Let’s start with North America’s Pine Barrens and its most infamous son—the Jersey Devil. This hybrid monster was supposedly an unwanted 13th child, cast to Satan by its witch mother and lurking amidst the trees ever since.
Over the summer, I began researching this story to assess whether I would want to include it in a new book. It’s a fascinating tale but I was soon reminded of the frustrations that often face those that delve into these old tales: plagiarism, embellishment and blind acceptance. These problems seem to affect this genre more than others but, puzzlingly, they are rarely written about.
To illustrate this, let’s look at the two most famous historical sightings of the Jersey Devil. The first tells that, in the early 1800s, a dashing naval hero by the name of Commodore Stephen Decatur spied the Devil “flying across the sky”. Luckily, at the time, Decatur was testing cannons at a range and he was able to fire a shot at the creature. Some stories say that he even managed to hit it, though with no discernible effect—proof surely that the Devil has supernatural powers for what mortal creature could shrug off a cannonball? Stephen Decatur was indeed a dynamic and much-loved naval officer and it’s not unlikely that he was in that area testing cannon and shot because this was the sort of thing he was involved in at various stages of his career. However, it is demonstrably unlikely that even a man as distinguished as Decatur could have hit a flying object with any cannon of the day. When you consider that these were not accurate firearms and all but the smallest were cumbersome, hitting a flying target at any range would be almost impossible. Also, the date of this event varies wildly with some sources stating it took place before Decatur was even born. Presented with such unconvincing elements, one naturally tries to find the earliest source (it eluded my brief hunt) but none of the modern writers allude to it whatsoever, they all just state with varying degrees of elaboration that Decatur shot a cannon at the Jersey Devil.
A second high profile witness of the Devil was none other than Joseph Bonaparte—brother to Napoleon. Apparently, Joseph saw the Jersey Devil while out hunting in the Pine Barrens. Most accounts of this event stop here, giving only these sparse details, but some elucidate further and this leads us to another problem. Here’s just such a passage:
“One snowy afternoon, the ex-King of Spain was hunting alone in the woods near his house when he spotted some strange tracks on the ground. They looked like the tracks of a two-footed donkey. Bonaparte noticed that one foot was slightly larger than the other. The tracks ended abruptly as if the creature had flown away. He stared at the tracks for a long moment, trying to figure out what the strange animal might be.
“At that moment, Bonaparte heard a strange hissing noise. Turning, he found himself face to face with a large winged creature with a horse-like head and bird-like legs. Astonished and frightened, he froze and stared at the beast, forgetting that he was carrying a rifle. For a moment, neither of them moved. Then the creature hissed at him, beat its wings, and flew away.
“When he reported the incident to a friend later that day, Bonaparte was told that he had just seen the famous Jersey Devil.”
This impressively detailed story is described by the author as a retelling. While it’s reasonable to expect embellishment from a retelling, the book it is taken from is listed as non-fiction by some of the retailers I found so, vexingly, this is just the sort of thing that might end up being quoted as an actual account and further obscure what meagre truths existed in the first place. I’ve been able to dig into the Bonaparte story myself but, sadly, I haven’t found anything like an original source online. Like the Decatur story, it’s all the same words regurgitated over and over by a succession of writers and, frankly, I suspect it didn’t happen at all.
There have been many more sightings of note, however, in particular the goings-on that took place in the January of 1909. Sightings here flew thick and fast from a variety of people from all over the area. Mysterious tracks appeared in the snow, going on for miles on end through backyards and over roads, even being spotted in “inaccessible places”. A police officer fired at a weird flying creature, firemen were ‘attacked’ by something similar after they trained a hose on it, and there were myriad reports of terrifying screeches and screams heard at night. Something like thirty towns were said to be affected. Yet, despite all these sightings happening so closely to each other, the descriptions of the beast change radically, with some saying it was a “large, flying kangaroo” and others an “ostrich-like creature”. Clearly, ostriches and kangaroos share little in terms of form. Other reports called it “a white cloud”, a “winged thing”, a “jabberwocky”, a thing “three feet high…long black hair over its entire body, arms and hands like a monkey, face like a dog, split hooves, and a tail a foot long.” Not only do many of these descriptions not tally, but they miss each other by a country mile—yet most authors are more than happy to attach them all to the Jersey Devil.
Since then, more people have come forward—a handful each decade—describing what they think were their own brushes with the Devil. These include such details as cars being attacked, family dogs found slain and gnawed upon, disembodied screaming—even a creature whose face dripped with blood and another with glowing red eyes. The only thing these reports have in common is that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence presented for any of them. No body parts to send to the lab, no photographs, no videos to analyse: as far as I can tell, nothing truly passable as evidence as the Devil’s work, yet it’s all happily accepted by many writers as being fact: according to them, Decatur certainly did hit the creature with that cannon shot, Bonaparte absolutely did encounter it while hunting and the Devil did terrorise towns in 1909; and it is this blind acceptance and lack of proper research that pervades so many of our books about the paranormal. If you want a cheap scare then that’s probably fine, but what if readers want more? What if readers want some meaningful knowledge?
And here’s a thing: you can present these stories in all their macabre and terrifying glories yet still wonder about them; you can debunk them entirely without totally diminishing what macabre fascinations they offer.
I suspect the problem of poor research is due to the time it takes to conduct. Sometimes you have to spend hours upon hours making sure the facts in a single sentence are correct. Sometimes you can dedicate days to scratching a legend’s surface for no result at all. I think many paranormal authors are unwilling to go through that and that’s why so many books regurgitate what previously has been written. I’d be willing to go out on a limb and bet that many of this genre’s authors’ research is limited to reading a handful of the best-known extant ghost books. Perhaps that’s harsh but, certainly, it’s even worse when trawling online sources. Try it yourself: pick a well-known case and pop it into a search engine. The chances are that a huge amount of the ‘copy’ you find written will be suspiciously similar from website to website. This is more about paraphrasing than the paranormal.
Let’s look for a moment at London and the haunting of 50 Berkeley Square. This is an old property in a prestigious area that is said to have a mysterious and grisly supernatural past. If you read any account it is often mentioned that there’s a sign inside the building put there by the police in the 1950s warning people not to use the top-most rooms (where most of the phenomena is said to have taken place—including supernaturally-induced deaths). This detail caught my eye; surely if the police put up such a thing it must prove that something serious was going on there. Also, almost everyone talks about this sign in articles and books, some as though they had seen it in person. Well they didn’t see it in person and the sign proves nothing because it’s actually an old air raid warning left over from the Second World War—nothing to do with ghosts, poltergeists, or other spooky things at all. How do I know? I contacted the house’s current occupiers, Maggs Brothers, and asked about it.
Now, of course, it is very difficult to not get something wrong when you’re dipping a toe into the world of non-fiction, especially if you don’t have proofreaders and editors on hand and, despite pointedly trying to be rigorous in my own research, I’ve done it myself. (Of course, I’m fully expecting problems with this piece to be pointed out.) After all, we’re only human and humans make mistakes. Not only that but deadlines and budgets often simply do not allow resources that true, in-depth research demands, so I’d like to be clear here—the authors I’m aiming this at are those that don’t seem to do any real research at all. No digging, no quotes or sources, no questions asked. For instance, one well-known author is almost on their thirtieth book regarding the ghost tales from a single city—how the vast majority of the stories contained within such a series are not transposed from elsewhere, unsubstantiated or simply made up on the spot is beyond me.
Research is good, research is your friend—it adds hidden details and tantalising exposition to these already colourful and emotive stories. And even if there is no source material or you aren’t in a position to find it what’s wrong with saying you just don’t know? What’s wrong with presenting what is known and asking the readers to make their own mind up?
I suspect too that the world of the paranormal contains a large amount of writers and readers that simply want to believe no matter what contradictory truths might lurk a one-minute-Google away. For them, I think Harry Leeds—supposed modern descendant of the Jersey Devil—should have the last say, as his words about exploring the Pine Barrens provide a rather fitting allegory:
“When you’re out there, your visibility is restricted and the trees seem to go on forever. The least little disturbance gets all your adrenaline flowing and gets you imagining things.”
- American Myths and Legends, Charles Skinner, 1903. J.B. Lippincott.
- Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Ancient World, Robert E. Krebs, 2003. Greenwood.
- Phantom of the Pines: More Tales of the Jersey Devil, James F. McCloy and Ray Miller Jr, 1998. Middle Atlantic Press.
- Real Monsters, Gruesome Critters, and Beasts from the Darkside, Brad Steiger, 2010. Visible Ink Press.
- Eerie Britain, MB Forde, 2011. Amazon KDP.
- South Jersey Towns: History and Legend, William McMahon, 1973. Rutgers University Press.
- The Ultimate Urban Legends, 2008. Pinkmint Publications.
- Spooky New Jersey, S.E. Schlosser, 2006. Globe Pequot Press.
- Atlantic Monthly, In the Pines F. Mayer, May 1859.
- The Folk and Folklife of New Jersey, David Steven Cohen, 1983. Rutgers University Press.
- Tales of the Jersey Devil, Geoffrey Girard, 2004. Middle Atlantic Press.