Between bites of eggs Benedict at the Windsor Diner, I’d been filling in Liz Mitchell, our assistant regional editor, about what kind of stories she’d expect to find on Clark-Garwood Patch.
“There’s not much craziness here,” I said.
As the words left my mouth, I wondered if I’d jinxed myself. A few hours later, I found out I that I had.
Journalists live for breaking news. We are tethered to smartphones that beep with alerts about police, fire and emergency news. We’re used to flying out the door in search of mayhem, even in Clark or Garwood, to get to the bottom of the story.
The drill often goes this way with me. I am out of the house, into the car, police scanner on and camera in hand. I flash my press pass to the officials at the scene of a car accident, a fire, the occasional bomb scare. But this was different. As I re-read the alert, I was certain that my overworked eyeballs weren’t reading it correctly. No matter how many times I looked, though, it came back the same:
| *Police Activity*| Old Raritan Rd at the Hungarian Club| PD have located a large amount of animal remains behind the club. Appears to be a ritual sacrificing site.
A more battle-tested reporter would have felt as though they hit the jackpot on something so exotic, but my email to my editor went more like this: "OMG. OMG. YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME. LORD HELP ME. EEEEEEEK. ICK. I'm on my way."
As I backed out of my driveway, all I could think was, How many, exactly, constitute a "large amount" of animal parts?
When I pulled down the dirt road off of Old Raritan that leads to the abandoned Hungarian Club, I saw just one Clark police car. Most of the officers in town are used to me showing up to these sorts of things. With my camera around my neck, I waved hello and the officer smiled. He pointed down the path to an American flag about 50 yards away and I made a scared face. He chuckled and wished me luck.
As I got closer, I saw the structure. A large stick figure with a skull on top. Instant heebie-jeebies.
I took a deep breath and surveyed the scene. More animal skulls. Assorted junk on the ground. A stone slab with a strange symbol on it – a circle with an X inside it. And, strangely, the American flag.
What is this? Just take some pictures and get the heck out of here, Jess.
I tip-toed around the display, my muscles tight and teeth clenched. I took photos from different angles, alternating aloud between "ew, ew, ew" and "gross, gross, gross" as I zoomed in for some close ups. I finished up and shook my whole body the way a dog does when it's wet. If that cop is watching me, I'm never gonna hear the end of it.
During my career, I've jumped from a helicopter over the Swiss Alps, gone ghost-hunting and walked dangerous city streets. Much to my mother's chagrin, I'm ready for anything. But, standing in front of this carefully crafted, ritualized site, I felt uneasy.
A news helicopter hovered over the area. They must have gotten the same alert, I thought. I made my way back to the car and was chatting with the Clark officer, when a Union County officer had arrived to investigate the odd incident on this patch of county property. They told me, nonchalantly, that some kids had found this stuff and called it in. One of them mentioned that the Santeria religion employs animal sacrifice. No big deal. I think one of them yawned. Do they not think this is weird?
On my way home, I called then-Clark Police Chief Denis Connell.
"Hello, Jess," he groaned before I could say a word.
I said what I always say: "You sick of me yet, Chief?"
"You? Never." he answered, though I doubted it.
"So what's the deal here?" I asked.
Chief Connell gave me the few details he could. He confirmed that kids found the site and reported it. He said the department wasn't sure what to make of it, but that it was the county department's investigation now. I asked him if it could be related to Santeria, but Connell had no answer.
I called the county press office, but it was after 6 p.m. by now and I knew I wouldn't get anyone on the horn. I uploaded the pictures and posted the story with what little details I had. Looking through it all again, I still was trying to piece together what this could be. Do the cops see this sort of thing so regularly that it’s not odd? Was it a prank pulled by the same kids who called it in? Could this legitimately be a Santerian ritual sacrificing site? Here? In sleepy little Clark? I couldn't wait to see what my readers would have to say.
"At approximately 4 p.m. today, May 10, Clark Police received report of animal remains and what appears to be some sort ritual site off the path behind the former Hungarian Club building on Old Raritan Road. Children who had been walking in the area found the site and reported it to police, according to Clark Police Chief Denis Connell.
About 100 feet down the path leading from Old Raritan Road (off of Featherbed Lane), the site contained a five-foot-tall stick structure topped with what appeared to be a deer or goat skull. Beneath the structure was a rock slab with a large red circle containing an X drawn in red, animal bones staked into the ground, two smaller animal skulls, an American flag planted in the ground, a white hardhat, scattered old tires and a rusted metal bucket. Near the path leading to the site were a few white animal feathers.
Union County police were on scene to make a report, as the property belongs to the county, and stated that these sites are not uncommon. Chief Connell said the investigation has been turned over to the county and had no further comments. What appeared to be a news helicopter hovered above the area for several minutes.
The Union County Police Department could not be reached for comment at this time."
I linked to the story on the site's Facebook page and on Twitter and watched as the meter measuring hits went through the roof. I posted it on my personal Facebook page with the following caption: "Who wants nightmares tonight? Lovely little Tuesday in Clark."
When my phone rang later that night, I didn’t recognize the number. It was a producer from NJ News 12 calling. Their crew had gone over to the scene after I was there but police wouldn’t let them through. I chuckled and thought to myself, Boy, does it pay to know the cops.
The producer asked if they could use my images to tell the story in their broadcast. Cool, I thought, as Clark-Garwood Patch made the nightly news for the first time.
I tried to put the strange images behind me as I got ready for bed. I’d given in to the suggestion that this was, perhaps, Santeria. Santeria is an African-Caribbean religion that does use animal sacrifice as a form of devotion. I Googled and found that there have been occasional reported incidents in the state over the past few years, including a case in 2008 when a North Bergen mother and son were charged with animal cruelty after slaughtering chickens, pigeons, guinea hens and ducks and bringing the carcasses to a Spring Lake beach. There was another just this March when a Freehold man was also charged with animal cruelty after the remains of several animals (including chickens, guinea hens and a slider turtle) were found in his yard.
Lots of folks fish in that area, anyway–people from all over the county and maybe even the state. Who’s to say they aren’t Santerians even if the religion isn’t popular here in Clark? I'd call the county again tomorrow.
I was just settling in when I got a text from my friend Michelle: "Google: Marble Hornets' the operator symbol."
I did. And I gasped. There it was. The same symbol I had seen written in blood on the slab in the field.
I called her. "What the heck, Michelle? What is this?"
Michelle and her boyfriend, Ryan, had read my story. They were intrigued by the symbol; their search turned up an online alternative gaming community. The "operator symbol" was the mark of the gaming community's villain, a man I would soon come to know well: the tall, skinny, faceless, pale, bald man with branches for arms was named, appropriately, "Slender Man."
Branches and no face, that makes sense. The figure in the field was made from sticks and had a skull for a head.
I kept Googling. You would think discovering that the "ritual site" might be the work of some kids involved in a kooky online web series would help me shrug off the whole thing. But the more I learned about Slender Man, fictional or not, the scarier he became. Sleep could wait.
Around midnight I emailed Liz. "If by any chance you're awake, call me. I have a crazy lead on the animal remains story."
I told Liz all I'd discovered, giving her a Slender Man 101: Slender Man was born from a paranormal photoshop contest hosted by an Internet forum. Slender Man’s artist-creator, Victor Surge, drew the long armed, suited man and posted that the monster stalked children. The eerie creature snowballed in popularity on the ‘net and became a sort of online bogeyman, referenced on several paranormal sites and forums and illustrated in fan-art.
Slender Man really took off in 2009, when a couple of kids in Alabama– Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage–took a video camera and ran with the idea of the spooky villain, beginning an online video series centered around the mystery man. Their tale went like this: A young filmmaker, Alex, was the first to encounter the strange suited man as he appeared on his set in the woods. Alex soon became spooked and abandoned his movie project, titled “Marble Hornets.” When Alex’s friend, Jay, asked about the film, Alex told him he’d hand over the footage he had if Jay never asked him about it again. Alex then disappears and Jay begins playing the tapes and posting them to YouTube.
Viewers join Jay on his hunt for Alex as he stumbles upon clues and leads and Slender Man makes fleeting appearances – in a window, in the shadows. You have to watch carefully to see him and the Where’s Waldo of finding him seems to be half the fun. Slender Man is clearly threatening, a psychologically terrifying killer that invades your mind and leaves those who encounter him doubting their own sanity. Each video is short and seems to create more questions than it answers. The series has gained in popularity exponentially, with several other factions creating video Slender Man series, though Marble Hornets remains the most popular.
I watched a few of the episodes to get the gist, now more spooked than ever. The videos have a very Blair Witch Project mood to them. There’s the woods, the hunt, the limited one-camera view, strange ticks in the recordings where the sound cuts out or gets loud and fuzzy, moments where the video tears for a second and then reattaches. For being the work of a couple of college kids with no budget, these videos were compelling, suspenseful even. Scared as I was, I had to watch the next entry and then the next.
I reached out to a few of the Slender Man communities I could find email addresses or Facebook pages for. After a night of tuning into Slender Man videos, I became convinced that what we found had to be linked, somehow, to Slender Man followers. I decided I'd tell the county police in the morning.
"Hey, Seb," I said the next morning. "So, animal remains?"
We Patch editors have Union County spokesman Sebastian D'Elia on speed-dial. I figured I'd feel him out before telling him about my Slender Man discovery. I asked him to give me a statement.
"Occasionally, we find these kind of animal ritual things in our park systems," said D'Elia. "It’s certainly not a regular occurrence but it does happen from time to time."
He could have been talking about finding the remains of a teenagers’ beer party as the cops. But D'Elia did have one lead for me:
"We have a large parks system, and we do have residents who do this stuff, possibly Santeria, especially in the more urban areas of the county. To see this in Clark is a little unusual."
As I started to tell D'Elia my Slender Man discovery I realized just how crazy I sounded. "Yeah, well, a few of my friends started Googling...they think that symbol is linked to this community of kids. This strange villain named Slender Man...I mean, I know it sounds nuts, but..."
I couldn't tell if he thought I was crazy or not, but D'Elia told me to call Lt. Robert McGuire at the county police department and tell him what I'd found.
I made the call, trying to sound like a dispassionate reporter tracking down all leads, prefacing it with, “I know this all seems crazy, but…”
Lt. McGuire seemed genuinely interested in Slender Man. But after promising I'd send him links to some of the Slender Man stuff and hanging up the phone, I shook my head.
This is crazy, I thought. The only real connection to this Slender Man stuff is that symbol. A circle with an X. I mean, that could be anything. It was late at night after a long day when I got myself all worked up Googling this stuff. And really, you can find confirmation for just about anything on the Internet. The power of suggestion. I've got no proof, none of the Slendergeeks have written me back and I think my editors and the county police are going to commit me. Time to give this lead up.
I wrote a follow-up story:
I was a little bummed. I thought I'd solved a mystery when I came up the Slender Man thread. My editors said it was still a weird phenomenon and suggested I do a separate story on Slender Man.
"Hey, this Slender Man stuff is still interesting," said Union County Regional Editor David Chmiel. "It’s got national implications and could be more of a trend piece," he suggested. I told him if I found any spare time, I would.
The day after I posted the follow-up article, the Santeria community came out of the woodworks to comment. They were not happy with D'Elia's suggestion, to say the least:
"I am an active priest in this religion and I can assure you, Miss Remo, that I see nothing whatsoever that remotely even resembles a Santeria ritual in these photos. Once again, the uninformed and uneducated media chooses to single out Santeria as a religion when it comes to this type of reporting."
"What evidence is there that this belongs to Santeria??? Why should we take the word of Mr. D'Elia? What is basis for making this accusation? Is he an expert in Santeria? Who is he except for a county spokesperson?"
"I am an Aborisha, a practitioner of Santeria, and we DO NOT use deers or mice in our rituals, nor is the symbol drawn on the rock from Santeria, nor do we use flags within our rituals. More likely some kids who wanted to spook someone or freak out a friend."
"I am a priestess of the Santeria religion & find it very offensive the Santeria community is constantly targeted when an animal is found dead. The Union County spokesperson Sebastian D’Elia, needs to get his facts straight about the Santeria religion. It appears that Sebastian D' Elia has a problem with the Santeria religion, or he would have never targeted us. ... To indicate that Santeria played a role in the findings of this dead animal is prejudicial."
The commenters had a point. How could we really determine who was responsible? Or if this was a "ritual sacrificing" site at all? Maybe I’d go back to Seb for comment again. Ask him to point me to other Santeria incidents that led him to his suggestion. But, before I could, someone else exonerated the Santeria community.
That same day, hours after the last angry Santerian had voiced his or her complaint, there was this, from a commenter using the name "Antimony":
"I do not mean to rag on the author of this article, or Sebastian D'Elia, but the 'ritual' site had absolutely nothing to do with Santeria. However, to those who are upset about this Santeria thing, I feel you are overreacting a tad bit for something that was a mere suggestion.
To be perfectly honest, I am personally responsible for this 'ritual' site. Not completely, however, as there was a rather large group of friends in on it."
Antimony continued, explaining the hows and whys. And then, just when I had given up on Slender Man...
"...and the symbol written on it at the time of discovery is a symbol used in an online horror series, Marble Hornets. (And yes, there used to be other things written on the slab, but rain always did away with those types of things) It was written using fake blood bought from Party Stop. Oh, and if you're wondering about the stick man, nicknamed The Operator (another term taken from Marble Hornets), the idea was taken from the ever so famous movie, The Blair Witch Project, just with a deer skull on top this time."
I've never felt so vindicated. I wasn't crazy. It was Slender Man after all.But who are the people who keep Slender Man alive?
Part II of "The Search for Slender Man" will appear Monday morning.