Urban Legend

Like a handful of people in this contest, I grew up in Western Pennsylvania. As areas of the country go, you wouldn't be able to place the accent like you would a Brooklyn brogue, or a Texan drawl. It holds no spots of significant historical meaning, like Gettysburg or Philadelphia. And it has been long since it's been socially relevant, like New Orleans, or become littered with stereotypes and cultural references like the South. But anyone who grew up in the rolling foothills of Western PA, a place still with more trees than skyscrapers, where deals are still sealed with a handshake, can tell you that we have history in spades.

We have myth. We have folklore. We have a long and storied history of things that go bump in the night, of George Romero spawning the undead all over our tranquil area of the country, and Stephen King's Walkin' Dude leaving his coal-black footprints on our roads. We are a quiet people, yet still largely a superstitious people, an amalgamation of the deeply-held fears of the Scotch-Irish, the Italian, the German immigrants and Amish who settled in the land. We dig up arrowheads of Indians (And yes, there, the word is still "Indians") and are reminded of their ghosts which still haunt the lands. The woods are still dark and deep, and if you sit still on your porch on a quiet night, you can hear the cries of things in the woods, lost things, scared things...dangerous things.

Oh, yes. We have history. We have myth. We have legend.

We have the Green Man...

The Green Man.

I know there are a few people reading this right now who will jump when they read that. They know what I'm talking about. Yes. Oh yes, they know. They should. They came from the same place. They know of the legends...

"Don't go out at night--the Green Man will get you!"

"Be careful and be home by dark--else the Green Man will snatch you away!"

"Green Man, Green Man, try and run, while you can..."

Every culture has a Boogeyman, a dark and malevolent creature just waiting to snatch unsuspecting children.

The Green Man was ours. He belonged to us...and we belonged to him.

Oh, you heard the stories growing up. In horrified, whispering giggles from friends while huddled around sleeping bags and popcorn. In the teasing of older kids, trying their best to scare you while pretending not to be spooked by the Green Man themselves. Some even called him Charlie No-Face, but to most, he was the Green Man.

The Green Man, so they said, was horribly disfigured ("My grandpa says he knew him! No, my uncle knew a guy who knew a guy..."). Once, he had been a normal man, but after suffering a tragic accident--some said it was a factory accident, others said he had been mauled by machinery in the field, still others held with the notion that he had been struck by lightning ("It's the electricity...that's why he glows, you know...")--he changed. He became insane, dangerous. Legend had it that he took one look at his non-face in the mirror after the accident and snapped. He dragged his mangled no-face and faintly glowing, green skin along the twisting roadways at night...and rumor had it that if you were to drive down a certain stretch of winding, lonely road in the dead of night, you'd see him. You'd see the Green Man in your headlights. Sometimes, it was a stretch of road ("I've seen him, I have!" Me 'n Dave!"), while at other times it was a tunnel, or a bridge ("See, you sit there at night and turn your headlights off, see..."), and that's when he came. You'd drive into the middle of the bridge, or tunnel, and extinguish the lights...and you'd wait. If you were brave enough, that was. And supposedly...he came. He came out of the night and would touch your car, and due to the electrical disturbances he caused, he could stall your car out, break it down...leave you stranded...come for you.

Touch you...

He was myth, he was legend, he was our Boogeyman. He haunted the desolate, country roadways of Western Pennsylvania like a wraith, snatching people, taking victims... Sometimes, the missing were attributed to the work of the Green Man. The name alone grew to have the power to terrify, to send people scurrying to the lights of their homes after the sun went down. I used to lie awake at night in bed, terrified lest I'd see his gibbering, green face in my window, or perhaps a twisted shadow gliding amongst the darker shadows alongside the road...

It wasn't until I was much older that I learned the true story of the Green Man. He had been a real person, and due to a tragic, childhood accident, had been left horribly disfigured and completely blind. Because of his mangled face, he had grown reticent and hermetic, and withdrew from the public eye, venturing out only at night, where he could walk in peace, aided by his walking stick. It became a game to people, to spot the Green Man. People would drive around in their cars and come for miles, driving up and down the stretches of road he supposedly walked, just trying to get a glimpse of him. Sometimes, people were kind. More often than not, they weren't. He was hit by more than one car, careening around a bend. And he was hit by more than one bottle or rock on his walks, superstitious people waving their torches and pitchforks as this abomination, this Frankenstein's monster. Or worse, they would take pictures and laugh, and run back to their dates and their buddies and show everyone the pictures of the freak, of the monster, of the Green Man, the trophies of...bravery, if that's what you want to call it.

But as he grew older, he withdrew and became more and more reclusive, and by the end of his life, he was living in a nursing home. He passed away quietly in 1985 but by that time, he had ceased to be Raymond Robinson, the man, and had become the terrifying myth of the Green Man. Now, over twenty years later, no one knows who Raymond Robinson was, but everyone still tells the tales of the Green Man.

And I suppose that's the truly frightening aspect of urban legends, isn't it? Not that they are made-up lies and false stories...but because they are true. All urban legends, no matter how far-fetched, are based in a kernel of truth. They may become twisted and warped over the years, and grow to epic, outrageous proportions. But go back just a few twists and turns in the story and you arrive at its inception, the true event or person that spawned the myth. Sometimes, it's even more terrifying in a way than the urban legend itself. Sometimes, it's mundane. All too often, such as in the case of the Green Man, it's just sad and lonely and misunderstood. But in all of them--ALL of them--there is some truth about the human condition, some real thing that we recognize in ourselves. Sometimes, we deny it. Sometimes, we lock our doors to it. But it is a part of us. The Green Man is a part of my land, a part of my people, as much as we are a part of him.

We are intertwined, and I can no longer tell where the man ends and the legend begins, where the true story leaves off, and where people picked it up and spun it into legend with their stories. All I know is the Green Man has always been there in Western Pennsylvania, and will continue to be there, long after I am gone, haunting the roadways and waiting to snatch you away...

And then you shall become part of the legend, too.

(For those of you wondering about the true story of the Green Man, you can go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Robinson_%28Green_Man%29 and read about him on Wikipedia.)