Like any good myth, the origins of the Jersey Devil are murky. And like any New Jersey native, I have my own favorite version of the story.
Deep in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey—a heavily forested region that, even today, can feel as desolate as its name suggests—a woman named Mother Leeds cursed her 13th child while in labor and gave birth to something that wasn't quite human. The year was 1735. Her child had wings and hooves, and a head that more closely resembled a goat or horse than a baby boy. With a shriek, he flew out of the chimney and into the night.
No one has ever presented compelling evidence of encountering the Jersey Devil, which might have something to do with the fact that he doesn't exist. But that doesn't stop people from claiming they've found him. In fact, not one, but two alleged sightings went viral in the last week. Both were near Leeds Point, the fabled home of the Leeds family. What sort of place lends itself to this kind of enduring legend?
Personally, I had no idea. New Jersey's population density is the highest of any state, a fact that doesn't come as a surprise if you've spent much time there. A sense of the sheer volume of humanity has always been central to my understanding of where I grew up, in North Jersey: malls, movie theaters, traffic. In suburban Bergen County—the state's most populous county, just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan—we consider the likes of squirrels, geese, rabbits, and the occasional deer to be plenty of nature for us, thank you.
But Leeds Point, 120 miles south of my hometown of River Edge, might as well be on a different planet.
On Wednesday, I took a long drive down to Jersey Devil country to see him for myself. I wouldn't trespass on any private property, and I'd do my best to avoid getting killed by either a bloodthirsty cryptid or a shotgun-toting homeowner. But if this thing was out there, I'd do my best to find him—and, more realistically, I'd do my best to get a feel for a part of the state where I grew up that couldn't be less familiar to me.
Much of rural Atlantic County is beautiful, with irresistibly charming road signs instructing drivers to stop for people on horseback. But amidst all that beauty (and the Family Dollars and the Wawas—this is New Jersey, after all), there are moments that make you feel like you're scouting locations for a northeastern version of True Detective.
To take the last photo, I pull my Zipcar over to the side of the two-lane road and switch the hazards on. I get out, ready to snap a picture, but lose my nerve when I see a white pickup truck approaching. As I pretend, like an idiot, to be talking on my phone, the truck passes by, then—a hundred yards ahead of me—K-turns back towards me.
The driver rolls down his window and asks if I needed help. "I'm fine!" I say, with nervous enthusiasm, "Thanks, though!"
I drive on to the Leeds Point Community Church, founded in 1838. As I walk through the cemetery, a white pickup truck pulls up in front and slows to a stop. I keep reading the headstones like I haven't noticed him, but in my peripheral vision, I can see that it's the same driver.
Leeds Point is a small community, with exactly one winged, hooved claim to fame. For all I know, this guy is simply continuing on his way to wherever he was headed in the first place, or maybe he just wants to make sure the stranger with New York plates and an enormous green decal (thanks, Zipcar) plastered on the side of her Civic isn't up to any Devil-hunting mischief. Still, it doesn't feel right.
After about a minute, he leaves. I get in my car, lock the doors, and text my boyfriend. (I hate to spoil the ending of this story for you, but no, I haven't been murdered.) Something funny happens when you go from a place teeming with people to another with very few: the presence of just one someone else becomes almost unbearably unsettling.
It's only a few more minutes until I find my first real stop of the day, at the birthplace of the Jersey Devil.
At least, I think it is. According to some people. Maybe?
When I researched my route, I'd found myself frustrated that I couldn't determine a more precise location for the former site of the Leeds home—there's said to be a depression in the ground not far off this road that marks the spot—but then remembered I was worrying about the birthplace of a fictional monster, so how about I relax?
This road (I won't print the name here, but if you want to find it, you will) is only about a quarter of a mile long, ending in a long driveway to a private residence. The woods that surround it are deep, quiet—today, they're part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. If this is home, you can't blame the Jersey Devil for wanting to come back and reminisce every so often.
You'll hear him described as part goat, part bat, and even part kangaroo, but I'm going to take a leap here. If the Jersey Devil were real, he'd be an amphibian. As soon as you're out of the forest in Leeds Point, you're on the marsh. The views across the wetlands are eerie and gorgeous.
I follow Oyster Creek Road (the nuclear power plant of the same name is located 30 miles north, in Forked River) to its conclusion on Otter Pond. It's a 20-minute drive from Atlantic City from this spot.
Like I said before: another planet.
Leeds Point is technically an unincorporated area of Galloway, the largest municipality by size, but only 61st by population, in New Jersey.
It's here that an NJ.com reader wrote that he'd seen what he believes (or at least what he's saying he believes) to be the Jersey Devil, along the golf course on Route 9. He included a photo of the creature, which he described as a "llama" with "leathery wings."
There's only one golf course that directly abuts Route 9, the Galloway National Golf Club. It's heavily tree-lined, sure, but the power lines don't make for ideal conditions for our airborne llama friend.
More ridiculously, the golf course is directly across US-9—a busy road by any standard—from a bustling restaurant and gas station. This is nobody's natural habitat.
I visit the gas station convenience store to buy a bottle of water and ask the clerk if he believes in the Jersey Devil. His eyes light up.
"Devil?" he says, clearly amused by the question, "I don't know!"
I ask him about the sighting nearby, but he hasn't heard anything about it. He's only worked at the gas station for two months, he tells me, and he's usually on the night shift, closing up at 2 a.m—prime time for a Devil encounter. He's never seen it, but he does see a lot of deer.
"Maybe [the Devil] takes the form of thieves, bad men," he suggests, explaining that there have been 20 robberies in the area in two weeks.
I use the restroom, and when I come back, the clerk asks me if I could show him a picture of the Devil. I pull up the article on my phone, warning him that it seems to be a prank.
"Whoa, scary. It's like a bird," he says, zooming in on the wings. "I'll look for it." I don't necessarily get the feeling that he's humoring me.
I also visit Old Port Republic Road, the site of this week's second sighting, by a Weird NJ reader. This time, there was video.
I know. It's a stuffed animal. If the NJ.com photo gets a C+, this footage is the D- the teacher gives you partly out of pity, and partly because she doesn't want to deal with your dumb ass again next year.
But, here we are. Old Port Republic Road is lined with houses for most of its length, so whatever happened, probably happened along the stretch of road you see here—if it was filmed along this road at all.
By now it's past 2 p.m., and I'm starving. Fortunately, I have just the restaurant in mind.
J.D.'s Pub & Grille is in a strip mall, Smithville Town Center, a few doors down from a thrift shop and a grocery store. J.D. stands for exactly what you think it does, and the décor lives up to the name.
This was once the meeting place of the Devil Hunters, a group of amateur cryptozoologists. They've seemingly disbanded, given that their former website is now home to a Japanese marriage agency (seriously).
When I first saw the photo and video that made news this week, I'd assumed (and still do) that they were the work of the same people, and perhaps even a coordinated marketing stunt for a place like J.D.'s—I'd suspect the New Jersey Devils, too, but I'd like to think the NHL would have a bigger monster-building budget. But actually being here, I'm not sure I'd buy it. There are about a dozen patrons inside, all over age 60, seated around the bar. One of them shows the bartender a photo of his cat on his phone. It's a pleasant, sleepy place, though maybe I'd have a different impression if I hadn't visited on a weekday afternoon.
I sit in a booth and order the Jersey Devil burger, which, though it doesn't seem particularly devilish, does come with bacon, mushrooms, onions, and two cheeses of your choosing. It's good.
After lunch, I follow 9 up to County Road 542, which hugs the edge of Wharton State Forest, the largest state forest in New Jersey at more than 120,000 acres (for some perspective, second place is a mere 37,000). By now I've crossed into Burlington County.
Here, too, the scenery doesn't disappoint.
Batsto is a national historic site dating back to the mid-18th century. At the heart of the village was an iron foundry that helped supply American troops during the Revolutionary War. Today, thanks to the National Park Service, Batsto looks much as it did hundreds of years ago. Dozens of buildings—like the homes of the workers, a post office, a general store, and a sawmill—are still standing.
If you're looking for a spooky day trip, it's hard to think of anything I'd recommend over this.
I didn't run into the Jersey Devil at Batsto, but I did get a better sense of what it would have felt like to live in the Pine Barrens when fear of the creature was at its peak. I can't say I blame those people: Who knows what's lurking in those woods?
From Batsto, it's a 45-minute drive north to Mount Holly, the county seat. I park on a narrow side road and start hiking up a deceptively steep hill—they named the town Mount Holly for a reason. I find the Holy Holy Holy altar much more quickly than I'd expected.
Legend holds that the Devil was chained here after murdering a woman who's now buried in the cemetery the hill looks down on. Devil or not, the fact that there's a giant stone altar hidden in the woods, with benches circled around it, is nevertheless creepy as hell.
A squirrel scampers out from beneath a bench and I flinch so hard that I pull a muscle in my neck. It's still bothering me, days later.
There's one more thing I want to find in these woods: the Witches' Well.
The sight of houses not far beyond the trees doesn't help the fact that I'm walking in deeper, with increasingly little idea of where I'm going, and that the sun has started to set. This is about the most uncomfortable I've felt all day, at least since I saw the pickup.
I'm ready to give up when I finally find the well, up a slope from where I'd entered the woods. It's surrounded by a fence and security cameras.
Depending on who you ask, either a witch or the Jersey Devil himself was imprisoned in well. If you were to knock on that metal door, you might just hear someone inside knock back. I say "you" because there's no way I'm doing that.
As I stand there, wondering whether I'd ever been full enough of teenage stupidity to have attempted to scale that barbed wire, when I hear leaves rustle behind me. It's a pair of deer, watching me with about the same look of horror that I can feel on my own face.
Clearly, it's time to go home.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.