Solving the Haunted Hoia-Baciu Forest
Travel with me now to the depths of darkest Romania, to the old-growth forests of the Apuseni Mountain foothills. We're headed to Hoia-Baciu, said to be the world's most haunted forest. It's home to UFOs, to mysterious red and orange lights filtering through the dense growth at night, disappearing children, odd feelings, and an unexplained circle wherein no living thing can grow.
Hoia-Baciu Forest, sometimes just Hoia Forest, is a wooded area atop some high ground amid a cluster of small towns in Cluj County, northwestern Romania. It's only about 3 square kilometers (about 1 square mile); you could walk the path around it in an afternoon. Low green hills and lush valleys dotted with picturesque villages complete the picture: a bucolic vista, in contrast to the brooding, murky forest looming from the hill above.
Most of the English language literature is quick to point out that this is in Transylvania. So it is, but Transylvania (which is an historical name, not the formal name of a specific region) comprises most of central Romania. It's the size of the state of Kentucky, a huge region. Throw a wooden stake in Romania, and it will thump into a Transylvanian vampire. The association with a region known for Bram Stoker's Dracula is almost certainly the reason so many storytellers love to point out that Hoia-Baciu is in Transylvania. It is a literally true fact, but a trivial and irrelevant one. Those who write about the haunted forest are trying to make it sound scary. They need to: I found that, by itself, there's really nothing scary about this forest at all.
I started out with the work from one of the local experts on the paranormal reports of the forest, Adrian Pătruţ, who is a professor of chemistry, and whose work I was excited to read. I was quickly disappointed. For he is also an officer of the Romanian Society of Parapsychology, and all of his writing I could find on Hoia-Baciu pertains to something he calls "bioplasma", four dimensional space, ectoplasm, and unconscious projections of psychic energy — fields of study that have no data, no observations, and no theory. He does not appear to have applied his chemistry background to any of his Hoia-Baciu work at all. I was left without any sort of solid information to start from. So I moved on, and had a look at the famous ghost stories.
Perhaps the most popularly told story of Hoia-Baciu is that of a 5-year old girl, who went into the forest and got lost. They searched for her without success. Five years later, she came out of the forest. Sometimes she's said to have been still wearing the same clean clothes and to have no memory of the missing time; sometimes she's said to be a completely changed and darker person. I spent hours trying to track this down, but nowhere could I find any reference to what her name might have been, or when this might have happened; details that are pretty important, and that are usually preserved with true stories. But the anecdotes don't stop with this one girl; practically all the Hoia-Baciu articles say that many people disappear into the forest and are never seen again. With some difficulty I even searched Romanian-language newspaper archives. I found no record of anyone ever disappearing in the forest, and certainly no record of the apocryphal five-year-old girl. Of course, just because I found no reports doesn't mean it hasn't happened; but consider the tiny size of this forest. If a little girl disappeared you'd have hundreds of volunteers searching, and in an area this size they could practically hold hands and comb the entire place before lunch. I'm not persuaded there's any truth to this story.
A lot of articles about Hoia-Baciu point out that it is geomagnetically anomalous, full of unexplained compass variances and powerful fields that might affect people or portals to dimensions or whatever you might like. Basically: Magnets therefore ghosts. Fortunately this is the 21st century and it's easy to access databases of geomagnetic data. So I pulled up a map of Cluj, and was quickly disappointed. It's about the smoothest area around. You can go 10 kilometers in any direction and you won't find a natural variance more than about 10% of the Earth's normal magnetic field. Whatever suppositions the paranormal hopefuls might have made regarding magnetism clearly have no basis in reality.
So let's have a look at the mysterious clearing where no living thing is said to grow. It's easy to find, as the unpaved main road in the forest goes right through it. It's called the Poiana Rotunda, and it's a vaguely roundish clearing about 2,000 square meters in size, or about half an acre, near the southwestern corner of the forest. (Beware of photos you see of it on the Internet; some show a perfectly circular clearing, which is misattributed photo of unknown origin. Poiana Rotunda is not even close to perfectly circular, as you can see on Google Maps.) You'll be struck right away by a big difference between what you see and what the storytellers claim: it's not at all devoid of vegetation. It's a lush green meadow, thick with grass and speckled with wildflowers. In complex scientific terminology, it's what we call a "meadow".
Meadows are neither unknown to science nor unexplainable, and there's nothing unique about little Poiana Rotunda. Natural meadows, also called perpetual meadows, have any number of causes. They're defined as ecosystems composed of one or more plant communities dominated by herbaceous species. These plants typically depend on groundwater that's less than one meter deep. Some meadows are underlain by shallow bedrock that prevents tree roots from taking hold. Others are wetlands where hydrology or soil conditions favor herbaceous growth over wooded growth. The trees in Hoia-Baciu are primarily beech, hornbeam, ash, and elm, which all tend to grow in smaller forests in this region, leaving lots of open meadowland very similar to Poiana Rotunda.
Nevertheless, paranormal claims about the cause of Poiana Rotunda proliferate and are diverse; there does not seem to be a consensus. Some say it is where a UFO once landed; a story for which there is neither evidence nor even a cogent anecdotal record such as the date. However, no data exists to establish the spontaneous creation of meadows as a property of UFOs, so this is an explanation that we can't do much with. Others say the meadow is plagued with radiation. Some paranormalists have reported detecting this radiation, but I found no record of what type or what intensity; and in any case, we have places like Chernobyl where massive radiation has been known to exist, and the trees around Chernobyl remained as healthy as ever. The only other claims have been vague word salads, usually tossing around the word "energy", that do not propose any testable hypotheses.
We got a big clue that there is probably no unusual physical cause for Poiana Rotunda on a 2014 episode of Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures. Two paranormalists drove out to the meadow at night (why they chose to avoid the convenience of daylight was not clarified), and walked around the meadow with various types of video cameras and a little gadget sold commercially to weekend ghost hunters called a Mel Meter that incorporates a thermometer, motion detectors like those in a cell phone, and an inexpensive version of an electrician's EM detector. They did not explain how or why they thought this device might be useful, and in any event, they did not show it detecting anything. The only thing that happened in this segment was that one of the hosts had, or pretended to have, some kind of panic attack. They attributed it to "energy" but made no effort to either characterize or measure whatever they thought that meant. And thus ended their impressive investigation of Hoia-Baciu. More than anything else, their barrel-scraping performance certified that there's nothing interesting to see or detect at Poiana Rotunda.
And this brings us to another of the reported phenomena at the forest: strange red lights. But as with the other reported paranormal things, descriptions of these are all over the map. Whenever this happens, we usually find it's because different people are not all seeing a single same phenomenon, they're all seeing different various things. In this case, the guys from Ghost Adventures, having found nothing at Poiana Rotunda, continued driving around until they saw a red light in the distance. From their video, which was not of great quality, it looked like a stationary distant red light. As they filmed it, they described it as a huge, moving ball of light. They indicated their belief that it was within the forest, not outside. However, nothing further happened in the segment.
Let's remind ourselves of the tiny size of Hoia-Baciu. At its very thickest, it is less than 1 kilometer wide. There is no point in the forest further than a couple hundred meters from the road. It is easy, flat terrain. If these so-called professional investigators had an actual, physical manifestation in their camera lenses, is there any reason they shouldn't go after it? Follow it? At least, walk toward it? No such action made it onto the television show. Could there be a reason for this?
The towns surrounding Hoia-Bacia aren't huge but there's at least one radio mast at TVR Cluj, just at the base of the hill the forest is on; and Cluj-Napoca International Airport is only 10 kilometers away with its runway (and incoming aircraft landing lights) lined up almost exactly toward the forest. Whether the source of the distant light in their video might have been one of these, or another vehicle on one of the roads, or something else, I certainly wouldn't be able to hazard a guess; but it's most telling that whatever followup they made, did not make it into the final cut of the show. Call me a cynic, but my guess is they did investigate the light, as almost any of us would, and soon found that it was unremarkable. Always remember that the purpose of ghost stories, whether told in person around a campfire or on a TV show, is to create a fun and entertaining scare. It is not to investigate or solve anything.
I often point out that my idea with Skeptoid is not to be inherently negative, not to simply tell people their ghost stories aren't true, not to just rain on parades. There are positive lessons to take home from every urban legend, even from those that lack the proverbial grain of truth. There doesn't seem to be anything interesting or unexplained about Hoia-Baciu, so perhaps our treatment of it is best left as a footnote in a guide book. Enjoy the ghost stories, enjoy the creepy atmosphere, but don't worry too much about disappearing for five years.
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