Inevitably, all of these locations and their accompanying tales that I visit or learn about are told through anonymous strangers’ tales (such as in the beloved Weird NJ publications) or through personal stories relayed by friends and their acquaintances. Of all the incredible people I have met over the last few years, this place came to my knowledge through friends of my younger brother, of all people. My brother and his girlfriend were having their friends over for a night of movies and hanging out, your typical high school friendship fare. Well, I come home from work and am merely occupying the same space as this group, not really taking part in their conversations. I was working on my computer and they were stationed around the television and Xbox, having let their movie finish and roll past the credits, when they then became engrossed in discussion. Eventually the conversation turns to abandoned and / or “haunted” places and I became involved.
We exchanged stories involving the well-known locales in our vicinity and throughout Central Jersey, such as the since-destroyed Lambertville High School and its nearby Gravity Hill, and I told my stories involving some of the more obscure locations that these friends would have only recently have gained access to (being younger and recently licensed to drive). But, by the end of the night, these wonderful young people surprised me and actually put me on the trail of a nearby place that I had never even heard of before.
In hopes of keeping the exact location concealed, I will eliminate some of the more prominent details. When they were describing the area that they had visited “a few weeks ago,” I gathered that it could not have been too far from a major highway and local government buildings. I almost refused to believe that the place either existed, or was actually where they believed it was, per their directions. They were trying to tell me that a two story abandoned house was literally just across the street from a state building and within a hundred feet of a major highway. But, I ate my words and would eventually learn that they were oh-so correct.
I had pictured these friends walking through the woods and finding a dilapidated structure. They described the windows and doors as being blown open and the first floor relatively easy to traverse. They told me that when they were getting ready to go upstairs, most of the group they were with waited outside because of all of the homeless paraphernalia that was strewn about (smart kids). The key detail, the reason that I was so surprised by this local artifact that I had never known about, involved the more-adventurous friends' journey upstairs. The detail, rather stupidly, that made me want to find this house, was relayed by his friend. He told me that as they ascended to the second floor and found bed-sheets and dirty linens serving as curtains on the bare windows, they found the body of a deceased dog placed in an open drawer of a piece of furniture.
That was it. There were apparently dangerous people frequenting a place that my younger brother's friends had access to. I was curious, skeptical, and, honestly, irritated. If there were people running about slaying domesticated animals and leaving them in abandoned properties, I was agitated. Was it some cult fixated on inane rituals or just some schmucks hurting animals? Regardless, I simply sat, enjoyed their stories and told my own, and let the accounts ruminate over the next couple of weeks.
That night occurred pretty deeply into our winter. The trees were still barren and although we enjoyed many days of mild temperatures, we had consistent weekly snowfalls. During a candid moment of enthusiasm, I grabbed my camera and headed in the general direction of the property. I pulled over and realized just how exposed the house actually was. As I had imagined, the front yard was overgrown and the recent snow storms had toppled large pines. I noticed that the dirt path that ran along the side of the building and into the barren farmland beyond was somewhat recently traversed. There were deep pockets of water breaking the recent snowfall. Probably trucks or ATVs, but not knowing if the property was actually owned and poorly maintained. I was only wearing my Converse sneakers and jacket and had no intentions on trudging through the sloppy, wet snow to simply get a glimpse of the building. I left.
A few weeks later, when the presence of the building once again tiptoed into my memory, I decided to stop by it on the way to the shopping center, just blocks away on the major highway nearby. I actually got out of my car this time, enjoying the mild late winter / early spring weather, and took a few pictures on my phone. I had determined that I would eventually go inside, but now was not the time. The day was just upon rush hour and there was an all-too steady stream of cars pulling off the highway and using the road as a detour towards the residential neighborhoods. I did not want to test my luck with the potential of being seen by any existing owners or state officials / law enforcement next door. The sun was setting and the scene looked beautiful, oranges, reds, blues, grays, painting the lot which had surely seen better days. I knew I would be back.
Just recently, I returned.
You can only psyche yourself out so many times before the practice becomes meaningless, boring, frustrating even. I knew that the next time I visited would involve a fuller exploration.
Again, perhaps against my better judgment, I was alone. I realized I had no obligations for the day, my friends were working or up north, and my brother was at work. The random burst of motivation fell upon me and I decided that before I ran some errands, I was going to sweep the property. I grabbed my old Flip (video camera) and headed out.
I parked in the empty parking lot of the vacant commercial building. This, in my mind, acted as a buffer between the prying eyes of the state building and any passersby seeing my car parked on the two-lane road. I tucked my wallet into my console, pulled out my trusted box-cutter (you know, the end-all defense against muggers, deranged wanderers, ghosts, and the occult) and dropped it in my back pocket and started recording after I crossed the street.
I found that the back yard was quite sizable, however covered in debris it may have been. It extended far back before turning into empty farmland and I saw a few pieces of furniture discarded and dumped on the edge of the grass. I first saw large trees cut down and shredded all over the property, as well as more finely-cut pieces of trunks and bark, probably to be stored as firewood. I ducked and peered through the brushes and small trees that guided my way, looking for a way into the house. I could see a back door wide open and stepped forward, excited.
I learned something that Friday afternoon. Even in my most surprised, anxious, and frightened state, I have the acute ability to deliver puns subconsciously. I had been terribly excited to get a glimpse inside the structure. However, as I stepped through the threshold of the yard, ready to leap over the fallen trees, the pallet of death, decay, and yellowed-weathered bones fell into my line of sight. Slowly, the colors came together to reveal two nearly-full skeletons of deer, directly in front of me. I stopped in my tracks and muttered, “Oh, dear lord,” not even realizing the implications of my unfortunate wording. There were tufts of fur and chips of bone scattered all over the macabre scene. My mind was reasonable enough and did not immediately leap to “crazy animal slayers!” but rationalized the scene as a dumping ground for local hunters. I turned on my heel and moved to go around the trees and carcasses. As I hopped over the log and had assumed that I had found a cleaner path, I stopped once more.
There was half of a picked-clean deer carcass and mounds of other, non-fitting bones scattered all over my path. Chunks of recognizable vertebrae cracked under my feet as I realized that this desecration was inevitable. Getting there would be impossible without hopping over these bizarre collections. I eventually got to the house and there was a small electrical box torn from the ceiling and hanging directly in my path. Wary of any live currents, I side-stepped it and gave my traditional squatter check: Hello? Of course, nothing.
Perhaps it was just the surprise of finding the carcasses in the backyard, but I was in flight mode. I am not an anxious person typically. But the whole scene was off now in my mind, a small injection of adrenaline inevitably pumping through my veins. Nothing felt right. There was furniture and rags and clothes and linens and garbage piled everywhere, knee-deep and beyond. Perhaps, in hindsight, what did not feel right upon standing in the house was that there were paths through this mess, paths that one did not even realize they were traversing until after the fact. You assumed that you were visiting a functioning household, where the tenants were simply away, running errands, living elsewhere. You did not realize that someone, at some point, had made all of this mess. You did not realize that someone else, at some other point in time, had cleared a path, dedicated enough to make the hostile environment easy to walk through. I scanned the rooms, pushed open some stuck doors, and imagined how beautiful the two brick fireplaces I encountered may have been in a better era.
As I came to the stairs, I gave another cautionary hello? to the nonexistent inhabitants of the property and slowly crept up. On the second floor, there were no guardrails or banisters to keep people from falling down the flight. Halfway up the stairs, I turned and saw it. In the blind-spot of the stairwell, on the second floor, stacked against the wall closest to the street, was a large wooden dresser. I knew this to be the final resting place of that dog mentioned by those young friends weeks before. I did not smell any decay. I did not experience any swarming flies. The door to the right of the dresser was closed. From the stairs I attempted to push it open and it was stuck. Glancing to the three open doorways around me, all of the bedrooms piled in filth, I realized one jarring detail that led me to leave. Every room was missing intact furniture… yet every room had at least one ruined mattress, stacked atop the mess. There were handfuls of clothes and dirty rags all over the floor. As well as empty gallons of water. Someone at some point had squatted here. Someone at some point had disposed of a dog’s body here. I was leaving.
I came back out into the yard and felt a baseless urgency to leave. I saw the deer carcasses and instead of hopping over the mess, moved closer to the building, hoping to find a place to duck under the trees and back onto the tractor path. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and looked up. On the side of the building, with no nest or hive visible, were dozens upon dozens of bees clustering around the siding, gravitating towards one spot. The mere sight of their numbers surprised me and coupled onto the lingering trepidation brought upon by the house. I stumbled through the brush, closer to the deer skeletons due to my retreat from the insects, and dusted myself off as I walked back to the street.
The photographs do not do the beautiful old building justice. They were stills taken from my Flip camcorder.
With one last glance towards the house, covered in growth yet plagued by decay, I turned my camera off and staggered back to my car. I like to believe that I am adept at researching and utilizing the marvelous tools of our ever-connected world. I have, previously, found detailed histories and contact information concerning public records and other properties we were interested in learning about. But this house still remains a pariah in my search. I cannot find an address or even a lot listing anywhere. Inevitably, some local hunter may read this and have a laugh, equating my curiosity and endearing fear of this unknown history as petty. Perhaps it’s just an unmaintained property. Surely there’s nothing macabre about its history. But panic and experiences cloud the uncaring realm of objectivity.
So what is left when the objective facts fail you (and do not manifest in your search for public records or even an acknowledgment of existence) and your hushed breaths and creeping thoughts are the only things to take from the tale?