Who's Afraid of the Jersey Devil? How New Jersey Tamed Its Most Terrifying Legend.
The official state bird of New Jersey, my home state, is the eastern goldfinch. Our state mammal is the horse. Our inoperative state slogan, voted in by New Jerseyans in 2006, is "Come See for Yourself," which sounds, not inappropriately, like something a sweaty man cutting the Cinnabon line at a turnpike rest area might shout while gesturing to his crotch. And in 1939, the Federal Writers' Project anointed an entirely different kind of symbol in The WPA Guide to New Jersey:
"By default, the title of official State demon has rested for nearly a century with the Leeds Devil, a friendly native of Atlantic County... Practically everyone in southern New Jersey knows of one or more persons who have seen the devil, but very few will acknowledge personal acquaintance."
You probably know the Leeds Devil by another name, one he was given long after his birth: the Jersey Devil. Like most folktales, there are no two identical tellings of his origin story, but its main (human) character is invariably Mother Leeds, the destitute, outcast woman who became pregnant with an unwanted 13th child and cursed the baby. In 1735, on what one has to imagine was a dark and stormy night, she gave birth to a healthy, normal boy, who quickly transformed into an ungodly monster that flew up the chimney and out into the deep, desolate forests of the Pine Barrens.
It's in that densely wooded region of South Jersey -- more than 1 million acres of which is designated as the Pinelands National Reserve -- that the Leeds Devil has lurked ever since. It's generally agreed that he has wings, hooves, horns, and a tail, but beyond that, his description varies, an organic Frankenstein's monster of parts borrowed from a kangaroo, a goat, an alligator, a horse, a crane, a lizard, a deer, a bat, or a dog (sometimes a German Shepherd, sometimes a collie).
So what, then, is the Jersey Devil? To some, he's real, and worthy of study. To some, he's an irresistibly merchandisable coffee mug or plush toy. To some, he's utterly bloodcurdling. To some, he's an ambassador for nature, a less photogenic Smokey the Bear. To some, he's a worthier candidate for the state quarter than "Washington Crossing the Delaware." To me, the story of the Jersey Devil is the transmutation of a disturbing urban legend that has been feared and loved, co-opted, and commodified. Like any long-surviving organism, he's eminently adaptable.
If a demon sounds like an unlikely source of state pride, then you don't know New Jersey. In 2014, the Jersey Devil made it to the Sweet 16 of NJ.com's True New Jerseyan bracket, at which point he was narrowly defeated by longtime Princetonian Albert Einstein. Jersey Devil tattoos are something of a cottage industry. He's even been immortalized in a ride at New Jersey's largest theme park, sort of, as El Diablo. (A representative for Six Flags Great Adventure explained that the coaster is located in their Mexican-themed Plaza del Carnaval section, hence the name.)
Author Bill Sprouse calls the Jersey Devil the "Kathy Griffin of cryptids," a tier above the farm team comprised of the likes of the Mongolian death worm and Florida's skunk ape, but never mixing in the A-list circles of Nessie and Sasquatch. "Bigfoot has the video and the Loch Ness monster has that picture. Maybe it's a PR thing. There's no consistent messaging: They're not able to decide what the Jersey Devil is and what it actually looks like," said Sprouse, who not only wrote The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil, but may be distantly but directly related to the title character (more on that later).
The beast's deeply implausible anatomy has cost it a shot at the kind of legitimate scientific interest that intermittently bubbles up around Nessie and Sasquatch, explained Dr. Brian Regal, professor of history at Kean University and author of the upcoming The Secret History of the Jersey Devil. "I don't think this day is ever going to come, but if we find out that Bigfoot is real, it's nothing other than an unusual primate living in North America," he said. "But with the Jersey Devil, you have a creature that in its traditional description runs so counter to evolutionary biology. A quadruped with wings? There simply isn't anything like that in the biological record, anywhere."
And yet the Jersey Devil is The Little Cryptid That Could. For a creature whose appearances have been almost entirely confined to a single, relatively tiny state, and whose purported victims are almost always farm animals, his tracks throughout pop culture are as prevalent as they were in the 1909 Burlington snow. Bruce Springsteen has a Jersey Devil song, which should come as no surprise. The Bronx-born, Jersey-raised rapper and producer Anthony Torres is better known by his stage name, Nu Jerzey Devil.
The legend is the subject of a weak first-season X-Files episode in 1993, in which Mulder shirks the Pine Barrens to search the inter-casino alleys of Atlantic City for what Scully calls an "East Coast Bigfoot." The Extreme Ghostbusters busted him in a 1997 episode of the animated series. The 1998 PlayStation game Jersey Devil has little do with the myth beyond its name, unless Mother Leeds was in actuality a mad scientist named Dr. Knarf with a fondness for violent, mutant vegetables. Reconceived as an historical rival of Benjamin Franklin-turned-monster, the Jersey Devil made a guest appearance on the Fox series Sleepy Hollow last year. In fact, if not for TV, out-of-staters might never have heard of the Jersey Devil at all.
"[The Jersey Devil] started to jump into pop culture through the medium of these cable TV reality shows, whether it was Animal X or Scariest Places on Earth," Sprouse said. Minor cryptids were in demand to populate their episodes. "You really couldn't call yourself a monster series unless you did at least one episode about the Jersey Devil," Regal told me. Sprouse wrote in The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil that, by the turn of the millennium, "the media feedback loop had been firmly established. Television shows about the Jersey Devil prompted newspaper stories about the Jersey Devil which in turn prompted more TV shows."
Darren Lynn Bousman grew up far from New Jersey in Kansas City, Kansas, but his interest in cryptozoology led him to fall in love with the Jersey Devil as a child. The director of Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV explored his lifelong fondness for the Phantom of the Pines in 2012's The Barrens, the making of which he describes as a "nine-year journey." True Blood star Stephen Moyer plays the lead role of the patriarch of a Jersey family whose camping trip goes horribly awry -- are they being tormented by you-know-what, or by their increasingly unhinged dad's rabies symptoms? (Or is it both?)
Despite his passion for the subject matter, Bousman got "major, major hate" upon the release of The Barrens. "Hindsight is 20-20. There were some huge mistakes made," the filmmaker told me. He'd always dreamed of making the film on location in the Pine Barrens for authenticity's sake, but ultimately chose to shoot in Toronto due to budget concerns.
"You're making a movie about a geographical location and you're shooting it in a forest that really looked nothing like that geographical location," he said. "It's such a desolate, sparse, awe-inspiring vastness of woods. Now, 98% of the people will never know that, will have no concept of what the Barrens looks like unless they actually research it, like myself. But for those diehard fans, for those people that love the myth and love the lore, like a lot of New Jerseyans, it almost looks like I could have been making fun of it or not taking it seriously or trying to exploit it, when that wasn't the case at all."
Today, Bousman keeps the Jersey Devil head used in the film in his office, where it inspires considerably less terror than it used to. "I have a 2-year-old kid that talks to it," he said. "He literally just walks in and will say hello to it."
The Barrens wasn't the first Jersey Devil horror movie. There's also the Pine Barrens-centric found-footage flick The Last Broadcast, which premiered the year before The Blair Witch Project, and 2002's 13th Child, which was widely panned, despite starring both Oscar (and Emmy) winner Cliff Robertson and Emmy (and Grammy) winner Robert Guillaume.
Of the largely un-bone-chilling crop of Jersey Devil adaptations, Sprouse wrote, "The story seems to lose some of its elemental power when removed from its traditional context of grandmothers and camping trips and ghost stories told while driving through the Pines."
Throughout the state, his name is borne by businesses of all kinds. There's Jersey Devil CrossFit in Hammonton, Jersey Devil Doggie Daycare and Training in Cape May Court House, Jersey Devil Sportfishing in Fair Haven, and the Jersey Devils Cheer Center in Morganville (sadly, their phone number is no longer in service).
The Jersey Devil seems to have earned a particularly strong following among restaurants and bars. Order up a Jersey Devil at the Revolutionary Lounge and Cafe in Toms River and you'll be served a chocolate and cherry latte garnished with a cinnamon stick. The Jersey Devil Fries at Jersey City's Left Bank Burger Bar come with Buffalo sauce and blue cheese. At J.D.'s Pub & Grille in Smithville, less than 2 miles from the Devil's storied birthplace of Leeds Point, you'll find both Jersey Devil Chicken and a Jersey Devil Burger on the menu. (I'll give you one guess as to who "J.D." is.)
When Dan Moran and Mary Dunn got into barbecue, the married couple knew they had to distinguish themselves from their largely southern competition with a name that not only represented where they're from, but conveyed an air of "bad-boy" intrigue. And so Jersey Devil BBQ -- now a food truck, which you'll recognize by the unscary smirking cartoon pig with horns and wings painted on its side -- was born. Their truck recently took a trip to Princeton, where Dunn overhead an international student saying that he'd heard of the Jersey Devil, but hadn't seen one around yet. She told him he shouldn't count on it, but you never know.
Brotherton Brewing, a craft brewery in Shamong, offers a Jersey Devil double IPA. While you might imagine a Jersey Devil namesake beer to be dark, dank, and difficult, their interpretation is unexpectedly fruity and sweet. "It's a nice spin on the Jersey Devil," co-owner Keith Oriente explained. "He's not a really a bad or scary figure."
The best-known brand built around the Jersey Devil shares that optimistic perspective. The NHL franchise that bears his name became the state's second-ever professional sports team, sidling up to the NJ Nets, when the former Colorado Rockies moved to East Rutherford in 1982. They were renamed the New Jersey Devils after 10,000 votes were cast in a statewide contest, despite the fervent objections of certain religious hockey fans. The mustachioed, mischievous mascot NJ Devil holds court on the ice at the Prudential Center, looking more like a generic devil than a kangaroo-goat-German Shepherd, but still. (The team's mascot was originally a grinning, horned hockey puck named Slapshot, but that character was retired in 1993 after the man who portrayed him was accused of improperly touching three women while in costume at games. Evil incarnate, by contrast, seems like a more wholesome figure.)
Rob Peters served as NJ Devil for 10 years. As a Chicago native, he'd never heard the story of the Phantom of the Pines before moving out east. "As soon as I got there everybody told me about it, as that was my job, to be the New Jersey Devil," he said. The friendly face of the team is the farthest thing from fearsome. Every game is a whirlwind of fist-bumps, skating, dance cams, T-shirt tosses, selfies, and suite visits for NJ. "A lot of it is stage work: banging the drum, starting chants, climbing on railings, climbing on seats, taking pictures, messing around with opposing fans in a playful way," Peters said. "It always ends in a high-five or a picture, so it never gets out of control."
In general, NJ Devil isn't strongly associated with the legendary Jersey Devil, though the autograph cards NJ hands out to fans do feature a retelling of his birth. "When we would do school appearances, teachers would bring it up all the time," Peters recalled. Geography might be somewhat to blame for the disconnect between myth and mascot. North Jersey roots for the Devils; South Jersey roots for the Flyers.
In other sports, it's made more sense to embrace the Jersey Devil's traditional unsavory reputation. Jaime Pittaro, a native of Morris Plains, was inducted into the National Wrestling League Hall of Fame in Hagerstown, Maryland, last year. Among fans, he's better known by his nom de ring, the Jersey Devil, which he adopted when he attended wrestling school in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. No one there could remember his name, so they called him "Jersey" instead.
"To this day they still talk about the Jersey Devil, and the mayhem, and the havoc, and the craziness that surrounds him, and that's pretty much how I wrestled. I just left bodies everywhere," Pittaro told me. "I was the No. 1 heel at the time and I destroyed everybody I stepped in the ring with. The legend of the Jersey Devil has been around for 300 years and it's still going strong, as far as I know. And I wanted my wrestling career to be just like that. I didn't want anybody to forget me."
The Jersey Devil was always a hometown favorite, but when he was competing out of state, Pittaro discovered he was automatically, universally reviled. "Nobody likes New Jersey. Everybody always picks on New Jersey." But so what? "In the wrestling business they say, if they like you, that's good; if they don't like you, that's good," Pittaro explained. "When you go out there and you get absolutely no reaction, that's bad. That's a problem."
Personally, I don't believe the Jersey Devil exists. Among the many whose eyes and ears have led them to the opposite conclusion are Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, and US Naval commodore and war hero Stephen Decatur, who is said to have shot a cannonball straight at the Devil. Even now, in 2017, there are plenty of perfectly sane people who'd disagree with me -- if not because they believe in an outright supernatural monster, then maybe in something more like an unlikely holdover from a prehistoric era, or an elusive species just beyond our scientific understanding.
It took multiple emails, phone calls, and a meeting at (where else?) a diner off Route 70 for Jeff Heimbuch to convince the Devil Hunters to let him join. Founded in 1999, the Devil Hunters were a group of research-oriented investigators dedicated to the cryptid, fielding witness reports and visiting the Pinelands and beyond in search of evidence. They also appeared on television, on shows like TLC's Monster Hunters, the Travel Channel's Weird Places, and the aforementioned Scariest Places on Earth. Heimbuch, now a social media marketer living in California, was a member for four and a half years before the Devil Hunters disbanded, joining in on more than half a dozen expeditions in that time.
The Devil Hunters kept a large map of New Jersey displayed on president Laura K. Leuter's office door. Pins -- color coded to denote how promising a sighting was -- marked where in the state they'd heard of encounters with the beast. "When I joined, they probably had close to three or four thousand reports [of Jersey Devil encounters] that had come in over the years. Each one would be cataloged. Was it an actual sighting? Was it noises? What area of New Jersey was it coming from?" Heimbuch recalled. "There were a lot of emails from people that were accusing us of being crazy, which is fine. It happens. What are you gonna do?"
Russell Juelg led Jersey Devil hunts (well, "hunts") of his own for 14 years, first with the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge and then the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, but for an entirely different reason. He only heard of the Jersey Devil legend after moving to the Garden State from his native Texas. "[The folklore] just struck me immediately as a beautiful way to draw attention to the distinctiveness of the Pine Barrens," he said. "It could be instrumental in helping draw attention to the conservation goals."
Juelg, now the senior land steward for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, would escort a group of about 20 people into the Wharton State Forest, where he'd recount a dramatized version of the legend. They'd enjoy music, a campfire, roasted marshmallows and hot dogs, and a night hike through the woods. "People saw the program as kind of a fun, spooky thing to do, just like people are attracted to haunted hayrides," he said. Never too spooky, though, especially not when there were kids in attendance.
After nearly two centuries of relatively peaceful life in the country, the Jersey Devil as we know him was catapulted to stardom in the third week of January 1909, when sightings of the livestock-terrorizing creature and his telltale hoofprints were reported by thousands -- including police officers, trappers and hunters, clergy, city councilmen, firefighters, and housewives -- throughout the Pines, the Delaware Valley, and beyond. Eyewitnesses described him as a Lewis Carroll-esque "jabberwock," "woozlebug," and "flying death."
In The Jersey Devil, the definitive 1976 volume on the cryptid, James F. McCloy and Ray Miller Jr. wrote of the terror that gripped the region during this period: "Trolleys in Trenton and New Brunswick now had armed drivers to ward off any attacks... So numerous were the tracks in Pitman that the next Sunday ministers in the town's churches noticed a large increase in attendance." The mayor of Burlington was so distressed by the panic in his city that he reportedly ordered his police force "to keep a sharp lookout for the creature and to shoot it on sight." Posses went on the hunt; schools were shuttered.
That certainly sounds frightening, even by 2017 news cycle standards. But Bill Sprouse, following a firsthand study of contemporary articles, has another interpretation. "The Leeds Devil story seemed to pose a special problem for newspaper editors, many of whom were simply on fire to publish stories about the monster but who didn't want to appear batshit crazy before their own reading public," he wrote. Yes, a great many accounts of Jersey Devil encounters were published that January -- the cryptid went the 1909 equivalent of viral -- but the sarcasm and facetiousness with which they were often rendered has been largely "lost in translation." Take, for instance, the illustrations that accompanied these dispatches, like a drawing of the Devil with a top hat and parasol, or standing above one of his own freshly laid eggs.
"There's this fundamental misunderstanding," Sprouse told me. "A lot of the media coverage treated it as a joke from the beginning, but it's not a joke that necessarily everyone gets. [The stories] have this breathless, kind of panicked tone at times and then, other times, they're obviously very funny. The local context is everyone knows it and nobody, relatively, takes it particularly seriously."
The Jersey Devil has never been exactly what he seems. In fact, from its very inception, the Leeds Devil myth almost certainly emerged as a political weapon to defame the family of Daniel Leeds, from whom Sprouse believes he is descended. This notable Colonial-era almanac and tract writer bitterly feuded with the Quaker community to which he once belonged. "Daniel Leeds, had he been born a generation later, we would think of him as one of the Founding Fathers," said Regal. For his heretical views and criticisms of Quaker beliefs, Leeds was demonized, in the most literal sense of the word.
Like a true kangaroo-goat-German Shepherd-NHL mascot-food truck, the Jersey Devil is all things to all people, easily imbued with seemingly incompatible meanings. He may be employed and manipulated toward goals of financial gain, environmental conservation, glory between the ropes of a wrestling ring, or simply according to personal preference. This malleability may be partly because, as Brian Regal put it, "[The Jersey Devil] doesn't really do much. Even in any of the legends, it doesn't speak. It doesn't give out any wisdom. You see it, people get scared, it disappears, and that's the end." He's a blank canvas, albeit a shrieking, clawing, and altogether unruly one. Even The X-Files saw fit to tinker with the Jersey Devil, remaking him as a feral forest woman scavenging in the big city for food -- which, what?
"[The Jersey Devil] has been depicted in so many different ways," Russell Juelg told me. "I think some people would find it to their advantage to adopt an image of the Jersey Devil as a mischievous little imp. If you're going to do a haunted house, you want to play it up the other way. You could have it 10 feet tall, breathing out fire -- or you could have it like a cuddly stuffed animal. I think people have just done whatever they want with it, to use it for whatever their purpose is."
"I mean, personally, I'm a big fan of the weird, scary [Jersey Devil]," admitted Jeff Heimbuch, acknowledging that he'll never be entirely satisfied with "cute and adorable" portrayals of a legend made family friendly. "But on the other hand, I think that's great in its own way. It's getting the word out about the Jersey Devil," he said.
With the exception of a much-publicized pair of alleged sightings in Galloway in 2015 -- the footage looks like a stuffed rooster slash terrier rigged up to a pulley system -- the Jersey Devil is keeping a low profile, but I wouldn't count him out anytime. Marginalized yet resilient, he's a quintessentially Jersey urban legend: incubated where both New York and Philadelphia are close enough to look down their noses, where unfathomable suburban population density meets unfathomable wilderness, where Thomas Edison and Joe Piscopo each have their places in the official Hall of Fame. A creature of contradictions belongs in a state of them.