Written by staff writer Amanda Schwab, CNN
To demonstrate that the Southeastern Plague, also known as the Black Death, killed so many people so quickly, archaeologists are using an actual tree trunk. And the Pope of Stonemoor Cemetery is being paid to pose as one of the toll-bearing victims.
It all sounds a bit far-fetched, but the Mystery Forest , a forest where up to 50,000 plague victims were brought to a point of rest after their deaths, is now one of 11 so-called sacred places being made available to the public under a new program launched by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
There will be no such tour facility for the Mystery Forest itself, due to limited funding and, perhaps, some concerns that an outsider -- even the Pope -- might find his or her way into the woods. (No plans are in place for Pope Francis to pose for photographers. Yet.)
There is precedent for such stringent boundaries. During World War II, for example, one of the original attractions, Stonehenge, had great difficulty keeping people out.
"Stonehenge has so many sites that you'd have to have thousands of people to leave your car there and walk to another place. So they were not allowed to bring people in," says Bill Hudson, the chief curator at National Museum of Natural History.
He compares the Mystery Forest to the New Jersey State Fair, where popular attractions include a theme park ride in which participants chase a pig across fields.
"Some people might find that too freaky, and some people want to experience it. People have to decide for themselves. But I think it's an important way to tell the story," he says.
Making a pilgrimage
As well as taking in the large number of potential mass graves, the Smithsonian is hoping to draw millions of visitors from around the world, roughly half to learn more about ancient diseases, and half for religious and spiritual reasons.
For those who want to experience nature -- perhaps wading through the enormous number of human bones and talismans such as human hair, clothing and guitars -- there is a hike through the woods with no food or water.
During the dig at Hidden Fences, famous private reserve in the Upstate New York, Hudson recreated a 17th-century English private landowner named Buquicchio who treated the corpses in the woods around his house as a source of luxury for the wealthy, something like a country inn for the dead.
'It's always sad'
So how realistic is the experience of participating?
Duffel bags loaded with cases of ice and volunteers look on as 20 foot-long miners' helmets (very far from zombies, in other words) are pulled into the woods.
Recycled blackened slices of wood were fashioned into a cross. Slashes in it, used for body-positivity, became lollipops. Meanwhile, archaeologists from Harvard University lined up bats in cages to aid the hunt for bones. One was caught and dissected before being fed out to terrified children in a secret cave.
"Our goal is to close the mystery down," said Edward Walton, vice president of the New York Botanical Garden, during a presentation of the Haunted Forest. "These are not your memories of making a trek with your family."
A group of children and adults take part in the Zombie tour of the Haunted Forest at the New York Botanical Garden. Credit: Andy Newman
The elaborate tours require expertise and insurance, and generally cost $100 an adult, at least, because of the real-life risks of a mass burial in what was once the middle of nowhere. And putting wooden pathways through unbuilt trails is cumbersome.
And they don't make them fast, either. Dead humans' bodies sometimes took weeks to decay -- a time period that did not allow for interest among modern travelers.
"It's always sad when you see the graves," said Walt Edelman, 50, from New York. "You know a lot of people were just passing through there. The route is pretty scary."
Rosa De Santis, 70, from northern New Jersey, recalls the Purple Hose Scavenger Hunt at her local zoo. She would lie in the tall grass and hope the ring sprinklers would wash away any marks left by the dead.
A Hungarian family asked their neighbors for help and offered to pay for the inspections.
"The volunteer -- she had black hair and blue eyes. And she helped us remove the mud," De Santis remembers. "At least we knew something was being done about it."