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jimgoad.net :: shout at the jersey devil
Shout at the Jersey Devil
Every place has its creepy legends and ghost storiesit’s just that New Jersey has more of them. There are actual destinations in Jersey called Mount Misery and Ghost Lake and Shades of Death Road. Jersey is reputedly home to the wailing ghosts of countless dead children and also to the “Hooker Man,” a phantom who roams train tracks at night with a lantern looking for his lost arm.
Many of Jersey’s creepier legends emerge from the Pine Barrens, a sandy, swampy, forested Mafia dumping ground comprising nearly a quarter of the state’s land mass. Before whitey came here and mucked up everything, the native Indians called the area “Popuessing,” or “place of the dragon.”
It is said that more Americans believe in the Devil than in God. In 1730, the colonial Jersey village of Mount Holly tried two of its citizens for witchcraft. As the legend has it, five years later in the coastal town of Leeds Point, a witch gave birth to her thirteenth child. Although appearing normal at first, within minutes the infant metamorphosed into a horse-headed, bat-winged, fork-tailed demon that escaped up the chimney and into the pines.
Locals began to report mutilated livestock, missing children, and ungodly shrieks emanating from the woods. In 1740, terror-stricken Pine Barrens residents beseeched a local minister to exorcise the beast. He did, promising that the Jersey Devil would not prey on anyone for a hundred years.
The exorcism apparently only protected against the Devil’s aggression, not random sightings. In the early 1800s, as the story goes, naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur was testing cannonballs forged at Hanover Iron Works in the Pine Barrens when he spotted a weird creature flying nearby. He shot a cannonball at it and blew a hole straight through one wing, but it continued flying as if unharmed. Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, rented a Pine Barrens country cottage from 1816 to 1839 and reportedly spotted the Jersey Devil while hunting.
In 1840, exactly one hundred years after the exorcism, the screams, hoof prints, and slaughtered livestock returned. In 1858, a New Yorker visiting the Pine Barrens noted how the locals seemed afraid to venture outside after dark.
A rash of sightings during one frigid week in January of 1909 would even give pause to most skeptics. The Jersey Devil logged an estimated hundred-plus public appearances in that week alone. As reported in the Philadelphia Record and other newspapers, entire groups spotted the monster at once, including a trolley full of people in Haddon Heights and armed posses in Camden and Collingswood. It was also seen by sober, normally reputable sources such as a Trenton councilman, policemen in several towns, a group of firemen who shot their water hose at it, and the postmaster of neighboring Bristol, PA. Dogs and chickens turned up dead and bizarre hoof prints were found throughout southern Jersey. By week’s end, schools and factories were closed as citizens were mortified of stepping outside even in the daylight.
Seeking the cold rush of fear, I motor into the Pine Barrens.
These jagged forests are populated by an ornery, recalcitrant breed of Swamp Yankees who call themselves “Pineys.” Outside Pine Barrens Liquors east of the colonial ghost town of Batsto there’s a small sign featuring a mischievous cartoon demon and the phrase “I Partied With the Jersey Devil!” A little further down the road is a bar boasting the sign PINEY POWER.
As I breeze past a different local Rifle Club with nearly every mile marker, it occurs to me that I wander into this labyrinth severely outgunned.
The trees here are scrawny needledicks compared to the California redwoods. Not pretty, they cast their gnarled shadows on the road. They look like burnt matchsticks out near the Carranza Memorial, a glorified tombstone in the middle of nowhere commemorating the Mexican aviator who fell to his death out here during a 1920s thunderstorm.
These drab, lonely roads carve a swath through dense woods, and the deeper I go, the more I feel trapped in a maze with no easy exit. Whizzing past the spindly trees, I pass by stagnant bogs, rust-colored streams, gravestone tablets tipping over in weed-choked cemeteries, and an oppressive, queasy silence.
It’s near dusk, and I’m getting scared. I pull off the battered two-lane blacktop onto a pure-sand turnoff and drive into the woods until I find a football-field-sized clearing. The thorny forest rims me on all sides. There are party remnants hereold blankets, quart bottles, charred fire pits, and rusty shotgun shells. I try to take a late-afternoon nap but am awakened by the sound of something bumping into our van.
I see no living culprit, but as I march across the pebbly sandI swear on whatever God it is that I pray to when I fear for my lifeI find hoof prints. Cloven, almost heart-shaped hoof prints.
I remember the 50s sci-fi movie where the couple is parked in the woods and their car battery is dying, but their headlights are the only things which protect them from the giant-brained space aliens who await on the fringes, afraid of the light.
I remember hearing a version of the “Dead Boyfriend” urban legend as a kid, where a couple runs out of gas in the Jersey woods and the boyfriend leaves to get help. In the morning, his girlfriend is awakened by a repeated thudding sound, which turns out to be his dead body swinging from a tree and hitting the car.
I instinctually begin gathering wood for a fire. I light a pile of pine needles, toss some dry twigs on top, and then finally some small logs. By this time, everything within ten feet of the glowing orange flames is darkness.
Then it occurs to me that while the fire may keep away animal predators, it makes me an open target to gun-toting humans. I envision a gakked-out gang of Pineys on dune buggies rolling over those sand hills to slaughter me.
When I mistakenly think I see a pair of headlights heading down my secluded trail, goose bumps sprout on my arms. I keep imagining I see and hear things, but I’m afraid of shining my flashlight and then actually seeing something staring back at me. High over the trees that surround me, I can see the faint glow of urban lights far off in the hazy nighttime sky. For a second my only impulse is to jump in the van and shoot straight back to Philly.
The fire slowly dies. I climb into the van, lock the doors, close my eyes, and force myself to fall asleep.
The next morning I’m eating eggs in Egg Harbor at a chrome-plated diner decked out in East Coast Greco-Guido décor. They sell plastic “Vampire Teeth” in a coin-operated vending machine in the foyer.
My waitress has lived in area for five years and says she doesn’t believe in the Jersey Devil.
She calls over another waitress, a chubster who’s missing a tooth and says she grew up here. When she was a kid, the Jersey Devil was said to live at a nearby lake. As a teen, she’d go out there to “party,” although she believes the Jersey Devil is real.
“I believe the Jersey Devils are a hockey team,” grouses an elderly man in gas-pumper clothes and inch-thick eyeglasses sitting in the booth next to mine. But after ten minutes of polite chitchat, he opens. He claims that years ago, he and his brother saw the Jersey Devil sitting on a hill above the road outside of Hammonton, calmly watching traffic. He also says that he was in a bar once in Green Bank when all the lights inexplicably shut off and he felt someone blowing on the back of his neck, only to turn around and realize it was a ghost. He also saw a flying saucer hovering above one of the trees outside of his house. His dog barked at it.
“You tell people these things, and they don’t believe you,” he says, looking in my eyes with the apparent hope that I believe him. “You drive out to the end of a godforsaken swamp in the middle of the night, you see a lot of things.”
I drove into the Pine Barrens for only one reason, and that was to get scared. And I succeeded. I’m not gonna delve into any faggy, Joseph Campbell-style, man’s-need-for-myth jargon. I will only say that life is pretty boring if you never get scared.