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The Mystery of "Big Red Eye" -- New Jersey's Other Woodland Monster
Strike up a conversation with the local residents of New Jersey about the folklore surrounding unexplained phenomena of the state and you'll find that at or near the top of almost everyone's list will be the Jersey Devil, a supposed flying biped with the body of a snake, the head and hooves of a horse, huge leathery wings, and a forked tail. Sightings of the Jersey Devil were reported on thousands of occasions from the mid-19th through the early part of the 20th Centuries throughout the heavily-forested Pine Barrens region in the southern part of the state, ingraining his legend within the area and beyond. The legendary creature is one of the state's biggest cultural icons, ubiquitous enough to inspire the name of an NHL hockey team.
However, in the northern part of the state, in the more isolated and mountainous regions of Sussex County, there is another legendary creature that supposedly stalks the forests. Reports of this creature began in earnest in the 1970s, when residents began hearing horrible screaming noises in the middle of the night around the vicinity of the Kittatinny Ridge. As the months went on, outdoorsmen in the area began to report sightings of a towering humanoid figure with hair all over its body and eyes that shone with a bright red glow at night. Over time, this creature has come to be known as "Big Red Eye", and has been a recurring presence in the region for decades.
Despite the popular image of New Jersey being an incredibly densely populated state filled with industrial areas, sprawling cities, and affluent suburbs, the overwhelming majority of the state's population lives in a roughly-defined stretch of land stretching between Philadelphia and New York City. Over 40 percent of the state's land is either protected from development or classified as "rural/agrarian". Simply put, there are many areas in the state without too much in the way of human traffic. The Kittatinny Ridge, a section of high cliff faces and large, rolling hills and valleys traversing the northwest part of the state, is one such area.
In the early 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers bought up a large portion of the land in the vicinity of the Kittatinnys with the intention of building a massive hydroelectric dam and supporting infrastructure in the Delaware Water Gap. After 15 years of delays, however, the project was abandoned, and the surrounding area -- sparsely populated even before the government came in -- became almost completely devoid of a permanent human presence for many miles around.
It was around this time that the first reports of something mysterious in the Kittatinnys began to emerge. In February of 1975, a motorist driving near the town of Bear Swamp reported that he twice saw an enormous hairy humanoid cross the road in front of his car. A few weeks afterwards, a forest ranger walking along a Sussex County trail in High Point State park reported seeing a creature “about eight feet tall with big red eyes.”
The Big Red Summer
In May of 1977, however, things began to take a more dramatic turn. The New Jersey Herald ran a cover story about a Wantage family who was supposedly terrorized by the mysterious creature for over a week. Barbara Sites, the matriarch of the family, reported seeing a creature "seven feet tall, covered with hair. Had a beard and mustache and walked on its hind feet." She related that she had gone out of the house early one morning to let her dairy herd into the pasture when she heard a sound in the distance that she described as “like a woman screaming when she was being killed." She found her garage door torn from its hinges and six of the family‘s pet rabbits dead or mutilated.
The next night, the Sites family waited for whatever it was that had killed the rabbits to return. At around the same time as the previous night, it showed up, appearing under the mercury-vapor lamp that lit up the yard. Sites recounted, "At first, all I saw were these two red eyes staring at me from over there." Sites and the others fired upon the creature, but were unable to kill it. Whatever it was escaped through the apple orchard and into the woods.
The local press soon seized upon the phenomenon and dubbed the creature "Big Red Eye". For the remainder of the Summer of 1977, more than 50 reports of sightings and countless more reports of horrific screaming noises coming from the Kittatinnys poured into the local police departments. Department resources were stretched thin as officers chronicled accounts of the residents' encounters with this unidentified animal.
Then, seemingly as quickly as he came, Big Red Eye disappeared.
For almost 20 years, there were no reported sightings of the creature in the vicinity of the Kittatinnys. It was if he had simply dropped off the proverbial map. With the weeks, months, and years that passed, Big Red Eye faded into the local folklore of Sussex County, gone but not completely forgotten. However, in the mid-1990s, the activity began all over again. In the Summer of 1995, five sightings of a large, hairy, upright creature with glowing red eyes emerged in the vicinity of Layton Road in Wantage.
It appeared that Big Red Eye had returned to his old stomping grounds.
What Is It?
The description of Big Red Eye given by witnesses -- a 7 to 8-foot tall bipedal hominid with hair all over its body, a significant eye-shine, and an affinity for making loud shrieks and wails in the dead of night -- is consistent with the general attributes used by cryptozoology enthusiasts to describe a Sasquatch.
The Sasquatch, or Bigfoot (as it is more commonly known in the United States), is a name given to a genus of large, hairy, ape-like creatures that supposedly dwell in the more isolated parts of the world. They are said to be taller and heavier than average humans, and are covered from head to toe in short, coarse hair. Advocates for its existence believe that it is a relict population of Gigantopithecus, a confirmed species of extinct hominid that is known to have grown to the dimensions generally given for the Sasquatch.
The scientific community at large tends to dismiss sightings of the Sasquatch as misidentification of known animals and their tracks, particularly bears. There is, indeed, a known population of black bears (a species whose eyes shine with a very vivid reddish-orange color at night) in northwest New Jersey, but it had been almost completely wiped out by hunting in the early 1970s. In addition, eyewitness accounts of Big Red Eye describe him as having a bipedal gait similar to that of a human. While bears can and frequently do rise up onto their hind legs for brief periods, they rarely take more than a few steps before dropping back down to all fours.
The vocalizations associated with Big Red Eye could also be attributed to other forms of wildlife as well, skeptics argue. Northwestern New Jersey has a rich mosaic of nocturnal animals that communicate through guttural growls (such as bears) and high-pitched screams as well (such as coyotes and barn owls, for example). Since the Sasquatch is not generally accepted to exist, there is no reference point for what they should sound like.
Unfortunately, without more tangible evidence for the scientific community to examine, Big Red Eye will forever exist as a cryptid, confined within the realm of local folklore.
Big Red Eye's second wave of activity in the mid-1990s dropped off as conspicuously as his first. However, stories of Sasquatch encounters in Northwestern New Jersey continued to crop up on a sporadic basis. In 1998, several Wantage residents reported hearing nightly screaming noises coming from the woods for two weeks in late May. In 2000, a group of campers in Allumuchy reported seeing a large, shadowy figure with glowing red eyes approach their campsite late at night. Most recently, a motorist near Mansfield reported sighting a juvenile Sasquatch crossing the road in 2007.
While the mania over the creature known to the locals as Big Red Eye may not be anywhere near as intense as it was in the 1970s, the mention of his name still conjures up memories for the long-time residents of the Kittatinny Ridge area. Whether he exists or is simply a legend, the stories of the famous cryptid are ubiquitous enough to have been featured in an issue of Weird NJ, and will from time to time crop up in more mainstream publications. Even if he is never definitively proven to exist, the folklore surrounding Big Red Eye is likely to stick around for many generations to come.