We are in The Clearing. The trees stop in a uniform oval where nothing grows and where, since official records began, nothing has grown. “Once when I came here,” says Alex, our guide, “I found 60 people from Bucharest trying to open a gate into another dimension.”
This is Hoia Baciu, just outside Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s second city in the depths of Transylvania. It has been called the creepiest forest in the world. And The Clearing is, allegedly, the creepiest place in the forest. It defies the investigations of soil scientists and attracts Romanian witches, sword-wielding Americans, and people who try to cleanse the forest of evil through the medium of yoga.
In the English-speaking world, the words “Transylvania” and “Halloween” conjure up a pre-Twilight Edward Cullen scaling the walls of his castle. But tourists coming to Romania for a Dracula experience are likely to leave disappointed. Romania is resistant to the Dracula legend. His namesake – Vlad Dracul or, more commonly, Vlad the Impaler – is a national hero. And Bran Castle, the most explicitly Dracula-themed attraction, has only a tenuous connection to Stoker’s creation, plus the priggish feel of a National Trust property. So here I am, on a night-time tour of the Hoia Baciu Forest, trying to find a real fright in autumnal Transylvania.
Named after a shepherd who went missing in the forest with a flock of 200 sheep, Hoia Baciu came to international attention in 1968 when Emil Barnea, a military technician, photographed what he claimed was a UFO hovering over The Clearing. What differentiates this story from other UFO claims is that Barnea had nothing to gain from reporting the sighting, and everything to lose. The Communist government equated a belief in the paranormal with madness and state-sabotage, and Barnea lost his job in a country which had no support for the sacked.
Today, visitors to the forest report strange symptoms – nausea, anxiety, the feeling of being watched – and the failure of electronic devices. “Ectoplasms” are routinely seen by joggers brave enough to enter. Alex shows us pictures of the forest photobombed by shadowy figures. One shows a man in the traditional dress of northern Romania – a very local ghost.
Alex likes to maintain a…