Ong’s Hat: The Early Internet Conspiracy Game That Got Too Real

On a sunny morning in early 2000, Joseph Matheny woke up to find conspiracy theorists camped out on his lawn again. He was making coffee when he noticed a face peering in a ground-floor window of the small, three-story building he rented in Santa Cruz. Past the peeper, there were three other men in their early 20s loitering awkwardly. Matheny sighed and stepped outside. He already knew what they wanted. They wanted to know the truth about Ong’s Hat. They wanted the secret to interdimensional travel.

They were not looking for trouble, just information, and he was able to get them to leave with some cryptic comments and a quick lecture on personal boundaries. But Matheny, a mobile game developer who said he spent the 1990s working for some of tech’s biggest names had been on edge since about a year earlier, when he had to march an unruly intruder off the property at gunpoint, after an attempted break-in.

According to Matheny, he and his girlfriend at the time had been receiving threatening phone calls and emails. Someone was anonymously contacting his employers claiming Matheny was dangerous, a liability. After more than a decade of secrets, the chickens were coming home to roost. The Ong’s Hat experiment had grown out of his control.

Ong’s Hat is one of the internet’s earliest conspiracy theories, but before that, it was a place, a ruin almost 4,828km away from Santa Cruz, deep in the woods of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Rumours swirled for years that something profound had once happened there, a confluence of mad science and the paranormal that had warped reality itself, opening a door into strange, unfathomable worlds.

The legend of Ong’s Hat

Covering more than 1 million acres of largely unspoiled primordial forest, the Pine Barrens feel impossibly dense and vast, a wild and lonely place where sandy trails wind past mysterious lichen and rare flora, like the gnarly pygmy pitch pine. Once home to shipbuilding, coal mining, and bog iron trades, the area’s industries declined over a century ago, and the Pinelands are now dotted with the remains of abandoned towns and rotting factories.

Often referred to as a ghost town, it’s not clear how much of a town Ong’s Hat ever was. Local lore tacks the unusual name to Jacob Ong, a 17th-century settler who, legend has it, angrily threw his hat into a tree after a lover’s quarrel. Some Ong-family descendants say the name was once “Ong’s Hut,” and it was only ever one or two buildings.

Henry Charlton Beck, who depicted historical Ong’s Hat as a rowdy, boozy outpost in his 1936 book, Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey, later recanted his descriptions, saying he’d fallen for “elaborate traps” set by locals to mislead him about the town’s past. Whatever it once was, Ong’s Hat has since been completely swallowed by the forest, though the name stubbornly pops up on maps and lives on in the nearby Ong’s Hat Road.

None of that is why there was a crew of nosy young men on Matheny’s lawn that day in 2000, or why Ong’s Hat has become a site of pilgrimage for fans of the supernatural. There’s another legend and it goes, briefly, like this: According to a pamphlet that began popping up in late ‘80s — “Ong’s Hat: Gateway to the Dimensions, a Full-Colour Brochure for the Institute of Chaos Studies and Moorish Science Ashram” — Ong’s Hat was once home to secret experiments led by the Dobbs Twins, a pair of Princeton scientists who’d been forced to build a secret lab out in the Pine Barrens after their work in “Chaos Studies” got them booted from the academy.

Nearby, a mystic scholar and carpet salesman named Wali Fard had established the ragtag Moorish Science Ashram, and over time the scientists and spiritual seekers met and began to merge their pursuits, blending meditation, physics, alchemy, and metaphysical disciplines like remote viewing in never-before-seen ways.

Ong’s Hat, Pine Barrens, New Jersey. (Photo: Misha Friedman, Gizmodo)

According to the brochure, which included detailed, technical descriptions of the scientific activities and day-to-day life at the Ashram, “the spiritual rhythms permeating the place proved ideal.” The group thrived, living in “a scattering of weather-grey shacks, Airstream trailers, recycled chicken coops, and mail-order yurts,” as its experiments grew increasingly bizarre and esoteric, in an effort to train the powers of the mind to manipulate the quantum underpinnings of reality itself. Finally, after some years, they produced “the Egg,” a pod that could actually pierce the veil between parallel universes, enabling travel to other dimensions.

Illustration: Incunabula, Courtesy Joseph Matheny

But even as the Ashram made great strides with its unorthodox work, danger was brewing. A nuclear accident at a nearby military base threatened the residents with radiation poisoning. Authorities began to take an interest in the spooky action taking place in the woods. Eventually, the Egg technology was used to transport the entire Ashram, piece by piece, to a parallel Earth where human life had never developed, leaving behind only a single structure to house the gateway itself. The brochure concluded by inviting readers to travel to Ong’s Hat and locate the transdimensional community, though it warned, “you might discover that finding [it] is not so simple.”

Other versions of the Ong’s Hat story that later showed up online were supposedly told by “survivors” who’d grown up at the Ashram, and included accounts of a violent raid on the compound by government agents tasked with destroying the gate and the Egg technology. Even later takes on the legend say the building around the gateway has decayed away, but the vortex is still there, swallowing the occasional errant hiker or unlucky squirrel.

Scratch below the surface, and you’ll find cryptic references to Ong’s Hat posted in bits and scraps since the earliest days of the commercial internet. Details of the story were strange but true, like a weapons-grade plutonium spill in New Jersey, which was covered up for years. Jersey locals described military exercises related to the nearby Fort Dix which lined up suspiciously with the claim of a brutal raid on the Institute for Chaos Studies compound. And anyone looking into the brochure for the Institute, long passed around in online conspiracy circles, would find it listed in a rare-book catalogue called Incunabula, which first showed up around 1990.

Illustration: James Koehnline

The catalogue was supposedly compiled by someone named Emory Cranston, whose introduction claimed its collected works, examined together, revealed a secret scientific history of parallel-universe exploration. Along with the brochure, Incunabula listed other colourful books and publications, some seemingly untraceable and odd, other editions of otherwise accessible tracts on science, meditation, Sufi mysticism, and the occult, which seemed to substantiate some of the legend’s oddest bits. 

One would find it impossible to track down, say, a copy of Pholgiston & the Quantum Aether by Dr. Kamadev Sohrawardi, which the catalogue describes as reconciling “Everett/Wheeler’s ‘many worlds’ and the ‘other worlds’ of sufism, tantrik Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism.” On the other hand, James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1987, and the catalogue included several works by prominent physicist Nick Herbert, like Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics and Faster than Light: Superluminous Loopholes in Physics, which deals the possibility of time travel.

In fact, there seemed to be a direct line between Herbert’s research and the Ong’s Hat story. Herbert was a member of the boundary-smashing Fundamental Fysiks Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a group of scientists tasked with pushing the limits of the possible through quantum experimentation in the 1970s.

According to MIT’s David Kaiser in his 2011 book How the Hippies Saved Physics, the group’s serious-yet-playful forays into offbeat ideas like telepathy and contacting the dead led to controversy and attention, and “From these battles, quantum information science was born.”

Aside from his more famous work, Incunabula listed what it claimed were uncorrected galleys of a book by Herbert called Alternate Dimensions, which the catalogue says was “suppressed by Harper & Row” and constituted “the most accurate and thoroughly-informed work on travel between worlds in our entire collection.”

Writings on his personal site about a concept he called “Quantum Tantra,” Herbert described discovering a “door” and connected shamanistic concepts with modern physics, using some of the exact same language used to describe his work in the Incunabula. (Herbert outlined the concept of Quantum Tantra and his dream of a “new physics” in an interview with Scientific American last year.)

In the ‘90s and early 2000s, seekers looking into the legend online began to believe that just reading about Ong’s Hat was starting to affect them. “People reported various synchronicities, strange dreams, unusual visual perceptions, and shifts in reality monitoring,” wrote Michael Kinsella, a professor at Central Michigan University Mount Pleasant and author of Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat, in an email.

If you were into science fiction or the paranormal, “you’d eventually butt up against Ong’s Hat,” said David Metcalfe, who runs social media for the University of Georgia Business School, and edits Threshold: Journal of Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies. When he discovered Ong’s Hat as a teen in the late ‘90s, said Metcalfe, “It was popping up on chat boards and message boards, it would bleed into your life.”

Unlike the Jersey Devil, or other Barrens horrors, this was no ordinary urban legend, shaped over years of teen campfire retellings in the woods. Rather the Ong’s Hat story, the Incunabula catalogue, and the rest of the surrealistic sci-fi pretzel were manufactured by Matheny and his friends, like Herbert, over more than a decade, starting with photocopied pamphlets in the ‘80s, and bolstered with fake documents, radio show appearances, and other hijinx.

But the exercise in collective storytelling made its deepest impression online, amassing a following of internet detectives who filled page after page on web forums and personal blog sites with research and theories about what really happened at Ong’s Hat.

The experience of stumbling across the Ong’s Hat rabbit hole was “weird as shit,” says Metcalfe. “You kind of knew it was some kind of game, but there was this level of question that was left open.”

At first it was all in good fun, said Matheny, a mind-expanding in-joke for goth kids, stoner gamers, and sci-fi loving computer nerds who liked talking about physics and telling spooky stories. Nobody knew exactly what was going on, or where the tale originated from, though most readers also didn’t believe there was really an Ashram or a cadre of rogue scientists in the New Jersey woods. Matheny posed as a kind of investigator, whose research would turn up new twists and chapters.

But as the lore and literature around Ong’s Hat grew, more people started to actually take it seriously, some of whom had poor boundaries and struggled to separate fact from fiction. When harassment caused Matheny to finally pull the plug on the experiment, some followers refused to believe it was all a hoax. “There are still people that think it’s real,” said Metcalfe.

A modern trip through the Ong’s Hat rabbit hole is still eerie, but it’s less of a mindfuck, and more of a Ghost of Online Past, clanking its chains around the internet’s attic, warning us of horrors that have already come to pass. Dig deep and you’ll also find age has added a new layer of vintage mystique to the project. The early message board pages are gone, or only partially archived, and Ong’s Hat is its own abandoned town of crude Angelfire pages, trippy artwork, and heartbreakingly earnest ‘90s posting. Even now, knowing its a game, it’s still hard to immediately tell which story elements and people are inventions and which are real.

Chaos magic

The first iteration of the Ong’s Hat story, the Institute of Chaos Studies brochure, appeared in a magazine called Edge Detector in 1988. The story was attributed to anarchist writer Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, who had become a student of Sufism after extensive travel through the Muslim world and a stint as a journalist in Tehran.

Wilson claimed he didn’t actually author the Edge Detector Ong’s Hat article, but had found it and was now merely passing it along, though he would later officially take credit for writing the piece in his 2016 book False Documents.

Writer Michael Muhammad Knight, once a disciple of Wilson’s, explains the Ong’s Hat story’s origins in his 2012 book William S. Burroughs vs. The Qur’an. The book described Knight’s disillusionment over his former mentor’s past endorsements of pedophelia, which do not appear to have influenced the Ong’s Hat story.

Knight explained how details of the Ong’s Hat tale were drawn from Wilson’s life. The backstory of Wali Fard, the Moorish Science Ashram Founder, for example, was a mix of Wilson’s own biography and that of Nation of Islam founder Wallace D. Fard. Emory Cranston, the fictional compiler of the Incunabula, took his first name from Wilson’s father, and his last name from a journalist who worked with Wilson in Tehran.

Wilson and Matheny were both friends with Nick Herbert, who’d inspired the story’s scientific ingredients, and in 1989 they, along with others in their social circle, started reproducing and passing around xeroxed copies of the Edge Detector article, leaving it in coffee shops, concert venues, and anywhere else some curious person might find it.

Fans of the era’s mail art and zine cultures, they started offering the brochure through the mail, utilising services and catalogues that would then distribute the pamphlet to fans of UFO newsletters and paranormal fare. Soon after they produced the Incunabula catalogue with collage artist James Koehnline, after which, Matheny says, he and Herbert started “really going crazy” with the project.

At the time Matheny was a punk with an interest in computers and an old-school hacker ethos, who’d come to California from Chicago and immediately fallen in with a mostly much older crowd of Bay Area weirdos, intellectuals, and scientists that included Herbert. “I was cocky because I was hanging around Silicon Valley and watching people come out of garages and do things they were told were insane,” said Matheny.

He described how he’d become enamoured of zany irony religion Church of the Subgenius and its forebears, like Discordianism, a complex parody cult that mixed true and fictional events to create bizarre alternative histories. He experimented with psychedelic drugs and ritual magic, developing a particular interest in figures who practiced both science and the occult, like rocketry pioneer Jack Parsons. Matheny developed an edgy, sunglasses-indoors kind of swagger. He liked fucking with people.

Ong’s Hat, Pine Barrens, New Jersey. (Photo: Misha Friedman, Gizmodo)

In the fledgling internet, Matheny recognised a distribution platform that could reach more people than they ever could by mail. He began posting the Incunabula materials, first on bulletin board systems, and then everywhere else he could. He developed his own character, an intrepid investigative reporter probing the story, and began interacting with anyone online willing to discuss the mysteries of Ong’s Hat. He used his real name and drew no particular line between his real persona and Ong’s-Hat-investigator Matheny.

As Knight described it in his 2012 book, “Matheny, a well-known culture jammer and friend of Peter [Lamborn Wilson], took the ball and ran with it, building Peter’s short story into an elaborate conspiracy hoax.”

Online, Ong’s Hat became the Matheny show, and he began thickening the plot. He posted interviews with “Ong’s Hat survivors” and set up email addresses for characters like Emory Cranston, the fictional compiler of the Incunabula catalogue, who would converse cryptically with anyone looking for answers. New pieces to the puzzle emerged, like an in-character interview with Nick Herbert, titled “Advances in Skin Science,” which was published in a 1993 issue of Boing Boing.

In 1995, Matheny set up to house his complete “research”. Followers of the story started referring to themselves as “Eggheads,” after the Ashram’s transdimensional pods.

Herbert’s willingness to back up Matheny’s claims using his real name and professional authority became a key tool for ensnaring the curious. The physicist “enjoyed the shit out it,” said Matheny. When people reached out to Herbert about Ong’s Hat, he “played the character, the crazy scientist. Which isn’t a stretch for Nick.”

Most who engaged understood that it was some kind of lark, a complex joke that challenged fans to explore the porous line where the the real world ended and the game began. There was never a time when someone looking hard enough couldn’t find signs of a gag. If the patent absurdity of some of the story’s details didn’t tip you off, on Matheny’s site you could find scans of interviews, in which he clearly described Ong’s Hat as a hoax or a game.

He was obviously not a journalist of any kind. One version of the brochure featured an image of “Ong’s Hat survivors,” that depicted the Brady Bunch. But after years of never publicly breaking character, people started to believe anyway. And at first, Matheny encouraged them.

Here’s where things started to get irresponsible: To spread the narrative, Matheny fostered relationships with more serious conspiracy believers, who didn’t share his own postmodern, detached approach to the realms of the weird. He purposely built out overlap with legends like the Montauk Project and Philadelphia Experiment, allowing the story to mutate, incorporating elements from other conspiracy pantheons, and letting posters feel like their findings were leading to breakthroughs in a real, evolving investigation. “I wanted to see what would happen,” said Matheny.

In 1999 Matheny published Ong’s Hat: The Beginning, a ebook collecting the now-considerable accumulation of lore, later followed by a print edition). But with other conspiracy enthusiasts posting Ong’s Hat stuff, Matheny was losing his ability to frame the narrative, and by the turn of the century, he said, probably half of the people engaging with Ong’s Hat “clearly did not know it was game.”

People had became obsessed and started demanding answers from Matheny. But the intrusions into his personal and professional lives really came to a head after a series of in-character appearances on classic late-night paranormal program Coast to Coast AM, which reached millions of listeners at the time. Things immediately got “exponentially” more intense, said Matheny, and he was beset by “hardcore saucerheads,” and maybe worse, ordinary-seeming people who were just confused out of their gourds.

Finally, in a 2001 post addressed “to the conspiracy community,” Matheny ended the experiment. He wrote, “Nick and I decided today to publicly announce in the near future that the Ong’s Hat Project has now concluded…. I think we were successful in laying the groundwork for the coming change. The gateways are open now.” He wrote that he’d be glad to just be himself again, adding “PS: This is not a joke.”

Not everyone was totally convinced. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s a game or not a game,” said Peter Moon, 66, a prolific writer on paranormal subjects like the Montauk Project who runs the Long Island-based Sky Books, which publishes an edition of Matheny’s book, Ong’s Hat: The Beginning. He shrugged off Matheny’s reveal. (The two are still on good terms.)

There are different “levels of assimilation of what the phenomenon is,” he said. Moon conceded that “in its most basic form [Ong’s Hat] is a legend,” but he still believes something otherworldly took place in the New Jersey woods all those years ago. “That series of documents, the Incunabula papers, those do exist…that’s probably the most core thing.”

After his signoff, most of the community wished Matheny well. Some were mildly disappointed in the abrupt exit, but wanted to keep the game going without him. There were also those who took it badly. “People were pissed,” said Metcalfe. “They didn’t believe him. They didn’t even think he was a part of it.” Metcalfe said the strife toward the end of the Ong’s Hat saga came from people who felt lied to, or just “didn’t want their magic stolen.” Upending people’s sense of reality he said, made them “violently paranoid.”

Alternate realities

According to 2005 book This Is Not A Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming, the Ong’s Hat project “could arguably be called” the first Alternate Reality Game, or ARG, an immersive experience that sends players on a fiction-based quest set against the backdrop of the real world.

Participants in an ARG might interact with real places and people as part of the game — like, for example, travelling to a particular location to find a hidden note or pick up a ringing phone—as well as characters invented by the game’s creators. Even knowing it’s a game, the thrill comes from not knowing where the game ends and the real world begins. In an ARG, new clues and story developments will also often respond to the actions of players, who must compare notes and work together to solve the puzzle.

But what really gives ARGs their reality-warping magic is the lack of any stated rules, or terms of engagement, other than players should never admit they’re playing a game. The term “ARG” wasn’t yet popular when Matheny started posting Ong’s Hat material; he just called it a “living book experiment” at the time. “The way I used to describe this was, it’s like a role-playing game, but the board is not a table, it’s the world,” he said.

In the 2000s, other games and narratives with similar architectures began showing up, as viral promotions for movies and video games, or as cryptological puzzles meant to recruit tech or intelligence talent.

Colleges adapted the format as a fun, immersive orientation tool. At the same time though, as the internet grew and commercialized, the mechanics undergirding these campaigns started showing up in troublesome ways, pulling in gullible passers-by and people whose sense of reality was already shaky.

The same kinds of interactivity and winking, group-wide suspension of disbelief fuelled “creepypasta” horror stories like Slender Man, which led to a host of spin-off ARG campaigns, and inspired two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls to stab a friend as a blood sacrifice to a fictional monster.

Online amateur sleuth groups playing “collective detective” succumbed to echo-chamber effects, fantasies, and disinformation, leading to false accusations, harassment, and the grafting of conspiracy theories onto tragic news stories.

Recently, the ARG model has also been invoked to explain the spread and popularity of modern conspiracies like QAnon, the sprawling, interactive pro-Trump megatheory alleging a powerful cabal of pedophiles has infiltrated every level of government and media.

The only one who can stop them is Donald Trump, who (for some reason) needs the QAnon community to decipher the information trail posted online by an enigmatic figure named “Q”. Believers, who look for arcane clues in the minutiae of the news, have acted out publicly in sometimes dangerous ways, including harassment, an armed standoff with Arizona authorities, and allegedly inspiring the militia behind a Minnesota mosque bombing.

(Artnet and Buzzfeed have even entertained the idea that QAnon may actually be a big prank that got out of control, pointing to similarities between the conspiracy theory and past media hoaxes.)

Compared to QAnon and the rest of today’s conspiracy hellscape, where grieving families of mass shooting victims regularly endure stalking and vicious harassment, the story of Ong’s Hat is pretty quaint, a groovy, far-fetched science fiction romp that most people probably wouldn’t fall for in 2019. Still, said Metcalfe, Ong’s Hat may have been a game, but from his experience working in social media, he sees it as an important lesson about conspiracy stories, and a vantage point, a place from which to see the “growth of the mental landscapes that we now live in.”

In the early days of the internet, is was a lot easier to have fun, speculative conversations “about the multiverse, or alternate realities, or time travel,” said Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of anti-disinformation site Truth or Fiction. Previously the managing editor at Snopes, Binkowski has made a career of tracking online conspiracy theories, urban legends, and propaganda, a realm she said has become “nastier, more fearful” over the years.” Harassment, especially for women who deal with the conspiracy community, has become par for the course.

There’s always been a reactionary element to the world of conspiracy, said Matheny, but these days he finds it increasingly dominated by political posturing, red-faced ranting from the likes of Alex Jones, or propaganda with “racism and sexism, and fascism implicit underneath.” The comparisons between ARGs and conspiracies like QAnon make him uneasy. He sees the way his game got people to take action echoed in the emboldened conspiracy believers who have acted out, sometimes violently, over the last few years. He sees how conspiracy groups mix varying levels of serious belief, irony, and playing along, creating a kind of nihilistic matrix in which unbalanced people can lose their grip.

The online conspiracy discourse may have began tilting toward a toxic arc as Ong’s Hat progressed, but of course, the whole internet changed too. As it became the world’s de facto public square, the chances of any kind of leading, sensation information causing psychic collateral damage ticked up accordingly. “Not everybody can function with a level of elasticity in their reality,” said Matheny.

While you once might have to seek out a conversation about government-suppressed time-travel technology or an argument about the shape of the Earth, now social media platforms automatically boost trending conspiracies into users’ news feeds. YouTube’s algorithms shuttle unsuspecting users from music videos and mainstream news to content promoting QAnon and other conspiratorial bunk.

Hell, the president of the United States has controls the weather.

“The public’s conception of what’s real is pretty loose right now,” said Binkowski. It would be in bad taste to run an experiment like Ong’s Hat these days unless the storytellers “are upfront about the fact that it’s an ARG,” she said. Even in the spirit of fun, “You can’t really pull the wool over anyone’s eyes right now, because nobody knows what to believe.”

The last word 

A few years after his 2001 post ending the experiment, the Ong’s Hat-related harassment faded. But it took Matheny a while longer to really learn his lesson. He avoided giving serious answers to direct questions about the project for years, not wanting to totally shatter the fun for anyone who might wander into the game. He toyed with the idea of pitching an Ong’s Hat movie, he made other ARGs, and he became embroiled in other controversial internet hoaxes, like the John Titor time travel saga. Even people in his personal and professional lives started looking at him sideways; they could never tell if he was messing with them. “I’m the boy who cried wolf,” said Matheny.

Now 56, he is developing a few apps and games, and splits his time between Santa Cruz and the Pacific Northwest. He’s done with hoaxes, pranks, and conspiracies. “I don’t ever want to do a conspiracy, or paranormal radio show, tv show, blog, journal, anything ever again.”

He doesn’t even want to speak publicly about Ong’s Hat anymore. The interview for this article, he said, is his last word on the subject. Although, he admitted, he’s said the same thing before in the past. Ong’s Hat keeps pulling him back in. “It has a life of its own,” he said.

Even after its heyday, Ong’s Hat continued to pop up in the wild. You can still occasionally find the story worked into conspiracy content and the credulous YouTube posts of believers. But if as a conspiracy theory, the story took on more weight than it could handle, over time, it also managed to lean more comfortably into the role of a more traditional urban legend, told with a wink and a flashlight under the chin.

New Jersey kids who Google local lore and stumble across Matheny’s game are more likely to take a Blair Witch-style trip into the woods looking for spooky kicks than spend years sorting out the details. Hikers visiting the Pine Barrens from nearby cities like Philadelphia will seek out the “haunted” paths that begin at the Ong’s Hat trailhead.

Local media gamely covers the emerging urban legend, interviewing area residents about their encounters with teens and ghost hunters there to check out “that weird interdimensional thing” from the internet. You can find Ong’s Hat on Weird NJ, the long-running catalogue of the Garden State’s darkest corners, and on lists of New Jersey’s haunted attractions and sites.

Ong’s Hat, Pine Barrens, New Jersey. (Photo: Misha Friedman, Gizmodo)

On our recent trip to the Pine Barrens, a turn off Ong’s Hat Road led to a dirt path and the Ong’s Hat trailhead, an opening into the sylvan wilderness of the Brendan T. Byrne state forest. At the trailhead, there was a narrow board with a peg nailed high up on a tree, which was labelled “Ong’s Hat Rack” in white letters. On the peg, someone had hung a black baseball cap and a red scarf, which wound around the tree, fibres frozen to the bark on the cold, clear day.

In other areas of the forest, crumbling stone ruins rose from the ground as houses and collapsed barns, gaping ominously through empty windows among the endless depth of the jagged tree-lines.

Combing the nearby forests for hours yielded no sign of an Ashram and no swirling gateways or mysterious portals to whisk us away to captivating new realms. Still, After just a little bit of time in the pines, it became easier to believe something terrifying or unreal is just around the corner.

Nightfall was thick and eerie, almost tangible, and local folklore has always produced tales of horror and the macabre, most notably the centuries-old legend of the deadly, winged Jersey Devil. “You see some pretty weird stuff here at night,” said a young woman with a small piercing above her upper lip, tending bar at Magnolia, a bar on the edge of what was once Ong’s Hat. Rob, a Magnolia regular in a camo hat, said he doesn’t really believe in any of the local ghost stories, but if “You go into those woods, you don’t want to get lost. You might never get found.”

The harder you look for Ong’s Hat, the further it shrinks from view. It’s a real-life ghost town that maybe never was, living on through maps and local lore for no particular reason at all. Maybe it really is, as the Ong’s Hat brochure suggests, an in-joke between cartographers, “a dot representing nothing in the midst of the most isolated flat dark scrub-pines and sandy creeks in all the vast, empty and perhaps haunted Barrens.”

For better or worse, the trail to Ong’s Hat was always supposed to be, as Matheny put it, a “liminal place,” where someone with a foot on solid ground could suspend disbelief and entertain strange possibilities. The power of the Ong’s Hat saga, said Metcalfe, came from the fact that the story’s real parts were just as strange or even weirder than the fictional elements.

This is the end of the game. After puzzling out all the details and tracking down the facts, I still found myself in the middle of nowhere—staring into a void, unsure how real the real parts were, wandering through the chilly forest at night.