Weird N.J., Celebrating The Odd State of Mind
By Libby Copeland
Someday centuries from now, when people want to know about the great
state of New Jersey around the dawn of the millennium, they will turn not
to history books or time capsules but to Weird N.J., a magazine that
captures the spirit of a varied, beautiful and truly exotic place.
Here, in the publication created by Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran,
decaying drive-ins and huge rooster statues and men with pompadours
are things of beauty. In their New Jersey, some place called Midgetville
is always just around the corner, and so is albino village, where the albinos
are murderous. Everybody in the state has a story. Some guy claims he has
Hitler's toilet seat.
Here is New Jersey, explained.
Other states have their eccentricities, but few have New Jersey's reputation.
You don't hear any good jokes about Connecticut. New Jersey stands for our
flashier, coarser self, the self that lets its dark roots show and doesn't
Think of New Jersey and think of girls shoving past each other in nightclubs.
Think of roadside diners with Greco-Roman facades and mauve vinyl seats,
their counters laden with heavy Danishes wrapped in plastic. Think of all
30-year-old guys living in their mothers' basements, working out every night,
cornering other guys in bars and asking them to step outside.
"We can take any [expletive] that people throw at us," Sceurman says.
Because of Mark and Mark, cranks are not friendless. In this New Jersey,
everybody's a conspiracy theorist and everybody believes in UFOs.
Today, the men are touring southern New Jersey. They visit a man who
has 10,000 glass telegraph insulators mounted on telephone poles around
his lawn like alien trees, and they stop by a gold-colored church shaped like
a pyramid, known as the Temple of Hope and Knowledge, which is now up for
sale. (A tattered sign recommends that worshipers attend "the service for
one to beg for mercy and hope.") They go to a roadside Catholic shrine called
Our Lady of the Highway, which is located in a triangular building smaller
a Taco Bell, next to a Sunoco station.
They stop for lunch at an empty roadside bar whose desolation they find
appealing, and whose menu offers only one dessert item: "Jell-o Shots $1.00."
They hunt for a couple of roads they've heard about: Unexpected Road
and No Name Road. When they find them, they get out of Sceurman's
jeep and take pictures like giddy boys.
"We get joy out of the most mundane things," Sceurman says.
Mark and Mark could have grown up in Providence and started a magazine
called Weird R.I., but they didn't. Could there be some cosmic connection
between their geography and their mission, some power that New Jersey
exerts over its inhabitants, driving them to celebrate their eccentricities?
It is an old state, so it's had plenty of time to build weirdness. It is the
nation's densest state, capable of cramming much weirdness into a small
space. It has wilderness: dirt roads running through the Pine Barrens, and
the Meadowlands, where the dead keep quiet. It has lonely warehouses off
turnpike exits, and casinos in Atlantic City, where it is always daylight and
old people carry their dreams in plastic cups. And, of course, it has that
northern stretch that sits under a sulfurous cloud, and every time you drive
through it, you look at your boyfriend like it's his fault, those beans he had
Is there any less graceful word than Hackensack? (Or Mahwah? Or Ho-Ho-Kus?
You tease the state and it gives you the finger. You don't feel bad for it the
way you feel bad for much-maligned West Virginia, because New Jersey can
take care of itself. Notice how Jerseyans excise half of their state's name,
as if one word is enough: Just "Jersey." (As Sceurman points out, New Yorkers,
for all their attitude, never call their state "York.")
Sceurman, 47, a quiet, bearded man, grew up in Essex County, hearing
stories of a nun encased in glass on the side of a road, and of a place
called Heartbeat Road, where passersby can supposedly still hear a
murdered person's heart. When he was about 9, Sceurman's older brother
tried to scare him by driving him to an area in Clifton that was supposedly
home to albino residents who -- local legend said -- would eat strangers
venturing into their midst.
Sceurman has always had a love for things squalid and paranormal. On a
date in the early '80s, en route to a hot dog stand, he diverted the car
through a dump to explore. His date married him.
He worked for about 20 years as a graphic artist for an alternative music
magazine that he still co-owns. In the late '80s, he began sending out a
newsletter to friends, updating them on his life and including a section on
strange things he wanted to explore in the state. After a story about the
newsletter in a local paper around 1993, Weird N.J. acquired a small fan
base, who eagerly read Sceurman's thoughts on "The Glowing Grave of
Montville," "Interesting Hikes in Industrial Waste" and "Mysterious Bigfoot
Sightings in the Northwest Corner." Sceurman offered recommendations
on unique bars (Mom's Place in Wallington: "The best shuffleboard") and
published muddy photographs of things like the town of Sea Breeze, "The
most desolate place in New Jersey."
Mark Moran, 43, a graphic artist who'd also grown up in Essex County --
fascinated by tales of a nearby Mafia family compound, and by a Bavarian
style castle that supposedly hosted satanic orgies -- started contributing
photographs to what was then essentially a pamphlet in the mid-'90s. Around
1996, Moran and Sceurman joined forces. Their magazine comes out twice
yearly, selling for $4 an issue on newsstands. A recent issue, No. 21, has
sold 60,000 copies.
There's a Web site, www.weirdnj.com, and a book called "Weird N.J." that
came out last September and has sold 100,000 copies. Their next book,
"Weird U.S.," is scheduled to come out in October, and they've shot a pilot
episode for a show of the same name for the History Channel. Sceurman
says they only began turning a profit in the last two years.
Their small office, located in a historic battery factory in downtown West
Orange, features a painting of a three-eyed devil on velvet, a Nixon poster
and an autographed photo from Butch Patrick, who played Eddie on "The
Munsters." There are books with titles like "The Big Book of Freaks."
Sceurman says the office is ideally situated to pick up twin scents that
seem to encapsulate the ethos of New Jersey.
"The wind's blowing west, it's the dump," he says, sounding pleased to be
able to share this. "When it blows east, it's the Dunkin' Donuts."
If Weird N.J. stands for anything, it stands for giving voice to the unheard,
the artists, the brave souls who dare to live differently.
The elderly are the most creative. An old man builds a pyramid of 200
bowling balls, and an old lady crafts lawn sculptures from thousands of
milk jugs. One time she makes an Easter bunny; one time a 75-foot rainbow
with a pot of gold at the end. She is thrilled to have visitors, even when
not expecting them.
When you show up on your tour of South Jersey tourist destinations, she
greets you enthusiastically, wearing only a towel.
She is Josephine Stapleton, 70, a bus driver who lives in Mays Landing, not
far from Atlantic City. In front of her house: approximately 1,000 one-gallon
milk jugs, painted and arranged into an American flag. Also: some split tires
that are supposed to act as flower planters but that are currently empty;
plus concrete blocks lining the grass. In the back yard: a rusting trailer, a
pile of tires, a doghouse with the word "Spot" scrawled on it, and a bathroom
sink on a tree stump, acting as a birdbath. There is also Stapleton's alter
a dummy made entirely of milk jugs, wearing a mop wig and a housedress.
She changes its outfits with the seasons.
"This is Jugabelle!" Stapleton says on a recent afternoon, after she has
changed from her towel into a purple outfit. "Everybody loves her to death."
Sceurman trains a video camera on Stapleton and interviews her for the
benefit of Weird N.J. fans.
"Have you ever met any other jug bottle artists?" he asks.
"People came to me and they wanted to know how to start it," Stapleton
says. "And I said, it's a lot of hard work, so if you don't wanna work, don't
Sceurman and Moran spend whole days visiting people like the Milk Jug Lady.
If you study old issues of Weird N.J., you find that certain phenomena are
described over and over. There are the wavers -- old men, mostly, who sit
on lawns or at roadsides and greet passing cars. There's been Wavin' Willie
and Wavin' Joe, Dave the Wave, the Birdman of the Pulaski Skyway, an Elvis
impersonator named Ed, and some guy that Moran calls Do-It.
"This guy's a trip," Moran says. "He runs down the street jogging, and when-
ever he sees you, he throws up his arms and yells a big 'Do it!' "
There are the collectors: the guy who collects raisin boxes, and likes to
dress like the Sun-Maid girl, and someone else who collects the ink fillers
from pens. A feature called Cemetery Safari chronicles the state's most
eccentric graves and monuments: a stone armchair, a life-size stone
Not everything can be witnessed, of course -- chiefly, the paranormal
incidents that Weird N.J. chronicles. There is a haunted mental hospital
where an abandoned piano supposedly still plays; there is a Jersey Devil
that's always bothering people. Sceurman and Moran throw everything
into their magazine indiscriminately, giving equal respect to fact and myth.
"If we printed the real story, we wouldn't have a magazine," Sceurman says.
And really, does it matter if the "Possessed Pole of Passaic Park," a street
sign that supposedly rocks back and forth, is actually possessed? Isn't it
enough that people pose for pictures with it?
Even though the Marks are in their forties, this is a publication in some way
created by teenagers, possessed of cars and burdened by boredom. Weird N.J.
is a collage of suburban legends. Even those of us who didn't grow up in New
Jersey have spent afternoons looking for monsters in our neighbors' back
yards. We've all tried -- and failed -- to find the albino village.
Every issue features letters from readers. They write in with stories,
like the tale of "The Sock Man of Middletown," who supposedly would pay
teenagers $5 per pair of dirty socks, and "The Lump Man of Butler," who
had a huge lump between his eyes. They pose questions: "You guys ever
check out the crematory in Hightstown?"
Among the hard-core fans is William Angus, 33, a phone company customer
service agent from Bergen County who ventures out to find Weird N.J.
landmarks between three and 10 times a month. He has seen an abandoned
American military jet decaying in the woods, and an abandoned mental
hospital near a morgue, where an apparition may or may not have jumped
into one of his photographs. Sometimes he takes his 5-year-old son on
"I am obsessive-compulsive, and I don't say that as a layman; I have been
diagnosed," Angus says. "When I have a whole day, I leave at 7 o'clock in
the morning and I might not be back until 8, 9, 10 o'clock."
Sceurman and Moran tend to steer clear of their fans. They get a lot of
mail from prisoners, for example. When the phone rings one afternoon in
the office, nobody picks it up. Mark Moran eyes the caller ID.
"That could be Neil," he says, referring to a guy who sends them creepy
letters, written all in capitals with no punctuation.
In some way, such letters are reassuring. They are proof that, despite
New Jersey's relatively small size, there are vast tracts of odd beauty
still to be explored. Moran and Sceurman don't worry about running out
"As long as there's New Jersey and people living in it, there will be a weird
element to it," Moran says.