The Jersey Devil

Maybe I only feel this way because I was five or six years old at the time, but since the very first moment that I gazed upon this "artistic representation" of the Jersey Devil or Leeds Devil in a book of the paranormal, it's disquieting ominous has been permanently etched somewhere deep in the back of my subconscious. There were times I entertained the terrifying notion that this thing, somehow still in grainy newsprint quality, was stalking me around every corner, hiding its thin body behind trees or even signposts, and peering in through my bedroom windows at night while I slept.

I can't have been alone, either, since this very artwork originally accompanied an epidemic of "sightings" throughout New Jersey in the week of January, 1909, over seventy years before I was born.

The idea of the Jersey Devil, however, dates back quite a bit farther than that, to folk tales as far back as the 1700's. A real woman, Deborah Leeds, had birthed twelve children by the 1730's in her home at Leeds Point in Atlantic County, and it was only natural that weird rumors would emerge from local gossip.

In the most popular version of the story, Deborah swore that if she gave birth to one more child, it may as well be a devil. Naturally, it wouldn't be long at all before her thirteenth pregnancy began, only for the infant to take on a strange and hideous form moments after birth.

Variations on this legend sometimes hold that Mother Leeds was a witch (of course) and had an affair with Satan himself, as witches of the era were supposedly wont to do. Some versions would also paint the devil child as a shy, lonesome creature exiled to the depths of the Pine Barrens, while others opted for more horror and excitement with a bloodthirsty, child-eating devil-thing.

In any case, "sightings" of the devil would come and go for generation after generation, the perfect local bogeyman to keep children from wandering off into the vast and deadly forest of the Pine Barrens.

None of this was far from where my own mother actually grew up, and until she passed away in 2003, my grandmother still lived within only a short drive to the barrens. This very book was always present somewhere in her house, and was something I'd read time and again on what felt, at the time, like tediously long and boring visits I now miss more than anything else from my childhood.

Why the devil resurfaced in such a dramatic rash of "encounters" by the early 1900's is anyone's guess. The hysteria came and went shortly before even my grandmother's time, but seemed fresh in the minds of Southern New Jersey even by mine. The sensationalism once lead to countless jokes, poems, songs, editorial cartoons, bounties and hoaxes, including at least one instance of a live kangaroo dressed up and put on display as a monster.

This, perhaps, is why we still seem to recognize the devil as a "cryptozoological" or "paranormal" phenomenon. If people thought it was real, then maybe they were right...right? Just like Bigfoot, Nessie or space aliens? And if they might be right, then the Jersey Devil might really be waiting for me around the corner of my grandmother's house. Not to hurt me or anything, I didn't really buy into the child-eating stuff...but the Jersey Devil being there and weird and maybe even looking at me was more than enough to chill me to the bone.

And yet, despite inclusion alongside so many "maybe real" and quasi-scientific phenomena, the Jersey Devil still never stopped being an outlandishly devilish chimera, occupying a weird place directly between supernatural folklore and the kinda, almost more rationally-minded paranormal community...though there really isn't that big of a difference, is there?

At one time, demons and spirits were a believable, rational possibility in the minds of most people. As scientific thinking ruled those out, we shifted over to aliens, mutants and interdimensional entities. Same thing, new name.

Sadly, while the Jersey Devil has appeared in a number of toys, cartoons and television series (such as supernatural, seen here), it very rarely ever feels like any of them really "get it." What is this supposed to be? A dragon? Ugh.

Sometimes, the monster is even portrayed as just a "devil;" as some red-skinned man with cow horns and glowing eyes. Ugh, again. How boring.

I don't often re-use an image again in the same article, but let's look at this again.

To this day, whenever I look at this face, I can swear I almost see it moving. Moving like a dead dog on puppet strings. Jerking around in deteriorating, black and white film footage to a discordant piano. The Jersey Devil is not a snarling incubus from some heavy metal album cover. Nothing can ever be as scary to me as the sheer wrongness of these otherwise normal, innocent animal parts cobbled together into some pale, awkward thing that was not meant to be. A thing that somehow, most horrifically of all, came out of a human being.

There is absolutely zero chance that the Jersey Devil was anything more than a series of tall tales and drunken delusions, but I still appreciate just how much it managed to creep me out at one time, and just how connected it feels to people and places that I can never see again.