The Cursed Death Road of New Jersey
There are certain places in the world that undeniably lend themselves to scary tales of ghosts and the paranormal, or to at least cast a feeling of profound unease upon us. Spooky abandoned buildings, graveyards, and dark ancient forests are all good examples of locations that really connect with some part of us that sends shivers up the spine. Just as creepy are desolate, dark and lonely roads. Whether one believes in ghosts or not, who has ever driven down a shadowy stretch of empty road and not had their imagination be set ablaze with thoughts of ghosts and escaped insane asylum patients? These types of roads just seem to exude eeriness and unease. Yet far from merely the realm of horror movies and over active imaginations, there are indeed bleak and dreary darkened roads out there which by all accounts really are haunted, cursed, or both, and among these is one in the U.S. state of New Jersey, whose very name is somewhat chilling, and the Shades of Death Road has long been touted as one of the most haunted roads in the United States, if not the world.
The ominously named Shades of Death Road is a narrow, two-lane road which winds and meanders for 7 miles (11.2 km) through the middle of Warren County, NJ alongside the somewhat forbidding Jenny Jump State Forest. With its many twists and turns through low hanging trees and their somewhat skeletal looking branches stretching overhead, Shades of Death Road is certainly spooky enough already, but it is the great amount of macabre history, strange phenomena and high strangeness it is steeped in that truly make this a terrifying place to be.
Once known simply as The Shades due to lying under the dense canopies of the numerous ancient trees that line it, the Shades of Death Road has a long history of death and misery that make it well deserved of its current, more sinister title. The area was already long pervaded by Native folklore before the road was even created, with the woodlands of the area said to be the home of evil spirits and the nearby Jenny Jump State Forest considered to be an accursed place. There was also frequent bloody tribal warfare between the native Lenni-Lenape and Iroquois tribes, which claimed no end of lives. Not long after the road was built in the 1800s, it became a magnet for roving bands of villainous highwaymen, its darkened tree-lined recesses a perfect place for preying on hapless travelers. These marauding thieves were known for cutting the throats of their victims and were not above killing each other over money or women as well. The growing danger the road posed, and the ever rising number of murdered corpses lying discarded by the side of the road encouraged locals to take the law into their own hands, and it is said that bloodthirsty lynch mobs would fan out into the surrounding wilds in search of bandits. If any were chased down and caught, they almost certainly faced a horrific death, and the old stories say that these highwaymen would be hung from the branches of the trees along the road, often until they decomposed down to mere skeletons, as a grim warning to others of their kind. Settlers in the area also faced occasional bloody attacks by the local Native American tribes, adding to the area’s grim reputation for violence and death.
Ancient Indian spirits and violent bandits were not the only problems to plague the area. In the 1850s, the nearby Bear Swamp and its stagnant, mosquito infested, fetid waters became ground zero for a number of major malaria outbreaks. At the time, the road was very remote, and the settlers living here were too poor to travel in search of medical help, nor to indeed even afford a doctor, so it is said that the sick would often be placed in beds by the side of the road in the hopes that someone travelling through would help them. These persistent malaria plagues became so rampant, and the mortality rates so high due to the poverty and inaccessibility of the area, that in 1884 there was a massive state sponsored project launched to drain the swampland in an effort to put an end to the suffering. Interestingly, the Bear Swamp was also said to be the home of some type of highly aggressive wildcats which were not shy at all about attacking and killing humans, and for which the location was once named Cat Swamp.
The death and violence associated with the road would continue into the 1920s and 30s, during which time there was a string of vicious murders carried out here. One such killing was an elderly man who was brutally dragged from his Model T Ford, bludgeoned to death with the tire iron from his own vehicle, and robbed of some gold coins. His corpse was left out in the mud beside the car with a face nearly unidentifiable from the skull having been completely bashed in. In another gruesome murder, a scorned woman decapitated her husband and buried the head and body on opposite sides of the road for reasons only known to her. There was also the case of a local man named Bill Cummins, who was shot to death and buried in a pile of mud by the side of the road. There was yet another grim story of an unidentified male corpse supposedly discovered under a nearby railway car. Additionally, there have long been rumors of occult activity, Satan worshippers, packs of mysterious hooded figures performing rituals, and human sacrifice in the area.
This dark history and the already eerie appearance and solitude of Shades of Death Road make it a perfect breeding ground for tales of the paranormal, and indeed there is so much spooky lore and alleged unexplained phenomena reported from here all intertwined together that it’s hard to unravel what could be possibly real from what is mere urban legend or tall tales. General phenomena associated with the road include the appearance of various specters and shadow figures seen walking along the side of the road only to vanish when approached, as well as sudden, often oddly colored mists or fogs that blanket the area seemingly out of nowhere, and orbs that flicker and dance about in the gloom. Indeed the road is said to be absolutely infested with ghosts of all kinds, from those of slaughtered Natives and lynched highwaymen, to murder victims, to the many who died slow horrible deaths from malaria. The road is also said to have an inordinately high number of traffic accidents, a fact sometimes blamed on the many ghosts said to lurk here. Many of the crashes were allegedly caused by shadowy apparitions suddenly appearing in front of vehicles and making them violently swerve out of the way and crash. In fact, so many people have died in accidents along the winding road that there is a persistent rumor that says that every reflective guardrail along the route, of which there are many, denotes where someone has met their doom.
In addition to these occurrences, there are certain areas of Shades of Death Road that are particularly infused with the weird and unexplained. One infamous spot is called Ghost Lake, which was the result two wealthy landowners building a dam at a nearby creek in the early 1900s. Legend has it that this resulted in the flooding of ancient Indian burial grounds, which of course never seems to bode well. It is said that the lake is haunted by the ghosts of long dead highwaymen, Natives, and other less definable wraiths, and that their spectral forms can sometimes be seen walking across the surface of the water or rising up from the depths. In addition to the ghosts, strange mists, tendrils of smoke, and vaporous pillars are often reported to mysteriously rise up from the lake, and it is said that the sky above it is unusually bright, as if it is still twilight, no matter what time of night it is.
Right next to Ghost Lake is an area called the Haunted Hallow, which is allegedly prowled by ghosts, and there is supposedly a spooky abandoned, dilapidated old cabin across the water from the road that is said to be intensely haunted. Allegedly shadowy shapes or orbs of light can be seen flitting about within the rubble strewn interior as well as the apparition of a woman, and that there are often anomalous sounds that reportedly emanate from it, such as footsteps crunching in broken glass, disembodied voices or laughter, and even the sound of a ghostly piano. Also near Ghost Lake is a curious little cave called the Fairy Hole. It was discovered in 1918, before the formation of the lake, by an archeological survey of the area and was found to have various ancient Native artifacts such as arrowheads, pieces of pottery, and flints. It was surmised that it was a sacred place and linked to the burial sites nearby which would go on to be flooded with the formation of Ghost Lake. Sadly, this once sacred cave is now defaced with graffiti and littered with trash. Some people who come to the Fairy Hole claim that on occasion faint voices can be heard speaking from the darkness in the Native Lenape language.
There are various other legends concerning Shades of Death road as well which are a bit hard to really classify. Branching off of Shades of Death Road in the vicinity just north of I-80 is a three-quarter mile (1.1 km) one lane road that leads to a dead end occupied by an old farmhouse with a narrow driveway. This small road is called Lenape Lane and is also a place permeated with spooky lore. Shadowy apparitions can be seen roaming the road or moving about in the sudden, unseasonable fogs that are said to appear around the farmhouse. One popular tale concerning Lenape Lane is that sometimes a bright white orb will appear and chase trespassers away back down to the main road, and that the orb has the terrifying habit of suddenly turning red, an occurrence which is said to mean certain death for those who look upon it in this state. Another bizarre but popular tale concerning Shades of Death road is the appearance of what is usually described as a Native American spirit guide, which is said to shapeshift into the form of a deer and run alongside cars to warn the startled drivers that deer are crossing the road ahead. The story goes that if a deer runs alongside your car it is the spirit guide and you are meant to slow down or you will face an inevitable disastrous collision with a deer. Are these just eerie campfire tales or is there anything else to them?
One of the scarier and indeed more disturbing occurrences to happen in connection to Shades of Death Road was uncovered by the publication Weird NJ, which has done extensive investigation into the road’s many strange phenomena. In the 1990s, a couple brought a collection of bizarre polaroid pictures to Weird NJ which they alleged had been found scattered about the forest adjacent to Shades of Death road. According to the couple, they had been hiking in the area when they spied what seemed from a distance to be a large number of papers haphazardly strewn about the ground. Closer examination showed that the “papers” had in fact been thousands of chilling Polaroid snapshots of various women who appear to be bound and lying on a floor, a bed, and metal surface of some type. The photos were blurry and difficult to make out, but the women in the pictures were said to have eyes half-closed but awake, and they all seemed dazed. None of the people in the photos are smiling and in fact seem distinctly distressed. Other hikers also allegedly came across such photos just tossed about by the wind on the ground. Weird NJ claimed that authorities managed to identify several missing persons from the Polaroids and launched an investigation, but it was at that point that nearly all of the photos mysteriously disappeared, either removed by the police or some other party with nefarious intent. It is uncertain of how much of this story is true or has been exaggerated, but it is an extremely creepy addition to an already deeply creepy place.
Of course with a place so saturated with the weird and unexplained, Shades of Death Road has become a popular destination for both people with a curiosity of the macabre and also various paranormal investigations. Aside from the in-depth investigation done by Weird NJ, there have been others who have sought to delve into the mysteries of the road. Perhaps the most famous and simultaneously strangest such investigation was carried out by the reality show Haunted Highways. In this case, the investigation was oddly done by Jack Osbourne, son of Ozzy Ozbourne, and his co-host Dana Workman. The pair rigged up a car with 6 cameras and then began cruising around the desolate road at night to see what kind of footage they’d turn up. In the show, the cameras and other video equipment begin to inexplicably malfunction, and their vehicle promptly experiences a flat tire. Later on in the program, they are able to catch footage of the mysterious spectral fog rising up from Ghost Lake that seems to take the form of human figures, and make a sighting of what appears to by a shadowy, ghostly apparition standing near some trees. Of course, this is a paranormal reality show and the whole affair has the spookiness cranked up to 11, with the scary music and situations dramatically played for effect, so it is difficult to know how much credibility we should assign to the events depicted in the program.
Other investigations have had decidedly more skeptical conclusions. A group called the S&D Paranormal Society undertook an investigation into a variety of claims made over the years concerning the road and for the most part reported that they had more or less debunked many of them. For instance, the group found that the alleged haunted abandoned farmhouse at the end of Lenape Lane was in fact occupied, complete with horses in the barn, and that the derelict cabin in the woods near Ghost Lake had people living in it as well. Other stories they looked at were the strange mists and bright sky of Ghost Lake, which they concluded was the result of normal temperature fluctuations causing fog and the fact that the lake lies on the west side of the road, with the sun setting to the west making the sky naturally seem brighter there. The whole tale of the shape changing spirit guide was dismissed as simply being an exaggeration propagated by the large number of deer in the area. The team was unwilling to dismiss the possibility of ghosts or apparitions at the road in the absence of any evidence to either support or deny the claims. It should be noted that the S&D Paranormal Society is not even a skeptical outfit looking to debunk these types of phenomena out of hand, but rather a ghost hunting team honestly looking for answers and willing to entertain the notion that ghostly occurrences are real. It is unclear whether to take their findings as a reason to outright dismiss all of the strange phenomena of Shades of Death Road, but it does show that we should approach these things with an open yet skeptical mind and base assumptions on evidence rather than taking the various scary stories at face value.
Nowadays, the area draws in many visitors hoping to get a glimpse of the bizarre. This influx of thrill seekers has been much to the annoyance of locals, and one of the most irritating things seems to have been thefts of the Shades of Death Road signs. Apparently the signs are so popular with thieves that residents have gone so far as to use oil or grease to lube up the sign poles in order to prevent people from climbing them. Another downside is that the stories of spooky sightings or occurrences witnessed by these visitors show no signs of waning, and this in turn encourages even more people to flock to the area which then propagates the road’s mysterious reputation, as well as no doubt leading to exaggerations and tall tales to further bolster the legends, muddying the waters for those who truly want to find out what it going on.
Is there any truth to any of the stories and phenomena that surround the Shades of Death Road? Is there indeed some mysterious force pervading the area or is this all the result of exaggeration and urban legend? Dark, lonely roads are indeed spooky places that seem to invite tales of ghosts and weirdness, and one look at the somewhat unearthly, twisting, tree-lined stretches of Shades of Death Road certainly makes it easy to imagine this as a haunted place. It seems that with other such places, any reality to these phenomena has become hopelessly fused to myths and legend to the point that it is hard to pry them apart. One thing that does seem certain is that no matter what anyone says, it seems the legend of Shades of Death Road will likely be around for quite some time to come.