A Fictional Town, an Abandoned Movie Set, and Serene Wilderness: Exploring Spectre and Jackson Lake Island

The island’s centerpiece is the fictional town of Spectre from “Big Fish”.
The island’s centerpiece is the fictional town of Spectre from “Big Fish”. Marcus Woolf
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On a small island in a lake outside Montgomery, the sun is setting on the tiny fictional town of Spectre. At the dead end of the street, dim light slips across the weathered face of a church and fades like a dying flame. As evening descends, long shadows creep over the shattered windows of run-down homes huddled near the church.

When director Tim Burton built this fictional town in 2003 for his film Big Fish, he intentionally distressed the buildings. But he probably didn’t imagine that, more than 10 years later, the set would still be there—and become somewhat of a tourist curiosity along the way.

Located on 60-acre Jackson Lake Island, about 10 miles northwest of Montgomery, Spectre looks like a post-apocalyptic town from The Walking Dead. When approaching the rundown church, you can almost imagine a decrepit hand bursting through the wooden front doors. But, during a recent visit, something much less frightening appears.

Spectre’s permanent residents include a herd of goats.
    Marcus Woolf
Spectre’s permanent residents include a herd of goats. Marcus Woolf

Peeking around the corner is the shy face of a young goat. From the rear of the church a rooster lets loose a mighty crow, and within moments a dozen or so goats are ambling around, herded by a ram and the strutting rooster.

Turns out, the owners of the island, Bobby Bright and his wife, Lynn Cardy Bright, brought in the goats to graze and keep the grass low, and now the animals are a big attraction for kids.

Watching the animal procession, Spectre suddenly feels more like a sleepy farm than a haven for ghoulish things. While people from all over the world venture to Jackson Lake Island to see the spooky movie set, they also visit for the beautiful, relaxing environment, with calm waters, green fields, and live oaks draped in Spanish moss.

Over the last seven years, the Brights have spruced up the place and transformed it into a great place to kayak, fish, and even camp. Here, a primer on how to enjoy it.

Pitching a Tent

The bluff on the tip of the island offers beautiful lake views.
    Marcus Woolf
The bluff on the tip of the island offers beautiful lake views. Marcus Woolf

Along the banks of Jackson Lake, the Brights have established campsites, including several with electricity and room for an RV. If you prefer to sleep in a tent, head to the eastern point of the island and pitch your tent on a small bluff just behind the Spectre movie set. From this high perch, your view of the lake is framed by Spanish moss blowing in the breeze. To the side of this campsite, a dirt path provides easy access to a relatively flat bank where you can easily launch a canoe or kayak.

If you want less rustic accommodations on the island, sleep in the Treehouse, a screened-in, elevated wooden structure outfitted with electricity, lights, ceiling fans, a long table, chairs and a cot. On summer evenings, you can listen to the crickets and enjoy a view of the lake, while the electric fans provide relief from the heat. Plus, there’s a restroom with showers just a few yards away.

If you visit the island with a group of friends, the Treehouse could be a good option, as it will accommodate several cots, and it sits next to a pavilion where a group can feast. (You’ll need a reservation to stay at the Treehouse; call 334-430-7963.)

Finding Peace and Quiet

Kayaking on Jackson Lake near the Alabama River is a popular activity in these parts. 
    Marcus Woolf
Kayaking on Jackson Lake near the Alabama River is a popular activity in these parts. Marcus Woolf

While the island is becoming more popular, you can avoid large crowds if you visit mid-week or avoid peak tourist seasons. On a Tuesday in late June, there were only a handful of RVs on the island and no other tent campers. At night, the island fell silent, except for the occasional horn from a passing train.

When the film Big Fish was released, it did not immediately increase traffic to the island, and many locals in the nearby town of Millbrook knew nothing about the place or the movie set. But about seven years ago, articles about Jackson Lake Island began to trickle out, and the destination now draws a healthy number of visitors. The owners don’t market the place heavily, so it’s still kind of a hidden gem for in-the-know adventurers.

If You Go

When planning a visit to the island, consider bringing a canoe, kayak, or even a paddleboard. You can spend hours exploring the lake and the adjoining Alabama River. While you might encounter a few small boats, the lake can be calm and serene during less busy times.

If you have a fishing kayak, this is the perfect place to use it. While the island might be best known for its movie cred, it’s also popular for the huge catfish and big bass that roam the lake. If you don’t want to fish from a boat, you can easily cast from the lakeshore, which is mostly free of trees and vegetation.

Also, pack your binoculars to get a better view of the many birds that inhabit the island. If you gaze over the lake, you’ll likely see a great blue heron soaring above the still water, or an osprey or eagle hunting for fish.

As you sketch out your day on the island, set aside the late afternoon and early evening to photograph Spectre. When evening approaches and you reach the golden hour, the warm light adds an eerie quality to the townscape.

And bring some cash, because you’ll put your admission fee in a drop-box at the entrance gate. The cost to visit the island for a day is $3 per person (children 2 years old and under are free), and camping overnight is $10 per person per night ($5 for children 10 years old and younger).

Originally written for BCBS of AL.

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