Scary stuff isn’t just confined to the pages of a book, being projected onto the silver screen, or walking through a haunted attraction. Sure, we walk away from that stuff, repeating the “it’s not real” mantra over and over again…but what if it was?
For the last few months, I’ve been working on a web series called “Crypto Country,” where I’ll be scouring the nation (or my own backyard, at first) in search of the true stories behind some of America’s greatest myths and legends. Is Bigfoot real? Do aliens exist? Did I just see a g-g-g-g-ghost? Is there really a sea monster in Lake Tahoe? What’s the deal with the guy with the hook hand? These are the questions that people want to know the answers to!
Look at this dapper gent!
Though the first few episodes will be confined to Southern California, I will eventually be making my way elsewhere to cover some of the crazy cryptids that inhabit this amazing nation of ours.
But, before each show, I have to do research on said creatures. And in all my research, I thought maybe it would be a good idea to share some of it with you, here, so you can begin to take a peek behind these monsters.
And of course, I thought it would be best if I talked a bit about the one monster that got me into cryptozoology to begin with. He’s the one that scared me when I was a wee youngin’, growing up in the wilds of New Jersey, but grew into a full-blown fascination as I got older.
Of course, I am referring to none other than the Jersey Devil.
Just what IS the Jersey Devil, you ask?
Well, it is, without a doubt, the most enduring and important pieces of folklore to come out of New Jersey (aside from Bon Jovi or Springsteen, of course). The creature has been terrorizing Jerseyans up and down the state for over 300 years.
To set the scene, we have to go back to 1735, deep into the Pine Barrens. The legend says it was around this time that Mother Leeds found herself pregnant again. For the thirteenth time. That’s a lot of kids.
Now, Mother Leeds was not exactly the wealthiest woman on the block. With 12 other mouths to feed, plus her drunk of a husband, times were tough. She was trying her hardest to provide for her family, but things just weren’t going her way.
By the time she began to go into labor with her latest child, she was pretty much at the end of her rope. With a horrific storm raging outside, she exclaimed to the Heavens “Let this one be a devil!”
A face only a mother could love.
By all accounts, the birth of her new child went smoothly, by 1735 standards. The midwives delivered him without a hitch, and Mother Leeds was presented with a normal baby boy.
However, within minutes, he metamorphosed right before everyone’s eyes from a beautiful newborn baby into a hideous creature unlike anything the world had ever seen. The screaming child began to grow quickly. He sprouted horns from his head, talons erupted from his fingers, fur grew all over, and gigantic, bat-like wings unfurled from his back.
With its eyes glowing red, the creature turned against its own mother, killing her, before turning his attack toward the midwives and the rest of his family. He managed to kill some of them, but maimed the others. Few survived, but those that did told how the beast flew up the chimney, destroying it in the process, and flew off into the night. He made his way deep into the Pine Barrens, where he has lived ever since.
Kind of makes other childbirth stories look like a cake walk, eh?
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jersey Devil was spotted quite a bit. He frightened plenty of local residents, and anyone brave enough to venture into the Pine Barrens. Bizarre wails were reported from the dark forest regions, while many domesticated animals and livestock were slaughtered. Of course, all of these things were attributed to the phantom of the pines himself.
The most famous of these incidents occurred during the week of January 16th through 23rd, 1909. All across the Delaware Valley, strange tracks were being found in the snow. The footprints went over and under fences, through fields, and even on rooftops. Reports of them ranged from small cities, large cities (such as Camden), and even as far as Philadelphia.
Needless to say, mass hysteria ensued.
“Human Sacrifice! Dogs and Cats, living together!”
Residents started to form posses to hunt the creature. It was reported that bloodhounds refused to follow the trail in Hammonton, NJ. Many schools closed due to poor attendance, because parents refused to send their children for fear of the creature. Even some major businesses, such as mills, closed their doors so their workers wouldn’t have to brave the creature’s wraith.
He was even spotted, in Camden, NJ, and Bristol, PA. However, both times police fired upon the beast, but failed to subdue it. He appeared in Haddon Heights, NJ, where he supposedly terrorized an entire trolley full of passengers before flying away. He reappeared later that day in Camden again, attacking a social club meeting. Another trolley of folks in Burlington, NJ claimed he crossed the tracks in front of their car (without looking both ways to make sure it was clear, I’m sure). In West Collingswood, he appeared on the roof of a home. Firemen turned a hose on it, but it attacked them and flew off. The entire week, reports of livestock being slaughtered up and down the state were rampant. One woman even claimed it attempted to eat her dog, before she beat it with a broomstick.
The creature was often described as a gigantic, flying kangaroo or with an ostrich-like look. Others still said it had the head of a horse, antlers of a deer, the body of a man, cloven hoofs of a devil, and the wings of a dragon. If they had Instagram back then, surely we would have had a better look. #JerseyDevilAntics
#JerseyDevilAntics #HorseFace #SundayFunday
While the “Incident Week” of 1909 was never repeated, sightings of the Jersey Devil continue even to this day. In fact, when I was still living in New Jersey, I was part of The New Jersey Devil Hunters, a research organization dedicated to discovering the truth about the Jersey Devil and the legend. For years, we would catalog sightings that came in, trying to find a pattern, some sort of rhyme or reason to just what this creature is.
The legend of the Jersey Devil has been embraced by all of New Jersey, but has even spread beyond the borders of the Garden State. He has been portrayed in toys, t-shirts, television shows (like Season 1, Episode 5 of The X-Files), video games, and feature films (like the 2007 animated TMNT film). Heck, even *I* made a film about the Jersey Devil back in 2008 (It’s called Leeds Point, and I co-wrote and produced it. It’s not very good). Of course, most famously, the state’s hockey team is named after the legend.
But the question remains: Is this creature real? Or is it just the product of an over-active imagination, a story that took on a life of its own, and grew into this massive legend? Unfortunately for you, the story about its true origins will be reserved for an episode of Crypto Country in the future.
But for now, I’ll continue to believe that the Jersey Devil is a very real, very dangerous creature who has haunted me since I was small, and continues to fascinate me today.
So tell me, kids! What are YOUR favorite monsters? What myths and legends do you want me to explore in Crypto Country? Let me know!