The 13th Floor

The Murders And Myths Of Shades Of Death Road

If you ever find yourself in Warren County, New Jersey, you could likely be traveling down Hope Road. If, like me, you have a terrible sense of direction, you may find yourself stopping at a local gas station for $5 of unleaded and some directions. Now, the first weird bit if you aren’t from Jersey is that you can’t pump your own gas. With the passing of the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act in 1949, the state government decided that it’s citizens were likely to cause themselves, and others, constant bodily harm if they pumped their own gas.

So, as the gas attendant, who, if horror movies have taught me anything, will be covered in grease and probably creepishly wrinkled, fills your tank, you’ll have plenty of time to ask him for directions. Say you’re trying to get to Independence Township to visit your dear old aunty and you know you’re on Hope Road, but you can’t find the turn. The gas station attendant, after spitting out a brownish colored wad of phlegm, will think for a second before telling you “Why, you gotta make a right at Shades!”

“Shades?” you think to yourself, “What a kooky name for a road!”

The attendant puts the cap back on your gas tank and hocks out one more loogie before giving you the change from the $10. It’s all singles, and being from a state that trusts their citizens to not die in a freak gasoline fight accident, you realize that you have no clue if you’re supposed to tip him. You slide the guy two bucks and he smiles. Just before you take off, the attendant leans close to the window and says “Drive safe now”. His tone is waaaaay more ominous than it needs to be, and now you’re kinda pissed he has your two dollars. Still, you drive off.

You head down Hope Road, keeping your eagle eyes on the move, searching for Shades Road. Then you see it. At least… you think you do. It can’t be, can it? Could Shades Road really be Shades of Death Road?

It can, and the story of Shades of Death Road is as creepy as the name suggests.

Shades of Death Road was given its name well before Henry ford brought the automobile to the world and like so many old things, the exact origins of the name have been lost, but the legend of the road starts with murder. As the story goes, way back when, most of the area surrounding Shades of Death Road was controlled by bandits who used the low hanging trees of the Jeny Jump Forest to hide in. When people would come down the road, the bandits would pop out, slit their throats and take their belongings. Somewhat connected to that legend is the second theorized reason for the name; when the bandits were caught, the vigilante group that caught them hung their dead bodies from the trees, creating shade for travelers as well as a warning to other ne’er-do-wells.

As the world matured, and highway bandits became a thing of the past, Shades of Death Road still saw a fair share of violence. Between 1920 and 1940 there were at least three murders on the two-lane, seven mile stretch of asphalt. The first involved a man having his head turned into paste with a tire jack over some gold coins. Then came the woman who decapitated her husband, burying the head on one side of the road and his body on the other. The third murder, and the only one I could find a name to connect with it was the killing of Bill Cummins, who was viciously gunned down and dumped into a pile of mud on the side of the road. His killer was never found.

If you know anything about horrific deaths and legends, I think you know what comes next… ghosts.

It seems like you can’t make it thirty feet down Shades of Death Road without running into a damned spirit seeking vengeance or respite. The forest that the road runs along, Jenny Jump Forest, is supposedly named after a girl named Jenny who jumped to her death and, as the legend goes, her ghost walks between the trees to this day.

There is a section of this particular two lane blacktop of horrors that is commonly called Haunted Hallow. Drivers have encountered ghostly figures walking down this stretch of Shades of Death Road. These mysterious walkers seem to vanish when the drivers get closer. This being an American road that plays hosts to ghosts, there’s also the story of the girl who died in a fiery wreck on the way home from prom when her boyfriend lost control of the car on the slippery road; her ghost can be seen walking down the middle of the road, her prom dress torn and burned.

Running alongside  Haunted Hollow is a man made lake that has no official name, but the locals like to call it Ghost Lake. The lake came into existence when William Crouse Jr. and Leon Hull damned a creek in order to create a lake between their two homes. Thinking that they would get a sweet free swimming pool, Will and Leon soon realized that their creation was creepy as all get out. Odd pillars of mist formed on the lake and sometimes these pillars would form into the shape of men. Near Ghost Lake is a cave called Fairy Hole where a slew of broken pottery created by the Lenape people (the Native Americans who were there before… well, you know what we did to them) was found in the early 1900s. Along the area are Lenape burial grounds, and the ongoing theory is that Will and Leon went and flooded one of the burial grounds, pissing off a whole bunch of dead Lenape.

Then there’s the Polaroids.

As you may guess, the site Weird NJ, which is all about weird stuff in New Jersey, has a page about Shades of Death Road. Now, if you go to their page for Shades of Death Road and check out the tags at the bottom of the page, you’ll see one that says “Polaroids” but the story article itself never mentions Polaroids. From what I’ve found, back in the 1990s, when Weird NJ was a magazine, they shared a story from two readers who claimed to have found hundreds of odd photos while checking out Shades of Death Road. Some of the Polaroids showed a TV on different channels, and others showed various women bound and apparently in distress. Weird NJ turned the photos over to the local police but after that the story kind of weirdly ends with the police supposedly losing the Polaroids.

Were the Polaroids taken by a serial killer similar to that of the BTK Killer in Kansas? Or were they a hoax? The lack of any solid information on them, and the idea that the police lost hundreds of Polaroids makes me think hoax. Still, if you Google for Shades of Death Road Polaroids, some of the images will come up.

Because Shades of Death Road is a seven-mile stretch, paranormal investigators have had trouble investigating the claims. Lucky for us, Jack Osbourne came along with his short-lived show, HAUNTED HIGHWAY, and did an episode on Shades of Death Road. This being a TV series, the evidence is suspect, but then any evidence of ghosts is going to be suspect, isn’t it? Still, what they captured on film was cool. If like me, you’re into ghost hunting shows, I think this episode is well worth checking out.

All images taken from HAUNTED HIGHWAY. Available for purchase on YouTube.