Legend Tripping

How creepy stories create communal bonds

In the passenger seat of my friend’s car, driving for what felt like forever well after midnight in Fairfax County, Virginia, I finally asked if he actually knew how to get where we were going. Ox Road, or VA-123, looks like many other long stretches of Northern Virginia: lined with trees, chain restaurants, and parking lots, each intersection indistinguishable from the others if you are not a local, which I was not. My friend was on the lookout for one particular church he was certain he would recognize (and we passed many, many churches on the way). Once he saw this church, he would know the correct turn was approaching. “I was never able to give anyone good directions here,” he said, “but I swear I’ll remember it when I see it.”

We were on our way to Colchester Overpass, a rail bridge originally constructed in approximately 1906. A tight, one-lane tunnel runs through it to allow for cars to pass. The tunnel is short, but you wouldn’t know that at nighttime; walking or driving through it feels like venturing into a void. If you’ve heard of Colchester Overpass at all, you’ve most likely heard it referred to as Bunny Man Bridge, named for the fabled escaped convict in a creepy rabbit costume who murders visitors. I had read about Bunny Man Bridge online for years on urban legend sites and became adamant about visiting it when I learned my friend grew up nearby and had been many times. For all my research, and for all that my friend had told me about his visits as a teen, I was still convinced we wouldn’t find it, as if it existed in some spectral place that we couldn’t access.

We finally found the right turn, which took us down a long, sinuous road deeper into the woods. There were no street lights; only the headlights from our car lit our path forward. I couldn’t count how many turns we had made, driving in complete silence and darkness. We made one final turn, when all of a sudden we were shocked awake, as our headlights hit the wall of the tunnel. The eeriness of the bone-white structure radiated out of pitch blackness. I knew it when I saw it.

“Legend tripping” is a term used mainly by anthropologists and folklorists (Bill Ellis, Jan Harold Brunvand, among others) who focus on the development and evolution of urban legends. It describes the practice of venturing to a site believed to be haunted — or where disturbing events have taken place — and engaging with the legend in a performative way: telling the story out loud at the location, scaring your friends, or completing some ritual associated with the legend itself all the way to more “delinquent” behavior, like graffiti or drug use. It is not uncommon to find remnants of all the above at Bunny Man Bridge: the phrase “the bunnyman lives” scrawled on the inside of the tunnel, beer cans littered about, even mutilated small animals. During the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, studies of legend-tripping behavior defended the practice as both a modern-day extension of traditional folklore practices and an adolescent rite of passage, a way for youth to experiment with testing social boundaries in a mostly safe way. The “tripping” aspect comes from the affective impact the experience has on participants. The more dreamy, occultish nature of the feeling and mind-set that participants are likely to tap into while legend tripping creates a sense of the “enduring ephemeral,” a rupture in time — that history is both in the past and constantly on your heels.

Many places have generated legends over time that are only tangentially related to the real violence that occurred there, but those stories give us an entry point

Legend tripping has more radical potential value. The practice is a way in which many youth encounter alternative histories, cultural memory, and the porous boundary between physical space and ideology. For a moment, legend tripping forces its practitioners into a confrontation with their local geography and history — a story can be mostly “fake” (or “fakelore”) but still reveal a ton about the anxieties or troubled history of a community, the subaltern stories and voices that hegemonic powers want forgotten and thus reveal themselves in folklore. Popular legend-tripping sites include abandoned psychiatric hospitals with histories of patient abuse (Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York; Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts), railroad tunnels in towns pushed into economic disenfranchisement (Moonville Tunnel in Vinton County, Ohio), and ghost towns that were formerly antebellum commercial centers (Old Cahawba, Alabama). Many places like this have generated legends over time that are only tangentially related to the real violence that occurred there, but those stories give us an entry point to the material realities of the place and its history. We are constantly haunted; it’s brought to our attention only when we put in work to conjure it.

While legend tripping used to frighten parents, like much youth behavior that has induced moral panics over history, there is now a nostalgia for it borne from the fear that young people are disconnected from their physical surroundings in a digital age. However, the practice’s transformational qualities translate digitally quite easily. Experiencing a legend through performance has the power to charge a place with meaning, making it a space in a more phenomenological sense: one that connects you to history and others who have come into contact with it before you. In other words, legend tripping creates incorporeal social networks. By participating in legend tripping, one engages in an open-source-esque community project, where parts of a legend are constructed by some community members and approved or edited by others drawing from their own traditions and influences. The “content” lives or dies depending on whether or not community members continue to share it. The pursuit of esoteric wisdom, as well as the rush of a spooky experience, bonds the participants together even though they are not in the same physical space at the same time. It builds a space for an alternative understanding of the world while at the same time affirming a community around it.

This is a powerful tool. Individuals and communities very often have little control over the history they are taught via educational institutions; folklore allows people to reclaim some of that control in a more democratic fashion. A major reason for this is that legend tripping establishes networks and communities in a way that is adjacent to capitalism. Legend tripping is definitively not tourism — it’s defined by delinquent activity, most notably trespassing. Unlike “dark tourism” or “thanotourism,” the act of visiting places associated with death and atrocities (war memorials, death camps, etc.), legend tripping is not concerned with historical accuracy or ideological framing, and it is especially not concerned with commodification. As soon as a haunted site charges admission, it is no longer legend tripping.

This distinction is also what keeps legend tripping rooted in local community. When I visited Bunny Man Bridge, for as much research I had done on the site in advance, I found myself relying on the storytelling and expertise of my friend who grew up nearby. It takes the community for whom such a place is intimately significant to articulate its meaning for someone else — to give another the gift of esoteric knowledge. Once capital is introduced, it problematizes the interaction with a place and its history the same way that mainstream tourism does: by creating a colonizing dynamic where a (usually privileged) outsider can walk in and purchase a meaningful experience without “doing the work.”

While legend tripping originally developed as a practice firmly rooted in geographic place, it easily found a home online. The internet has enabled more legend tripping to occur in embodied spaces by preserving legends that may have died out if solely reliant on in-person oral tradition — forums on legends and visiting haunted places are extremely popular. I grew up in Staten Island, commonly referred to among locals as “the forgotten borough” of New York City, a place that in turn possesses a good deal of “forgotten” history situated in haunted places. Before I was old enough to get to any such places on my own, I relied on the stories that people shared about them online to give me a sense of what was lurking in my own hometown. Even as some buildings (like an allegedly haunted abandoned monastery) were demolished, legends about them lived on. While they couldn’t substitute for the experience of going there, those stories still created a channel between me and my surroundings through which I could access a more profound relationship with my home, and a set of more complex feelings about it.

Legends are created online as well. Here we can see the creative potential and expansive horizons of digital legend tripping, as well as the severe limitations it faces in privatization. Michael Kinsella has written extensively about Ong’s Hat (a.k.a. the Incunabula Papers), a collection of online stories written by four friends and uploaded to the WELL, a social networking site used primarily in the 1980s. The multi-authored, open-ended narrative about parallel dimensions and chaos science sat dormant online for a long time before being discovered (or rediscovered) by a wider community in the late ’90s. As new participants added their own work to it — not only writing segments but also uploading photographs and recording audio — it became a widespread “immersive-legend trip.” Digital space itself became the site of legend tripping: The story was developed and shared across different media, expanding how people could participate in the legend.

This spilled over into embodied space as well: Ong’s Hat is an actual place, a ghost town deep in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, which people began visiting in search of the portal to another dimension. Users took photos and uploaded them to contribute to the story, in addition to scaring each other on site. They were able to assign a legend to a town that didn’t have one before, and this legend belonged to a more dispersed community of anyone who wanted to participate, independent of their relation to the site’s geographic location. Ong’s Hat thus became a means to the kind of incorporeal social network found in traditional legend tripping. Regardless of where or how one accessed Ong’s Hat, they could access the community and bring the legend to life.

Legend tripping creates incorporeal social networks. The “content” lives or dies depending on whether or not community members continue to share it

On June 8, 2009, a forum user on Something Awful created a new forum challenging users to “create paranormal images.” On June 10, user Victor Surge (real name Eric Knudsen) posted two black and white photos: One showed an eerie group of kids beneath a long-limbed, hovering figure with the caption: “We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time — 1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.” The other photo, showing the same figure in the shadows next to a playground, was reportedly recovered from a library fire occurring the day that 14 children vanished. Stories about “Slender Man,” and Photoshopped images showing him in other locales, made their way around the internet, from DeviantArt to 4Chan’s paranormal board to a popular YouTube channel.

Many have noticed that Slender Man’s creation resembles open-source software, that his persona and legend are similarly based on modification, reuse, sharing, and transparency of infrastructure. He is essentially a hybrid of traditional folklore and modern open-source peer production. Similar to Ong’s Hat, the Slender Man legend created a network of community members across media who could contribute to the legend at will, take what they wanted from it, and leave what did not interest them. Since Slender Man was not tethered to any geographic place, he became more memetic and adaptable: a figure that could theoretically haunt any place and represent any anxiety. There are fan-fiction stories of Slender Man intervening in World War II atrocities, fan-made videos from teens all over the world who film themselves exploring abandoned buildings in their towns, tying Slender Man to their homes and the troubling histories they may feel, even if they aren’t articulated explicitly. Similar to the infamous campground boogeyman, Slender Man became a folkloric figure who could be transposed onto any place. But instead of spreading over years via oral tradition from campsite to campsite, town to town, Slender Man was available for instant appropriation.

Even though Slender Man originated entirely online, the legend had material consequences that made national headlines when two 12-year-old girls attempted to sacrifice their classmate to him. Their plan was to escape to Slender Man’s mansion, which they understood to be located in Nicolet National Forest in Northern Wisconsin — the glimmer of geographic verisimilitude that gave the legend more power. This crime, however, was not what put a damper on the Slender Man legend tripping: trademark ownership did. The official creator of Slender Man, Eric Knudsen, copyrighted the character and sold the media rights to a third party, which quickly chilled a large portion of fan creation and engagement that arguably created the mythos that made Slender Man a phenomenon in the first place. Knudsen had every right to to copyright something he created, but the decision to do so illustrates the limits of legend tripping’s potential in online spaces. While people can still make fan art and fan fiction about Slender Man, the scope of the legend has been limited. With a feature-length Slender Man film on the horizon, the fact that the story was originally co-authored by a wide community of people has been obscured.

Legend tripping collides with capital in a broader way through the industry of “off-the-beaten-path” tourism. Sites like Atlas Obscura and Roadtrippers have exposed mainstream audiences to places they never would have heard of unless they had been told by visitors or were researching urban legends and haunted places specifically. On sites like these, roadside attractions, geographic oddities, “weird” museums, and legend-tripping sites are all conflated; each is worth incorporating into one’s travels if you want to see something “authentic,” truly local, or kind of messed up.

This has already yielded terrible results. In February of this year, the YouTube star Logan Paul visited and filmed a video in the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan, commonly known as the suicide forest. While there are ghost stories associated with the forest, many people visit to reflect and pay respect to those who have died there. The forest has been the focus of a few viral internet videos, and tourism there has increased. Logan Paul’s video shows him and his friends entering the forest and wandering off the main path. When they come across someone who had taken their life, their moment of initial shock quickly transforms into them ridiculing the deceased man, whose face was not even blurred out of the footage.

Paul’s video went viral, allowing him to capitalize on his own careless disrespect and for others to follow in turn: By the time he removed the video, it had already become part of the broader YouTube media landscape, and well-known YouTubers commented on or criticized his actions to garner their own clicks. This dislocation of the space was not only offensive; it also ruined what could be referred to as the legend-tripping project of bringing people into communication with history and lost voices. The historical and cultural context of the forest itself fell by the wayside in the ensuing spectacle, along with suicide-prevention efforts in Japan attempting to deromanticize the space and attract less attention to it. It also took the spiritual ownership of the hauntings there out of the hands of the local communities who engaged with it in a dehumanizing, colonialist way.

In her study of obsolescence and ephemerality in digital media, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun writes, “Information is dynamic, however, not only because it must move in space, but also, and more importantly, because degeneration — not regeneration — makes memory possible, while simultaneously threatening it… Thus the scientific archive, rather than pointing us to the future, is trapping us in the past, making us repeat the present over and over again.”

This analysis of memory as something constantly in motion, made and remade, is useful for understanding digital media but also for understanding how legend tripping synced so easily with digital media. Online folklore also complicates what we think of information’s digital permanence — it exposes how there is an esotericism and an unknowable dimension to online life, even if we think of it as a place where the past takes root and is kept in place forever. Keeping the past alive requires communication and storytelling, for information to be refreshed and re-created. This cyclical dynamic is interrupted when capital is introduced and begins to dominate — when a careless online celebrity redefines a place and a community and his version is then recycled and reblogged infinitum, or when a prolific storytelling community loses ownership of its own legend.

Legend tripping asks participants to look at things they were not willing to see before, to consider that wherever they go there are histories and voices that have been silenced, and to let those voices crack open our relationship to our surroundings, even for a short time. In the enduring ephemeral that it conjures, we can see how we are always in communion with the past, and that we can perhaps learn something from it if we let it slip into our present, even in a limited space. It’s an understanding we consciously log in and out of most of the time by going to and subsequently leaving a place, by visiting a site, commenting to leave our part of the story before closing the tab.

Walking around the tunnel at Bunny Man Bridge — terrified, even though I was certain, based on all my research, that there was no basis to be scared of any actual presence — I picked up a railroad spike to take home with me. As my friend and I drove through the tunnel into pitch darkness, the side-view mirror lightly scraping the wall, I sat clutching the totem I had just collected. But as we pulled away I rolled the window down and tossed the railroad spike out, back to where it came from, and back in time.

Stephanie Monohan is a writer, illustrator, and youth researcher for MTV. She is currently pursuing a masters in Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt. Her work focuses on the intersections of technology, horror, and capitalism. She resides in New York and can often be found screening midnight movies at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn.