KJ: “The Jersey Devil is like a donkey, kind of, with sharp teeth and bat wings. It also has legs. And it’s supposed to be really big. And I feel like it’s very much a big foot thing, like you’ll see it in the woods. It’s like a devil-dinosaur-goat thing. I feel like a New Jersey Big Foot is a good way to describe the lore surrounding it.”
The informant is a 19-year-old college student from Montclair, New Jersey. KJ described the legend of the Jersey Devil as being commonly known among people from New Jersey and remembers hearing about it from her peers, but also remembers reading about it in a magazine called ‘Weird NJ.’ Though she doesn’t know of any specific ways that the monster is supposed to attack or hurt those who see it, she remembers her peers in middle school stoking vague fears that “the Jersey Devil is going to get you.” KJ claimed that she and her friends ran from the Jersey Devil after seeing it in a public park when she was in eighth grade and describes it as a “lanky” figure with “smoke coming out of its face.” Though she thinks she probably imagined the figure, her friends similarly remember seeing it and they have not been able to explain it.
The Jersey Devil is a pervasive legend which may trace all the way back to 18th century colonial New Jersey. Brian Regal describes a popular mythic origin story of the monster, which is that a witch called Mother Leeds gave birth to “a ‘child’ with horse-like head, bat-like wings, clawed hands and hooved feet” (Regal 79). He argues that this legend arose from conflict between New Jersey Quakers and Daniel Leeds, the patriarch of a Quaker family who published a book called ‘The Temple of Wisdom for the Little World’ in 1688 which promoted belief in a peculiar cosmology, an amalgamation of “theology and the budding Scientific Revolution” which “included sections on angels, natural magic, astrology, theology, philosophy, and the behavior of devils” (Regal 90). Quakers disapproved of Leeds’ philosophy and public espousal of secular or untraditional faith or magic. Regal argues that the public controversy surrounding Leeds’ work, persona, and unconventional beliefs led to the creation of the Jersey Devil.
While the origins of this legend have to do with Christianity, I don’t think that the Jersey Devil speaks to contemporary fears about religious deviance and alternative faiths. As with legends like Big Foot, people enjoy the mystery of the creature, hearing stories about sightings and arguing about its existence. Moreover, the legend’s long history and specificity to the state makes it a part of New Jersey culture which people can identify with and bond over. The legend is extremely popular, with the state’s football team being named The New Jersey Devils.
Just as La Llorona can be interpreted as warning children to be safe around bodies of water, it’s possible that the Jersey Devil sends a message about safety. The legends popularity among children and adolescents, during periods when individuals are afforded new independence, could speak to fears of encountering dangers one can encounter alone in the world. One could argue that the figure implicitly promotes that young people be cautious among strangers and in dangerous places such as the woods.
“The Jersey Devil.” Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained, edited by Una McGovern, Chambers Harrap, 1st edition, 2007. Credo Reference, https://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/chambun/the_jersey_devil/0?institutionId=887. Accessed 26 Apr. 2022.
For another description of the Jersey Devil, consult page 79 of this source:
Regal, Brian. “‘The Jersey Devil: A Political Animal.’” New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 79–103., https://doi.org/10.14713/njs.v1i1.13.