No one really can tell where haunted legends come from. You might see a reference to it on the Internet or have someone pass it down to you, campfire in front of them or flashlight under their chin or a mention in the local paper sometime around Halloween when there is a market for that kind of thing. That’s not the origin though; that’s how it spreads. Why does one place inspire so many stories, so many tales of ghosts whispering in the trees, and others don’t? Why do some places inspire fear and a similar place inspire peace? It’s been said everyplace is haunted a little, some just don’t catch on. When you look at why some of them become part of the complexion of a community, you can’t find the why or the root, just the tree and the reputation and a place where the story is stronger than the reality.
There might be a reason Myakka River State Park in Sarasota has so many legends attached to it, but it isn’t clear cut. If you’re looking to spend a night in a tent or camper, there are more than a dozen within a half hour of it, but there is something about it that sparks the stories. There are two ghostly legends with traction there, and as impossible as the stories are to verify, the backstories are so muddled as to make the ghosts just reasonable enough to maybe exist.
It all might start with Skunk Ape. Florida’s version of Bigfoot, the creature has had a reputation for stalking the area for decades, but in 2000 a woman sent a letter to a local paper complaining about the cryptid, and it launched off a firestorm. Debate raged across the cryptozoology community over what it was and whether the whole thing was a hoax, but enough papers covered it and recycled the story that the picture became famous. Books published on the subject usually tend to include it, and it made Myakka River the place to go to see Skunk Ape. According to an unnamed ranger, “They’ve shot movies here and TV shows, but I don’t know a single person who’s seen it. They just brought a whole bunch of noise about it and when it shows on TV the park will get busy for a while about it.”
Despite his claim, people are blogged enough about sightings to solidify the stories and make it one of the most popular Skunk Ape hunting grounds. This was reinforced with videos in 2013 and 2017, both have which have been analyzed and debated. The park is filled with animal life, including deer, bobcats, and dozens of species of birds. None can be mistaken for the cryptid.
One of the most popular theories going around in the paranormal and supernatural landscape these days acts as a sort of unified theory. Places in the word, be it the Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts or a place like Skin-walker Ranch in Utah, draw the weird into it. A place that is known for Bigfoot or Skunk Ape, or even UFOs, will also be home to other unexplained stories. Some say this is because vortexes allow all of these types of things to come from another dimension or place. Others say disturbances in the physical world at these locations, often magnetic anomalies or theoretical ley lines, attract them. A folklorist might say that when one story catches on and gets retold it makes more sense for another story to use the same place as its setting. Any of these might be the reason why two other ghost stories have gained popularity in the last couple of years.
Big Flat Campgrounds is the perfect spot for a family outing. Consisting of two culs de sac with trails spidering off of them, a car or camper can pull in and have everything they need to stay the night. Fire pits and bathroom facilities offer a break from the modern world and a connection to Mother Nature. Trouble is there’s also a ghost that is said to disturb the people who stay there. Even more troubling, the ghost has no head. He, and he is always identified as a man, is said to disturb people in the night and be heard in the trees during the day. He’s been known to move objects left outside and at night people report him crying, both of which echo classic woods folklore and media like The Blair Witch Project. One of the saddest and spookiest parts of the rumors is that people hear him walking around in circles, like he’s searching for something, but people cannot see a person who is making the noise.
The story has traction because of several reports online where the month of July is said to be more active for the headless man. Big Flats is one of a few camp areas in the park but the only one with a resident ghost. It might make sense given its geography. Although it seems secluded and a world onto itself when you are there, it is only several feet away from the main road and river itself. At night this might be mistaken for something paranormal. “Most people are not familiar with the sounds of a park like this,” says the ranger. “Even if they go to other parks, each one has its own sounds.” He also claims another part of the legend is hard to understand. “July is dead there. We don’t even open it during the week. Between the rain and the mosquitoes, it’s not someplace a lot people are visiting in the summer.” If the ghost is a creation of someone trying to fill the campsite during its slow time, it has not worked. The legend however is very specific, which usually means there might be something to it.
Alligator are common in the park, as they are all around the Myakka River. The area known as Deep Hole, not far from Big Flats, has become notorious for how many alligators roam there wild. The story might act as some kind of warning to people to beware of these animals and some of the other wildlife that are active at night. It would make sense given the fear of gator attacks that a man would lose his head at the campground. There have also been rumors of homeless people in the park at night and homeless deaths, although none of these stories have been backed up. Those stories, for those that retell them, are as accurate as the ghost stories.
I went there by myself to see if there could be a reason for the story to catch on. Being July and the middle of the week, it was closed off like the ranger said. While there I was trapped in several beautiful but violent lightning storms and had to wait in my car for the storms to pass. It gave me a chance to get some beautiful pictures, but also a chance to experience mysterious noises in the woods. It was clear there were some alligators in the swampy part near the camp by the crackle they make, or at least close enough for the echo to reach me. In fact, not knowing about the reputation of Deep Hole, I spent almost an hour there, observing them. A few times one walked less than twenty feet from me without me noticing them until they were right beside me.
There was something else caused by the rain and swamp area. Several times I tried to grab a branch to knock on a tree, which is a reputed way to connect with Skunk Ape. Every time I picked up a branch to knock, it fell apart in my hands from the dampness. It was then I focused on the sounds coming from the woods around me and realized most of the trashing and footsteps were these palms falling and hitting other threes before reaching the ground. It sounded like someone walking through the woods.
Another popular ghost story in the park revolves around the Canopy Walk, a bridge in the middle of Myakka that has become a popular tourist spot. The walkway is about 25 feet off the ground, but the two structures connecting it loom 100 feet in the air and offer an amazing view of the surrounding area from the top. The ghosts are said to look like everyday people but disappear without warning and before people’s eyes. They are seen climbing the structures and walking the area below, there one moment and gone the next.
The story goes that in the 1950s people came to this site to commit suicide, and that soldiers returning home from Vietnam travelled there to take their lives as well. While some stories do not mention the Canopy Walk alongside the story, it has been connected to it. Jackson Millen, a resident of Sarasota, has heard the story but always with the suicides taking place from jumping. “I don’t remember when I heard it. But they jumped from it after coming home.” While he admits the story was passed to him recently, he is sure of the time frame for the deaths. This, however, would be impossible. The bridge and supports were not built until 2000, long after the Vietnam War.
It is possible the surrounding area was the site of suicides and ghost reports. There was nothing to make this particular section of the park standout before the bridge was there, and the rangers say there have been no suicides in there in the past. Perhaps the ghosts do walk the swampy area and the new canopy offers an excellent landmark for the stories, something to give the sightings more context. The idea of post-war suicide is a popular motif in haunted sites, including being part of the backstory for the Oviedo Lights, a famous spot for legend tripping about an hour and a half from Myakka.
My second trip to the park focused on the Canopy Walk, but this time I went with Natalie and my kids to do a segment for Tripping on Legends with Kids. It’s not a place for people with a fear of heights, but no one we spoke to had heard of the legends or seen anything, including the people at the gift shop and the restaurant. Climbing it did perhaps solve one part of the ghost story. With all of the twists and turns and the thickness of the woods surrounding it, someone can appear one moment and then not be there when you swing back around. It would be easy to lose someone and give you the impression they had just disappeared.
With nothing to backup any of the stories, and the 2000 build date killing the suicide part of the legend, we were sure the park was just an amazing place to see alligators, deer, and the different birds who hung out in the water. Then we saw the cage. Although people have told me they are all over the park, we had not seen one until we were circling around past the canopy. They informed me they are for capturing wildlife for relocation, although it does not make sense to me to capture something in a place with so much wildlife running free. It was creepy enough that we got out of the car to investigate.
After hearing the stories of tree knocking, Natalie and Ella decided to try it out, hitting the trees in threes. As is her way, when nothing happened, Ella yelled at the Skunk Ape. We immediately heard three raps, as if someone was hitting the cage even though we could see nothing. They tried again and got no response. We got in the car and decided to loop around to the main area in the back of the park, and as we travelled, we continued to hear the three raps against metal. No matter where we went the next hour we heard them, three clangs right outside the window, as of metal was striking against metal. We tried to recreate it, thinking there might be something wrong with the car. We were not able to find a reason for the sound. It only stopped when we left the park.
It was unexplained. More importantly, it followed us the entire length of the park, meaning there was either more than one of them or it was something different from the Skunk Ape. A few months later, while preparing for a library event, I went through the tapes to see if I could get the knocks for the audience. There is only one time they can be heard, although they really can’t. Right as they sound, the audio gets distorted and only gets distorted in that one spot.
Sometimes tracking a ghost story kills it. There is a natural reason for what people experience or you find an article in a newspaper refuting the backstory and explaining how people might get confused. Other times the mysteries add to the location and leave you thinking. Almost every condition that exists at Myakka River State Park can be found at any number of other locations nearby, but this is the place the ghost stories stick. It could be something about the wandering animals and narrow roads, but they repeat themselves over and over in every park across state. Some places get the reputation and some don’t, which forces all of us to think twice and understand maybe that’s because some places are just haunted.
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