Life in the Pines: Ong’s Hat

Story from the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey newspaper on the legend(s) of Ong’s Hat.

Some excerpts:

“Two weeks ago there were these young kids, like 19 or 20, who came by asking about Ong’s Hat,” said bartender Jacky Colon. “I looked it up on my phone. It was this weird interdimensional thing. Hold on, I have to look it up, this is how I got all my information on Google.”

Very short synopsis of said legend: Mash-up of religious sect, jazz musicians, native Pineys and rogue physicists settle in Ong’s Hat, open a portal to other dimensions. More on this later. First, that name.

——-

During a lull, you can ask about those legends. The modern one about Ong’s Hat — that portal to another dimension somewhere out in the pitch pines — was popularized in the 2002 book “Ong’s Hat: The Beginning” by writer Joseph Matheny, who creates transmedia works and is a prominent figure in alternative reality gaming.

“Nineteen eighty-nine, I think this started. I had a friend who had a cabin out there in the Pine Barrens, and he hosted these parties. He was very bohemian and had artists and writers of all kinds out there,“ Matheny said. ‘He gave me a pamphlet that purported to be this story about Princeton scientists and something called the Ong’s Hat Rod and Gun Club, where they used to hang out and relax.“

During World War II the Pine Barrens were a testing ground for weapons development. Princeton scientists did explosives and ballistics work in the Forked Ruiver Mountains, and a Johns Hopkins University team fired crude surface-to-air missiles from the Project Bumblebee site at Island Beach. “There are kernels of reality to this legend,“ Matheny said.

With Matheny and other contributors writing, the story line arose ithrough the 1990s, first on computer bulletin boards frequented by gaming enthusiasts, generating online versions of urban legend that’s grown to an elaborate body of work. One consequence is an uptick in younger visitors seeking Ong’s Hat. Hence Colon’s close encounter at the Magnolia Bar.

 Folklorists call it legend tripping — the urge to visit supposedly haunted houses and the like. One infamous place is Leed’s Point near Smithville in Atlantic County. The supposed birthplace of the Jersey Devil — a half-human monster said to haunt the forest since the 1700s — attracts people around Halloween.

But the Ong’s Hat story is one of the first examples of “legend tripping online,” said Michael Kinsella, a scholar who studies new religions, paranormal beliefs and folk traditions at the University of California Santa Barbara. He’s author of the 2011 book “Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat,” published by the University Press of Mississippi.

“I’ve always been fascinated by supernatural beliefs,” said Kinsella, who like Ong’s Hat enthusiasts stumbled across the story online, and wrote a whole dissertation on it for his master’s degree in 2007, which led to the book. The cross-connections of various enthusiast websites — whether gaming, UFOs or conspiracy theories — lead like a trail of digital bread crumbs to Ong’s Hat.

He sees it as technology simply extending an ancient human compulsion. “People really want to seek out the eerie and paranormal,” Kinsela said.

There are other snippets from actual history in the Ong’s Hat portal legend, like radioactive waste. Around the time the legend was developing, the Department of Defense was figuring out what to do with thousands of tons of soil contaminated with plutonium when a nuclear missile burned up a few miles away at Fort Dix in 1961. That’s how modern legends grow, Kinsella said.

“It’s typical for these kinds of stories to mix up history and facts and legend,” he said. “So much weird stuff and stories seems to come out of the Pine Barrens, they reinforce each other.”

“If nothing else, it is a vortex of mysteries, legends, tradition and folklore…I’m interested in tracking it back as far as I can, but I don’t want to puncture that bubble,“ Matheny said. “There’s nothing in the structure of the story that I haven’t heard, in one form or another, from people in the area.”

Read it all here.

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