The sound of rusty metal scraping cuts through the air as you gaze in rapt attention at the titanic form in the distance. It’s the platonic ideal of that particular din, the kind of sound effect you’ve heard in hundreds of horror movies: a canned, eerie noise designed to raise the hackles as foolish protagonists approach a house obviously haunted, having already ignored the dire warnings of signs posted on ineffective fences back at the road.
You jump, the hairs on the back of your neck instantly raised, and laugh nervously, satisfied by the recognition of your own fright. You have no intention of going in there.
Then, despite your knowledge of those hundreds of horror movies, you push past a fence with signs of dire warnings and begin the walk down the long path to the Minister’s Treehouse, drawn like a moth to a flame.
1993, Crossville, Tennessee. A local landscaper named Horace Burgess said he received a vision from God. It came to him while wide awake and lasted all of four seconds. During that time, he said, he saw the treehouse plans as though it they were a slideshow. After his vision, he became ordained as a minister, and went to building. “And the spirit of God said, ‘If you’ll build me a treehouse, I’ll never let you run out of material.’”
Burgess obsessively built on the treehouse, constantly expanding it, the structure growing ever larger and more labyrinthine. Discarded, recycled, donated and spare wood. More than 258,000 nails. Construction continued for more than fourteen years.
He never ran out of material.
As you descend down the gravel pathway, your gaze is commanded by naught but the building ahead. From a distance, the tower draws the eye. As you approach, it holds your view, but you find your neck craning further and further back, such is the height of the behemoth. Your pace involuntarily slows as your brain tries to process the details that come into view with proximity. Hundreds of small blocks of wood, nailed to a winding staircase, each one defaced with graffiti (JESSUS IS REAL) hammered to each other in the roiling, controlled anarchy of a flight of spooked birds taking wing. A bright orange plastic chair, the kind you used in elementary school. Rotting picnic tables and a tipi made of rusting aluminum, a pair of horseshoes welded on as a door handle. A swing made from a deck chair, suspended on nearly a hundred feet of rope. The treehouse comes across as both the result of a fervently obsessive mind and, somehow, simultaneously haphazard. Emphasis on the hazard. That metallic shriek rings out again, though you can’t locate its source to know whether or not to duck. Shards of glass crunch underfoot, every pane in the place shattered over time. Trash litters the ground. Every available surface has unauthorized writing on it, despite the sign exhorting no vandalism.
That sign’s way back down the path, on the fence where you came in. It’s beside the one that says no trespassing.
Burgess said God never revealed to him how big the treehouse should be. “If He had, I would’ve tried to talk Him out of it.”
Seven trees support the massive structure, which sways slightly in the breeze the higher you ascend. The minister said the foundation is God. An 80-foot white oak does the heavy lifting, though. Burgess dubbed it a “praise tree” because the forking branches reminded him of a preacher with his arms outstretched.
It’s impossible to not feel a sense of awe, standing at the treehouse’s base. The cyclopean structure is difficult to comprehend. It’s 97 feet tall, the highest point a bell tower wreathed by a madman’s idea of a railing. Being constructed solely out of wood, flat surfaces abound, but there are few straight lines to orient perspective; one would be forgiven mistaking it for an M.C. Escher drawing that slipped free from its canvas and made its way into real life.
As the treehouse grew larger and larger, it became an ersatz tourist attraction, and Burgess wasn’t going to turn anyone away. The state fire marshal would, however, and in 2012, the treehouse was, at last, abandoned, and the elements, vandals, and atrophy began to take hold.
The atmosphere is terrifying. A sense of decayed zealotry hangs in the air, thick and intoxicating. It’s a set designer’s dream, it’s the southern gothic love child of Rapture and Carcosa, it’s every haunted house you’ve ever seen in a scary film, but it’s better, because it’s real. When genial fanaticism meets its opposite in a state of rot, the results are astonishing. Sacrilegious graffiti appear everywhere. “Fuck God” is scratched on a shattered stone tablet containing the Ten Commandments. The profane and the divine cohabitate in squalor. But even the well-intentioned original additions raise gooseflesh. Crudely carved wooden statues are the only permanent residents of the treehouse and they seem to appear everywhere, many frozen in a state of panicked idolatry. One is kneeling over the Decalogue, hands raised high in supplication. A pair of crumbling wooden believers lie fallen against a wall, the words SO THE BLIND MAY SEE scrawled beside them.
You screw your courage to the sticking place and continue the exploration, up seemingly countless flights of stairs. Your thighs burn, aching from the climb, the wooden slats alternatingly oversized and undersized due to the amateur construction. Every step you take is tinged with unease, the boards underfoot sometimes groaning with protest as you climb higher. You’re paradoxically astounded by the solidity of the construction even as you distrust it, testing every footfall before committing to it. As one random path opens up from its cramped stairwell, you experience a moment of vertigo as you take in the enormous open construction of the sanctuary. Again your mind swims as it struggles to process the maddening details of the room one by one. Rows of church pews stretch toward the walls. A huge orange and yellow wooden sunrise (or sunset?) stretches across another wall. Support beams pull double duty as giant crosses, one festooned with a royal purple sash. You suddenly realize you’re standing where the preacher would be, yet you turn around to find a basketball net mounted on the wall behind you. The chasm between you, already several flights up, and the ceiling yawns, as your eyes fall on the painful, non-Euclidean design of a choir loft.
After more stairs, this time in a random direction, you’re somehow in the same place as before, but now on a different level, as you peer down into that sanctuary from behind the choir loft.
There is no way down from the choir loft.
You turn a corner and find a face staring at you with a terrifying anticipation etched onto it. It’s a room of nothing but several of the wooden statues. These appear to be holding their own religious service. They’re arranged in a generous circle, a preacherman in the center, hunched over the rough-hewn pulpit that comprises his lower half.
You’re not certain, but after taking a few pictures to document the unnerving view, you walk away thinking that there was a figure looking directly at you. Was it looking at you when you first went in?
It seems this is the final stop. The bell tower appears to be inaccessible, but you’re startled to find you can peer through the wooden slats that comprise its floor and see oxygen acetylene canisters. They’ve been repurposed as chimes.
On the way back down, you parse more details that escaped your notice during your breathless, awed initial journey through the treehouse.
Rusted piles of barbed wire.
A message: THIS IS MY HOME TOO
And another: PHYLIS UNDERWOOD WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN
There is at least one person buried at the treehouse: a homeless man that Burgess allowed to reside there for three years and earned the nickname “the keeper of the treehouse.” When he died, Burgess cast some of his ashes from atop the bell tower and buried the rest at the foot of the tree.
Solid ground requires some reacclimatization. Your legs still shake, refusing to trust the solidity of terra firma. Emerging from the treehouse, it’s impossible to say how long you were in there, and the world feels…off. The air smells different. Your mind briefly entertains the thought that you’ve emerged into a parallel universe. As you walk make your way back to the fence, you wonder if this is the part of the horror movie where the protagonists have come to their senses and try to take their leave, only to be thwarted, because they belong to the house now. Even after you crawl back through the fence, passing KEEP OUT and NO TRESPASSING, your mind is bewildered, awash with questions.
What year is it?
What did I just do?
When can I go back?