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.
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. ♦