoopee cushions galore. There are also art kits, rubber and aluminum jewelry, odds and ends made from recycled saris (the $4 recycled banner I bought, handmade in India, is a colorful addition to my living room), vintage figurines, labels and postcards, and a cadre of other curiosities.
The Zoltar fortunetelling machine, unfortunately, is not for sale.
The Bluebird Cocktail Room
This one might be a stretch, but how many literary-themed bars are there in the world? Kinda weird, right? I’ve got a particular affection for The Bluebird Cocktail Room in Hampden — its name is inspired by the poem “Bluebird” from Charles Bukowski, one of my favorite writers. He penned “The Laughing Heart,” a poem I love so much I had the last lines tattooed on my ribs. But I digress. Beyond the excellent vegetarian food and moody speakeasy vibes, the literary-themed cocktails are sublime — and you may find a new poet to enjoy. I recommend Be Like the Fox, concocted with the botanical-infused Forthave Spirits Blue Gin, sunflower seed orgeat and macerated blueberries. The drink hearkens farmer/poet Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”: “Be like the fox that makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.” There’s also Sunlight and Shadow, an anise-based spirit for anyone trying to chase the green fairy.
Jericho Covered Bridge
Built in the 19th century, the bridge crossing Little Gunpowder Falls across Harford and Baltimore counties is rather unimpressive, but somehow ominous — and makes an appearance on this list because it is creepy enough to literally haunt my nightmares. Reported sightings and experiences by those who cross the bridge have given rise to much local lore, according to Preservation Maryland — an apparition of a girl carrying a flower basket, silhouettes of hanging bodies, a woman with a badly burned face, even a cryptid some say is guarding the bridge. Many have also claimed their cars have stalled while crossing it.
Next time you’re in central Baltimore and find yourself hankering for a hot dog (my favorite reason to go to 7-Eleven), pop over to 529 North Charles St. — the former boarding house where the world’s first Ouija board, patented by Elijah Bond, was invented in 1890, long before the building became occupied by the convenience store chain. All that’s left to commemorate the occult game — which some really believe connects the living with “the other side” — is a plaque installed in the store in 2015 due to efforts by the Talking Board Historical Society commemorating the history of the Ouija board. You could also check out Elijah Bond’s impressive, Ouija board-shaped grave in Green Mount Cemetery.