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
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
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
After too much time away, Natalie Crist and Christopher Balzano are back and ready to get down to work.
The Trippers are still working through Summer Road Trip 2018 as they discuss three haunted legends they explored on day 2 in Central Florida. First up, separating the lies from the lore as they get more into what is happening on the campus of Stetson University in Deland, Florida. They trace the ghost stories and campus urban legends, especially around Hulley Tower and Elizabeth Hall. Next they head down the road to follow up on an unlikely legend in the park before heading out to Oviedo to experience the Oviedo Lights, one the most infamous ghost stories in all of Florida.
You can contact us with questions, comments, and your favorite legend or tidbit of folklore at email@example.com.
We’re still knee deep in the #hauntedlove project, so we’re especially looking for ghost stories with a love twist.
Some legend trips are about the excitement of the moment or the depth and mystery of the mythology behind the story. Others are about the anticipation of being in the dark with the weight of what has happened there breathing down your neck and making your hairs stand on end. At the heart of all of them is the hope that there is a connection between the history of the location and the ghostly stories that develop around them. As we look into the stories what’s looking back at us are lost moments waiting for someone to pick them up again and share with the world. They become more than legends or ghost stories. They become a way for the dead to live again and for lost history to dust itself off.
As we started looking into legends throughout South Florida to begin our journey, we sent out e-mails to historical societies and libraries in the area asking for insight into their hidden treasure other people may not have heard about yet. We didn’t get many responses, but one came from the coordinator of the DeSoto County Historical Society’s Research Library with a reference to an article in the September/October 2016 edition of Gasparilla Magazine. One of the locations writer Marcy Shortuse explored in her Haunted Arcadia was Oak Ridge Cemetery in Arcadia, Florida. Arcadia was a little over an hour away, not too far for a quick drive and a perfect training ground for Natalie’s first official, researched, legend trip, especially given its proximity to what we thought was a primary location for the Singing River legend.
What drew us in were stories that came out of the location. The first was a talking Mary statue located in the cemetery. According to Shortuse’s article and further research we conducted into the story, people had talked for years about a stone woman looking over a patch of graves who spoke to people who stopped to pay their respects or just spent time around her. The article spoke of people having entire conversations, but most of the other accounts online were sporadic occurrences, happening randomly and with no specific connection to people or times. This was of interest to me as I had researched haunted statues throughout the country.
The idea was to try and find the statue and get her to speak with Natalie. Many of the reports involved woman speaking with Mary, so we hoped that whatever was talking to people would be more drawn to her empathic, almost psychic side. Our plan was to also record the whole session with a digital recorder to try and gather some EVPs if we couldn’t hear anything with our own ears.
The second legend was more connected to the history of the town and drove us into research mode before we arrived in Arcadia. The real centerpiece of the cemetery is a memorial to the British Royal Air Force pilots who trained and died in Florida during the World War II era. This was a part of Florida history neither of us knew anything about, and as we have spoken to more people over the course of the last year, we discovered most outside of Desoto County haven’t either. In reaction to the Lend Lease Act, FDR decided to allow British pilots to train in the United States because the sky over their own country were a bit too dicey to allow new pilots to get the experience they needed. Arcadia petitioned to use Carlstrom Field which had been opened during WWI but had closed after peace had been established and the need for American war pilots had decreased.
The first class of RAF pilots graduated in 1941 but were not without their issues. Many of the foreigners were not used to the hazing which was a vital part of American troop training and that damaged their moral. As explained in Wing Over Florida, many of the trainees also suffered from homesickness and overindulgence. It seems the young men had come from a land of war into a land of plenty, and many became overwhelmed with how much food and Florida oranges they were able to get at a moment’s notice. It would also seem they were distracted by the number of Florida women with “loose morals” in the area they also could find at a moment’s notice.
Even given the distractions, many of the airmen went on to distinguish themselves in combat. 23, however, died in training in or near Arcadia and are buried in Oak Ridge along with their commander who requested to be buried with his men 40 years after he helped to train them. The cemetery is their final resting spot, along with a memorial commemorating Arcadia and the fallen pilot’s, contribution to history.
The stories coming out of the memorial are traditional haunted folklore for soldiers’ graves. People are seen standing before the headstones and then disappear moments later. A dark figure is said to move from grave to grave mourning each and leaving memorials, much like the legend of the man who leaves flowers at Edgar Allen Poe’s grave in Baltimore. There are also reports of phantom planes, seen but mostly heard above the cemetery, maybe explained away by airports nearby, many of whom host airshows which feature older, WWII planes. If these stories are not merely legend, it might make sense. Part of the mythology of the paranormal includes spirits being at rest. These pilots would be more likely to walk their graves because they are not buried in their own country but in a foreign one far from home and they may not be able to find peace or find their way back home.
One of the other unusual stories we unearthed mentioned the Union Jack flying at the memorial. People have reported the flag sometimes disappears although no one is there to remove it. According to reports, the flag was taken down and put up daily, but that no one currently moves it. The flag is supposed to fly at all times. In addition, many of these reports involve the Union Jack disappearing or being moved to half-mast while they are visiting although there is no visible caretaker present. I noticed while we were there, however, that in certain locations on the grounds the pole was obscured by trees, perhaps giving the feeling it had temporarily disappeared.
We arrived at the cemetery a little after noon on a fairly windy Sunday. We entered through the wrong gate, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it allowed us time to explore the cemetery as we searched for Mary. One of the things we noticed was the seemingly segregated nature of Oak Ridge. A large field separated the main part we entered through and a large section towards the back. As we walked the graves it became clear that African American were buried in one part of the cemetery, separate from what might be considered the main section. As a Northerner, I also was taken aback by the colored graves and how many graves had colored pictures built into the stone, something I had never seen in the hundreds of cemeteries I had spent time in while living in New England.
And all the time we kept our eyes on that Union Jack to make sure it was still there.
By the time we made it to the RAF memorial, the wind had mostly settled and it was a bit after 1:00 PM. We had seen several stone statues of women but narrowed down which one we believed was the one from the story based on the description and the picture from Shortuse’s story. First, we wanted to pay our respects to the airmen and see if we could touch some of the stories attached to them. We spent some time reading the headstones and the memorials. We said each airmen’s name and left a penny on each grave, a British military tradition. To try and spark a response, Natalie read the poem In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian poet and soldier John McCrae, which has a deep connection to British veterans of both World Wars. We also played the song “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn about English soldiers and pilots going off to WWII.
Nothing unusual happened while we were at this part of the location, although the rope on the Union Jack, which never disappeared the entire time we were there, went crazy clanging against the pole even though the wind had basically died down. On the recording you can hear it, but no wind. When we read the poem, every noise, including the birds and the rope, stopped entirely.
After spending time at the memorial, we moved on to the statue, which seemed to be looking over a plot dedicated to the Hollingsworth family, who we researched later and found to be an important family in the history of Arcadia. We determined, based on its location to the fence (some reports came from people who had played near the fence as children when they heard the voice) and the mere age of it, that this had to be the woman from the stories.
The first thing we noticed was how cold the statue was, especially in relation to the other headstones and statues we had touched. The other was an abandoned wasp’s nest, which in at least one of the stories we had read was used as an explanation for the voices heard. It was clear that the statue was not of the Virgin Mary based on the way she looked and was wearing. Natalie, trying to get in touch with her sensitive side, got the name Agnes and went with calling her that, although an Abby Hollingsworth was one of the dominant graves in the family plot. We spent about a half hour at the location, recording about 26 minutes of audio before leaving. Natalie felt she heard some unexplained noises she was unable to account for, but nothing that felt like a voice speaking words to her. She also was overcome at one point by the smell of incense.
Natalie just listening to anyone who might be talking.
It was not until we got on the road and listened to the recording that we fully understood just home much Mary may have been talking to us. Even through the speakers of the car with no enhancement we could hear unexplained voices and noises on the tape. Several times we hear an odd honking, more of a train whistle or harmonica or accordion than car horn. It also sounds a bit like bagpipes, and there have been reports of ghostly pipes being heard at the RAF site. The noise also seems to be deliberately interrupting what Natalie is trying to say. At the time we heard nothing that resembled this, as we make a point to speak about noises we hear as they happen. This could be attributed to the sensitivity of the recorder itself, as we have been amazed at some of the things we have heard from a great distance with it. At several moments we also hear the recorder being played with although neither of us moved it.
Throughout most of the recording there are voices under what we are saying or under other noises from the cemetery. At one point Natalie asks who is speaking to people and a voice is heard saying something like, “I’m a Hollingsworth” or a first name followed by Hollingsworth. We also heard someone saying “Hey” trying to get our attention.
Please listen to the audio yourself to find out more…
We found some other connections in the research we did after we went, but nothing that was able to explain who might be looking over the graves or talking to people who spend time around the graves. Of course, that’s the nature of the beast when it some to trying to track down a legend. What is clear after being there and looking the history of the town and the cemetery is that Oak Ridge Cemetery is a crucial link to heritage of Arcadia.
And a damn good ghost story for them to be proud of.
Like every state in the Union, Tennessee has its local legends, ranging from First Nations stories that predate the arrival of Europeans to the land to modern urban legends the likes of which reflect modern fears and unease. Among these legends are legends of local monsters. Given the centuries of human habitation in the state, […]
Natalie Crist and Christopher Balzano went out in search of the Devil’s Tree at Oak Hammock Park in Port St. Lucie.
We’ve got a full write up of the context and what happened coming later this week, but you can catch the two podcasts they did on the topic. The first is a trek down different Devil legends and the second is their field report on the Devil’s Tree.