Eric Nuzum is a PoPville contributor and Petworth resident. You can catch Eric on Wednesday, August 15th for the launch party, reading, and Q&A at Wonderland Ballroom, 1101 Kenyon St NW. You can read the first excerpt here, the second excerpt here, third excerpt here and fourth excerpt here.
Tonight is my big reading/book party at Wonderland Ballroom for my new book, Giving Up The Ghost . I hope you’ve enjoyed all these excerpts we’ve posted.
For today’s final installment, I wanted to share my favorite story from the book. It was my first ghost-hunting adventure–a trip to Clinton Road in rural New Jersey. It’s ground zero for ghosts and a lot of other bizarre and kooky nonsense.
“Where are the ghosts, Eric?”
“We aren’t looking for ghosts right now, Curry. We’re looking for mutant wild animals.”
“Where are the mutant wild animals, Eric?”
Neither my friends Curry and Joe nor I honestly expect to find any mutant wild animals. But you never know. It only takes one tale to be true for us to end up shredded, eaten, or running for our lives.
In 1972 Warner Brothers decided to break in to the theme-park business by opening Jungle Habitat, a combo zoo, drive-through safari, and entertainment complex located in rural Passaic County, just outside of West Milford, New Jersey. It was once home to more than fifteen hundred animals, including lions, giraffes, rhinoceroses, tigers, camels, monkeys, and even a few dolphins. Almost from the beginning, things started going terribly wrong. Within its first month of operation, an Israeli tourist was mauled to death by two lions. A woman was grabbed and bitten by a baby elephant. Rhinoceroses slammed into automobiles. Animals began preying on other animals in front of carloads of children. Tons of animal waste started to leak into the town’s water supply. Several creatures escaped into the surrounding communities.
After operating Jungle Habitat for four years, Warner Brothers had had enough. Ticket sales were down and the problems inherent with combining humans and wild animals in a contained area weren’t getting any better. So they came up with what they thought was a perfect solution: Make it even bigger. They wanted to add roller-coasters, a log flume, a merry-go-round, and other rides to make it more like a traditional amusement park. The township residents were tired of dealing with Jungle Habitat and voted down the expansion. Warner Brothers took that as its cue and finally shut things down for good.
That’s when the rumors started.
Continues after the jump.
There were stories that some of the animals were too old and/or sick to be moved, so the Jungle Habitat staff just left them there. According to the tales, some survived, crossbred, and moved with their mutant offspring into the surrounding woods. There they wait by the roadside for some poor schlub to wander by. There may be some truth to these stories. After the Jungle Habitat people split, a large number of carcasses were found on the property, including that of a dead elephant. They remained out in the open for eight months before someone bothered to bury them. And people routinely spot exotic birds that should not be seen in rural New Jersey.
Today, all that remains of Jungle Habitat is a few ramshackle buildings, overgrown roads, broken fences, and the occasional piece of equipment. We find a few rusted cages and piles of wood, but most everything else is picked clean. Vandals long ago carted away anything that could be carried out of the park, so all the missing signage turns the place into a daunting maze: twenty-nine miles of twisting and intersecting road. Most of the pavement is in surprisingly good condition for having sat here untended for more than thirty years, but weeds sprout through the many cracks and the surrounding woods creep in from the sides, giving the illusion that former two-lane roads are now only four-foot-wide paths. What was once a three-thousand-car parking lot is now just a sea of broken asphalt and knee-high weeds.
However, Jungle Habitat is just the opening act to our real destination, on the other side of the mutant-creature-infested woods: Clinton Road.
Clinton Road is an otherwise unremarkable ten-mile stretch of patched asphalt and sand about an hour north of Newark, New Jersey. It’s also ground zero for almost every back-road urban legend in America. Think of any preposterous and implausible story that involves a dark and lonely stretch of pavement, and there’s a Clinton Road version of it. There have been terrible stories about ghosts, witches, mysterious death, mutants of nature, and occult happenings on Clinton Road going back to the early eighteenth century.
Our task there is a simple one: to do everything that you are never supposed to do on Clinton Road.
We intend to provoke the area’s rumored ghosts and other paranormal creatures while avoiding the also-rumored cults, escaped lunatics, Satanists, hitchhikers, crazy inbreeds, KKK groups, cannibals, and other Clinton Road lurkers who purportedly want to kill, rape, dismember, haunt, torture, or otherwise bother us. This doesn’t even take into consideration the other very real threats along rural Clinton Road: poisonous snakes, black bears, and fields of poison ivy everywhere you look. Oh, and it’s wild-turkey hunting season to boot, so we have to be careful that we don’t get shot by a hunter who mistakenly thinks he wants to serve us to his family for Thanksgiving.
To me, the most incredible part of the Clinton Road mythos is that there is absolutely no explanation as to why all this legendary horribleness should happen there. Nothing important ever happened along Clinton Road. Few people have ever lived in the area. It isn’t particularly beautiful, or ugly, or otherwise notable. Yet it seems every New Jersey resident I meet has something to say about this long stretch of nowhere.
To make things easier for us, I went through every Clinton Road legend I’d come across and put together a master list of all the recurring moral warnings for Clinton Road travelers:
· Do not pick up hitchhikers.
· Do not flip off passing cars.
· Do not mention a car accident involving a 1988 blue Chevy Camaro.
· Do not discuss area ghosts or hauntings while on Clinton Road.
· Do not pick up shiny objects, step inside a circle of rocks, assist stranded motorists, investigate lights or glowing objects in the woods, acknowledge any drivers who blinks their headlights at you, assist brides in need of a ride to their wedding chapel, walk or drive down unpaved roads or paths, touch or pick up discarded items of clothing (especially those that move on their own), taunt any unknown sources of noise coming from the woods, or explore origins of any tapping, knocking, or thunking sounds coming from the exterior of the car.
· Do not attempt to move, drive around, or investigate trees that fall in the roadway.
· Do not stand on the edge of the reservoir bridge or throw coins off the bridge.
· Do not eat bagels.
· Avoid all animals, fires, local residents, disembodied hands, fellow travelers, men with no arms, midgets, UFOs, large groups of suspicious characters, horses, anyone shouting seemingly random numbers, black pickup trucks, miniature ponies, dogs that appear to be floating on air, nudists, and albinos.
Violate any of these rules, and terrible, awful things will happen.
Whenever I share this list with my friends, everyone trips up on the same item.
“Why can’t you eat bagels?”
“Well, it really isn’t that you can’t eat any bagels,” I reply. “You just can’t eat bagels that you find on the side of the road.”
“Who would want to eat bagels sitting on the side of the road?”
“Well, obviously someone,” I explain. “Or the Clinton Road Satanists wouldn’t have anyone to sacrifice.”
Over the years several travelers on Clinton Road have reported seeing large piles of bagels by the side of the road—hundreds of them, just sitting there. Naturally, these people assumed this had to be the handiwork of the Devil. It’s said that the satanic cults hiding along Clinton Road will leave stacks of bagels sitting around to lure in passersby. When the unknowing bagel eaters start munching, the Satanists snag them, then cart them off to some awful demise.
Despite the distraction of demonic baked goods and mutant creatures, we have one specific goal here on Clinton Road: to find ghosts. Clinton Road is supposedly filled with hundreds of them. We only need to prove the existence of one.
The outlandishness of almost any story associated with Clinton Road is exactly why I decide to make this my first stop on my ghost-seeking journeys. In some way, the sheer nuttiness of Clinton Road lore makes it seem more accessible, albeit still quite frightening. Goofy danger is still danger.
After Jungle Habitat, we stop at an Italian restaurant near the southern tip of Clinton Road to eat before heading out to ghost hunt. We tell the waitress what we’re doing. She tells us we’re crazy. A few minutes later she returns to inform us that the entire kitchen staff agrees that what we’re doing is terribly unwise. After filling up on pasta and garlic bread, we drive a mile or so around the woods to reach Clinton Road itself. Just before the final turn, we pass a small three-shop strip mall that includes a store called U.S. Bagel.
“Oh, man,” says Curry. “I wonder if that’s where the Satanists get their bagels.”
“That would be very convenient,” Joe replies.
“And very patriotic,” I add.
It’s just a little past 10 p.m. when we finally turn onto Clinton Road. Our plan is to simply drive up and down the road over and over again until we see something.
Even though it’s only forty miles from Times Square, Clinton Road is, quite seriously, in the middle of nowhere. We can’t even get our cell phones to work. While there are some houses at either end, once you are a half mile in, there is nothing except road and a lot of trees. The forest is dense and pushes itself right up to the edge of the road, occasionally causing an errant branch to come within a few inches of the side of the car.
For all our goofing off, all three of us are completely silent as we head up Clinton Road for the first time. From photographs taken during the daytime, Clinton Road just seems like an unassuming, unremarkable, and more than slightly undermaintained country back road. But at night it feels cloistered, dark, and suffocatingly empty. The moonlessness of the night doesn’t make it any more welcoming. It feels unfinished, like it was abandoned. I find myself resisting going above twenty-five miles per hour. It’s like we’re traveling down a stranger’s driveway rather than along a public road.
We’ re on the road no more than ten minutes before Curry, jumping up from the backseat, slams his hand into my headrest.
“Oh my God, there’s a frog!” he screams. “Stop the car so I can chase it.”
“I am not stopping the car so you can chase a frog,” I say.
“Tell me again, why are we coming here to chase things if you are too scared to actually get out of the car and chase things?”
We drive up and down the entire ten-mile length of Clinton Road eight times. Our evening’s tally is embarrassingly slim: Cop cars: 6; bags of trash: 5; deer: 3; frogs: 1. Satanists, mutants, albinos, and ghosts: 0. Before leaving we make one last stop: the reservoir bridge, approximately halfway down the road. This will be our real moment of truth, as a lot of Clinton Road’s suggested nonsense takes place close to the reservoir bridge, where the long-gone original town of Clinton once stood in what’s now a thin clearing in the trees between the road and water. There are differing legends about a boy who died on the bridge. According to most versions, a boy was struck by a car and thrown into the water. Supposedly if you stand by the edge of the bridge, the ghost of the boy will materialize and push you in.
According to stories, the ghost boy’s name is written on the bridge’s guardrails. I conclude that unless the dead kid’s name is Alice or I Love Weed, we can immediately write off this part of the story. One of the few legible things written on top of one of the barriers is “All the fairytales of Clinton Road . . . never prove true.”
There is a part of the reservoir bridge legend that is Clinton Road’s best-known ghost story. It says that if you stand on this bridge and throw a coin into the water, the dead boy will throw it back to you. This is the story that most drew me to Clinton Road in the first place. It’s a pretty cut-and-dry legend. Either the coin comes back, or it doesn’t. Sometimes the coin hits you, sometimes you see it land on the ground, and other times you might find it in your car or clothes the next day.
“Which way are we supposed to face?” asks Joe.
“What do you mean?”
“Are we supposed to face the road . . . or the water?”
“I don’t know,” I answer. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I’m facing the road,” Curry interjects. “If this ghost kid is going to knock me in, I want to see him coming.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in any of this.”
“Well, fuck you guys then. He’ll push you in first.”
The thing I’ll remember most about the moment that follows is how quiet it is. No breeze, no insect or animal sounds, and none of the chatter you associate with being out in the woods at night. Nothing. It is absolutely and completely still and silent. It’s as if someone suddenly has pressed a Pause button and life simply stopped.
Then Joe whispers that he sees someone in the woods coming toward us.
“Look over in the trees. Someone’s shining a flashlight up the path.”
Curry and I swing our heads over, and then we see it too. It’s like a lightning flash inside the forest, and then it’s gone.
I think to myself: Who would be walking down a dark path in the woods in the middle of the night? The trails around the reservoir simply run in giant loops going nowhere. There are no houses or parked cars for at least four miles in either direction. Anyone or anything out on that path probably has even less of a reasonable excuse for being there than we do.
A few seconds later we see it again—a bright light swinging in our direction, then gone. It’s maybe thirty yards down the bank of the reservoir.
“Oh, shit,” Curry states flatly.
“What do we do?” asks Joe.
“You can start by keeping your voice down.”
“Oh, shit,” Curry repeats softly.
We see two flashlights pointing toward us, then back toward the lake.
Then we realize that they aren’t flashlights at all but headlights. Headlights from a car winding along Clinton Road, going very fast and heading directly for us.
My first thought is that the car would come around the hairpin curve, see three sketchy-looking dudes standing on the bridge, freak out, go out of control, and slam through the barriers, thus taking its passengers, us, and whatever else is lurking around that bridge straight into a watery grave.
“What do we do?” Joe repeats.
“I don’t know,” I offer. The car’s less than twenty yards from turning onto the bridge and isn’t slowing down.
“How about we duck?” Curry suggests.
“Okay. Three . . . two . . . one, duck!”
With that, we all slam against the ground behind the Jersey barrier, just as the car skids around the corner, tears up and over the bridge, and then speeds away into the night.
“Man, I can’t believe we hid,” I say, brushing little bits of Clinton Road from the front of my shirt and pants a minute later. “We’re lucky it didn’t lose control.”
“Let’s try the coins.”
“Eric should go first,” Curry says.
I should. The three of us have traveled here so that I can do just that.
As I raise my hand, I can feel a heavy rush in my chest. I would have expected that I’d feel scared, but this time it isn’t fear. It feels more like sadness. Or maybe it’s just a sudden memory of sadness.
You see, this is less a story about ghosts than it is a story about what it means to be haunted.
As much as I want to encounter the boy at the bridge, or a haunted Camaro, or any of the hundreds of other horrible things that we’re supposed to stumble across up and down Clinton Road, I know no coins are ever going to come back. But I’m still scared. I’m scared to begin facing the truth. Not the truth of Clinton Road, but the truth of me.
This is a story about a boy. A boy who became very lost.
It’s a story about the girl who helped him find his way. Then she left him on his own. Then she died.
It’s a story about spending twenty years trying to forget one year of your life.
It’s a story about eventually turning to the thing you fear most to help you remember.
It’s a story about ghosts.
It’s a story about time.
It’s a story about what it means to be haunted.
You might think that standing there on the reservoir bridge, with no idea where this journey will take me, I’d want to throw the coin hard, to heave it into the lake in a way that reflected all the weight attached to it.
Instead, I simply open my hand and bend it slightly, letting the coin slowly slide off my fingers, down past the guardrail, and quietly into the darkness. The hushed plop of a single coin sinking into the still water marks the beginning of my quest.
I just close my eyes, hold my breath, and wait.