Foundations of Stone
Most of us have been to graveyards, and some of the more daring among us have done so in the middle of the night. It's during those evening excursions that your mind goes to war with your emotions, as you vividly imagine the dead rising from underneath your feet in an effort to draw you down with them... forever.
The Barrow-downs is like any other graveyard you've visited, except that your fears need no imagination to get them riled -- the dead do walk, and they are out for you.
Barrows are actual burial mounds that can be found in England; J.R.R. Tolkien used them as inspiration for a more horrific setting. LotRO's Barrow-downs don't feel like a modern cemetery -- or even the typical cemeteries you find in other fantasy MMOs -- but rather like a place that gives an aura of ancient evil and dusty death. Head out there in the night and enjoy watching a wight or two pop up from the ground, and you'll have a front-row seat for terror.
With maybe one or two exceptions, it's hard to argue that Moria is anything but a giant tomb, full of shadows and long-forgotten monstrosities. It's no surprise that many players report feelings of claustrophobia and a need to escape its (almost) endless corridors after a few weeks or months inside. When I mention that Foundations of Stone is one of the creepiest places in Moria, that should carry some weight.
Seriously, it's like the art team ground down HR Giger
to a powder and then inhaled it all right before designing this zone. Not only does Foundations of Stone take place in dark, decaying caverns punctuated with eerie lights underneath the surface of the waters, but it's populated with unnamed horrors that look straight out of any Aliens
flick. When something comes at you out of the dark with more teeth than face, it isn't a question of whether you pee your pants or kill it -- chances are, you do both.
Swamp, ruins and red pools of water -- or wait, is that blood? I don't really want to get close enough to find out. In any case, while some may find Lone-lands' Agamaur to be merely atmospheric, for me it always conjures up unnerving feelings of being too far from civilization in a patch of wild that is just waiting for me to take a step too many. It's a nasty piece of land that isn't helped by the façade of blood everywhere.
The Old Forest
OK, the Old Forest comes with a lot of player angst -- some of it deserved, much of it simply part of its longstanding legacy as being a rite of passage for adventurers. The fact that this slice of ancient world makes such a strong impression on everyone speaks volumes to its effectiveness.
The Old Forest is not actually very large, but it's built up a reputation for its labyrinthine twists, signature-level trees that suddenly pop into life, and the horror that is Tom Bombadil's singing. Unlike most of Middle-earth, where nature is cherished and responds to good people in kind, the Old Forest is bitter and angry, and it tolerates no trespassers on its soil.
I've found many places in the Old Forest that would be right at home on October 31st, from the mists obscuring the soft padding of bears' feet to the webbed interior of a spider lair. I certainly wouldn't want to dawdle here longer than necessary, that's for sure.
The Haunted Inn
You might argue that the whole of Mirkwood would make for a great haunted adventure theme park, and I wouldn't fight you on that. Still, if I had to pick one place in the whole zone to single out for a scary experience, I'm going to have to go with the Haunted Inn. What? It has "haunted" right in its name!
One of the best-known secrets of the Haunted Inn is the swarm of ghosts who patrol its rooms yet are notoriously hard to see. Players report that by experimenting with different camera angles and distances, they're able to catch a glimpse at these spooks when friends standing right next to them cannot.
I've always subscribed to three categories of horror atmospheres: the genuinely creepy, the fun house, and the grimy, oppressive pit of evil. I can stick up for the first two in my Halloween experiences, but there's something that turns me off about a place that's so rotten and dreary as to suck out any joy of exploring it.
Enter Angmar, perhaps the most haunted of zones in Middle-earth. Unlike other spooky areas, Angmar feels like it's falling apart, starting from the ripped sky on down. The sounds and music put me on edge, and I know that it's just a matter of time before the Grim Reaper and I have a one-on-one while I'm there. It's amazing how much headway the Free Peoples have made, considering that death lurks around every corner with big, sharp, nasty, pointy teeth.
Honorable Mention: Great Smials' haunted library
With all that is terrifying in Middle-earth, it's endearing that hobbits find even the smallest things make them jump in fright. Tuckborough's Great Smials inn has a spooky secret of sorts -- a haunted library off the main room which has a local freaked out. After accomplishing a series of tasks designed to calm this spirit (spoiler!) you discover that there is no ghost, but instead a happy little squirrel who's made this place its home.
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.