What do you imagine when you hear the phrase “The scariest photo ever taken”? Do you see a pale, ghostly figure haunting an 1800’s-era family portrait? Or the mutilated corpse of a murder victim? Do you see the fleeting image of a Bigfoot-like monster disappearing into a dense redwood forest? Or a giant spider crawling up your arm, ready to plunge its fangs into your skin?
Fear is such an interesting emotion. It’s something we’re told to avoid at all costs. It can ruin opportunities. Ruin relationships. Ruin lives. Yet for all its negative undercurrents, fear is something so many of us seek, even relish. We like to see scary movies and read scary books. We like to scream on roller coasters and in haunted-house mazes. We like to hear creepy campfire stories that keep us up at night, listening to the crickets outside our tent. We love to be scared, so long as what scares us is removed from our reality, locked behind a screen. Or locked… inside a picture.
In high school, I became obsessed with all things scary. I’d spend hours watching found footage horror movies like the Paranormal Activity series or scouring the Internet for the freakiest “Slenderman” and “Jeff the Killer” videos. The more real something appeared, the scarier (and more exciting) it became. But by senior year, these pseudo-real monsters weren’t cutting it anymore. Fear was like a drug addiction. My tolerance had grown too advanced and I needed something stronger. Freddy Krueger and the Blair Witch just didn’t pack the same high as John Wayne Gacy or the Son of Sam. I realized monsters are even scarier when you know they’re real. Much, much scarier.
Thus began my obsession with true crime. I started binging seasons of Dateline and Forensic Files on Netflix. I read biographies of famous serial killers. I attended Crime Con in Las Vegas. But my favorite thing to do was comb through the “Unresolved Mysteries” subreddit, an online forum dedicated to real-life crimes that were never solved. Many of these incidents were murders where the killer left behind a clue meant to confuse or taunt the authorities. Sometimes they placed the body in a strange location, like a septic tank. Or they left behind cryptic messages such as the phrase “Danny made me do it” scrawled in the victim’s blood on a wall near the body.
Many of these posts included a picture taken at the crime scene. I spent hours studying such photos, looking for clues other Internet sleuths may have missed. The idea behind “Unresolved Mysteries” and similar subreddits was that they spread the word about real-life crimes in the hope that someone… somewhere might be able to solve them.
I wanted to be one of those people.
One afternoon, I came across a post on the subreddit entitled: “Does anyone know where I can find the scariest photo ever taken?” The post didn’t include the picture, of course. The writer claimed there was this Polaroid taken by a serial killer that had scared investigators so much, that it drove one of them insane and made others physically ill. They said it was cursed. Some even believe the photo caused a fire that had burned down the police department investigating the case. But there were still photocopies of the Polaroid out there, floating in the dark recesses of the Internet.
This sounded way too creepy to be true. Still, I read on…
The post included a detailed description of the cursed picture. It was a Polaroid that apparently showed a young man named Jacob Siemens, age 17, a resident of Raleigh, North Carolina. Jacob was last seen hiking in the remote wilderness of Cascade Peak on July 10th, 1998. The location is part of the Appalachian Trail and Jacob was hiking a portion of it for Summer break that year. When he didn’t show up at the next trailhead two days later, his parents grew worried and a search party was assembled.
In the photo, Jacob is standing in the middle of the woods at night, his hands and legs bound by a thick black rope. He stares into the camera with a mixture of fear and resignation, his pale face twisted in a knot of terror. Eyes wide. Lips parted to form the beginning of a scream. It’s believed that his photographer, an infamous (and uncaught) serial killer named “The Butcher of Appalachia,” took the photo moments before slashing Jacob’s throat with a knife, killing him.
Jacob Siemens was one of ten murders attributed to The Butcher and the only one where the killer left behind a clue along with a body.
On July 15th, 1998, two hikers camping on Cascade Peak stumbled upon Jacob’s pale, lifeless corpse. He was strung up in a pine tree using thick, black rope, like some demented Halloween decoration. The hikers promptly called the cops, who arrived an hour later and cordoned off the whole mountain.
A search team of hundreds combed through every square inch of forest covering Cascade Peak looking for the killer. They found no footprints, no blood splatter, no clothes, no evidence whatsoever, except… the Polaroid photo. It was taped to a tree trunk near Jacob’s body, the only time The Butcher left behind a clue. To this day, no one knows why.
Apparently, the detective who found the Siemens Polaroid became so unnerved by it that she suffered a mental breakdown later that day and had to be taken to the hospital where she was put on suicide watch. In the following weeks, various detectives assigned to the case became mysteriously ill after examining the photo. One had a heart-attack, while another suffered a stroke. Were these just coincidences? Or the sign of something more… sinister?
After reading the post, two thoughts crossed my mind. The first was disbelief. The whole story sounded like an urban legend fabricated to gain attention, just another creepypasta from some creative and disturbed teenager spending too much time online.
The second was a deep, deep desire to see the actual Polaroid if it existed.
A brief Google search of “Jacob Siemens” and “The Butcher of Appalachia” revealed that the story and its photo were indeed true, though the Polaroid’s status as a terrifying cursed object was highly debated. Officials from the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department claim the picture was destroyed in a forest fire that burned down the department headquarters in May 2005. Most of the original evidence pertaining to The Butcher case was lost in this fire (often cited as another manifestation of the photo’s curse) making it much harder to catch the killer.
Despite the Polaroid’s destruction, there were rumors that a photocopy of the original had been posted online, back in the early days of the Internet, though it appears to be lost. In my research, I read dozens of articles and true-crime blogs and watched countless YouTube videos on the murder and its infamous photo. None showed the Polaroid. They only offered descriptions or cheap and obviously fake recreations of it. Many Internet-Sleuths claimed that Jacob Siemen’s photo was scrubbed from the Internet due to its “obscene nature.” But that seemed highly unlikely, given all the graphic real-life content one can find on forums like Something Awful.
Just the other day, I came across a picture of a man whose face was crushed by a sledgehammer. It was completely real and completely disgusting. I threw up after looking at it. Surely if something that gross was still online, I could find the photocopy of Jacob’s Polaroid. After all, once it’s posted on the Internet, it never goes away. Not really.
Over the next couple of weeks, I made it my mission to find the Scariest Photo Ever Taken. As soon as I got home from school, I scoured the dark corners of the Internet, scrolling past images of torture, mutilation and murder, hoping to find the infamous Polaroid or at least a clue to its whereabouts. The whole process was so mentally taxing, I was about to quit my search. And then…
I came upon a blog post from an obscure website last updated in 2003. The site was called Cascade Chronicles. It wasn’t devoted to horror or true crime or anything of that nature. It was just a blog about hiking in the Appalachian Mountains. The site’s owner and only contributor, username MikeLikesToHike, posted an article on the Jacob Siemens case on March 10th, 2003. It was the last post he ever made.
In the post, titled “The Harrowing Case of Jacob Siemens,” MikeLikesToHike gave a full account of The Butcher of Appalachia and his murder. He included pictures of the mountain, its forests, a photo of Jacob from his high school yearbook, and… at the bottom of the page… in a low-quality 72 dpi image, he posted a photocopy of the Polaroid found at the scene.
The second I saw it, I knew it was the real thing, even with its low resolution. This was the “Scariest Photo Ever Taken,” an image of impending death. I leaned forward until my head was an inch from the laptop screen. As I stared into that terror-stricken face, moments from doom, my blood went cold. The hairs on the back of my neck shot up. My skin broke out in a cold sweat. I couldn’t look away. My eyes were glued to those cursed pixels, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. It wasn’t Jacob Siemens’ face staring back at me in that Polaroid.
It was MY OWN FACE.
In that moment, a feeling washed over me like a tidal wave, one that gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. I sensed this presence in my bedroom, large and quiet. It felt like someone standing just behind my computer chair, looming over my shoulder… holding a knife…
I spun around in my chair. But there was no one. The room was empty. I no longer felt the presence.
I immediately got up, grabbed a 5-iron from the golf bag in my closet, and searched the rest of the house. But there was no one there. My mother was still at work. No one had come by. I double-checked all the windows and locks. When I got back to my bedroom, I immediately closed my laptop without so much as another glance at the photo.
I haven’t opened it since.
I’m planning on taking my computer out into the woods this weekend and throwing it into a massive bonfire. Let it burn to ashes. Just to be safe.
I don’t really care for true-crime content anymore. If I want to be scared, I’ll put on a movie like Alien or Dracula, anything that’s clearly fictional. I never want to feel the way I felt when I saw that Polaroid. Especially because, beneath all the fear, I had this deep desire to keep staring at it…
Just to see what would happen.