As he stumbles forward through the dense thicket of trees in front of him, James Rankin’s eye is caught by a strange sight in the near distance. He descends the short hill in his path, hoping to investigate the scene further – and as he does, the true horror of the mysterious situation unfolds before his eyes.
Before his story went viral, Rankin was just like any other normal guy. Based in New York, he’s a music promoter who gets his kicks hiking through woods and exploring unknown areas. And, usually, he doesn’t find that much out of the ordinary.
On October 3, 2016, however, that was all about to change. But as Rankin headed off into the Long Island woods, he couldn’t possibly have expected to find what he did. After all, Berkeley Jackson County Park was a place he’d frequented plenty of times before.
And, at first, it seemed like all was normal. Indeed, there was no reason why Rankin should have suspected that he’d stumble upon something quite so horrific. But as he traversed the terrain into a clearing, beset on three sides by tall hills, Rankin began to notice that something about the situation seemed off.
At the bottom of the valley, Rankin spotted what looked like a man-made fire pit – not unlike one he’d come across earlier in the day. The previous pit had apparently simply been built by kids in the neighborhood, but Rankin decided to head down and investigate the second pit anyway.
Yet as he walked down into the clearing, brushing aside or hopping over trees that had been mysteriously cut down – seemingly to block the path – something caught Rankin’s eye. Halfway down the hill, he noticed what looked like pieces of paper attached to a series of trees in close proximity to one another.
At first, Rankin assumed – like any hiker might – that these pieces of paper were no-trespassing signs, or perhaps information on local wildlife. As he drew closer to them, however, it became clear that they were something far more ominous.
In fact, the pieces of paper were about to send chills down Rankin’s spine – and give him valid cause to completely freak out. Rather than signs, the notices were actually missing persons posters, and they were arranged in a strange fashion around a cluster of trees.
And it wasn’t just one or two posters that Rankin found, but a whole bunch. Indeed, they formed a veritable shrine to people who had apparently vanished from different places at different times. Yet there was, as far as the hiker could tell, no connection between them.
In any case, astonished by his discovery, Rankin took out his camera and started filming the strange scene that was unfolding. He posted the resulting video to Facebook, too, where it quickly went viral. To date, Rankin’s 12-minute glimpse into the creepy shrine has been shared over 26,000 times and has 1.3 million views.
And it didn’t take long for internet sleuths to start coming up with their own theories behind Rankin’s strange find. While many focused on possible explanations for the site, though, others questioned the discovery’s legitimacy.
One Redditor, for instance, suggested that the video could be a promotion for the Blair Witch Project sequel, while another reckoned that it might have been a leftover set from an independent movie. One more cynical user questioned whether the video itself might just be an advertisement for a knife maker, as Rankin draws specific and continued attention to the blade that he’s carrying.
However, the video’s legitimacy – if not the shrine’s – was verified by local news website Huntington Patch, which confirmed that police were indeed investigating the area. Rankin had apparently contacted Suffolk County Police after making the discovery.
And after Rankin’s video – which named some of the posters’ missing persons – appeared online, it soon became clear that they were in fact real cases. At least one of those missing people had since turned up: Brenda Heist, who disappeared for 11 years. However, the whereabouts of others were still undetermined, as is the case with Tara Grinstead, who vanished in 2005.
The day after Rankin posted the video, though, he was told by police that the shrine had apparently been erected as a prop for a Halloween party by the owners of a nearby property. The police also assured the hiker that the posters would be removed after October 31.
Officers further explained that the investigation wouldn’t be going any further, with the police seemingly satisfied with the explanation they’d received. The homeowners are also said to be putting up no-trespassing signs, presumably to deter this kind of thing from happening again. Rankin, however, wasn’t so happy with this conclusion.
The hiker drew attention to the weathered look of the posters on his Facebook page. “What I wanna know is, if these were ‘Halloween party’ decorations, why have they been hanging there for weeks or months? Because it was plainly obvious that the stuff had been there for quite a while, and not set up recently.”
However, one Facebook user, who claimed to know the owners of the property, offered an explanation for the posters’ deteriorated state. They were supposedly hung up for a summer Halloween party that had been held more than two months before October 31.
Even if this reason is true, several online commenters have criticized the use of genuinely missing persons for the props. Huntington Patch reader James Charlton told the news outlet, “There’s nothing okay about using real missing persons as decoration… It seems very unusual.”
Whatever the truth behind Rankin’s discovery, though, there’s no denying that it was a creepy scene to stumble across in the middle of a forest, as anyone who’s seen The Blair Witch Project will testify. It’s therefore no surprise that he freaked out – or that the video caused such a furor online. Yet, even with an explanation on the table, Rankin still has his suspicions; who knows what’s really going on in the Long Island woods?