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As far as states are concerned, New Jersey is the butt of many jokes. It’s best known for its stinky air, congested highways, and mafia associations. It’s been referred to as the the “armpit of America,” existing in the eyes of many as a dirty wasteland wallowing in the shadow of New York City.
It’s almost fitting, then, that a state famous for such putrescence also has a prominent history of dealings with the devil.
Maybe not exactly dealings, per se, but New Jersey is home to a staggering number of satanic haunts and other outlandish oddities. From the legend of the Jersey Devil to the Beast of Button Woods, there seems to be a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye.
So much, in fact, that Mark Moran and Mark Scuerman started Weird NJ in 1989 to chronicle the bizarre wonders the state has to offer. It started as a newsletter, but soon ballooned into a magazine that garnered widespread attention and even more submissions. In 2003, Moran and Scuerman published the book “Weird NJ” and soon after began hosting a short-lived television series on the History Channel called “Weird U.S.,” expanding the focus to a national scale.
Weird NJ’s community-based culture is surely one the reasons for its success. Finally, people with stories of eerie places or events have a platform to express their tales, and a well-curated compilation of stories helps build up the mystique underlying some of these locations.
In my (slightly) younger days, I checked out a few of the notorious spots geographically closest to where I grew up in Bergen County: the Devil’s Tower in Alpine and Annie’s Road in Totowa, for instance. A few of my friends even had the gaul to drive up Clinton Road to see for themselves the rumored dwellings of the deeply inbred, castaway fugitives, the Ramapo Mountain People (disparagingly known as the Jackson Whites). Their investigation was cut short, however, when a large pickup truck trailed and chased them off with brights blaring.
Among the most famous local legends documented in Weird NJ is that of the Devil’s Tree in Basking Ridge. The tree is steeped in sour history as Benards Township once housed the New Jersey state headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. Legend has it that the tree was used to hang a slew of men and women, explaining its reputation for possessing an evil energy.
According to the stories, when it snows, a ring directly underneath the shade of the tree stays bone dry, and a nearby boulder known as Heat Rock is warm to the touch no matter the temperature outside. A superstitious few claim it may be a portal to hell. Apparently, anyone who touches the tree or even speaks ill of it will meet harm, be it in the form of car accidents on the way out or sicknesses in the days that follow.
“Growing up a short distance away, most people my age were familiar with the tree and the stories and legends attached to it, or had at least heard about it,” local resident Mike Simone says. “Some people would talk about it as though those stories were true, and get really jumpy, while others had a ‘too cool for school’ attitude.”
Simone and his friends paid a visit to the tree as teenagers. He recalls everyone cracking jokes about all the terrible things that could happen, but that their bravado dissipated as soon as they felt a wave of fear pass amongst them. After a few minutes of fighting the urge to turn back, they reached out and touched the gnarled trunk, their minds full of gruesome images. They all heard of friends who’d fallen ill after visiting the haunted grounds, but luckily, his group didn’t experience anything of the sort.
“The whole reason people do these things is for that sense of dread and excitement,” Simone says. “I still get a shiver up my spine thinking about those moments when we first saw the tree, and the ominous feeling I had when I reached out to touch it.”
After reading about so many similar stories, I decided I had to make the trek for myself. The 45-minute drive was quick and the tree surprisingly easy to find, despite its seclusion. In the tree’s horror-filled heyday, I could understand why this would’ve been a keen spot for unceremonious activity—a winding stretch about a mile off the main road. Nowadays, though, a luxurious private housing development lies just across the street.
The infamous tree sits about 100 feet removed from a fairly sharp curve on Mountain Road. The field in which it resides, portrayed in most internet images as barren and dry, actually appears quite lush in the summer. Overgrown grasses paint the supposedly satanic scene with overlapping splashes of bright green, buzzing insects all about, and flying birds in and out of the bushes. The only ominous sign came in the form of a crow perched atop an electrical pole across the street.
The tree itself is fairly large, easily the tallest object in the field, dwarfing the few trees that have sprouted up some yards behind it. Missing some of its primary lower limbs–some of which were undoubtedly used for hanging of slaves and thieves in its reign of terror–the tree’s major appendages appear to twist to the right when looking at it straight-on from the road.
Despite its nefarious reputation, the tree and the surrounding field radiate life on a serene summer day, with leaves hanging off even the slimmest branches at its farthest reaches.
A few steps up a narrow footpath, however, and the first signs of opprobrium become obvious.
A large portion of the bole is charred black, with the bark clearly stripped by scores of visitors over the course of generations. Gashes and chop marks of all sizes litter the tree’s trunk, which is no longer wrapped in the chain link fence that once encased it. Some adventurer even scratched the word “evil” into its side, as if to reassure me that I’d arrived. Save for a lone plastic bottle and empty cigarette pack in the grass, no garbage pollutes the scene.
In my brief experience, the tree emanated no perceptible negative energy, nor any kind of heat, as legends have told it. It simply stood, observing its umpteenth visitor. An abused plant that looked like it wanted to be left alone.
That’s not to say that terrible things didn’t happen under the hand of the tree’s original maltreaters to the scores of tourists who dropped by to confirm or perpetuate its myth. It’s possible that a good amount of that is just conjecture, local lore meant to stir the spirits of anyone willing to test fate.
Disappointed as I may have been leaving the scene that day, I can’t help but wonder if the onslaught of migraines I felt the following morning was the Devil Tree claiming the last word.