Hunters of the Jersey Devil, from left, Belinda Connolly, Laura Leuter, |
Charley Lolio and Katie Brown. Image courtesy of nytimes.com
Late summer is not optimum devil-hunting time. For one thing, the creature tends to reveal itself more often in winter, when the somewhat suffocating Pine Barrens of South Jersey carry an extra sense of dread. For another, the ticks are murder this time of year.
A few dedicated hunters gather instead at JD’s Pub, in a strip mall near the epicenter of the Jersey Devil phenomenon. On the surrounding walls hang old illustrations of that which they seek: cloven hooves, a horselike face, a wing span perhaps too wide for browsing the aisles at the Super Foodtown a few doors down.
These college-educated people, who call themselves the Devil Hunters, order a round of soft drinks that includes two Shirley Temples. They say they are the “official researchers” of the Jersey Devil, a shy specimen of cryptozoology that has haunted these parts long enough to have sent tricornered hats spinning from the mops of frightened colonists.
Laura Leuter, 30, the group’s president, already knows what you’re thinking: Why don’t these "devil hunters" wake up, walk down to that Super Foodtown and buy some coffee to smell?
"I’m the first one to say, ‘Yeah, I search for the Jersey Devil, ha-ha,'" says Ms. Leuter, who supervises a call center when not searching for devil spoor. "But why, to this day, do people still report sightings?"
Here’s another question: Why do we wish for such things?
Why do we root for the discovery of beings that would subvert our understanding of the natural order? Why, oh why, would a group of people actually hope that somewhere in the dark expanse, beyond the fluorescent lights of a New Jersey strip mall, there frolics — a devil?
This curious desire was in full evidence recently when two men announced their discovery of a half-ape, half-human carcass in the backwoods of Georgia: an ex-Bigfoot that had ceased to be. They placed the remains in a freezer and promised that DNA analysis would conclusively prove the existence of this legendary creature.
That the supposed Bigfoot carcass turned out to be a defrosting rubber costume stuffed with animal entrails is less instructive than the way news outlets reported the matter — first with a kind of hopeful skepticism, then, once the hoax was exposed, with a dismissive, we-knew-it-all-along harrumph.
"Hoaxes," an annoyed Ms. Leuter says. "A complete waste of everybody’s time."
In this sense, these soda-sipping devil hunters, sitting here discussing their hobby the way others might discuss a shared interest in model trains, or Cabbage Patch dolls, search on our behalf. They explore that dark piney chasm between fact and legend, acting upon what most of us, at one time or another, have thought: Something’s out there.
The beautiful and mysterious Pine Barrens can encourage such thoughts. A largely undeveloped swath of pines and oaks, swamps and bogs, it covers more than a million acres at the bottom of the country’s most densely populated state and has produced scores of legends and stories, though none as famous as that of the Jersey Devil.
The most common version, dating to 1735, concerns a local woman named Mother Leeds. Married to a drunken ingrate and pregnant with her 13th child, she had what today might be called a "moment." She expressed weariness with children and a wish that her unborn baby be a devil.
Have you ever wished you could take back something you’ve said?
Instead of greeting the world with coos, the story goes, the newborn mutated into a serpentine-tailed devil and introduced himself to family members by eating a few of them. He then flew up the chimney and out into the Jersey wilderness to begin centuries of shrieking, lurking and occasional mauling.
Maybe the birth of a deformed child led to the story’s creation; maybe parents concocted the tale to keep children from straying into the enveloping woods. Whatever the origin, the place of the devil in lore was secured in January 1909, when strange footprints, attacks on livestock and reported encounters with the devil over several days created panic in parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Posses conducted searches, police officers fired guns, and schoolchildren and mill workers found reason to stay home.
Occasional sightings since then have provided fiery breath for the legend. And despite the demonic naming of a professional hockey team, the crush of television programs desperate for Halloween footage and a movie that was scary for all the wrong reasons — “13th Child: Legend of the Jersey Devil,” starring Cliff Robertson (!), Lesley-Anne Down (!!) and Robert Guillaume (!!!) — the creature remains real enough for some people to warrant pursuit.
Ms. Leuter, for one, became so frightened by stories of the Jersey Devil when she was a child that she decided to conquer her fear by reading everything she could about the creature. Several years ago, she helped to create the Devil Hunters, a group that today has a dozen active members, a very active Web site, www.njdevilhunters.com, and a somewhat rigorous application process.
Prospective members fill out a questionnaire and are interviewed at JD’s Pub, where they are judged on their knowledge of devil lore, friendliness and likely dependability during nighttime tramps through brush and swamp. Those who express a desire to kill the Jersey Devil are rejected.
The hunters spend some of their time investigating sightings reported to the Web site: conducting interviews, visiting scenes, the usual shoe-leather stuff. Although they try not to appear too skeptical, for fear it might discourage candor, they know instantly when a report strays too far from the creature’s known habits.
"The devil at a busy intersection in Philadelphia, getting out of a cab?" Ms. Leuter says. "No way."
The rest of the time they are visiting traditional devil haunts: deserted, historic Batsto Village, perhaps, or the remnants of what is said to be Mother Leeds’s home. So far, they have encountered little more than creepy noises, but they adhere to the credo embraced by all seekers of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster and Great Caesar’s ghost.
As Ms. Leuter has written: "Until someone proves that there isn’t something out there, I will continue to believe that there is, and I will also continue my efforts to find proof that the Jersey Devil does in fact exist. So there."
The group routinely receives calls, including more than a few from people wanting to report something seen decades ago. A woman named Gretchen, for example, reported seeing a devil-like creature while driving with her family through the Pine Barrens in 1966. It was the size of a man, she said, with small horns, a long tail and wings that were "not leathery bat wings but not big fluffy angel wings" either.
This year alone, there have been at least 10 possible encounters, including a horselike creature flying over Jackson and a shrieking, winged animal perched on a chicken coop in Eldora. Not long ago a woman reported seeing "a very large creature with red-orange eyes" flying out of the woods along the Garden State Parkway in Seaville.
So vivid. So real. So wishing it were true.