Horror & History at Bloomington’s Knightridge Observatory
*For the sake of lawsuits, I officially advise against visiting this place. It’s old and decaying. You could die.
I don’t believe in hauntings, or ghosts, or any urban myths, but if I ever decided to pen a horror story, I’d have my monsters slumbering in the Knightridge Observatory in Bloomington, Indiana. If they don’t already.
I’ve explored many creepy-looking structures in my life and spent my first twenty years living in woods that looked exactly (EXACTLY) like those in The Blair Witch Project. With that said, the Knightridge Observatory wins my vote as Creepiest Place in Indiana.
First, let me give you a quick background of the observatory. Indiana University built the Knightridge Space Observatory in the late 1930s as an alternative to the older Kirkwood Observatory on campus. Squat and ugly, the Knightridge Space Observatory design was passing utilitarian, made only to house a respectable 24-inch telescope and some warm bodies.
Efforts to research the telescope used didn’t turn up much information, other than the mirrors used in its construction were handmade by a staff astronomer, and apparently not very well (if anyone has the tech info on the telescope formerly used here, I’d love to know). I was impressed by its design; the entire ceiling and telescope rotated in the building. This was a low-cost solution for limited construction funding.
By the 1960s, Indiana University abandoned the Knightridge Observatory, partially because of its too-simple design, but primarily because the increasing and encroaching population of Bloomington created so much light pollution that the observatory became ineffective.
I explored the Knightridge Observatory in early summer. I parked my car in a church parking lot across the Lampkins Road on a bright June day, but as soon as I entered the foliage, the sunlight and street sounds dimmed. It felt like the familiar territory of Bloomington had fell hundreds of miles behind me rather than hundreds of yards. Not a good feeling.
The observatory emerged from the greenery as I weaved through the foliage, brushing away bugs and branches. It felt like stumbling across a sleeping beast, not a huge brick fireplug in the Bloomington woods. I stood staring at it for a long moment, then circled around the tree-line until I stood across from its wide door.
It yawned open at me. Inside was darkness.
I wished I had brought someone, anyone, with me. Or a .357. There’s a very good reason why urban explorers don’t usually go it alone. Safety, sure, but I think psychology plays a bigger part, bigger than most like to admit. When you’re alone, imagination tends to take over, and imagination can sometimes be pretty cruel.
Aged and new graffiti covered the outside of the observatory. Most was harmless, the kind that gently suggested I perform sexual acts upon myself, but some was darker. The KKK kind of stuff. A lot of people that visit old buildings will sort through graffiti, sampling it like hors d’oeuvres, but I never do, for the same reason I don’t pry off bits of brick or stone. History is history, and defacing it is like vandalizing a gravestone: it’s just…wrong.
I ignored the slogans and curse words and instead crept slowly toward the open doorway and the darkness beyond. But inside it wasn’t dark. The damaged ceiling and second floor let in plenty of light.
The trees surrounding the observatory, cleared out only decades earlier, hadn’t had enough time to return and encase the observatory again. I didn’t even need a flashlight. I saw circular brick walls (covered in more graffiti, of course) and a set of stairs leading to the second floor.
In my free time I’m a woodworker with some years under my belt. A seasoned hobbyist. When it comes to wood, I have a pretty decent eye for weakness and I didn’t like those stairs. Moisture hadn’t destroyed them yet, but I saw swelling and splitting where nails held them in place and as I followed the staircase up to the second floor, I wasn’t able to see how well the stringers were anchored above.
Any experienced explorer reading this is probably rolling his or her eyes and thinks that’s a little cowardly. That’s okay. But I know wood and the problem with even indirectly-exposed wood is that it holds really well…until it doesn’t. I stand over six feet tall and am not a skinny guy. Wood has to prove itself to me before I put my life in its hands. That’s speaking from experience.
Years before Knightridge, I ignored my better judgment and went traipsing around an old barn that was similar in both age and exposure. I kept my feet on rafters and moved slow and deliberate, but that didn’t matter. A creak turned into a crack and then I felt a leg plunge down into nothingness, bringing me to one knee. My foot flapped for a floor that was no longer there. I had to drag my leg out through the splintered wood, hoping beyond hope the floor held under my other leg. It did and I skedaddled out of there in one piece. It only has to happen once.
I peered up, leaning over the old stairs, and craning my neck up to get a better look at the construction. I really wanted to check out the iron guide rails for the rotating second floor. And snap some pictures. Then-
Two very loud and very distinct thuds on the wooden floor over my head, only a few feet from where I stood.It felt like my heart had been dunked into a bucket of electrified ice.
That wasn’t the sound of walnuts plopping or rain dripping. They had weight. Big, meaty thuds, like a heavy fist banging on a door.
There was none of that frozen-with-fear crap. I let go of the stairs, turned and walked expeditiously to the observatory’s exit, not bothering to turn around. I didn’t run, I am proud to say, but I admit I did speed walk out of there. Having an active imagination has its cost, and at that moment, I paid for it.
The scene that played in mind then, I kid you not, was the climax of W.W. Jacob’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw” (if you’re unfamiliar, here’s the whole story). Herbert, dragging himself out of the grave after being “caught in the machinery” and buried over a week, slouching miles down a dark road and knocking on the door of his home.
First gently. Then, forcefully. Hungrily.
I hurried, half-expecting to feel spongy fingers dig into my shoulder. Or on the meat of my calf. As I tried to keep my treasonous imagination in check, my mind’s eye saw Herbert dragging himself across the damp floorboards of the Knightridge Observatory to the stairs. He had stories to share with me among aging brick and boards of the observatory, in the forgotten forest of Bloomington. And he was so lonely.
By that point, I admit, I was hauling ass as I left the place. For the sake of decorum, let’s say I left the grounds at a healthy jog. I didn’t turn as I left the door or as I entered the woods. In fact, I have never looked at observatory again.
I dived into the thick of the trees, ignoring the branches slapping my face this time. I just kept my head down, one hand steadying my glasses to my face. My feet crunched through the underbrush. My heart banged like an icy jackhammer and I didn’t slow until I emerged out of the woods and onto the flatness of Lampkins Road. As soon as I got to my car and put one hand on the hot door handle, I decided to turn.
Nothing there at all. No boogeyman, no Herbert. Just a clump of trees alongside a dull street in eastern Bloomington. I knew then, without a doubt, that it was likely a raccoon or even squirrels startled by the foreign noise of my intrusion. As scared of me as I was of them, just my imagination, too many horror stories. Not Herbert at all.
Let me end this article on a positive, self-respecting note.
It’s a testament to the building’s construction, if not design, that it still stands today. Although its roof now yawns open to the elements and its second floor is decaying quickly, the masonry remains solid. Little of the, uh, mortar is crumbling, and this is a sure sign…that those building the observatory, ummm, crafted it well, since thin mortar is a common problem plaguing…
…blah, blah, blah.
You know, I am recalling this memory and writing this article in the middle of the night. The house is quiet, the wife and kids are sleeping…and I can’t remember if I locked the door. I think I did. I better check.