If you had a list of top fictional destinations, chances are that District 12 from The Hunger Games wouldn’t be the top pick — it’s probably not even on the list. No one would blame you, even if you were a fan of the series. Known as the home of Katniss Everdeen, District 12 is marred by starvation, extreme poverty, dangerous working conditions in its unstable coal mines, and is a generally less-than-pleasant vista of ramshackle buildings and lethal policing. (Lovely forests, though.)
But say you could go visit District 12, minus the oppressive dictatorship and morbid war games of pitting children against one another to the death? Tempting, right? Good news: District 12 is in North Carolina, and is locally known as the Henry River Mill Village. It sneaks up on you, this place.
Pull off the highway, you pass a strip mall and then Bojangles, then start down a hill that'll make you feel like you've entered a wormhole. An abandoned village from 1905 rises up all around me — a jarring sudden transition. The houses are old and in bad shape, boarded up, with their porches half rotted away. The road curves, but the village continues straight ahead as you pull over into the gravel parking lot. That's when you come across the Mellark bakery.
I took this journey earlier this month. It was surreal. This is my account.
As I step out of my car and look around, it’s remarkably eerie. You can just about feel the history in the air, and I have a feeling it’s not an entirely pleasant one. Built around a cotton mill in the early 20th century, the village was inhabited up until 2000 despite never having plumbing. The mill itself burnt down in the 1970s, and residents were allowed to stay as long as they were aware no upgrades would ever be made to their homes.
Before I can try and figure which of these houses belonged to Katniss, I’m greeted by site director Taylor Edwards. He’s here with Calvin Reyes, the owner of the Henry River Mill Village since 2017. The place had been abandoned in 2015, when the previous owner died. Overrun with brush and buildings falling apart with decay, it proved quite the cleanup project for the Charlotte-based scouting and filming crew working onThe Hunger Games.
“They were out here for a couple of weeks, three or four weeks beforehand, kind of scouting everything," Reyes tells SYFY WIRE. "They had to clean up some stuff because it was pretty overrun and not really taken care of, so they had to do some maintenance on the grass. They dropped a bunch of dirt and sand on the concrete so you couldn’t really see that, to give a little more rural feel. The 'do not enter' sign is actually where the tree is whenever it’s raining, and Peeta is standing somewhere roughly right around this area.”
He's speaking about the famous scene in which Peeta throws an intentionally burnt piece of bread to a starving Katniss in the rain.
Marked by a festive pumpkin on the porch, Katniss’ house — House 16 — is the only one up to code, and only because it was refurbished inside to be safe for filming. “These are definitely two of the major key points, but for the actual filming they weren’t here very long," Edwards says. "Probably six to nine days.”
What was actually filmed at Henry River was the Mellark bakery, the long shots of District 12 and all the houses, inside Katniss’ home, and the dash across the dam as she heads out into the forest. Though no walk across the dam would be safe today, as it’s been overflowing for weeks.
For now, Reyes points out where the film crew had installed awnings on the building. “They built a porch, too, that we just had to clean up because they didn’t take it… it kind of collapsed on itself.”
The "pastries" and "cakes" signs were left as well, affixed to the building. Reyes explains later on that the ones there today are reproductions.
“The original Hunger Games sign that Burke County Tourism put up got stolen,” says Edwards, gesturing to the pole at the beginning of the property. “I think it first got vandalized. Someone wrote 'Silent Hill' on it with spray paint and covered the whole sign. That’s why we put it high enough where you really gotta work for it.”
They’ve since littered the property with "No Trespassing" signs and cameras to ward off looters and loiterers. They still have some problems here and there, mostly with bored country teenagers or the odd drug dropoff, but the vandalism has drastically dropped off since they took action against it.
“Most of our nighttime visitors, the ones that were coming and stealing stuff and vandalizing, they pretty much stopped. It’s mostly squatters now," says Reyes. "Which, I mean, it’s more for their safety than anything for them not to stay in the house.” The vast majority of the properties in the village are in dire need of repair. They estimate that each house would take $300,000 to fully restore.
A lot of the necessary repairs are due to a tornado that hit the property just after Reyes and his family had purchased it. “We got the whole property bush-hogged, and it’s starting to look beautiful again and the leaves cleaned up and racked, and then bam," he says, exasperated. “We have kind of been trying to play catchup ever since.”
“We do have a lot of volunteers, and we do a lot of work out here to keep it maintained so people can walk around and enjoy it. I mean, to me that’s the most important thing,” Reyes says. “We’ve got to make sure it’s preserved so that people can enjoy it.”
In order to do that, they’ve got big plans that have already been put into motion. Katniss’ home will be turned into a museum; they’ve already started tours and events like pairing ghost stories and beer with their Boos & Brew Halloween party; and they hope to offer camping and overnight stays in some of the houses. It’s all a work in progress, and they hope the fame from The Hunger Games will help.
We start our official tour at the Mellark Bakery, which is actually the old company store, the epicenter of the town’s everyday business. Inside it’s dramatically colder, and Edwards explains they’ve had lots of paranormal phenomena here. I believe it, as I do a hard 180 at the collection of creepy dolls just inside.
There’s a lot of stuff in here: an old safe, glass soda bottles, benches, a mangled wheelbarrow, a massive safe, and a giant jug of old Pine-Sol from around 1915 that smells as good as you would imagine it to. The building is filled with artifacts and historical memorabilia that the volunteers found while cleaning up the site after its purchase.
We leave the bakery site to wander the dirt road that winds through the village, Edwards pointing out the different foundations to identify when certain houses had to be rebuilt because of fire and decay. It’s when we loop around the back that I instantly recognize the long line of wooden houses from the opening of The Hunger Games.
I’d like to think that I’m not the only one who assumed the crew had built District 12 from scratch, like a set. To be standing in the real historical village that was simply done up a bit to match the tone and setting is kind of wild. My geek heart is happy as we walk up toward House 16.
Stepping inside, I won’t lie that I was a little giddy being in Katniss’ house.
That said, the Everdeens had it a touch better than the actual inhabitants. Historically, each of these houses was a duplex. The filming crew knocked out the dividing wall to make room for the filming equipment and a bit more space to act in.
Edwards points over to a small room with a metal bed frame. “That’s where she hands the Mockingjay off to her sister. That little pin. I think one of the first times we see Katniss is as she comes down the staircase.” That’s just around the corner. What we’re standing in would have been the kitchen area where Katniss grabs her bow before heading out into the woods. Awesome.
At the end of the tour, we wind up in their office, where Reyes points me to their mini-display of goods and trinkets. On the top shelf are the Hunger Games books, Catching Fire resting up against a piece of coal.
“They used to heat their houses with coal," Reyes says, laughing. "All of them are coal fireplaces, and so I tell people that it’s District 12 coal. I guess it really is, though, right?”
Tours run at Henry River Mill Village at 12 p.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. most days. Find out more information at www.henryrivermillvillage.com.