They say that, sometimes, seeing a ghost is just a matter of situational gravity. The 1995 earthquakes in Kobe, Japan brought with them a wide, broad rash of ghost sightings. So too did the tsunami in Thailand, 2004, and Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Ghost sightings are a dime a dozen at battlefields the world over, and it’s relatively accepted that any place that has a heavy history has its share of spirits.
I do believe in ghosts. I never want to see one, am not interested in hunting them, think that the very idea of them is sad, and am not sure just what it is of a person that sticks around as a spirit on this Earth, but I definitely believe in them. I always have, and have gone through the entire spectrum on how the idea of them affects me, but my belief in them was set in stone in September of 2005.
Times were strange in the South in 2005. I was living in Florida at the time, and we had just been clipped by Katrina before it decimated New Orleans. We would get Hurricane Wilma later that year, and the year prior we were hit in my hometown by two hurricanes in the course of a month, Frances and Jeanne. We were a weathered, battered state, and though things were on the mend, the cloud of disaster still clung to us.
Honestly, my life was a little cloudy at the time, too. I graduated college a few months prior to September of ’05, but my GPA had taken a monstrous hit because I was diagnosed with cancer in my final semester. I was a wreck, and it got the best of me. I was trying to save up money to move to Philadelphia, preparing to leave my whole family behind for the love of a woman. I was unsure of a lot and ambling through a fog that summer, and my mood was rare.
Those two paths were crossed by a renewal of interest in a bit of local folklore in my little hometown of Port St. Lucie, a bit of lore known as The Devil Tree. It was haunted, or possessed or just plain evil from the roots, and I’d heard stories about it from as far back as I could remember. It was alternately a worshipping ground for Satanists, an Indian burial ground and a park, complete with water fountains, picnic grounds and a playground. To my knowledge, maybe only the last bit was true, but the tree, and the woods that surrounded, had been thick with mystery for decades.
The Devil Tree, found in Oak Hammock Park in Port St. Lucie, FL, has been occasionally famous. In the early 90s, a child was reported as having run out the woods, screaming and crying bloody murder, as he said that hooded figures chased him out of the woods, screaming “we want your blood!” The tree had been known for occasionally having animal sacrifices strewn about its area, and stories abounded about how it couldn’t be removed.
They tried to exorcise the tree, if my memory serves. They tried to cut it down with a chainsaw, which wouldn’t start. A hacksaw’s teeth fell off as they cut into the tree. It simply couldn’t be removed, so the city planners in Port St. Lucie did the next best thing one could do with a Devil Tree…
…they built a park around it! As it stands now, some people will say that the tree was felled long ago. Others can direct seekers right to it. Cops say one thing, devotees, fright fans and sheer enthusiasts say another. What I found to be achingly true of the place, however, is that the land is marked. Whether the tree stands or not, whether the tree everyone accepts is the Real McCoy or not, the area is stained by the events that took place in that neck of the woods.
In the early 70’s, a police officer named Gerard Schaeffer was evil in ways that many will never know. He was known for having mental problems as an officer in other counties, but falsified his own records to get a job with the Sheriff’s department of the farmland that was Martin County. While on patrol, he came across two hitchhiking teenage girls, who he stopped and then feigned to befriend, with the promise that he’d take them to the beach the next day.
He came around that next day, but instead of taking these girls to the beach, Schaeffer took them into the woods of a Port St. Lucie in its infancy. There, he raped, tortured and ritualistically killed them, prolonging their agony over the course of days. He hanged them from trees and slaughtered them. He came back to the bodies, took them down, buried them. He unburied them, defiled, raped and mutilated their corpses and did so again and again, at his leisure. Finally, he was arrested and put in jail for a different murder, where he died some 15 years later. He was stabbed over 80 times, under still-mysterious conditions. Though he’d earned a reputation as a liar over those years, Schaeffer (who spent time with cellmates such as Ted Bundy and Otis Toole) may have killed nearly 100 women, and he was a police officer. He was entrusted with protecting people just like us, and couldn’t have been a bigger abuser of that trust.
I feel joy every time I remember that he’s dead.
In the years since, the rumors and stories were a dark bit of the lore of living in Port St. Lucie. As far back as I can remember, some said that one could see the rope burns still worn, carved into the branches from which the girls swung. Though the “we want your blood!” story was later said to be a hoax, there are still stories of door handles jiggling or doors unexpectedly locking in the women’s bathroom, of girls being heard at dusk in the woods, and of screams, unexpected and terrifying, filling the air in a moment.
Barring the sad events perpetrated by Gerard Schaeffer, it might all be a hoax. The reputation might completely overshadow the events at this point, especially now that elements of the story have been published at the national level. Who knows what’s true, what’s an outright lie, and what’s imagined?
Whatever the case, I had to be sure. With two months between my departure from the state and those days, the bug became too strong to fight. I wanted to go out and find the tree, if only to pay my respects. The story had gained a lot of traction in my mind, and I was quickly becoming obsessed with finding the truth for myself.
I also thought of writing a script, a movie loosely based around the events that could be as emotionally true as the fear I felt, just in knowing that the whole sad state of affairs happened not much more than a mile from my home. So I went to Oak Hammock Park for “research,” of the physical place and my own reactions to it.
It was an impulsive move. I had talked about going with my friends, but decided on a whim that I’d do it alone. I told my family in excited, rushed tones that I was going to go see what was up out there, and the sheer anticipation of doing that alone made everything scarier. Adding to that effect was that some serious rain just rolled through, and the park was a twin to the Everglades. The alligators were out, and when I got there, an encounter with one was as scary a thought as anything else.
I started on the left trail, going down the driest paths, and all was immediately creepy. Among the first things I noticed was the lack of animals. No squirrels were to be found: no lizards, not even bugs were anywhere to be seen. The only animal present was a bright red cardinal, who kept on hopping on branches just to the side of me. It didn’t fly away like most birds do when people get too close; in fact, if I’d come within two more steps of it, I could have touched it.
There was no sound: no sound at all. I couldn’t hear the trucks or cars in the distance, the calls of birds and chirps of bugs, or even the rustling of scampering and scurrying animals fleeing my path. A strange thing about the park is that it’s now surrounded by neighborhoods. Barring the canal on one side of it, there are homes, kids playing, life happening. Not a peep from all of it.
The dry paths led me in circles, so I started trudging through the wetter paths, the washed-out paths. The degradation of my bravery began there, because the air was dead. It was completely still until I stepped more than a couple of steps in what I figured, felt to be a “wrong” direction. All of a sudden, on the third washed-out path, as I rolled up my jeans and stepped in the water, the wind howled. It blew a hard chill, one that simply doesn’t make sense in a Florida September. Hypersensitive as I was, I lost my nerve in a quick second.
I stopped on that first step into the water and made my intentions clear. Whether there were ghosts, demons, anything else or nothing at all, I voiced it loudly that I wasn’t there to hurt anything or anyone. Feeling more confident after that, I stepped again, and when the wind howled again, louder and colder, I said “f*ck it!” and turned back to the safe trails I knew. As soon as I did, the wind stopped. I pressed my luck again and was met with the same response, along with a very acute fear that something was coming from the path before me. I hauled ass out of those woods and back to my truck, barely noticing the cardinal hopping along branches right beside me until I was out of the woods. It was enough to let me know that I’d never be in those woods alone again.
My friends came with me the second time around, talking me into going back when I truly felt I shouldn’t. And with them there, nothing happened. We didn’t see anything special, hear anything scary; we just walked around on every inch of that nature trail and they made fun of me. That was essentially the end of our Devil Tree experience.
Five years later, I still struggle with those two trips. I can’t know for sure whether what I felt alone was real. I’ll never know, and I’m not sure as to whether that’s a good or bad thing. Hell, I still don’t know if the tree’s even there anymore! I’d heard plenty of people swear up and down that they hung out near or at the tree just weeks, days before my talking to them; I still do.
But that one day, my one solitary experience was real and terrifying enough in my head that I believed it all: all the folklore, all the exaggerations, all the tales, if only for a little while. Even today, thinking about it all still sends a shock of fear up my spine. The fear doesn’t linger as long as the sadness, though.
I forget about a fear of ghosts, forget that I couldn’t sleep for days as a child because of “Bloody Mary” and forget all of the hair-raising senses I feel as a Philadelphia resident, living in a city that’s tense with history and death. I forget it all when I think about the Devil Tree, after a while, because I can’t help but just feel for those girls, the Hell they endured. In moments like those, I hope that there is a Heaven for them, even I don’t believe in one for myself. I hope there’s something to ease the meeting of such a dark demise.
Five years later, I still struggle with that script I wanted to write. I’ve been close to finishing it a few times, and I’ve deleted the whole thing more than once. It has been terrifying in all of the ways that movies haven’t been in ages, full of deep, lurking fear and dread that many filmmakers think can be replaced by sound cues and jump scares. If I could write this movie, it’d be the best horror movie in decades, even if Michael Bay directed it.
But I’ll never finish that script. Some things in this world might be scary, horrific in ways that would shock audiences to the core the world over, but that doesn’t mean they should be given that opportunity. I figure that, if I’m going to make some kind of fiction out of this grave source material, I’ll do a book. In my mind a book seems all right, but a script for a movie or a series? That just seems like it’s not enough for the pain those girls felt. It seems crude, mean to the memory of those poor girls and a sick validation for the man who robbed them of everything. I might finish that book someday, or it might be 500 more pages of my work that never sees the light of day. Ultimately, I just feel that the terror was theirs, and maybe mine for a moment, too. I was in just such a mood, just such a place for a blink in time, and maybe I felt their ghosts in this world. Though I’ll tell others of that day, I wonder if my voice keeps them from rest. I hope not. I hurt for them.
The Devil Tree