Fun

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Weird NJ

It was not only our map, but our Bible.

What do you picture when you think about New Jersey? Some of you, informed by the prevalent story of my birthplace that’s served by the media, will think of Snooki, The Sopranos, and spray tans—all fine things. And all definitely in line with the state’s reputation—New Jersey has long been considered the “armpit of America” due to not only its geographical shape, but also its image as the home to a thriving population of over-the-top, heavily accented cartoon people. But you know what? There’s way more to the armpit than what you see on TV. New Jersey has a beautiful, longstanding weirdo history that has nothing to do with all of that, one with which real New Jerseyans are intimately familiar.

All over the state, there are certain odd locales which are regarded as legendary among those who know how to seek them out. The encyclopedia of these hidden landmarks is the excellently bonkers magazine Weird NJ, the foremost authority in the bizarre, haunted, and notable sites that make my homeland special. For teenagers like my friends and me, who were always looking to scare ourselves into quivering Jell-O people by “totally almost seeing a ghost,” it was not only our map, but our Bible.

Weird NJ has been around since 1989 and puts out two print issues a year as well as maintaining an exhaustive online archive. Each issue is jam-packed with all the juicy rumors, firsthand stories, and photographic evidence of the strange and haunted phenomena of New Jersey that a person could ever want, and for readers like me, that’s a hell of a lot. The magazine is required reading for the state’s young people, i.e., those most inclined to pack into someone’s terrible car to witness some paranormal activity or poke around some decrepit old building that just might have once housed a cult. The locales featured in its pages are often either illegal and/or dangerous to explore without permission, but of course that only adds to the allure when you’re a bored suburban teenager.

Weird NJ wasn’t always the full-fledged magazine that it is today. It began as a fanzine started by Mark Sceurman, which he distributed to his friends in the ’80s. It steadily gained in popularity, and one day Mark Moran, a New Jersey-based artist and photographer, heard Sceurman being interviewed about his zine on New Jersey’s beloved community radio station, WFMU. The two Marks began corresponding by mail; they would send each other firsthand accounts of New Jersey’s out-there idiosyncrasies. Eventually, they realized that they should expand the fanzine into something the general public could get their hands on, and Weird NJ evolved from a small, awesome, self-published newsletter into a slightly bigger, still awesome, and still self-published mag.

Weird NJ’s paper is cheap, its fonts are cheesy, and the accounts submitted by amateur explorers seem extremely embellished, but it will always be my favorite magazine. It’s not like Cosmo ever led me to real-life adventures the way Weird NJ did. One of my favorite places that it led me to was the Paulinskill viaducts. Once used as a railway bridge, the viaducts are enormous concrete arches that are plastered with tons of beautiful, elaborate graffiti inside. Every inch is filled with tributes to bygone romances overlapping with misspelled diatribes against school and intricate spray-paint portraiture. This is enough to warrant a trip on its own, especially for burgeoning artists looking to make their mark, but there’s so much more to love about this spot.

Photo by Tara Beach

After climbing all the way up to the top of the viaducts on metal rungs built into the interior, you emerge way high up onto the old train tracks and are greeted by a panoramic view of seemingly endless forest, plus a river which you can just barely hear rushing stories upon stories below you. The smell and feel of wind in high-up places is one of the best things on earth, and you get all of that up on top of Paulinskill. It can also be beyond scary, because guess what? It’s also completely haunted, something which I know firsthand.

My friend Tara and I, along with a few others, once made the really fun and terrifying decision to go to the viaducts at night. As we were climbing to the top, our flashlight caught a glimpse of something that is indelibly burned into our memories: a sinister, glowing pair of green eyes staring at us from the darkness of the leaves. We SCREAMED and ran all the way down back to our car, where what we had just seen was hotly debated: I’m still convinced it was a ghost, but Tara says it was a bear, which almost definitely means it was the ghost of a bear, which may be the scariest kind of ghost imaginable. After we had sufficiently calmed down, we decided to give the climb another shot. We were all the way at the top of the arches when, in a development straight from a cheesy horror movie, our flashlight died. This meant we had to navigate back in pitch-blackness aided only by a weak cellphone light, certain that ghost-bears were going to maul us at any second. Obviously, it was one of the best nights ever, all thanks to the divine guidance of Weird NJ.

The magazine not only explores the places where these strange things happened, but also painstakingly chronicles weird artifacts found hither and thither. Take, for instance, the Mystery Thread, which I never would have known about without Weird NJ, despite the fact that it appeared in my hometown of Caldwell. In 1970, a thick, silvery cord descended from the clouds, shrouded in mystery, into the lives of a very made-up-sounding Mr. and Mrs. A.P. Smith. The latter, quoted in the magazine, “thought it might be a direct line from the Martians,” which is a quick conclusion to jump to but also a totally amazing one. The Mystery Thread appeared to hang from the sky right above the Smiths’ house, almost touching it, which I’d imagine made it really difficult for poor Mrs. Smith to sleep, for fear of abduction. The police, the local newspaper, and tons of alien enthusiasts had no idea what the deal was, and after a week, the MT came loose and enigmatically disappeared. According to Weird NJ, someone grabbed it (who? how? what?) and brought it to a “lab” (huh?), but no one ever figured out what it was made of, or, more important, whence the hell it came. The ending of this story is totally unresolved and vague. Like, what happened in this oh-so-secret laboratory? Where is the thread now? WHAT THE EFF IS IT? I wonder if leaving out these key details was an intentional choice made to add to the spookiness, or just a product of shoddy pulp journalism. Much like the origin of the Mystery Thread, the world may never know the answer. And you know what? That’s the beauty of Weird NJ.

I conclude that Mrs. A.P. Smith was right all along. I mean, if aliens were going to pick anywhere on Earth to visit, New Jersey is obviously where it’s at—it being, of course, all the extraterrestrial, odd, and spooktacular abnormalities that make life that much more interesting. Thank you, Weird NJ, for not only keeping track of these oddities and also being the cause of most of my party stories about almost getting arrested in high school, but also for allowing me to remember my old home as the magical, mysterious, and weird wonderland that it really is—if you know where to look, or rather, what to read. ♦

36 Comments

  • Tyknos93 August 2nd, 2012 7:23 PM

    Oh man I love hearing about stuff like this! This reminds me of the visits I took to New Orleans when I was little. My mom was always traveling back and forth there for her job so my dad would take me on these ghost tours and walks through the graveyards. At the time I was WAY into ghosts and the macabre. We would finish it off with pralines of beignets :)

    …now I’m hungry

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • i-like-autumn August 2nd, 2012 7:35 PM

    Sorry, cover image freaked me out a little. (Insert eyebrow wiggle here.) Anyway, great article!

  • Harley August 2nd, 2012 7:35 PM

    I have always wanted an issue of Weird NJ, but my mother doesn’t think I should get one because I live in Illinois. She did buy me a big book called Weird Illinois, so now I can explore in my own state. I still would love to explore New Jersey one day. For now, Illinois shall suffice.

    • AlisonWonderland August 2nd, 2012 9:02 PM

      I bought that Weird Illinois book too (at the Shedd Aquarium for some odd reason). I remember this story about a guy who slashed screen windows and then climbed in and killed people. It gave my 11-year-old self nightmares. I wonder if I still have my copy somewhere.

      • Kathryn August 3rd, 2012 12:44 PM

        I have relatives who have the Weird Minnesota book. I think there’s one for each state. I wonder if it’s from the same people, because it has the same font on the title. Unless it’s a copy or somethin.

  • maddzwx August 2nd, 2012 7:57 PM

    Whoa…I had never heard of Weird NJ before this article (most likely because I do not live in, nor have I ever been to New Jersey) but this totally makes me want to buy a bunch of issues and just road trip around NJ (if only). Also, hurrah for zines!

  • Whatsername August 2nd, 2012 8:04 PM

    I’ve lived in New Jersey my whole life but I’ve never read any of Weird NJ, mainly because I generally dislike this state and usually tell other people I live in New York because it just seems a lot cooler.
    {Plus I practically do anyway, I’m in Bergen county so it’s like right on the border.}
    Maybe I should pick up an issue of this to see if it livens up my view of this place.

    • Coco Jane August 2nd, 2012 8:22 PM

      don’t fall prey to the NJ self-hatred! Now that I’m away I look back on a lot of it fondly. Also, people you tell you’re from NY will inevitably find out you’re from NJ and give you shit about it (I speak from experience haha)

    • llamagesicht August 2nd, 2012 10:31 PM

      I’m sorry to hear that you dislike New Jersey. I have family in Bergen County and it is quite built up (whereas right across the border at that point New York is less congested) but even Bergen has some hidden gems. (Check out the waterfalls in Paterson!)

      I’m from Sussex County and I’m close to NY and PA and it’s all one giant forest where I live (yet I’m still an hour from Manhattan.) New Jersey is a unique place.

    • E.Elizabeth August 2nd, 2012 11:02 PM

      Bergen County can be the pits! I lived there for 4 years and some times it felt like the least interesting place in the world. However, after some exploring, I was able to find all sorts of weird and cool places like, sunken cars in the woods, beautiful mountain lakes (with rope swings!), and Flipside Records, one of my favorite record stores! It helps to have a car, though. NJ Transit is just so, so crappy.

      (PS- I feel like 60% or more of the things in Weird NJ are in North Jersey. Totally worth picking up a copy.)

      • richardson28 August 20th, 2012 6:29 AM

        I’ve lived in Bergen County my whole life and I can attest that it is indeed the most boring place in America. Almost anything worth checking out in North Jersey is outside of squeaky clean BC.

    • Amy Rose August 3rd, 2012 10:39 AM

      I hated the state when I lived there too, for the most part. You have to find things to like about it to make it work, and then at least when you move away, you’ll be remembering those things more. Get Weird NJ and just go to like a milllllliioonnnnn diners (so many good ones in Bergen County, no?) and own where you are from!

  • Tara August 2nd, 2012 8:05 PM

    amy-this is such a wonderful article! finding weird places in your own city is so great. the Paulinskill viaducts sounds absolutely incredible! I do admit I got confused when I saw ‘tara and I’ aha. she seems like a cool travel buddy gal. also oh my god the mystery thread is total x-files fare. that is a beautiful story.

  • Coco Jane August 2nd, 2012 8:21 PM

    THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS. Weird NJ was my obsession for a long time growing up in Princeton, NJ. I spent multiple summers at the Shore near Asbury Park, when most of the buildings were still abandoned and easily accessible. I used to break into an theater there that had been almost overtaken by the beach– dunes covering where the seats once were, sea grass growing up to the stage, and the ceiling ripped away and blue sky above. Some of my best teenage memories are indelibly linked to Weird NJ!!!

    • Tyknos93 August 2nd, 2012 8:40 PM

      OH MY GOD that place sounds phenomenal!

  • Blythe August 2nd, 2012 8:57 PM

    For a moment, I thought the cover image was a Weeping Angel.

    Don’t blink.

  • Sphinx August 2nd, 2012 9:00 PM

    I went to NJ this summer, but I crossed the bridge almost everyday to go to New York.
    But after watching Anthony Bourdain’s NJ episode, my dad (who lives there) and I made it a point to check out every place he went to in the show, and we had a blast!

    • suburban grrrl August 2nd, 2012 11:58 PM

      Did you go to Gencarelli’s??????? BECAUSE THAT’S MY HOOD.

  • suburban grrrl August 2nd, 2012 9:29 PM

    AHHHHHHHHH Weird NJ is the shit. Makes me proud to be from Jersey!

    I mean how else would I know about that tribe of Albinos or that abandoned Nazi compound in my state?

    http://sub-urbangrrrl.blogspot.com/

  • literary_keyboard August 2nd, 2012 9:36 PM

    i have 100% of every weird nj thing ever put out–all of the magazines, special issues, and NJ books (which i got at book signings!). i’m obsessed! i love getting to hear weird stories and see cool stuff i wouldn’t normally have noticed. i also always love when people i know or places i frequent are mentioned. one of my relative’s gravestones is in the book and i got a photo in an issue once.

  • Bloom August 2nd, 2012 10:19 PM

    Oh there you are Rookie, giving me a lot of feelings again that I’m not sure how to explain or what to do with them :/

    • Amy Rose August 3rd, 2012 10:35 AM

      I hope they are okay ones! Love ya.

  • llamagesicht August 2nd, 2012 10:27 PM

    Also, I went to the Paulinskill Viaduct in high school; it was something basically everyone did before they graduated.

    Feeling intense NJ nostalgia now.

    Love this article (but don’t love how negative stereotypes are mentioned so early on, hah. I personally would have put them at the end in the hopes that maybe people would forget about them!)

    Thanks for the article, Rooks.

  • AnguaMarten August 2nd, 2012 10:32 PM

    sweet. i live in new jersey and i often bemoan how dull it is. will definitely be checking this out.

  • eliseii August 2nd, 2012 11:03 PM

    So stoked to see this! I grew up in the Asbury Park area (looks slightly abandoned, adorned with mermaids on every corner) and think of Weird NJ as a really important part of my upbringing. Driving to the end of Whipporwill road or running through the old insane asylum just makes you feel fearless and cinematic.

    Also: So rad to see other Jersey rookies!

  • E.Elizabeth August 2nd, 2012 11:05 PM

    Weird NJ got me through high school! I lift up my heart to Weird NJ!

    • Amy Rose August 3rd, 2012 10:34 AM

      I lift up my heart to your diction!

  • unicornconnect August 3rd, 2012 4:33 AM

    I wish I lived in New Jersey now!!!!!! Ghost bears sound extremely awesome!!

    carla
    redpunzel-carla.blogspot.com

  • Lucille August 3rd, 2012 9:30 AM

    Gosh, that article is amazing!thank you!

    http://fashion-babel.blogspot.com

  • pygmypuffs August 3rd, 2012 2:45 PM

    I’ve read Weird Massachusetts, and loved their site weirdus.com back before they started “converting their archives” (a project which began when I was in high school, and has yet to be finished at the cusp of my college graduation -_-”)
    New Jersey, New York, and New England (any of the older states) have GHOSTS OUT THE ASS. My hometown of Manchester, Connecticut has tons of textiles mills. The entire town used to basically be run by Ward Cheney and his brothers Charles, Rush, Frank, and Ralph. Most of the mills are now abandoned, but some have been turned into luxury apartments for yuppies who commute to Hartford for work. The town left a few mills undeveloped due to lack of funds, so they’re just chilling, boarded up and full of ghosts – people who died in the mills while working there, homeless people who used to sleep there before the police boarded them up, and I think one kid OD’d there in the 80′s or 90′s. So the mills are wicked haunted and creepy as hell. In addition to the mills, they built a theater (also haunted – a lady fell from the attic onto the stage and died. I met the ghost when I was a kid in theater camp), houses for the mill workers (I lived in one of these houses for 6 years. My room was under the attic, but I learned to sleep through the random bumps, dragging sounds, and sobbing. Not to mention the basement, which had some ghost-creature) and the Cheney mansions, which no one is allowed near, and I have no idea if people live there or not.
    And my current apartment is Boston is haunted. Shout out to my ghost roomie!

  • airplanes.books August 5th, 2012 5:01 AM

    wfmu is one of my FAVORITE favorite radio stations, and i’m from seattle. also–alien conspiracies.

    a billion points for rookie tapping into everything i’ve ever loved.

  • January August 5th, 2012 7:36 PM

    I will never understand the hate for New Jersey. It doesn’t even look like an armpit. The shape always reminded me of a seahorse.
    Despite all of my good feelings for New Jersey, the only time I ever read Weird NJ was while waiting for my mother to pick me up from the library.

  • Julia F. August 5th, 2012 10:45 PM

    :3 i love this article so much…because i love weird nj so much! this magazine has literally been the tour guide to my summer adventures…just visited the marlboro slaughterhouse a few weeks ago :,) it was wonderfully frightening.

  • mackiebean August 7th, 2012 10:03 PM

    This book scared the pants off me in middle school, especially when visiting my North Jersey kin–I was absolutely convinced that if I went out after dark, the Jersey Devil or a tribe of Van Cleefs would murder me. Good times. XD

  • herstmonceux August 10th, 2012 10:49 AM

    Def putting this on next summer’s bucket list.

  • hipsternarwhal November 25th, 2012 3:39 PM

    Im a New Jerseyian, and i have to admit, sometimes and i cant stand New Jersey in all of its Jersey Shore and accent glory, but, one of my favorite things was when my mom would buy me Weird New Jersey and visit all of the weird places :D