What is the worst thing you could find while digging in your back yard?
February 14, 2020 5:47 PM   Subscribe

Let's say you're the matriarch of a rich family who's bought a house in a very nice neighborhood, knocked the old house down, and built a newer, bigger one in its place. You're all moved in. On the day you break ground for an in-ground pool, however, the backhoe operator comes to you and shatters your happy life to pieces by telling you they've unearthed. . . what?

I'm writing a song about this! I originally had them digging up the bones of a bunch of murdered people, and I think that's pretty good, but if there's something less gothic and more actually horrible that might achieve the effect better.

Caveats: it has to be something that would be plausibly buried under a fancy residential neighborhood. I think barrels of toxic waste would be really good because they literally poison the ground the house is built on, but I have a hard time imagining why they'd get buried in Scarsdale. I also don't know which toxic chemicals would get buried, or what containers they'd get buried in?
posted by Black Cordelia to Grab Bag (88 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I immediately thought of this post from r/whatisthisthing. In that case it turned out to be a false alarm, but in your song's case, maybe not!
posted by potrzebie at 5:51 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I love the idea of something that seems to start out simple and then gets... bad. Like oh you dig up a cat or something, small skeleton. And it's poignant, awww,someone loved their pet.But then as you dig deeper you find more and more of them and there's clearly something awful that happened. If this were my gruesome song this would be about when the people in the house found out that their neighborhood used to have a zoo 150 years ago but it caught on fire and was bulldozed and no one ever wanted to talk about it again and so people forgot.
posted by jessamyn at 5:55 PM on February 14, 2020 [17 favorites]

A sewer line or a septic tank would ruin things in maybe a different way than you’re looking for.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:01 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hey, I actually had this happen to me and to this day it’s still a mystery but I’ll tell you what I found. So, there I am, deciding to rip up the very patchy lawn of my new house. I hire a cheap gardener and he calls me out and says, hey, check this out.

And there it is, a large concrete, coffin shaped box. Maybe two, two and a half metres long? In the middle of my yard. We stare at it. What do you think it is, I ask? I don’t know, he says, but there’s a round hole about 15cm in diameter in the top of it. We get a torch and look inside. It’s pitch black. We can’t see anything, but it’s deep. I drop a piece of string in it to see how deep it is but that’s inconclusive. We debate whether it is an actual coffin.

I tell my friends. Pretty soon we’re having ‘Lost’ parties where we gather around the hatch with beers and debate what the actual heck is inside it. It’s very entertaining and I end up fielding a lot of calls from friends of friends wanting to see my hatch. (Hardyhaha!)

I have a chat with my elderly next door neighbour and he drops an entertaining tidbit. Apparently at one point the house was owned by a police detective and the neighbour used to hear him in the yard in the middle of the night shifting things around. The conversation at my Lost parties quickly changed from alien hatches to buried drug money or worse.

So what happened? Well, we’ll never know. I lost my job and had to move interstate for work and sell the house. We grassed over the hatch for resale purposes. I wasn’t game to dig up the hatch because removing it and filling it in was too expensive and I don’t think the imaginary drug money there we all hoped for would be enough to pay for it. Also, if there was a body there, I didn’t have time to deal with that either.

I’m kinda glad we never solved the mystery, it’s been more fun to imagine than actually find out it was something very mundane after all.
posted by Jubey at 6:02 PM on February 14, 2020 [45 favorites]


Archeologically significant find? Fossils?
posted by Scattercat at 6:02 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: something of significant value that you can't sell bc the state immediately seizes your property via eminent domain and gives you nothing but a lifetime of suffering in return

the song is now about colonialism
posted by poffin boffin at 6:06 PM on February 14, 2020 [51 favorites]

Best answer: Illegal toxic waste dump. Those rusty metal drums we found? There's more of them underneath, Ma'am, and some of the ones deeper seem to be full. And then the contractor who was digging the pool and his entire crew take off like a bomb went off in the middle of them. They leave the backhoe idling and their lunch coolers knocked over and they run.

Maybe a verse about the geiger counter ticking will give you a beat for the song? And don't forget the people in hazmat suits making a cordon around the no-go zone with the family trapped inside.

They put illegal ones wherever the land hasn't been developed yet enough for them to get caught.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:07 PM on February 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

How about something that calls into question your known background?

For example, a tombstone for a person that has... the exact same and date of birth as your mother, but a date of death as your own date of birth. Which would lead to some kind of terrible realization.
posted by meowzilla at 6:10 PM on February 14, 2020 [13 favorites]

Pipes wrapped in asbestos.
Munitions dump
Air raid shelter filled with ...
posted by sciencegeek at 6:12 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Something like "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly". Starting with the skeleton of some small creature and then finding skeletons of larger and larger creatures as the digging goes on.
posted by ShooBoo at 6:15 PM on February 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

Jimmy Hoffa's left femur.

Then the site becomes a crime scene and they spend months meticulously excavating the rest of the yard but never find anything else.
posted by bondcliff at 6:15 PM on February 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Some real life inspiration for you: The Toxic Waste Pit Next Door: “Nearly 100 years after the Army buried chemical weapons in DC’s Spring Valley, it’s still finding bombs and lethal chemicals under the homes there.”
posted by sallybrown at 6:18 PM on February 14, 2020 [11 favorites]

It's probably a bit too mundane but in some localities it wasn’t unheard of to have fuel oil tanks buried outside of the foundation (instead of having it take up space inside). Eventually they corrode and leak. Once discovered, it's the home owner's responsibility to replace any contaminated soil.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:24 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

You could find just a skull, which at first seems archaeological and obviously unrelated to your own lives, then gradually turn on each other and tear apart your family as it becomes harder and harder to establish that one of you did not in fact murder somebody. This was what happened in The Witch Elm by Tana French.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:27 PM on February 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

True story: My neighbours found a deep, century-old cistern under a foot of dirt in their back yard, in the middle of Toronto. They almost lost a pet into it, because how the hell dig down two feet and find a deep hole with a century worth of stale water in it in the middle of a modern city?

It was super expensive to fill in as I understand it.
posted by mhoye at 6:28 PM on February 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

I can't find it now but some years ago there was a person who sort of live blogged finding a tunnel in their back yard, that was built by Germany during the occupation of Jersey in WWII. I think it was on a car forum.

Anyway, what if your patriarch finds some kind of nazi tunnel...and there are some nazi documents stashed in it..and one of those documents indicates that the patriarchs father...was a very enthusiastic nazi!!!
posted by pilot pirx at 6:29 PM on February 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

I read a Roald Dahl story about a farmer who discovered literal buried treasure (Roman, I think) while plowing his field. Then there was drama about who it belonged to. This being Dahl, there was plenty of Gothic horror.
posted by basalganglia at 6:37 PM on February 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

During the 50’s and 60’s, the US lost at least two atomic bombs when the planes carrying them ran into trouble. One was lost near Savannah, GA, and the Navy apparently lost one near Whidbey Island in Washington state.

In both cases the bombs are “presumed” to have landed in water.

(FallibleHuman goes to kitchen, grabs tin foil, dons a very fine chapeaux.)
posted by FallibleHuman at 6:39 PM on February 14, 2020 [9 favorites]

Fallout shelter with a child’s body inside.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:55 PM on February 14, 2020 [11 favorites]

Your excavation team calls you at work and says the backhoe has discovered something a few yards from the house foundation. You leave early and drive home to find a trench in the backyard. You and a neighbor (you're not an idiot to explore alone) grab flashlights and crawl into a stone and timber room, pungent with damp earth and the smell of decay. Within, you find....

Weathered leather satchels filled with clothing and other goods. A few personal belongings, none from recent times. A lamp and multiple candles. And while following a peculiar cool breeze... a tunnel opening behind shelving.

Explore at your own risk.
posted by TrishaU at 6:56 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yourself. Or a long-lost twin.
posted by transitional procedures at 6:56 PM on February 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

Brown Recluse infestation


Fire ants

Hastily buried biohazard bags
posted by bunji at 7:00 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

On a more fictional note: a Cold War shelter with someone very old and very crazy still living in it.
posted by mhoye at 7:03 PM on February 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

Spring Valley is a very rich and fancy residential neighborhood in D.C. that is full of arsenic because it was built on top of buried World War I munitions. The neighborhood is next to a university, and the university had a whole chemical-weapons-development program during World War I. When the war ended, they buried the munitions, and then the neighborhood got built on top of that site. So yeah, you could totally have toxic waste in a fancy neighborhood, and people totally could have dug up torpedoes and whatnot when they were building a pool.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:08 PM on February 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

An elder god
posted by Feminazgul at 7:14 PM on February 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

An envelope with Arlo Guthrie's name on it under half a ton of garbage, along with plaster tire tracks, foot prints, dog smelling prints, and twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against him.
posted by flabdablet at 7:19 PM on February 14, 2020 [29 favorites]

a Roald Dahl story about a farmer who discovered literal buried treasure (Roman, I think) while plowing his field.
That would be The Mildenhall Treasure.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:22 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

I also don't know which toxic chemicals would get buried, or what containers they'd get buried in?
DDT or Agent Orange in 55 gallon drums. After these chemicals got banned, how did the people who possessed them dispose of them?

Boxes and boxes of cremated remains. If they are labelled, you have one set of problems. If they are unlabelled, you have a different set of problems.

Meth lab? LSD lab?
Abandoned torture chamber, with or without the bodies of victims?
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:51 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

The old house you just knocked over: you failed to dig out the roots (they go deep) and now it's growing back.
posted by teremala at 7:56 PM on February 14, 2020 [44 favorites]

Gold, or money then the occupants turn on one another to get it, Shallow Grave style.

If you want to base it on something real-life horrific, Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home (tw: dead babies, institutional cruelty)
posted by scruss at 7:59 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

In Britain my parents dug and found a skull. That first lead to the coroner, then to the antiquities people, and l-o-n-g delay while the whole burial was unearthed. Not scary but a major impediment to their plans (to get gravel for their farm roads). It turned out to have been a woman who died/was killed in the late middle ages. Sorry, I was a young kid at the time and don't remember details, except that as a kid it WAS scary and weird, and my parents were seriously freaked out for a long time.
posted by anadem at 7:59 PM on February 14, 2020 [11 favorites]

You inherited the house from your parents who inherited from your grandparents. You start digging and find the skeletons of many babies. Testing indicates the burials span decades - the most recent occurring a few years before you inherited it.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 8:01 PM on February 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

I grew up near a town that hosted an Army lab that did chemical/biological weapons research in the mid-20th century. In the early 00s, I saw a lot of things like this referenced in our local paper. In this case, the waste was buried on Army property and the concern was contamination leeching into the water table, but if you feel like artistic license, one can easily imagine a scenario in which maybe some barrels were misplaced and land was sold off, etc. There are some high-end homes not far away (as well as, y'know, an entire mid-sized city).
posted by Alterscape at 8:01 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

A critically endangered species which has recently made its home on your property and experts had assumed it was extinct. You now cannot do anything to your yard or garden or house lest you disturb its habitat. It is very very sensitive to noise and disruption and the slightest disturbance could cause it to abandon its young/fail to lay eggs/whatever and doom the species forever. It’s not even something cute like a bird, it’s more of a reptile or bug type creature. And you’re rich and you went to all those save the rainforest benefit galas so you have to go along with it or your social circle will think you’re a massive jerk.
posted by castlebravo at 8:05 PM on February 14, 2020 [9 favorites]

On the toxic leak angle: some other rich person hoarded fuel in an underground tank (the pipes were concealed in some kind of charming structure you hadn't gotten around to renovating yet), they died without anyone else remembering it was there (or they knew perfectly well how expensive remediating it would be and conveniently forgot to disclose it) and it has since rusted through.
posted by teremala at 8:05 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

How creepy do you want it to be? It could be a skeleton wearing the same outfit as what she is wearing. Talk about creepy.
posted by Toddles at 8:06 PM on February 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

Also, wearing the same dress? How embarrassing.
posted by Toddles at 8:06 PM on February 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

Following up on ArbitraryandCapricious - I knew an eminent Berkeley prof who bought a nice old house in the hills that had been owned at the last turn of the century by a previous eminent prof. A chemistry prof, long before safety standards, who brought work home.

She was planning to study chemical movement and remediation with it, as soon as she was reasonably sure nothing was going to explode.
posted by clew at 8:09 PM on February 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

An underground bunker the likes of the Toy Box Killer's trailer of horrors complete with homemade PVC pipe dildos and sketchbooks filled with obscene drawings
posted by erattacorrige at 8:33 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

An upside down version of the house you just demolished.
posted by BeeDo at 8:38 PM on February 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Digging around in our back yard, we found an old septic tank. It must date back to the 1950s or maybe a bit earlier. So that is completely realistic.

According to my friend the landscape architect, all you need to do to take care of it is fill it with sand, so honestly it is not that traumatic--unless maybe it is filled with something worse than normal septic tank waste.

FWIW it was a bit mysterious and creepy to first find what looked like an entrance to Hades buried like one foot deep under the grass, and then upon opening it up to find something basically the size of a small room but underground and completely unknown.

On a more practically horrifying note, the type of spill I have seen contaminate whole neighborhoods based on one rather small and commonplace point leak is dry cleaning solvent.

Explanation of the problem and various scenarios. FYI there are something like 22,500 of this type of contaminated site in the U.S. alone.

So here is your scenario for a residential home: The former owner had owned a chain of dry cleaning stores, had stored barrels of dry cleaning solvent in the back yard in say a root cellar. This was back in the 60s and the entrance to the root cellar somehow got buried under after the owner died in the early 1970s.

When they dug into it they found 40 barrels of dry cleaning fluid but they had all sprung leaks and slowly leaked out of the past 50 years.

Now you're going to have to basically nuke not just the whole house and yard, but the whole neighborhood from orbit.

A similar scenario would be the owner of a nursery storing various toxic yard chemicals dating back to say the 1950s and 60s. We've got a local nursery that dates back that far. The owner lived on site and god only knows what has been stored--and leaked--from there over the past 70 years.

They've been trying to sell the place for years but of course nobody wants to buy it without doing the testing and the owner sure doesn't want to do testing and find out for sure what the (super-expensive and now completely-owned-by-you) real extent of the problem is.

Take the scenario and multiply by a few times due to willful stupidity instead of just garden variety ignorance, and there you go. This person could have been storing their nursery chemicals in some backyard storage thing as well, using their residential property's backyard garage or shed or root cellar or whatever as a bit of extra storage for business-related chemicals. And now the subject of your song has just bought this yard and built her dream house on top of this mess.

FWIW one of my friends works for our state division of natural resources and one of his jobs is coming along and cleaning up in these situations--where someone has found 60-year-old rusted leaky drums of toxic chemical waste type X sitting in the back of some old warehouse or basement.

He has a whole lot of "funny" stories, let me tell you.
posted by flug at 9:15 PM on February 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

Oil or other valuable natural resource (although how that would be missed in building the subdivision I couldn't say).

At first you're like, Hey free money, but free money will destroy your life. And you had to destroy your house to get to it.
posted by amtho at 9:24 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: > He has a whole lot of "funny" stories, let me tell you.

The typical story might help provide some of the motivation you're looking for, by the way.

It goes something like this: Some kind of local business or manufacturing company, sometimes a very, very small one, makes something has some kind of toxic byproduct. Perchlorates, dioxin, PCBs--that type of stuff.

So back in the 40s-50s-60s they were just dumping that toxic waste stream straight into the local river or stream, maybe sending it in barrels to the local landfill with the rest of their trash, or just dumping a pint or two a day straight down into the sewage system.

There's not too much of it, and it gets really diluted by the river, right?

Then in the 1970s or so the EPA comes along and suddenly they can't dump it in the stream anymore. In fact, it's real, real hard to get rid of the stuff because it is in fact super toxic even in very small amounts, and that's why it's quite properly highly regulated and you just aren't allowed to dump it anywhere. Disposing of it properly or even just transporting it is super-expensive and complicated.

So is storing it properly--but no one is really looking over your shoulder on that.

And the small business is producing just a small amount of this, let's say a couple of gallons per month, and the upshot is, they're continually producing just a little more if it month by month, and they just can't get rid of it.

So they buy some storage drums, put them down in the basement or at the end of the warehouse, and just keep adding their monthly output to it, month after month and year after year. It's really not too much to just keep in storing a few, or even a couple dozen, drums of the stuff over the long term, especially considering the $millions they are making selling their product.

So at some point the business goes defunct, the owners have to clean out the warehouse, and they take their 5 drums of Super Extra Toxic Chemical Waste X, representing 50 years of manufacturing Widget #468, and put it in the back of their shed or garage in the backyard. And the old root cellar or well house (or abandoned septic tank?) is a real nice out of the way climate controlled place to park a few drums of something like that until you can figure out what to do with them.

Five years later, sudden heart attack and 40 years later your subject buys the property.

There you go.

I don't know that my friend ever ran across that exact scenario. But someone rents warehouse space, gets poking around in the basement and finds seven rusty old leaky drums of mysterious black gooey extremely toxic and illegal Chemical X?

Oh, yeah--those are a dime a dozen.

So someone storing some stuff like this in some residential basement or outbuilding, and then finding it by accident year or decades later, is not far fetched at all.
posted by flug at 9:39 PM on February 14, 2020 [12 favorites]

Best answer: A friend of mine brought in to do a building investigation found a 1940's fuel tankwith in excess of 40,000 litres of very nasty decomposed petrol in it. Quite a problem for someone, would have shaved the profit from the development that's for sure.

It is common here for ever-spreading housing developments to swallow up farmland, and farming was\is very chemically dependent. Sheep dips - there are 50,000 of these across the land (arsenic, DDT, Dieldrin...), chemical dumps (245-T, cyanides ...). By law here when land changes use from say farmland to residential there's a legal process to go through but some developers find ways around that and just bury the problem. And unless you really know what you're looking at these are hard to see, above or below ground.

There's a lot of stories out there just waiting to be unearthed...
posted by unearthed at 10:03 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

An underground bunker where another family lives.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:25 PM on February 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

An abandoned radioactive waste site.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:36 PM on February 14, 2020

Go full House of Leaves: a passageway that doesn't end, that can't be accounted for by the dimensions of the land and buildings surrounding it.

Like, oh, how neat, there's an old corridor or hallway underground, must be the remnants of some old building or bomb shelter or maybe even a secret tunnel for some cool and/or nefarious purposes. It looks totally normal, not eldritch or like an old ruin, just like an old corridor, only underground and with no lighting. Let's explore it a little, see where it goes and for how long. You expect to go a few hundred yards, but it's more than that. In fact, you walk down it for long minutes, for nine and a half minutes even, and then longer still than that, and you realize you don't know where the hell you are or where the tunnel goes, but it's still a finished tunnel, complete with hardpacked floor and walls, and you haven't taken any turns. And there's still more tunnel stretching out in front of you.
posted by yasaman at 11:32 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

A missing airplane. Or a large amount of asbestos.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:30 AM on February 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

I like the idea of finding oil, or gold or some other mineral resource that may or may not indicate a really big find. Like if the matriarch's father (or grandfather) had been a rash speculator of such and the greed and skullduggery of the busines wrecked him or led to murder or some other dark act that tore the family apart and it had taken a generation to heal the wounds and escape the legal and emotional quagmire that had near ruined the family name...

Now to be faced with the possibility of the cycle beginning again!
posted by freya_lamb at 12:58 AM on February 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

A few suggestions:

I would go with the bones, but make it nice and horrible: a long-term group grave pointing to a forgotten eerie orphanage that ceased to exist in 1867 or something like that.

Or, to go with the air shelter idea, someone could indeed sit in there, mummified, and fully clothed, but it must be some celebrity from the past who unaccountably has vanished (preferably on a different continent, to make it even more confusing).

Otherwise: top-secret documents of a forgotten era that for some reason are still bad-to-have,

Or: unaccounted-for stolen art from the Nazi era, such as parts (but not all parts) of the original Amber Room, prompting an official-led entire dig-up of your yard, which takes half a year and leaves everything in heaps.

[some would want you to find a gigantic stash of cheese, I'm sure]
posted by Namlit at 1:06 AM on February 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: A friend bought a house that was previously owned for many years by a chemist who worked at a nearby chemical plant. Cleaning out the basement, he found a container with about a liter of mercury. Fire department hazmat team came out, sealed it up for him, and went away again, leaving the mercury behind. I think he was eventually able to drop it off at a household hazardous waste event, after trying a ton of other routes.

There's also part of a neighborhood outside Philadelphia that was built with radium tailings. The EPA rebuilt several houses. Scroll down to the Austin Street site. The Lansdowne radiation site on the same page was the result of a professor processing radium ore in his basement.
posted by sepviva at 3:24 AM on February 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Kind of weirdly curious - I know of a farmer who would use the auger on his tractor to dig holes to bury family dogs. So someday someone will eventually come on about 20 dog skeletons buried as if they are standing up on their hind legs with their feet straight up. You could use this method to imagine all kinds of things from weird and curious to obsessive and evil, I'd think.
posted by Tchad at 3:31 AM on February 15, 2020 [8 favorites]

A hidden room, fully equipped, sound proofed. Securely bolted. A child's faded belongings.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:35 AM on February 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Somewhere in South America (Chile? Peru?) a farmer investigated a hole in his field and uncovered a volcano. The lava would have made it to the surface in a very short while anyway, though.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:46 AM on February 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: First off, the demolished house was a treasure trove of old photographs, letters and momentos which have all been removed to a local museum as 'The (name) Family Archive'. This house is in Europe, the artefacts beautiful, the family cultured and beneficent.
Secondly, there's a bunker or tunnel found as per many ideas above. On discovery this is filled with heaps of old clothing, ripped open bags, purses, pocket books, shoes etc. The bags aren't empty but there's no money in them.
Examination of the most accessible heap leads to discory of personal effects (drivers licence? Credit card?) from a fairly recent dissapearence. As examination continues, this is repeated.
This inspection is carried out on site, is forensically painstaking, and takes years, every so often turning up a document or object throwing light on a known disappearance. The finds go further and further back in time; currently they're going through heaps and heaps of mediaeval material.
posted by glasseyes at 4:54 AM on February 15, 2020 [7 favorites]

That's a sort of Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas story isn't it? Nevertheless it's based on a real thing where I lived once. Not the mediaeval bit tho
posted by glasseyes at 4:57 AM on February 15, 2020

Amelia Earhart?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:58 AM on February 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

If it's a chemical, you might as well make it 2,4,5 Trioxin or polydichloric euthimal.

Somewhere in South America (Chile? Peru?) a farmer investigated a hole in his field and uncovered a volcano.

I expect you're thinking of Paricutin in Mexico?
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:05 AM on February 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

A monkey's paw. A djinn? A mummy?
A spooky locked book covered with strangely soft leather?
A manticore?
A ghastly totem pole?
An old revolver with a message in its muzzle?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:06 AM on February 15, 2020

Who, me? Nah. It was a very real horrible thing: the taxi drivers were looking for one of their union members who'd disappeared and they knew the destination of his latest fare. On investigation they found the heaps of stuff - and some other much worse things
posted by glasseyes at 5:07 AM on February 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Okay how about this. A skull is found under the retaining wall foundations at every cardinal point: millionaire who built the house suffered a great personal tragedy as it was being built resulting in the loss of his wife and kids. Later remarried with new family having gorgeous happy upbringing in said house.
Isn't that corny? Yet this also extrapolated from a real event.
posted by glasseyes at 5:17 AM on February 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

Following on the previous owners were gardeners angle, how about DDT or agent orange? They just had a large supply stored away and forgot about it.
posted by stillmoving at 5:27 AM on February 15, 2020

A mottled, throbbing, slightly warm to the touch tentacle. Where it ends? Beyond your property line. And tendrils seem to be growing towards your nice new house...
posted by Redhush at 5:41 AM on February 15, 2020

Actually come to think of it a little more, an illegal stash of rhino horn.
posted by Namlit at 5:45 AM on February 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

1. Site of an abandoned and improperly demolished gas station, where the underground tanks were just bulldozed over. Eventually, they ruptured, creating a toxic plume that contaminated the town's wellfield. You're on the hook for the cleanup.

2. A fracking operation has drilled in horizontally under your land, contaminating your water supply with unknown fracking fluids that the drillers are not obliged to identify. They are also immune to lawsuits or prosecution, because Republicans.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:28 AM on February 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

I once drove up to Fort McHenry to find it closed because an archeological dog had unearthed an unexploded munition. Likely from the Civil War. You could match that up with whatever local history makes it feasible.

We’re getting far enough away from The Silence of the Lambs, that not everyone knows that part of the movie involves a dugout area of a residential home. The movie was dark enough (but solidly good) that I never had an inclination to read the book.

It could also have a survivalist bunker gone horribly wrong, used for human trafficking.

People can also have hobbies with unexpected consequences - look over the plot (non-fiction) of The Radioactive Boy Scout.
posted by childofTethys at 7:00 AM on February 15, 2020

Best answer: I still think sometimes about the woman who did not know what to do with three pounds of mercury. If AskMe had not been there, maybe she would have buried the bucket.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:16 AM on February 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

The fossilized tail of a previously unknown dinosaur. The rest of the body is attached, but under the foundation of the house.
posted by pingzing at 7:26 AM on February 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

Accidentally breaking into the top of someone’s illicit tunnel. Either Bruce Wayne’s secret exit, or the mob’s active tunnel under the border. Now you have powerful people that want you silent and have the money and motivation to detect you were there.
posted by unknown knowns at 9:42 AM on February 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

Japanese knotweed
posted by Lanark at 10:15 AM on February 15, 2020 [6 favorites]

A giant fungus that is either exceedingly rare (therefore must be protected/studied) or toxic in some extreme way. It could turn out to extend under the whole neighborhood, which would be discovered as each neighbor digs up some part of their lawn too.

(Mind you, I think fungus horror is unfair to fungi! And yet kind of compelling nonetheless, they have a certain alien quality. Imagine finding some thick, living, vivid orange, dense, slightly slimy mat, too thick to dig through, that just goes on and on...)
posted by marlys at 11:02 AM on February 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

Indian burial mound.

The remains of the Jamestown settlers.

The Morlock.
posted by jabo at 11:26 AM on February 15, 2020

posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 11:29 AM on February 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

A piece of paper that reads "Keep digging! You are almost there!". A little deeper, another one that reads "Just a bit further!" and nothing else.
posted by baggers at 11:39 AM on February 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

Items of archeological significance. You mention it to a friend, next thing you know the yard is marked off with string, there are students milling about, digging, and you're never going to have peace, or access to your yard, again.
posted by theora55 at 12:40 PM on February 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

A bomb shelter with a family inside still living happily on their canned goods, waiting for the fifty year mark when it’s safe to come out from the fallout
posted by Mchelly at 4:42 PM on February 15, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: At first it seems like a sheet of crystal. Nothing seems to be able to break it up. Then someone thinking they are clever starts using tuning forks. They hit it with one of the lower notes and the crystal begins to crack and then to shatter. The whole neighborhood feels it. The crystal had simply been a container for...
posted by Ignorantsavage at 8:35 PM on February 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

It turns out you weren't an only child after all.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:47 PM on February 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

A tank which contains the kind of toxic sludge nobody likes to talk about, and once you think you have the whole problem sorted out, with permits, government folks willing and able to take responsibility to remove it, and so on, your next door neighbor comes back from a long vacation and says, “Hey, do you know who stole my supply of toxic sludge?”
posted by Mister Moofoo at 3:39 AM on February 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everybody for amazing ideas, which are being incorporated into the song now!
posted by Black Cordelia at 11:05 AM on February 16, 2020

An Oak Island-like treasure pit that will attract trespassers and treasure-seekers for decades.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:04 PM on February 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

A bottomless hole. Soon your home is deluged with scientists, crackpots, and religious zealots, all with their own reasons for staring into the void.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:11 AM on February 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

The biggest, most precarious sinkhole in the state. It's a new record!
posted by helloimjennsco at 11:01 AM on February 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

there it is, a large concrete, coffin shaped box. Maybe two, two and a half metres long? In the middle of my yard. We stare at it. What do you think it is, I ask? I don’t know, he says, but there’s a round hole about 15cm in diameter in the top of it. We get a torch and look inside. It’s pitch black. We can’t see anything, but it’s deep. I drop a piece of string in it to see how deep it is but that’s inconclusive. We debate whether it is an actual coffin.

My backyard contains a decommissioned septic tank that fits this description pretty closely.
posted by flabdablet at 7:31 AM on February 21, 2020

Nobody here has seen Poltergeist, where a haunted suburban neighborhood turns out to be (spoiler) built on a graveyard? "You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!"
posted by booth at 5:16 AM on February 23, 2020

Au contraire
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:46 AM on February 23, 2020

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