Legend Tripping

Legend tripping is a name bestowed by folklorists and anthropologists on an adolescent practice (containing elements of a rite of passage) in which a usually furtive nocturnal pilgrimage is made to a site which is alleged to have been the scene of some tragic, horrific, and possibly supernatural event or haunting.

While the stories that attach to the sites of legend tripping vary from place to place, and sometimes contain a kernel of historical truth, there are a number of motifs and recurring themes in the legends and the sites. Abandoned buildings, remote bridges, tunnels, caves, rural roads, specific woods or other uninhabited (or semi-uninhabited) areas, and especially cemeteries are frequent sites of legend-tripping pilgrimages

Legend-tripping is a mostly harmless, perhaps even beneficial, youth recreation. It allows young people to demonstrate their courage in a place where the actual physical risk is likely slight. However, in what author Bill Ellis calls ‘ostensive abuse,’ the rituals enacted at the legend-tripping sites sometimes involve trespassing, vandalism, and other misdemeanors, and sometimes acts of animal sacrifice or other blood ritual. These transgressions then sometimes lead to local moral panics that involve adults in the community, and sometimes even the mass media. These panics often further embellish the prestige of the legend trip to the adolescent mind. In at least one notorious case, years of destructive legend-tripping, amounting to an ‘ostensive frenzy,’ led to the fatal shooting of a legend-tripper near Lincoln, Nebraska followed by the wounding of the woman whose house had become the focus of the ostension. The panic over youth Satanism in the 1980s was fueled in part by graffiti and other ritual activities engaged in by legend-tripping youths.

Noted locations in the U.S. associated with legend tripping include the Black Agnes statue in Washington D.C., the folkloric name given to a statue formerly placed on the grave of General Felix Agnus in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville, Maryland. It is an unauthorized replica — rendered by Edward Ludwig Albert Pausch — of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ 1891 allegorical figure. The statue is of a somber seated figure in a cowl or shroud. Beginning with its installation in 1926, the replica was surrounded by many urban legends, principally that someone spending a night in its lap would be haunted by the ghosts of those buried there; that the spirits of individuals buried at Druid Ridge would annually convene at the statue; that no grass would grow on the ground where the statue’s shadow would lie during the daytime; or that the statue would animate itself during the night, whether by physically moving or by showing glowing red eyes.

Other legend tripping sites include the Lake View Public School, also known as the ‘Gore Orphanage,’ near Cleveland, a supposedly haunted ruin; Ong’s Hat, a long-abandoned small settlement in New Jersey about which stories circulated on computer bulletin boards in the 1990s that it once held a cult of outcast scientists opened an inter dimensional gateway; Pope Lick Trestle in Louisville, Kentucky, home to the satyr-like Pope Lick Monster; Old Louisville, a historic district in Kentucky reported to be the most haunted neighborhood in the United States; the New Jersey Pine Barrens, said to be home to the Jersey Devil; Mudhouse Mansion in Fairfield County, Ohio, the reputed original home of ‘Bloody Mary’ of children’s lore; the ‘Hornet Spook Light,’ a light that appears in a small area known locally as the ‘Devil’s Promenade’ in the small town of Hornet, Missouri; and Stull Cemetery in Stull, Kansas, claimed to be a ‘gateway to Hell.’

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