Cluj-Napoca is just over 5,700 miles from Salt Lake City. It is often called the unofficial capital of Transylvania. Yes, that Transylvania, the homeland of Dracula. Cluj, as the cool kids call it, is an old city with old city charm. I honestly don’t know what that means, but somehow it accurately describes where my plane landed in July of 2017.
We are all familiar with the legends and myths about Transylvania. We grow up reading about vampires—both the type who bite and the ones who sparkle in the sun. Was I hoping to get bit by a vampire on my trip to Romania?
Honestly, that would not have been the worst thing to happen to me while there.
After navigating myself through customs and getting my passport stamped, I exited the airport and began walking the five miles to my hotel. Yes, five miles. And, yes, there is a bus that runs between the airport and city center.
But, if I had taken a bus, this next serendipitous moment would not have happened.
About halfway through my five-mile urban hike with a 50-pound backpack strapped to my body, I encountered a sight that I never expected. It was as if the angels above were sending me a sign from heaven—or hell, depending on how you look at it. Walking towards me, on the same side of the road, were two blonde young women in floor-length black skirts, light-colored blouses, and matching smiles. I point out the smiles because Romanians are not known for smiling at strangers, and in my one-hour visit to the country, I was already an expert on Romanian culture.
As I got closer, I saw their black name tags. Here, in front of me, were two Mormon sister missionaries doing God’s work thousands of miles from home. I smiled in their direction and called out a greeting, “Hello, Sisters. How’s your day?”
They looked at me, bewildered and hesitant to respond.
I continued, “I’m visiting from Idaho. We are probably cousins. Were your ancestors polygamists, too?”
Now I had their attention. The sisters stopped, and the first words out of the taller one’s mouth were a little surprising. “Why are you here?” Emphasis on here. Not on you. Why are you **here**?
I laughed and told them that I was looking for an adventure. They turned to each other and had a full conversation with only their eyes. The shorter missionary eventually turned back to me and said, “We don’t see a lot of American tourists here. It surprises us to see you in Cluj.” The way she said Cluj sent chills down my spine.
Looking back, this was probably her way of warning me. TURN AROUND AND GO HOME. YOU ARE NOT SAFE. It would have been more Christian if the sister missionary had actually uttered that warning out loud.
I asked the two missionaries what there was to see and do in Cluj.
The taller sister missionary sharply asked, “You didn’t make a plan before arriving?”
I replied that I was looking to explore a new city without the restrictions of an itinerary.
She then uttered the infamous words that forever altered my life: “You should go hiking in the forest outside Cluj. We’ve heard it is beautiful and relaxing.”
I promise you that this young woman, who was on assignment from God, said the forest was both beautiful and relaxing. To this day, I often wonder how she would describe hell.
She went on to say that the two of them had been wanting to visit the forest for weeks, but when you’re on assignment from God it is difficult to find time. She ended her rant about scheduling conflicts and their daily workload by adding, “...oh, and we are not allowed to go there because it is apparently haunted.” She added air quotes to the phrase apparently haunted.
I will admit that she now had my attention. This was the Transylvanian experience I wanted and expected. I asked for the name of the forest and typed it into my phone: Hoia-Baciu.
The next morning I woke up early, Googled bus routes to the forest, and made my way to the bus station. I did not take the time to do any research about the Hoia-Baciu Forest prior to going. I entered those infamous woods not knowing what to expect.
I boarded an old Soviet-style bus near my hotel and found an empty seat near the back. I was careful not to smile at anyone—it was my attempt at blending in as a local. After about an hour of rattling through the city, I was the last passenger on the bus. The driver, who was completely enclosed inside a metal cage, pulled to the side of the road, turned back to me, and shouted something in Romanian. I just shrugged my shoulders. He was probably warning me to not get off the bus, but Google had other intentions.
I looked down at my phone, and it said this was my stop. It also happened to be the last stop on the route. I pushed open the doors and exited the bus. I then had the pleasure of watching the driver make a 57-point turnaround and head back to the city as fast as the bus would go. I was completely alone.
The bus dropped me off in the middle of what appeared to be a once bustling industrial complex. An abandoned factory stood in front of me, flanked on both sides by rusted and abandoned train cars. Google Maps said to cut straight through this abandoned industrial park. Google told me to trespass, so I did. Anything to get to the forest faster.
After snaking my way around old warehouses and overgrown train tracks, I found a hole in a concrete wall just large enough to squeeze my body through. About a mile off in the distance, I could see a mountain covered with thick trees. I was getting close. A dirt road connected the industrial complex to the forest.
A few minutes down the dirt road, I encountered a man sitting on a cart being pulled by a horse. I gave a stoic nod in his direction. His eyes darted away, and—I kid you not—he used his right hand to cross himself while mumbling something under his breath. He crossed himself two more times while trying to get the horse to speed up. We never made eye contact.
A little further down the road I encountered an old woman working in a vegetable garden near a small home. She jumped up from weeding the garden and quickly ran inside while repeatedly crossing herself. She slammed the front door and then carefully pulled back a corner of the curtains to look out at me. In case there was any doubt in my mind that I was headed in the direction of a haunted forest, it had been cleared up quite dramatically.
The dirt road abruptly ended at the edge of the woods, and I noticed that there was no hiking trail. Just a thick, dark forest stood in front of me.
The trees of the Hoia-Baciu Forest are not your normal forest trees. They look like something straight from a sci-fi movie or dystopian parallel universe. These trees do not grow like trees in other, non haunted forests. Instead, they bend and spiral, almost as if they were twisting their limbs out to touch and grab you. Taking all of this in, I did the unimaginable: I stepped inside.
Crossing from the dirt road into the forest was like being transported into a different dimension. Despite being nearly noon on a sunny day, everything was covered in dark, ghastly shadows. Even more alarming, though, was how quiet it was. It was the type of quiet where you can hear your own heart beating.
I started walking deeper into the forest. The only noise was from my footsteps crunching through rotting leaves. The sound echoed loudly and cut through the dark silence. This is where I pause to remind you that I am a certified wuss. I also still can’t believe I did this entirely alone. Or was I alone? I found myself looking over my shoulder behind me, and my pace began to quicken in line with the beating of my heart. An outside force was compelling me further, deeper into this eerie forest. I had an overwhelming sense that I was being watched.
And then it happened. Shivers just went down my spine thinking back on that moment. About 25 feet in front of me, some movement in the trees caught my eye. My blood immediately ran cold and I froze with fear. And, no, it wasn’t a friendly, little forest animal. I was not alone. I was definitely not alone.
It was a GHOST.
I can only describe this ghostly presence as a glowing mist hovering a few inches off the ground. I quickly strained my eyes in the darkness to get a better look. The figure was about six feet tall and faceless, except for two brightly illuminated eyes. And the eyes were staring right at me. An overwhelming feeling of malice struck me when I locked eyes with the ghost.
As long as I live I will never forget the sight of this ghost levitating between the trees like a white bed sheet caught in the branches. Every hair on my body was standing straight up. A jolt of energy and fear surged through my body.
You know those movies where someone is running in the forest for their life and they keep falling, tripping, and rolling? Watching those movies used to drive me crazy. I would wonder why they just couldn’t run when their life was in danger. Now, I was living that reality. At one point during my full-on sprint out of the forest, I face planted in a mud puddle. I rolled down a hill. Branches slapped against my face. I was doing everything in my power to find a way out of that forest.
I’m still not sure how this happened, but I made it to the edge of the forest, back to the dirt road. My heart was racing and I was sweating profusely. It took me at least 15 minutes to catch my breath and update my Instagram story.
This is not where the story ends.
Back at my hotel I decided to do some research. I stayed awake most of the night reading blog posts, social media comments, and news articles about paranormal activity in the Hoia-Baciu Forest. If I had done this research earlier, I can promise you I would not have gone. I was looking for a Transylvanian experience, but my experience was more terrifying than I had bargined for.
The forest is known as one of the most haunted locations in the world, and more paranormal activity has been reported there than almost any other location in the world. There have been hundreds of accounts related to ghost and UFO sightings connected to that small, 500-acre forest.
One common theme kept popping up in everything I read about the forest: within 48 hours of departing the forest, visitors consistently report a severe fever, overwhelming fatigue, delirious thoughts, and the skin falling off their hands and feet.
Um. I’m sorry. What? I reassured myself that it would never happen to me. It was just a legend that Romanians use to scare foreigners. The prayers of my righteous mother would protect me.
Well, 48 hours later, to the minute, I was walking down a narrow cobblestone street in Bratislava, Slovakia. At this point in my journey, the forest was a distant memory, and I was off on an adventure in another country. But that is when it hit me. You could have set your clock by that exact moment. Forty-eight hours after departing the forest, I was struck by an overwhelming and severe fever.
I was both hot and cold. I was sweating and shivering. Every fiber of my body was in pain. It took every ounce of strength I had to crawl back to my hotel, where I collapsed on the bed. I thought I was going to die.
Before blacking out, I had enough wits about me to carefully place my passport on the nightstand. My last thought was: if housekeeping finds my dead body, then they can roll it to steps of the U.S. embassy.
I had the most vivid and severe fever dreams. I kept dreaming that I was back in the forest, but I couldn’t find my way out of the darkness. At one point, I woke up naked and shivering. I had removed all of my clothes in my sleep.
I spent about 24 hours in the hotel room bouncing back and forth between terrifying, realistic dreams and a state of mindless stupor.
I called my mom to tell her that I was dying. She asked, “Have you tried taking some ibuprofen?”
“No, mom!” I said. “I need to find those Romanian sister missionaries and have them perform an exorcism. I have a demon in me.”
She replied, “Call me when you’re done being dramatic.”
The fever was terrible. The fatigue was exhausting. But nothing compared to the skin falling off my hands and feet. It was happening in multiple layers at a time, multiple times a day. I sat on the edge of the hotel bed continually peeling my skin off like I had a bad sunburn.
What the hell had happened to me in that forest?
The fever eventually passed. And, three weeks later, the skin stopped peeling from my hands and feet. By that time, I was back home in Idaho.
It’s now been more than three years since my trip to Romania, and I haven’t had any other symptoms or plague-like ailments. I survived my visit to the most haunted forest in the world, and I even saw a ghost.
I sometimes wonder if the sister missionaries ever found time to visit that “beautiful and relaxing” Romanian forest. I really hope they did.
This is a reader-submitted story by Stuart Summers, who is a marketing professional by day, and a traveler to obscure corners of the world by night.
(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)