Estimated reading time — 69 minutes
I am often asked how it was that I first became interested the true crime genre. It’s the sort of question I frequently get at conventions, book signings, panel meetings, and interviews, but the actual answer is fairly mundane. What I find more interesting is the source of that question, why people expect a compelling answer. I suppose we’re used to the idea we get from movies and television, where characters can often label one thing, one singular event that acts as the catalyst of their entire fictional lives. In reality, the truth is much simpler; some things just have a natural appeal to you. I couldn’t say exactly why I first found the true crime genre so compelling, or why I made it my life’s work for over two decades. However, I can say that what I find so appealing about the genre is what it has to say about the state of humanity in general, and how it edifies us about the curious blind spots of society and human behavior. In my youth I was satisfied with only with the macabre details of crime, hardly ever ruminating on the nature of the human beings involved in these gruesome dramas, and it wasn’t until my twenties that I fully grasped the social dimension of it all.
A fair amount of my fascination with the genre actually stemmed from a frustration with fictional crime, the kind you see in movies and on TV. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s watching reruns of shows like Colombo and Hawaii Five-O, police procedurals and cop dramas with all-star casts and high-concept visions of modern crime. After the thousandth time watching the drama of a murderous knitting-society or professional rivalry gone wrong, I got frustrated with the idea that crime could be so banal yet so over-the-top in its origin. By contrast, true crime, while seemingly less interesting in its setup or execution, really highlights the remote regions of the social fabric that TV shows or movies rarely seem to acknowledge. But what I find most compelling is how a violent and heinous crime can stand in such stark contrast to a mundane, commonly-accepted reality. When I think of what human beings are capable of, I think of cases where a man murders his wife, yet is so convincing in their acts of innocence and grief that even the victims family can maintain their innocence for years. It’s hard to imagine that such individuals could possibly lead outwardly normal lives, never betraying their true character, while others of their ilk can so easily engage in barbarous crimes out in the open. Perhaps there is something to be said about what our society really values and how our expectations can be so easily subverted.
It was in my early twenties that I began pursuing the subject with great zeal, though admittedly at that point my interest had yet to mature beyond the level of decidedly juvenile fascination. I spent my college years and some years after roaming the back woods of Pennsylvania (my home state) and western New York playing the amateur detective, never concerned with money or adult responsibilities courtesy of my sizable trust fund. Yes, I was a rich kid, and during those golden years the object of money was never a barrier to my hobbies. I grew up in Mount Lebanon, an affluent suburb south of the Pittsburgh metro area, and my family was quite affluent even by those lofty standards. My youth was one of private schools and country clubs and other trappings of the wealthy, but I like to think that I was reasonably down to earth as far as that background is concerned. I would travel all over state pursuing unsolved cases in the rural heartlands, eating at diners, drinking in dive bars, and sleeping in motels, as if seeing how the other half lives was like a grand adventure. I would set myself up as a friendly nuisance in these towns and pretend that I wasn’t just another rich kid slumming it with the local color, all the while doing the junior detective bit with great interest but no great skill. With my “crew” of friends from college, we had an absolute blast traveling all over the state pursuing these gruesome mysteries, sometimes joking that we were like an R-rated version of “The Gang” from Scooby-Doo.
It seems kind of stupid when I think about it now, notwithstanding the tremendous fun we had doing it. I learned later that investigating crimes, particularly violent and heinous crimes like murder or kidnapping, can be a very dangerous business if you aren’t prepared and don’t fully respect the subject matter. After all, one can’t be too surprised if a known murderer might react in a homicidal fashion if they feel they might be cornered, especially if their pursuer is a civilian. In those early years I was blissfully ignorant of such hazards, never really taking any of that seriously. This was a lesson that I was destined to learn the hard way, but however much that experience terrifies me to this day, I am almost glad it happened. In a way, it was how my appreciation of the true crime genre genuinely matured, and how I learned to show the respect that the subject demands. Until that point, I had never been truly passionate about it, however much I cherished it as a hobby before then. I’ve lived my life believing that there is a distinct difference between simply having a “passion” versus being truly passionate about something, and the real difference is that sense of respect. And I distinctly remember the bizarre and outwardly unbelievable case that really hammered home that lesson in respect. It was in the late summer of 1989 when I investigated the mystery of Dutchman’s Hollow.
I was twenty-four years old at the time, still relatively fresh from my college years, pursuing my amateur investigations as energetically as ever. I had drifted apart somewhat from my old crew of friends from college, though I was still in touch with them. My old pattern of trolling the backwoods of Pennsylvania still occupied most of my time, and with my sizable trust fund my idle pursuits could very well have gone on forever. Failing at that, I still had what the Chinese call an “iron rice bowl”, a guaranteed well-paying job at the family business; I wasn’t too worried about losing my standing in this respect, as I was the youngest son and therefore would not inherit the throne anyway. I had a small collection of crime journals and old newspaper clippings that I regularly poured through for any new leads, and when I first stumbled upon the mention of the mysterious Dutchman’s Hollow, I felt like the luckiest junior detective in the whole world. The cases surrounding this place, though well documented, were not well-explored or investigated. In other words, it was fertile ground for somebody like myself to make their mark, and the fact that so little was conclusively known about these cases was very inviting for an inquisitive and none-too-cautious mind like my own.
The name “Dutchman’s Hollow” refers to a remote and isolated stretch of forest in the Susquehannock State Forest in north-central Pennsylvania, a place well off the beaten path even for that region. It lies in a hilly area at the north end of the Appalachian Mountains, and anybody who has been through that area knows how dense and lush the forests can be around there. At that time of the year the trees were still dense and lush with leaves, and still a brilliant and vibrant green in the weeks before the onset of autumn. I spent those days driving along remote stretches of road through the forest, with dense stands of tall elms and oaks looming over both sides of the road, like the ramparts of some primeval fortress. You could look into the trees but only see about thirty yards in before the forest growth and lack of light obscured the distance. The darkness of the forest cover is what made it particularly ominous in appearance, like gazing into the maw of some enormous creature. Dutchman’s Hollow lies well within this forest, with no direct trails leading to it, and a determined explorer has to deviate some ways off one of the trails to even reach it. I could hardly imagine even reaching a specific area in such a dense and maze-like forest, especially when visibility in any direction is so poor, and that is part of what makes the cases surrounding the Hollow so peculiar.
For a region so remote and sparsely inhabited as this, it might be hard to imagine that such a place could be hotbed of crime, and you’d normally be right. But according to old police records going back decades, the forest surrounding the Hollow is the scene a truly abnormal number of unsolved disappearances. From 1910 to 1980, there have been 136 known disappearances of people in this area. Just looking at the forest you might be inclined to think that people just got lost in and among the trees, hikers or wanderers that strayed too far in and couldn’t find there way out. This might account for some cases, but even then human remains might have been found. However, in nearly all of the 136 disappearances, no human remains were ever discovered, despite the efforts of large and well-guided search parties investigating the area. They would cover large swathes of the forest for several days, and yet no trace of the missing people would ever materialize. Most of the missing persons were not even locals in the area, being passing motorists, hitchhikers, or curious explorers, and their disappearance would typically go unnoticed for several days. Despite this area of the forest being relatively small, only about five or six miles wide in some places, they would never recover any sign of what happened to them. And that record only shows the number of disappearances up to 1980 or after 1910, and there’s very little record of disappearances before then or until I first explored the area in 1989. But there is one case, one out the 136 documented in that period, where a person was not only found, but actually found alive. This would be the case of one Raymond Hess, a strange case that only gets even stranger as it goes along.
Raymond Hess was twenty-six years old in the spring of 1977 when he disappeared while driving along the road between the small towns of Cross Fork and Galeton, Pennsylvania. He was a native of Altoona and an itinerant odd-jobber making ends meet in different occupations. He had been recently discharged from the U.S. Air Force, in which he had served as a radar technician in Germany and Turkey, and had most recently taken up work as a house-painter while learning to become an electrician. On Sunday, March 6th, 1977, he was driving to a job site in Clearfield, Pennsylvania when he disappeared. Though he was reported late for the job in Clearfield, this wasn’t considered unusual for roaming workers like him. It wasn’t until Wednesday, March 9th, that his absence was noticed by his family in Altoona, who had expected him home that morning. On March 10th, with his continued failure to show or contact his family, he was officially reported missing to the police. However, State Police authorities had relatively little to go on based on the known facts. He had set out from Galeton and failed to show for the job in Clearfield, but with no trace of him along that long stretch of road, the potential search area was quite large.
On March 14th, over a week since his disappearance, his vehicle was discovered *inside* the forest off the road between Cross Forks and Galeton. The vehicle, a blue 1969 Pontiac Tempest, was found roughly forty yards into the treeline and apparently covered with branches and leaves. This find, though somewhat encouraging, was considered quite bizarre by investigators. It was considered highly unusual for a car to not only be found so far off the road in a dense forest, but to also be consciously camouflaged from view. The original assumption was that he might have accidentally run off the road and injured himself, wandering into the forest in a daze, but the car was mostly undamaged. A speeding car plunging into the forest to that depth almost certainly would have struck a tree and been severely damaged, but the mostly undamaged car instead seemed almost like it was carefully driven into the forest. Furthermore, there was no blood or any sign of physical injury inside the car, which would likely have been present if it were an accident. Based on this, the assumption changed that Hess might have deliberately driven into the forest and walked further in for some reason, which they assumed might have been to possibly commit suicide. Though Hess was known as a solitary man with few friends, nobody in his family indicated that he was depressed or suicidal. The strange disappearance of Raymond Hess continued to mystify authorities for another week when it came to an unexpected and bizarre conclusion.
On Saturday the 29th of March, a young man was found wandering by the side of the road in the area where Hess had disappeared two weeks before. The man was found in a state of “general undress” according to the report, as well as dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia. When brought in by local authorities, he was quickly identified as Raymond Hess, the missing man. Investigators had been on the verge of abandoning the case and were astonished that he had turned up alive. He was quite dazed and delirious from his experience, but he made a fairly rapid recovery from his ordeal. However, when asked about his experiences during those two weeks, he claimed that he had *no memory whatsoever* of anything that transpired during his absence. He couldn’t say how his vehicle ended up inside the forest, or where he had been during those days, or if anybody else had been responsible. However positive the news of his reappearance, investigators were frustrated by this sizable lapse in his memory that prevented any true conclusion to the case.
The story of Raymond Hess did not end there, however. His later life was marred by personal difficulties and other unexpected and dark developments. In July of 1978, he was in Pittsburgh taking a job as an apprentice electrician when he was actually named as a possible suspect in the disappearance of a local woman. He was known to have been acquainted with the woman, another wanderer like himself, and he was actually said to have been the last person to see her alive. What was left of her was found in an overgrown ditch next to a junkyard. The remains had been dismembered and burned, with a number of deep gouges in the bones, as if portions of flesh had been cut off of them. She was identified by dental records from a bit of scorched jawbone found in the pile. Hess had an undeniable proximity to the crime, and though he was interviewed several times by police and even briefly detained, there was little to no physical evidence linking the crime to anybody in particular. Hess abruptly left Pittsburgh shortly after that, even quitting his promising job as an electrician. He resurfaced in Columbus, Ohio the next year when he was *again* named as a possible suspect in a similar disappearance and murder, this time of a man with whom he was also acquainted. Again, despite his proximity to the crime, there was no real evidence suggesting his guilt, and he yet again faded off the grid. This process repeated itself two more times in Ohio and Indiana. Then, in September of 1980, he suddenly left the United States, giving only a slight indication that he was moving to “somewhere in Latin America”.
The strange case of Raymond Hess would be a focal point in my investigation, but I resolved to start with towns in the general vicinity of Dutchman’s Hollow. I made the long drive from my home in Mount Lebanon to a town in the area called Renovo, a fairly small town of about 1,500 people on the West Branch Susquehanna River, a trip that took me about three-and-a-half hours. It was a long way to go for one adventure, but this was in the late 80s, when gas was practically cheaper than dirt, and the opportunity was too tempting for me to ignore. I made the trip in my steel-blue 1975 Cadillac De Ville, the two door convertible, and one of my cherished possessions. Renovo, only about six miles from the trailhead leading to Dutchman’s Hollow, seemed like a good place to act as a “base” for my investigation. Of course, it seems dumb now that I would so willingly attempt to explore such a remote area known for strange disappearances, but I was a sturdy young man still convinced of my youthful invincibility, and I wouldn’t be doing this alone, either. My friend Clarissa, part of the old crew, would join me in a few days, and *surely* between the two of us we would be safe.
I arrived in town on a Friday afternoon and began the typical routine I had formulated over the years, which started with a visit to the local greasy spoon. To my delight, I saw that the diner was also populated by two old men, local “good old boys” that could be an excellent source of information. I introduced myself in usual fashion, and over a cheeseburger and countless cups of coffee I got to know these two men, Ernest and Jed. We talked for hours about local legends and folklore, and I couldn’t have asked for anybody more knowledgeable about local goings-on. No doubt these two old boys were rather amused with the wandering rich kid taking such an interest in the local flavor, but I think we established a good rapport that could be invaluable. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they knew all about the reputation that surrounded Dutchman’s Hollow, and the cycle of disappearances was an established part of older local legends. Not too many young folks new about those legends they said, that it was mostly the subject of myth by this point. But these two men were still firm believers in the stories about the area.
“You won’t catch me up there ever, not for a million dollars you won’t,” said Jed.
“Old folks around here will tell you the same thing. Young folks don’t know so much, but they don’t go around there anyways,” said Ernest.
I learned a lot from Ernest and Jed, and I was pleased to have made a good impression on the locals before starting out on my investigation. Later that evening I settled into a room at a local motel and kept up studying the reports and stories about the disappearances around the area, but all the while Ernest and Jed’s words kept running through my head. According to them, the local legends surrounding the area were an older phenomenon and few still heeded them. At first, this was reassuring, because if the stories were that old and had since faded away, then it might mean I could explore the area in relative safety. At the same time, I was starting to feel a growing apprehension about this whole misguided adventure, and having confirmation from the locals that there was something strange about the area made this feeling more pronounced. Nonetheless, I had resolved that I would do some exploring there myself before Clarissa arrived in two days. I had a rough route along a hiking trail sketched out, and with some moderate hiking provisions, I was physically well-prepared for the journey.
By ten o’clock the next morning, I stood at the edge of the forest leading to the Hollow, and my prior feelings of apprehension returned as I observed the path leading in. I knew the forests in this region were dense and wild, but standing immediately at the edge of it looking in was an ominous experience. The trees and brush here were closely spaced, with the tree tops forming a particularly dense canopy overhead that almost completely blocked sunlight. Further in I could see that the underbrush wasn’t too thick, but the upward slope and close together trees limited forward visibility to thirty yards at most. From the outside, I could only get a mild sense of the darkness under the trees, but actually stepping past the treeline changed the atmosphere completely. When I stepped into forest proper, it almost seemed like the time of day had instantly changed from mid-morning to evening, a startling shift that I hardly expected. Now I was starting to get nervous and rethinking my commitment to this investigation, but the alternative was sit on my ass back in town for two days until Clarissa showed up and restored my confidence.
Lacking any better ideas, I started on my way up the trail. I wasn’t sure if I would try to make it all the way to the Hollow, but going a little ways and getting a sense of the land seemed appropriate. The trail I followed was not well-maintained, occluded in many places by underbrush on both sides, so I had to go quite slow to maintain my bearings. I figured the whole hike would be about four miles round trip, not much of a challenge for me, but the land was steeper than I expected. I followed the trail religiously, only taking my eyes off it to scan my surroundings. Knowing the reputation of this place, I remained alert and stopped frequently to look around for anything suspicious. The forest was unearthly still, with only a slight breeze moving among the trees, rustling the leaves overhead. It occurred to me around this time that I probably should have brought a gun along with me, isolated as I was in a region that was known to be dangerous. This belated realization was yet another example of my decidedly poor planning of this expedition. All I had on me was a small utility knife, a multi-tool that I had been extraordinarily proud of earlier but would be a poor choice for self defense. I suppose it was better than nothing, but it struck me then that I was not well-prepared at all if I actually did stumble upon something around Dutchman’s Hollow.
To say that I felt like I was being watched would be an understatement. I’ve heard people describe this eerie feeling before, but they’ve never done justice to how profoundly unpleasant that feeling is. I trudged along the trail feeling this sensation grow stronger as I approached the point where the path to the Hollow breaks off the main trail. When I reached this point, I stopped to have a look at my surroundings and contemplate possibly going ahead. The “trail” that led off in the direction of the Hollow was barely a trail at all, instead being more like a faint string of bare spots in the underbrush leading off to the southwest. I don’t know if it was just me and my nerves, but I could swear the forest along this path was even darker and more ominous than the rest. The silence in particular was disturbing to me; a forest at this time in the summer should have been more active and noisy, with droning insects and warbling birds and all kinds of forest creatures. Some of that was present, but at a strangely low volume, hardly audible above the sound of trees rustling in the wind.
After about five minutes staring into the direction of the Hollow, I made up my mind to turn back and head towards the road where I had parked my car. I had quite enough this eerie forest for one day, and I was almost desperate to leave it behind. Before I turned back, I decided to get a picture of the trail leading to the Hollow, a picture that didn’t turn out particularly well due to the poor lighting in the forest, but I wasn’t interested in sticking around to get it right. I went back along the trail the way I came at a much brisker pace than before, not bothering to look around for any sign of danger this time. As kept going, I was struck by a powerful anxious feeling that I might be lost in this forest, that I might never find my way out because of poor visibility in all directions. I just did my best to keep my nose in dirt on the trail, and after about fifteen minutes, I was relieved to finally see the edge of the forest and beyond, the shoulder by the side of the road where my car was parked. Without ceremony I hopped in got my car going back in the direction of Renovo.
The first thing I did back in town was to visit that comfortable old diner. My fear and anxiety dropped off enormously when I crossed the threshold, glad to be back someplace sheltered and familiar. As before, Ernest and Jed were parked in their usual booth palavering over their endless cups of coffee, and they ushered me over as I walked in. I remember how glad I was to see their faces, and I greeted them with great warmth. Even though it was past lunchtime, I ordered a plate of bacon and eggs, to the amusement of my companions, but I wasn’t embarrassed. My experience in the woods had left me completely famished, and bacon and eggs was what I craved. Over my ‘lunch’ I told Ernest and Jed about my trip into the forest, which made their usually good humor instantly dissolve. They were astounded that I would do something like even after their stories and veiled warnings about having anything to do with that place. In Jed’s words, I was a “damn fool” for doing that, and Ernest had some words about how young folks don’t listen close enough when it comes to serious matters like this. I can’t say that I disagreed with them; I was in that forest and I know just what I felt being anywhere near Dutchman’s Hollow.
Despite their admonishments, Ernest and Jed were still reassuring and supportive to me, and even though their warnings were clear, I still resolved to return to the forest the next day. Perhaps it was the sense of restored well-being I received returning to town, or maybe it was some strange excitement at feeling vindicated for walking through those woods, but I was set on finding out all I could during my trip up here. I didn’t tell Ernest or Jed that I planned to go back there, but with their warnings fresh in my mind, I was intent on being more cautious. As soon as I left, I headed over to a hunting gear store to buy myself some more impressive means of self defense. This shop did actually sell some firearms, but I settled for a large hunting knife that must have been twice the size of my original utility knife. With the rest of the day to kill, and not intending to go back before tomorrow, I decided I would try to visit a library or historical society in the area to do some more research on local history. Ernest and Jed were pretty good sources of general knowledge, but I thought a more detailed history of the area might shed some light on what exactly I was walking into.
One thing I love about small towns: they care about their local history in a way that more cosmopolitan city folks don’t. In the library in South Renovo I found a whole section on the history of Clinton County and the surrounding areas going back to Pre-Colonial times. There were books on native tribes, notable settlers, the natural landscape, and all sorts of topics. In one book I finally found some information regarding the origins of the legend of Dutchman’s Hollow. In the year 1656, a Dutch settler named Wikus van der Heide and his family arrived in the New World through the port of New Amsterdam, which then was still part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. He originally settled on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, today part of the state of Maryland, where he prospered as a trader in fabrics and pelts. He and his family would live there for nearly twenty years, until the year 1674, when in the aftermath of the Third Anglo-Dutch War the New Netherland colony was ceded to the British. Wikus and his family, possessing a strong antipathy towards British rule, left the colony in disgust and went north, into the wilds of the northern Appalachian mountains in modern day Pennsylvania. He and his family would settle in a very remote stretch of forest, far from British authority, in a region that would bear the name Dutchman’s Hollow after its original residents.
Though the region in which they settled was still populated by a native tribe, the van der Heide family was still determined to call the forest home. Early friction between the natives and the new settling family eventually gave way to a mutual understanding and tentative peace that would last for well over a century. Dutchman’s Hollow was situated in a part of the forest that had great spiritual significance to the local tribe, who feared and hated the region and regarded it as a dwelling of powerful and ancient spirits. Despite avoiding the region, they opposed van der Heide’s decision to the settle there, fearing it would provoke the wrath of the spirits said to inhabit the Hollow. This opposition to settlement would fuel much of the violence between the natives and settlers, but eventually the natives were driven from the region by another tribe, who permitted the van der Heide family to live there so long as they avoided contact with one another. Wikus van der Heide would call this area home for the rest of his life, as would his descendants, who would remain there for centuries, their backs to the outside world.
Other than that, not much was really known about the early settlers in the forest. Nobody has seen the family for hundreds of years, and it is thought they might have perished during a harsh winter in 1806, which was the last time anybody had ever seen them. Outsiders know little about it, and those who do generally avoid it out of habit and deference to local legend. Armed with this knowledge, I was now determined to return to the forest the next day to continue my investigation, my curiosity overriding my fear and apprehension. In an odd way, it was actually reassuring to know that the original natives shared my own fearful impressions of the forest, that they too were intimidated by its dark and ominous atmosphere. In my mind I rationalized my fears as being the product of that atmosphere, that despite the abnormal number of disappearances in the area the eerie feeling of dread was due to my own imagination running wild and overpowering my reason. Nothing was really wrong, I thought, I would be more prepared and cautious the next time, and nothing could get the drop on me so long as I was vigilant. Having thoroughly rationalized my fears, I found my courage restored and I prepared for another trip into the forest, hopeful that my newfound courage would hold out.
The next day I again found myself standing at the edge of the forest, suddenly reminded of why I was afraid of this place before. Worse, today was mostly overcast and now even less light made it through the forest canopy to the trail below. But I still held on to my previous rationale that my fears were overblown and nothing would happen to a plucky young fellow like myself if I was prepared and extra cautious. Once again I stepped across threshold of the trees and went my way along the trail. I remembered the trail well and my pace was much quicker than last time, but the feeling of being watched was even more pronounced than before. The fact that the forest was even darker than yesterday certainly didn’t help to reassure me. I pushed on regardless until I reached the point where I had stopped the last time and regarded the spotty, unclear trail supposedly leading to Dutchman’s Hollow. To this day I can still remember quite clearly the powerful feeling of dread that struck me while I gazed into that dense forest, a feeling that nearly forced me to turn right back around. It felt like I was trespassing in a powerful, inviolable place, and I felt terribly exposed, like somebody was watching me as I crossed the boundary. But there wasn’t any decision to be made. I was determined to get farther than I had yesterday, and so I took a deep breath and stepped forward onto the trail to the Hollow.
At first I felt relief when I made that first step, relief that nothing dreadful had happened immediately, that the forest around me seemed unchanged. I tried to keep my eyes riveted to the sparse trail ahead of me, a trail that was much choppier and less clear than before. The path mostly consisted of short clearings in the underbrush arranged in a general line, requiring short stops at each to spot the next one in the sequence to stay oriented. Now my pace was much slower, giving me time to appreciate scenery surrounding the trail. As I went on, the forest canopy seemed to get even more dense and came to a lower height the further I proceeded. The forest became thicker and more claustrophobic at every point, and now very little daylight penetrated to the forest floor. Thankfully the trail was now going down at a gentle slope, but the underbrush only seemed to get thicker and more tangled, consuming the energy I would have been saving going downhill. I had no idea just what I would find at the end of this trail; maybe an empty patch of forest, or the ruins of a old settlement, or even the remnants of a village littered with corpses of the people who have gone missing up here. Around this time my common sense was finally starting to regain control, and I thought better of pushing my luck further than I already had.
I came to a bend in the trail that led around the side of a hill into a short hollow that I assume was my destination. I stopped and crouched down to get a good look at the area before deciding whether or not to go any further. The wind was picking up, creating that eerie whistling as it blew through the treetops overhead, but this time there was a strange undertone to this ambiance. It now took on a strange cadence, almost rhythmic like people chanting something unintelligible. That feeling of being watched was more powerful than ever, and I was utterly pinned in place by my nerves. Without warning, the wind suddenly died down and left the forest absolutely calm and quiet, the same unnatural stillness as before. Now every single rustle of leaves and brush was clearly audible around me, and I stayed frozen in place, wary of every slight sound that stood out in the silence. Off to my right was a gentle rustle of bushes that I hardly paid attention to before, but now it seemed to grow louder and less rhythmic, like something would briefly scramble forward and pause, and I knew that this wasn’t because of the wind.
I hoped that it was just an animal, maybe a deer or a fox, but a wild animal like that wouldn’t just rush in the direction of a human being, or so I thought. I snapped my head in that direction, and I could swear that for a second I caught the faint outline of something moving between the trees some forty yards away. Whatever it was I couldn’t see, but I knew that there was some kind of animal off in that direction, something pale and hunched over. My nerves gave out at that point. I turned tail and began a brisk trot back in the direction of the main trail, this time convinced I was about to become the victim of an animal attack or God knows what. Fishing my new hunting knife out of my pack, I rapidly scanned the forest all around, that insistent rustling now getting quicker and closer to me. I wasn’t quite in fight-or-flight mode, but I was gripping the handle of my knife so firmly that my knuckles went white. By now I had escalated to a run, tearing my way through thickets along the path without caring how badly I got scratched up. To my dismay, whatever was moving through the forest off to my right was keeping pace with me the whole time, getting closer than ever to the trail I was following.
I accelerated to a sprint, or as close as I could get to a sprint while pushing my way through brush and low-hanging branches, and whatever was chasing me kept up without any trouble. Frantic as I was, I began tearing up, ready to cry out if whatever was giving chase finally caught up with me. Now I wasn’t even consistently following the trail ahead, sometimes charging off into the brush to cut a bend or corner in the trail. Finally, as I rounded one last bend, I saw the junction with the main trail, and to my incredible relief I heard the rustling quickly die off. Whatever had pursued me had now broken off from chasing me, and I just about dove across the threshold of the main trail. I just about collapsed there, overcome with relief and coming down from the fear-induced adrenaline. Regaining my awareness, I saw that I wasn’t necessarily out of danger yet, and I got up and quickly retraced my steps back along the main trail to my car. As I went along, I wiped the tears from my eyes and the snot from the nose, hoping it would look as if nothing happened when I got back to town. At this point I my relief gave way to mild embarrassment over my minor breakdown and the thought I had nearly gotten myself attacked by a wild animal through my own stupidity. It isn’t that stupid when I think about it now, but at the time I felt foolish over the whole misadventure in the middle of the woods.
I made my way back to my car to see that right behind it was parked a brown and white sedan with sirens on top, marked with the symbol of the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department, and a Sheriff’s deputy looking around the area. He waved at me when he saw me come out of the trees, and I waved back and went over to him.
“Afternoon, sir,” he said mildly.
“Uh, hello, there,” I responded, now somewhat nervous; I’ve always been nervous around authority figures. “This your vehicle here?” he said, pointing at my convertible.
“Uh, yes. Is it far enough off the shoulder? I was just hiking up there and…” I said meekly, pointing in the direction of the trail.
“No, it’s fine. Saw your vehicle here, wondered what it was doing here. You said you were, uh, hiking up there?” he asked incredulously.
“Yeah. It’s not off limits, is it?” I replied, now worried I was in trouble.
“No, it’s an open trail. Just wondering what you’re doing there. Not too many people go up there,” he said.
“Just… curious, really. Wanted to see what was up there.”
“Well, some folks in town heard a young fella was going up there, and they were worried.” I smiled a bit at that. I guess old Ernest and Jed really were concerned about me; they’re good guys, those two.
“Well… I’m fine, pretty much. I was just on my way back,” I said dismissively.
“Alright. Well, I’ll follow you back, make sure you get there okay,” he said with brisk nod. I didn’t object to that. I was still pretty rattled from the whole experience, and I suppose having another friendly face around might settle my nerves. Before we left, I took one last look into the forest, and for a brief second I thought I could see a vague outline of a man in the darkness under the trees. I rubbed my eyes emphatically, and when I opened them the outline was gone. I got in my car warily and the two of us drove back into Renovo, the deputy close behind. We both turned into the parking lot of the familiar old diner, and the deputy, one Deputy Shane Hale, got out and went inside with me.
“Good coffee here,” he said cheerfully as we went inside. As ever, over in the corner booth were Ernest and Jed, and to my great surprise, I saw my friend Clarissa sitting with them, chatting them up enthusiastically. She was part of our old crew of friends, and she knew all the same tricks that I did when it came to pumping the locals for information. She waved me over with excitedly, and I quickly wiped my face in case there were any tears or snot still on my face. Deputy Hale took a seat at the counter while I piled in to the booth next to Clarissa and greeted them with as much excitement as I could muster in my rattled state. As I thought, Ernest and Jed were the ones who told the Sheriff’s deputy to check on me up at the trail to Dutchman’s Hollow, worried I was still going up there. Clarissa had been there for about half and hour before I showed up and got into a conversation with those two about the same things I had asked about two days before. She wasn’t planning to arrive until tomorrow, but she got time off work a day early and decided to show up then.
I joined in the conversation but with less enthusiasm as I might have had before. Knowing that they were worried about me, I decided not to tell Ernest and Jed about what happened up there at the Hollow, as I was still a bit embarrassed about the whole thing. They told Clarissa many of the same things they told me days before, I told them a bit about my own impressions of the forest during my brief excursions up there. She was actually excited about what I told her, the fear addict that she is, and it took a lot of effort to convince her not to go up there right away. I said that we should spend the rest of the day doing some research before we even think about going up there, and to my relief she finally agreed. I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to go back up there. I know that I had thought the same thing the day before, but this time the threat was abundantly clear, and I wasn’t sure that I could rationalize it this time. I resolved that I would tell Clarissa the truth about it once we had a moment alone to discuss our next move. We palavered with Ernest and Jed for another hour or two, with occasional input from Deputy Hale, before we decided to head out. I directed Clarissa over the library for our research efforts, and I was sure that I hadn’t read the full story about Dutchman’s Hollow or any of the people that lived there.
I poured through the local history section, looking out for any books that I missed or skipped over in my previous trip. In one book was a whole section on early settlers in the region, and in it I read that the van der Heide family were not the only ones who come to settle in Dutchman’s Hollow. In the year 1699, a Scotsman named Wallace MacDuff made the journey across the Atlantic, arriving in the Port of Boston. He was a woodsman by trade, nursing dreams of settling the virgin lands of the New World, and he would come to this part of it in the summer of 1700. By this time, the vast land had been granted to William Penn, after whom the colony of Pennsylvania was named, and like the van der Heide clan, he would opt to settle in the remote forest. He brought his family to the region of Dutchman’s Hollow, where the van der Heide clan still dwelled, though old Wikus was long dead by this point. His eldest son, Christiaan van der Heide, was the patriarch of their family at the time, and despite some early friction between the two families, he grudgingly permitted MacDuff and his family to settle there. These would be the only two families who would ever settle this region, and both would live in almost complete seclusion, almost never interacting with the outside world.
For decades, few were aware that anybody had ever settled the area, and those who did were deeply suspicious of the reclusive families who lived in those woods. They would become the target of many unsavory rumors, some accusing them of witchcraft or devil worship, others saying that they engaged in disgusting, perverted, and decadent behaviors in the privacy of Dutchman’s Hollow. Indeed, nobody could ever prove such rumors, but the seclusion of the MacDuff and van der Heide families didn’t help their case either. They would live this way for over a century, being so reclusive that some speculated that the two families might have decamped for greener pastures or simply died out. With only two families living in that area, the only way they could produce any progeny was a constant cycle of intermarriage, and to do so for a whole century, they likely would have quite a few kissing cousins in their family tree. After all, inbreeding wasn’t exactly uncommon in that era, and during that time, more than one royal dynasty in Europe had virtually died out because of it. If that was the case, then it might explain the virtual disappearance of the two families by the early nineteenth century. The last confirmed sighting of a member of either family was in 1806, and the rather harsh winter was speculated to have killed them off. But rumors of their continued survival still persisted, and some of the disgusting rumors about them only got wilder and more far-fetched over time.
“Could’ve done the Donner party thing,” Clarissa jeered irreverently. I chuckled at that for a second, but then I was given pause. Cannibalism…. it was a bit far-fetched, to be sure. But then again, something like that wasn’t strictly out of the question, either. Clarissa meant it as a joke, so I thought I was reading too much into it, but that thought still stuck in the back of my mind. All we really know for sure is what we read in the history books, and that there have been numerous disappearances in the area going back several decades. I know that I was chased by something in the woods only a few hours before, and that there was something definitely off about those woods, and it only got worse the closer I got to Dutchman’s Hollow. I did my best to stifle these wild theories and put them out of my mind, but one chilling fact still remains: nobody can say for sure what happened to the van der Heide-Macduff clan, or whether or not they are still alive. I suppose nobody would really know for sure unless somebody explored the Hollow itself, and I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t be the one who did it.
To my chagrin, Clarissa was not so deterred. She was quite insistent that we go all the way to the Hollow, convinced that was the source of the mystery and all would be laid bare once we had a chance to investigate it. We went to the motel that evening, and I tried many ways to dissuade her. I finally told her what happened that day up in the woods, that I had gotten near to the Hollow and been chased by something unnatural the whole way out. I don’t know how much she believed about my story, but she could see quite clearly that I was deeply disturbed about my experience. This time, she took a turn trying to persuade me instead, saying that what happened might be a clear evidence that there really was something to these stories and legends about the area. She’s clever like that. I thought I would never budge on this issue, but her insistence began to sway me. After all, she had come all this way and taken time off work to investigate this with me, and saying ‘no’ to her at this point didn’t feel right. I was torn between this and my own fear of going back up there, because now there seemed to be a definite danger lurking in those woods. Eventually I caved, and I promised to bring her up to the trail and take her all the way to Dutchman’s Hollow. In my mind I was still opposed to the idea, but I came to realize that she would go up there without me if I refused to go, and I felt responsible for her safety.
I slept terribly that night. It was the kind of sleep where you keep waking up with a start for no apparent reason, and even though you know that you were asleep, you don’t feel like you’ve actually been asleep. After the third or fourth time waking up, I decided to stay up for a while and think, hoping that I would become drowsy enough to sleep all the way through the night. I was sitting in a chair idly gazing out the window to the highway when I saw something unusual next to the road. I thought I was seeing a human shape wandering out in the darkness, but I couldn’t be completely sure. But that outline would reappear every few seconds, and I was riveted by this unexpected sight. Next to the road was a street lamp that cast an orange glow on the ground, and I could see this human outline approaching it. Now this figure had my complete attention. From what I could see, the figure was a man, an extremely tall man, wearing strange clothes and quietly sidling along the side of the road. When he reached the glow of the street lamp, I was able to see this figure clearly. It was indeed a man, a very tall man that I think must have been nearly seven feet tall, and extremely thin, with his joints bulging out noticeably. He must have had pale or ruddy skin, though it was difficult to tell in the orange glow, and he had a large, tangled mop of remarkably pale blonde hair on his head and a bushy beard of the same color on his face. His clothes, if you can call them that, seemed very crude and filthy, as if he had cobbled them from sacks or strips of cloth and leather. His torso was covered by short sleeved tunic, and his legs clad in a pair of shorts that looked like burlap or some other type of cloth.
I didn’t know why at the time, but the sight of this man gave me unbelievable chills. I assumed that maybe he was a vagrant given his crude manner of dress, but this man didn’t even wear shoes, and I can’t imagine any vagrant going anywhere without at least shoes. He just stood there under the light, examining the sky and the small town around him, as if he hadn’t been there before. With a sudden start he quickly turned his gaze to my window, and I swear to God that he locked eyes with me. I shrank back into the room a ways, now fearful about what this strange man might do. I stayed glued to my chair, hoping that the man would go away if he couldn’t see me for a few minutes. After a while, I peeked out the blinds again, and to my horror he was not only still out there, but had crossed to our side of the road and stood at the edge of the parking lot, with eyes still fixed on the motel window. I snatched the hunting knife out of my pack and stayed back away from the window, wondering if I was about to be the victim of an attack by a roaming vagrant. Again, I hung back for a few minutes, silently praying that this horrible figure would leave, until I finally worked up the courage to check the window again. My heart sank when I saw his too familiar outline outside, still staring at the window, but he only looked for a few seconds when he did a swift about-face and strode off down the road and into the night. I almost panicked at this gesture, thinking he was moving towards me, but to my relief he disappeared into the darkness.
I don’t know how I managed to fall asleep after that, but I woke up early the next morning in the same chair, knife still clutched in my hand. In my mind I hadn’t connected this vagrant with anything to do with our project, but I was starting to wonder about this as I greeted the dawn. A few hours later, Clarissa came to my room door for a wake-up call. She was bright and chipper as ever, clearly eager to get on with our investigation. Over coffee and donuts, we talked a bit about our plans for the day. She was still insisting that we should go all the way to the Hollow, and I knew that I couldn’t persuade her otherwise. Getting a bit of food in my stomach didn’t restore any courage this time; if anything, I only got more queasy. At nine-thirty the appointed hour came, and we loaded our supplies into my car for the trip up to the trail. The whole drive she was talking about her own theories regarding our case, not seeming to notice that I was hardly replying. At this point I was just resigned to what was going on. Maybe if she saw the forest for herself, experienced the ominous and unpleasant aura that lingered about the place, she might think twice about her determination. We reached the pull-off and I parked the car in the usual spot just off the shoulder of the road. I was disappointed to see that she was enthralled by the sight of the dense, dark forest, and now she seemed more determined than ever to take the plunge. I could hardly stop her from taking the lead on the trail, while I followed behind pointing out different things along the trail.
She was quite energetic as we trudged through the woods, keeping a solid lead ahead of me, hardly needing directions from me. Like yesterday, the sky was largely overcast, and forest beneath cloaked in shadow. With her enthusiasm we made good time getting to the turn-off for the trail leading to Dutchman’s Hollow, where we paused for brief spell. I pointed in the direction of the Hollow, hoping that she might think again about our excursion when she saw the forest beyond. She was indeed starting to waver a bit, but she was as hard-headed as she was determined, and she urged me on after a very brief but noticeable hesitation from her. This time, I insisted on taking the lead on this trail, hoping that a slower pace might make her come around. Again, I was mistaken. That all-too-familiar feeling of being watched took hold as we set out. Having Clarissa with me was mildly reassuring, but I knew what we might be walking into. The wind stayed at a moderate strength, just quiet enough so that I could have a chance to hear anything that might come after us out here. We finally reached the last bend where I had given up last time, and I paused to point out to Clarissa that the hollow beyond was likely our destination. Now I could see she was definitely having second thoughts, that she must have shared my feeling of being watched. But damn her, she still insisted on going forward. After some hesitation, we proceeded around the bend and got our first good look into Dutchman’s Hollow itself.
The Hollow was set in between two closely spaced and steep hills, with trees on both sides looming overhead with a slight curve, like the entrance of a cave. There was a clear path leading down into the Hollow just past the bend, with a small clearing being faintly visible down the way. We made our way down the path much more slowly and cautiously than we had before. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of awe and dread of being in that place, that sinister place surrounded by so much mystery and dark legend. The trees in the Hollow were more dense and ominous than anywhere on the trail leading up to it, with very little light breaching the treetops, making the path feel like we were in the twilight of the day instead of near the high point of the morning. Along the path were small piles of stones arranged in a pyramid; they were cairns, definite signs of human presence. The path itself was rather long, but after a short while, we finally emerged into the clearing that marked the exact spot of the legendary Dutchman’s Hollow.
The clearing was situated in a steep gully with the forest close in on all sides, so that the forest canopy extended over most of it, but with slightly more light visible. Around the edges of the Hollow were the long abandoned ruins of two houses that had long since rotted away, leaving behind only their foundations covered in ivy. In the center was a pile of stone rubble, probably the remains of a well, though the pit of the well had long since collapsed inward, leaving only a small depression in the ground. We were so awestruck by the scene that we almost forgot why we were there in the first place. We began examining all around the perimeter of the Hollow, trying to find the exact boundaries or any other structures we missed. I noticed for the first time the entrance to the Hollow was marked by two cairns, one on each side of the path, clearly meant to indicate the threshold of this place. I stepped into the foundation of one of the houses, trying to see if any there was anything like a basement, which I found out when the ground beneath me gave way and I was plunged about six feet into a lower part of the foundation. I was relieved to see that this new part of the house was relatively shallow, and Clarissa was able to help me out of the hole. It was apparently the basement that I had fallen into, a sod basement with no remaining overhead supports.
The first house turned up nothing, with the basement being completely empty and the above ground section being completely rotted away. The second house was a bit more promising. It was in a similar state of decay as the first, but there was still a clear entrance to the basement of this one. We lowered ourselves inside and were briefly overpowered by the musty stench of it. It was incredibly clogged with spider webs that crossed the whole room, with some webs still populated by their current occupants. We had look around with our flashlights, seeing that this basement was somewhat more intact than the other, when we spotted yet another small cairn against the back wall of the room. Without needing to be asked, Clarissa approached it, looking it over carefully, then began dismantling it. We cleared off the stones to find that underneath was a narrow but very deep hole, almost like a shaft, not large enough to fall into but certainly deep enough that I could barely reach the bottom with my arm. At Clarissa’s urging, I reluctantly rolled up my sleeve, shined the light down the hole, and probed it with my hand. Thankfully there were no bugs crawling about in the hole, which I had expected. I slowly reached down further and further into the hole when I felt my fingers brushing the bottom. I didn’t know what exactly I was looking for, but at the bottom I though I could feel string or bits of straw. Reaching down a bit further, I managed to get a good grip on the object, and I pulled it up out of the hole to examine it.
I was surprised to see that the object was actually a doll. It was a rag doll, stitched together from bits of what I assume was burlap, with bits of straw and feathers forming the “hair” on the head, which had been crudely stuck through the cloth. The doll had no eyes or a face, but was definitely of a human form, and strangely heavy. It felt like it was filled with small hard objects, like rocks, but irregularly shaped with some sharp edges. I turned the doll around to see that some of these edges were actually poking through a stitched section on the doll’s back. I pulled the stitching apart a little bit and shook out of some these objects. A few spilled onto the ground, and I could see that they were white in color, with pale brownish-yellow streaks. As I weighed them in my hand, I suddenly realized what exactly I was holding: bones. The doll had been stuffed with bone fragments. I was utterly taken aback by this revelation and threw aside the doll, laying out the bones where Clarissa could see them. These were only bone fragments, so I couldn’t tell what kind of animal the bones were from, but it must have been something big if the fragments were the size of small stones. Clarissa was as shocked as I was by this find, which I was sure was evidence of something bizarre and probably quite fucked up going on in this place. We made a hasty exit from the basement and decided not to enter any more dark basements while we were here.
At first I was glad to be back in the fresh air outside, but the ugly atmosphere of the Hollow quickly dampened my spirits. The wind was starting to pick up again, making the forest more noisy and bringing back that ominous howl of air passing through the treetops. It was that same howl as before, the one that sounded almost like chanting voices, and I didn’t associate that sound with anything good. Clarissa insisted that we stay a little while longer to cover all of our bases while we were here; I think she didn’t want to make a return trip to this place, and I agreed. We went back to surveying the perimeter of the Hollow, poking through brush at the edges to see if we missed anything. Clarissa called out excitedly from someplace behind the second house, well inside the brush at the edge. I ran over to see that she was shining her light into a small cave obscured by the brush, straining to see what was inside. She wanted to look around inside that cave, convinced there was something worth finding in there, even after what we found in the basement before. I really didn’t want to go inside, but it’s hard to argue with someone as enthusiastic as Clarissa. I followed right behind her as we shimmied into the low cave entrance.
The cave was unexpectedly deep, reaching into the ground nearly ten yards before opening up a bit. After the narrow bit, we found ourselves standing within a larger cavern, the ceiling about seven or eight feet high, and the room about twenty feet across in any direction. It was almost totally round with few stark edges, and a small depression in the center that was filled with something dark that we couldn’t see clearly. Some amount of outside light came down from the shaft leading to the entrance, but this inner chamber was totally dark, and we only saw its dimensions when we explored with our flashlights. Looking up, I could see there was a small, narrow opening in the ceiling that led into a long vertical shaft that actually had some daylight far above. I wondered how something like that could have formed naturally, and I realized that it couldn’t; everything here had to have been built or dug by human hands. I looked into the pit in the center, and examining it I saw that it was filled with ashes and bits of charcoal, almost like a campfire was burning there. Someone had to have lived in this place at one time or another if there was fire burning in here. Clarissa called out my name again and directed me towards another alcove that we had missed on our first survey of the room, which showed yet another small tunnel opening. Without warning, Clarissa crouched down and went forward into the tunnel, and I had no time to protest this.
This tunnel was quite a bit shorter than the other, less than five yards, and it led into a smaller chamber of a more rectangular shape with a lower ceiling. The first thing I noticed about this new chamber was the stench, a horrible stink of guts and rotting meat like you’d smell near a slaughterhouse. I was alarmed by this powerful stench, which was undetectable anywhere else in the cave and came on so suddenly upon entering this new chamber. At this point I decided we had explored quite enough and I tried to urge Clarissa to leave this disgusting place before we found something we really regretted finding. She didn’t reply at first, but only continued to stare at some remote spot on the ground in front of her. I went over to see what exactly she was so fixated on. I approached her from behind and saw that she was staring at yet another pit in the ground, again filled with some dark substance that I didn’t want to examine too closely. I tried getting her attention, but she only stared and pointed at the pit on the floor, urging me to take a closer look. I bent over and saw that this pit was not full of ashes, but some dark red substance that I almost immediately recognized. Blood. This pit was the apparent source of the horrid stench, and I leaned over to see that I was not mistaken and this pit was indeed filled with blood. I dabbed my finger in it, hoping beyond hope that it wasn’t as I expected, but it was: this blood was fresh. I smeared easily on my hand and didn’t even seem coagulated. This was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, fresh blood neatly pooled into a small pit.
This was as clear a sign as any that we had stumbled upon something that we were clearly not prepared to face. The two of us, amateur sleuths with a lot of curiosity and not much actual sense, were now confronted with proof that something bizarre and horrific was clearly afoot, and we had semi-wittingly placed ourselves right in the middle of it. In our years of junior detective work we had never come upon anything quite like this; indeed, we had never really found anything truly substantive before. This finding left both of us feeling extremely vulnerable in that moment, now finally grasping the depth of our situation. We were deep inside a mysterious cave in the midst of a dense and remote forest, a cave with only one discernible entrance and exit, where something clearly still dwelt. I hardly needed to persuade Clarissa that we should try to make a quick exit from this place before we made any more disturbing and unwelcome discoveries. We immediately turned back and made our way through the narrow tunnels to the long, sloping passage that led up to the cave entrance. As I looked up to the entrance through the long passage, I thought I saw a very flicker of a shadow at the entrance above, and for a brief second I caught a faint whiff of a putrid odor wafting down the tunnel. I thought for a second that maybe this was the same stench from the lowest chamber, that distinct smell of rotting meat, but this smell was different, more like offensive body odor than anything. The foul odor and the brief shadow across the entrance made me hesitate for a moment, but I had even less desire to remain here than to venture back into the forest.
Clarissa and I made our way up to the entrance and emerged into the relatively fresh air of the forest outside, glad for a moment to be outside of that horrible place, even if Dutchman’s Hollow was the immediate alternative to the cave. To our dismay, the sky was now completely overcast, casting the forest outside in an even more dim and forbidding shadow than before. The wind had now become a stiff breeze that made considerable noise as it rustled the treetops overhead. Without pause we gathered our packs and immediately set our sights on the trail leading out of this place. Despite our fatigue from scrambling through the cave tunnels we set a brisk pace along the trail, now eager to be out of this place before anything else made an appearance. As we crossed between the cairns marking the ‘entrance’ to the Hollow, I once again detected that foul odor I had first picked up near the cave. This time the odor was noticeably more powerful, enough that I actually halted for a few seconds trying to waft it away with my hand. The wind suddenly died off and the stench dissipated, which was a relief at first until I perceived the unusual stillness of the forest around us. I ventured a look into the woods on both sides and turned around to give Dutchman’s Hollow one last parting glance before leaving this place for good. I regarded it cautiously for a few seconds and prepared to turn my attention back to the trail when I saw a vague but disturbingly familiar outline among the brush at the edge of the Hollow. I recognized it instantly as a human outline, standing straight up, with some streaks of pale skin visible among the foliage. I froze in place, every nerve in my body prickling with acute fear as I fixed my eyes on what appeared to be a man standing and staring along the trail, staring at us. Clarissa noticed my startled posture and with a worrying expression demanded to know what I saw behind us. I broke out of my trance and simply urged her to keep going, hoping that what I saw was somehow only an illusion.
We increased our pace and kept following the trail, hardly pausing to keep our bearings on the patchy, unclear trail leading through the brush. It was then I heard that only too familiar sound of something sprinting and leaping through the brush around us, a sound that got closer with each passing second. My heart just about plummeted from my chest to my stomach when I recalled where I heard that sound before, and staving the urge to groan in terror I pressed Clarissa to pick up the pace even more. I worked up the courage to turn around and look for any sign of our pursuer, and off to our left I could see the same figure of a man standing partly obscured by a tree, a figure that I recognized instantly. It was the figure of the man I had seen the night before, the extremely tall man with long and bushy pale blonde hair and a scraggly blonde beard to match, with light skin covered by a layer of dirt and grime, sparsely clad in rags and animal furs. Clarissa paused again to ask what I had seen when she caught sight of him as well, clapping her hands over her mouth to stifle a scream. I grabbed her by the shoulders and we both crouched behind the brush at the edge of the trail, hoping that this might obscure position to our pursuer.
“Don’t run,” I said quietly into her ear. “We’ll just keep walking, real calm, and we’ll be left alone.” I didn’t quite believe those words as I said them, but I needed both of us to stay calm and not panic. At that moment I had the idea that the reason I was chased the day before was due how I panicked and sprinted off, like I had ignited some primordial ‘chase’ instinct in this man. I still believed somehow that this man was a local vagrant, probably high on something, and clearly he felt his ‘domain’ was violated by the likes of us.
“This guy obviously doesn’t want us here, so we’re just leaving. He’ll respect that,” I said reassuringly. Again, I don’t know if I believed this either, but I needed to keep my eyes on the trail and I couldn’t have either of us panicking and getting lost. With a few more reassuring words, I got Clarissa to get up and keep moving, our eyes still fixed on the man lurking behind the trees, glaring at us. We walked as slowly as we felt comfortable, standing as tall as confident as we could, as if we were hoping to stave off an animal attack with our proud posturing. At first I was relieved when I didn’t hear him following us as we moved on. We felt confident enough that we took our eyes off the man, instead fixing our gaze to the trail ahead. Then I heard that shuffling sound of the man yet again giving pursuit, this time with a slower, more rhythmic cadence, like a trot rather than a sprint. We froze again and spun around to spot this man once again standing perfectly still, a bit further back than before but still visible behind the trees, seemingly undeterred by our display of ‘courage’. I whispered harshly to Clarissa to keep going, thinking that our slip in vigilance was to blame for his continued pursuit. This time we got off to a slight trot, not even bothering to work our way carefully through the underbrush along the trail.
For a second the man appeared to be hanging back and disappeared from my view, and I once again turned my eyes to the trail. This time I couldn’t quite suppress a groan of fright when I again heard that shuffling in the forest to our left, this time much quicker, like a brisk jog rather than a trot. My eyes were starting to burn and get cloudy with tears as we increased our pace even further, no longer caring if a our running was only encouraging this man. That rustling in the bushes came closer and closer, and Clarissa was now gasping in terror with every step she took. Just as I was about to panic and break into a full-on sprint, the movement in the brush stopped. I almost stopped as well in astonishment. We slowed down a bit, frantically glancing around us for any sight of the man chasing us. For a moment, we saw nothing. We kept trotting along the trail, hoping that perhaps this man had finally given up his pursuit, noticing that the wind had increased a bit from the earlier stillness. I entertained some vague hopes that we had finally evaded our pursuer, believing that if we got back to the main trail we would effectively be in the clear, as had happened the day before. That foul stench from before once again invaded my nostrils, but this time the smell seemed to be coming from somewhere ahead of us, in the direction from which the wind was blowing. We paused for a second, wondering just what was about to happen.
I crouched and shuffled forward intending to push Clarissa to keep going when she spun around gave out a blood-curdling, ear-piercing shriek of mortal terror and sprawled backwards away from me. As a turned to see what she had screamed at, I was violently thrown forward into the dirt, as if somebody had just tackled me, gasping from having the wind knocked out of me, and I felt something strike my backpack with incredible force. I rolled over in a panic to see that, to my complete and utter horror, the man was standing over me as I lay helpless on the ground, gripping a long shaft that I saw was a spear that had pierced right through my backpack. The horrendous stench of this man was unbearable this close, and I finally got a clear, close look at his face. He was gritting his teeth, showing off a set of crooked, yellowish-brown teeth with numerous cracks, snarling like a wild animal. I could see that his eyes were a remarkable pale blue, but lifeless and dead in expression, like a doll. As I spun around I managed to get free of my backpack and shuffled backwards, giving a harsh kick directed right at his knee. The blow connected, but with startling reflexes he absorbed the blow and leaped back a short distance, giving a soft, rasping grunt. I scrambled to my feet and shouted to Clarissa to run.
We abandoned all pretense of confidence and just sprinted along what we could see of the trail leading out of this place. Clarissa was now screaming continuously as we ran, not caring to save her breath for running, but I couldn’t exactly blame her. She stayed ahead of me, gradually getting farther from me until I was afraid I might lose sight of her. As we ran over a small dip in the trail I stumbled a bit, and right as I began to stand up again I heard a sharp, low whiz as something flew past my head only a scant few inches from my right ear at incredible speed, burying itself in the brush a few feet ahead. Had I not stumbled at that exact second, I am confident that object would have connected with the back of my head and probably pierced right through my skull. I didn’t pause to consider how lucky I just was, and kept sprinting after Clarissa, my heart hammering almost painfully against the inside of my chest. Now we were starting to stray off the trail as we ran, never pausing to stop and regain our bearings. I charged around a bend and caught sight of Clarissa only a few yards ahead of me, hearing the man swiftly leap through the underbrush behind us and off to the right. I heard another of those objects come whistling out of the forest, striking Clarissa’s backpack and spinning her around with its impact, sending her tumbling into the ground. I ran up to her and firmly dragged her to her feet, seeing that the object that struck her pack was actually some kind of dart, a large dart carved from stone and wood and nearly a foot long, which had nearly gone all the way through pack.
Now we had gone completely off the trail and strayed into the deep underbrush among the dense stands of trees. We just kept sprinting in the direction we thought our trail led, hoping that we would eventually stumble upon our destination. The shuffling of the man chasing us had changed into a long, loping sprint, as he were jumping through the brush and between the trees rather than simply running. Whoever he was, he must have known of plenty of hidden trails and paths leading through the forest, having no trouble at all keeping up with us. Despite the adrenaline, I could feel my energy starting to wane, and I was struggling quite a bit to keep up my speed running over such rough ground. I was now convinced that I was just about to die, caught by this man and subjected to God knows what at his hands, presumably like all the others who had disappeared in this dark place. I pulled out my knife, hoping that maybe I could mount some kind of final stand if I was caught, and I was shouting to Clarissa to keep going when that horrible odor descended upon me and felt an enormous weight plow right into the small of my back. A fierce, searing sensation of a harsh scrape suddenly covered my neck and the back of my head as I collapsed forward into the ground, the weight now pinning me firmly to the ground, and in that moment my mind went utterly blank as I waited for what I thought would be death. Clarissa had frozen in place in complete horror as the man stood over me once again, and I could barely manage to roll over and regard him before the end. He crouched low over me, grunting loudly, blowing hot, foul-smelling breath in my face. He quickly snapped his attention over to Clarissa as she screamed in terror, and with a sudden start he leaped astonishingly high in the air, landing neatly on his feet and sprinting off towards Clarissa.
She sprinted off into the forest, no longer caring to follow the trail. I struggled to my feet and called Clarissa’s name plaintively, although now she and the man had now disappeared from my sight. I wanted to run after them, hoping that I could somehow save her from all this, but I hesitated for a few seconds. To this day, I lament the cowardice I showed in those critical few seconds, where I seriously contemplated taking advantage of this distraction to make my own escape instead. I stayed put for a few seconds calling her name helplessly. I got to my feet and started walking in the direction they had gone, though at a much slower pace than I would have needed to catch up to them. For several minutes I stumbled through the woods in the direction I thought they had gone, now wracked with guilt over having brought my friend out to this place to die like this. Painful as this guilt was, it did spur my last reserves of energy and increased my pace. I could no longer hear Clarissa’s screams, a fact that made my heart sink precipitously. I came over the crest of a short hill and saw that I was overlooking a broad, flat gully with steep sides and thick brush along the entire slope. Wondering what I should now, I followed the top edge of the gully down a short ways, hoping for any sign of where the two had ended up. I finally sank to my knees and for a few despondent minutes I lost my courage and resolve completely. All of this was my fault. Clarissa had insisted that she come this place, but I felt I hadn’t done nearly enough to discourage her from coming here, especially after yesterday, when I knew for a fact that something dangerous was probably lurking out here. I buried my face in my hands and broke down in tears.
For several minutes I stayed in this state, convinced that Clarissa was probably dead and that I myself was going to die, and that I probably deserved it for bringing us out to horrible place. I was startled to suddenly detect a familiar scream- Clarissa’s scream- coming from the woods on the other side of the gully. Hearing this restored my spirits tremendously, even given our still terrible circumstances, and I started calling out her name again. Her screams came closer and closer until I finally saw her emerge from the forest on the other side. I shouted her named at the top of my lungs and for a moment she turned her attention and caught sight of me, visibly relieved. Clarissa’s relieved expression suddenly became blank and she pitched forward violently, completely limp, and tumbled face-down over the edge of the gully and all the way down into the brush below. I was shocked and utterly petrified by this. I gazed stupidly at where she had landed in the brush and disappeared from sight. Barely comprehending what just happened, I screamed her name in horror, clinging to some vague hope that she was still okay. I was about to jump over the edge of the gully and go down to her when I saw, standing in the forest just beyond the opposite side, the tall man. He just glared at me without moving, his hateful gaze pinning me in place for several seconds. I slowly backpedaled away from the gully, never avoiding his gaze, and I just sprinted in the opposite direction, leaving behind my faithful friend and companion to whatever fate this hunter had in mind.
I am ashamed now of what I did, leaving Clarissa to this man’s mercy like that, but I have never claimed to be a particularly strong or brave man, and I was filled with such terror that I could only think of getting out of this place. With newfound energy I tore through the forest in the general direction of the main trail, never taking my eyes off the area behind me for more than a few seconds. Before too long however I heard that same shuffling cadence behind me, knowing that the hunter was clearly intending to catch up to me as well, but now I was resigned to death. As I ran I suddenly tripped over a small rise that to my surprise and brief joy was the edge of the main trail; we had strayed some ways off the trail, but not as far as I had feared. I paused for a second, hands on my knees, exulting at this favorable sign, hardly paying attention to the footsteps in the forest rapidly closing in on me. I turned in that direction, standing in place with complete resignation, no longer caring to run anymore. I saw the hunter slinking and leaping through the brush many yards distance, quickly closing the distance, when he paused in what seemed like confusion. I think perhaps he didn’t expect me give up like this, or that the fact I wasn’t running anymore didn’t trigger his instinct to chase. Instead, I shouted in his direction, bellowing profanities and saying that I didn’t care if I lived or died, and challenging him to take up the pursuit again. I gripped my knife tightly, fully intending to put up a fight this time, while the hunter just slowly approached me, his eyes fixed on mine. I don’t know if he even understood a word of what I yelled at him, but I just kept yelling and carrying on, hoping that his confusion might give me an opening. When he was about five yards from me the hunter slunk into a low stance, like a wild animal preparing to pounce.
For a few seconds we glared at one another, clearly not sure who would make the first move. Then, with another rasping grunt, he sprung up and charged at me with all his might. At that moment time seemed to slow down to a crawl, but even with this illusion he appeared to cross the distance with remarkable speed. My inhibitions now gone, I did the first thing I could think of and raised the knife over my shoulder and pitched it like Rambo, and the knife streaked through the air and caught him across his stomach. He gave a powerful yelp that startled me out of my petrified state and clasped at his stomach, glaring at me more hatefully than ever. For a few seconds I thought my idiotic gambit had failed, that I had only angered him and left myself without the knife in the process. He seethed and spat between his crooked rotten teeth, that awful stench seeming to get even worse than it had been before. With a furious wail, he suddenly turned around and loped back in the direction from which he came, giving off those animalistic grunts as he went. I was stupefied by this for several seconds, hardly believing that this had worked after all. I inched forward to where my knife had landed after skidding across his stomach, and I saw that I indeed had drawn blood with my well-aimed throw. I snatched it up off the ground and backed up towards the trail. After his sudden retreat, I considered if perhaps I should go back to the gully where Clarissa had fallen, hoping that maybe I could find her and be sure of her fate.
I couldn’t. I had been lucky three times now, narrowly escaping death by mere inches, and now that I had more or less returned to my senses, I was now sensibly afraid again of trying my luck for a fourth time. Instead, I decided that I would leave the forest, return to town, get help, and hopefully come back with a small army at my back. After all, I had been attacked in the woods and my friend was probably badly hurt and in serious danger. With this rationale, I ran down the trail to where I parked my car and returned to Renovo as fast as I could. I pulled into the nearest Sheriff’s station in town and went, startling everybody inside with my ragged state and frantic demeanor. Fortunately my local reputation had preceded me and the deputies at the station were quite attentive to my report, however frantic and disorganized it was. They advised me to stay put while they put together a search party and investigated the forest, but I was adamant that I accompany them. This they denied, saying that I should instead try to get the scratches on my head and neck looked at by a doctor. The scratches had been deeper than I realized, with some amount of blood having trickled down and around my neck. I don’t know what exactly made those scratches, if it was some kind of weapon the man carried, or if he had possibly done it with his long fingernails.
I begrudgingly did as they asked and went by the local clinic. In addition to these scratches I had a lightly sprained ankle and numerous other cuts and bruises, as well as a sore back from where I had been tackled twice. The scratches on my head had become quite tender and painful, and according to the doctor, the wounds were absolutely filthy, lodged with dirt and grime, and he was curious just how I had gotten them. All I could say was that I had been attacked out in the forest, but I did not say by what; this seemed to satisfy his curiosity for a time. The doctor cleaned the wounds as best he could, and even had to put in some stitches on one of them. I got a prescription for some antibiotics in case an infection developed, and the idea of contracting an infection from that man’s filthy fingernails made my skin crawl. After this I returned to the station to await further news about what had been found in the forest. I would wait there for several hours, anxious and despairing over what had happened to Clarissa and hoping beyond all reason that she was okay, despite what I had seen. At around seven o’clock in the evening the deputies returned to discuss what they had found. To my confusion and disappointment, they had uncovered nothing. They knew that the two of us had indeed gone up there, but they had found no trace of Clarissa or the man who chased us anywhere.
The rest was a blur to me. I was despondent over the deputies’ lack of success and furious that they didn’t seem to really want to search those woods, as if they too heeded the local rumors about what happened in the forest. Even though a group their size should have been relatively safe, the legends surrounding Dutchman’s Hollow had such a grip on the locals that even a large search party didn’t bolster their confidence. With nothing substantive found to support my story, I was shocked to find that suspicion now fell on me. After all, a young woman was missing, and I had been the last person to see her alive. According to them, the numerous wounds on my body could have been the result of a struggle between the two of us, not necessarily from a third suspect, although nobody could say for certain just what had happened to her. I stayed in town for another few days while they wasted their time accusing me of having something to do with her disappearance, a deeply distressing experience that nearly ruined my interest in being a true crime investigator. After four days on searches, they finally found out exactly what had happened to Clarissa all those days ago.
She was dead. I don’t know how I could have expected anything else, but she was definitely dead. According to them, she was found at the base of a steep slope in the forest, her body in such poor shape that it took some time to identify as her. Her body was missing substantial portions of flesh on the legs and back, a fact that was attributed to predation by scavenger animals. The cause of death was determined to be a severe head wound on the back of her skull, presumably the result of stumbling down the hill and hitting her head on a rock or log, inflicting a fatal injury. That was it, apparently. Despite my story, the official cause of death was “death by misadventure” and the file was abruptly closed on the whole thing. Her remains were recovered and delivered to the care of her family, who as I expected blamed me for what had happened to her, even if they didn’t accuse me of foul play. I can’t say that I blame them. I wasn’t even invited to attend the funeral. I don’t think I could have, anyway. Thinking of my close friend being in that state, ripped apart by “scavenging animals”, was just too much for me to bear. As for me, I was exonerated by this hasty and abrupt conclusion to how she officially died. After all these years, I still don’t fully understand why my story was ignored by the authorities, why they just brushed me off after she was found and examined, even when they seemed to believe me wholeheartedly in those first few hours. For years I nursed thoughts of a grand conspiracy to suppress any stories about what happens in those woods, a conspiracy that encompassed generations of locals and the authorities, but after some time I abandoned this thinking. Now I think they just assumed we were stupid kids who got lost in the woods and one of us got themselves killed by accident, or that it was just a wild animal attack, nothing nefarious whatsoever. I don’t deny that we were just dumb kids way in over our heads, but I know just what we found in those woods. Whatever they say, I know that it wasn’t just an animal attack, a nightmare, or a wild fantasy.
Thirty years later, I like to think that this experience, horrifying and soul-crushing though it was, helped me mature both as a person and as a writer of true crime. I am no longer the silly kid who pursued it as a morbid hobby, crusading across the country in search of cheap thrills at the expense of real human tragedies. I learned the respect the subject demands, and I know what it truly means to serve the public interest, profit or not. But in between my researches for new cases and book material, I still periodically renew my investigation into the mystery surrounding Dutchman’s Hollow. By now, I must have a file four inches thick about it. To this day, people still do disappear in abnormal numbers in the region: travelers, hitchhikers, loggers, campers, all types that pass through. In all that time, nobody else has ever shown interest in investigating it besides me. Few people ever reference the history of it. I still think about what happened in the forest in those grim days of 1989, and I wonder how it all connects to the history of the region. I think about the original settler families, the MacDuffs and the van der Heides, and just what could have happened to them all those years ago. Did they really die out in the winter of 1806? Had anybody even bothered to look for them in the time since? Who was the last living descendant of those two families? Were any of the grisly and salacious rumors about them true? Could one of their descendants survive to this day? I remember that passing joke about cannibalism that Clarissa made that day in the library, and I remember how they attributed her ravaged remains to being eaten by “scavengers”. I think about these things, and I can’t help but think that a descendant of the original settlers still lives, that maybe they had to resort to drastic measures to stay alive all those harsh winters. Maybe they developed a taste for it, and so did their children, their grandchildren, and their great grandchildren on down. I think about these things, and I remember the tall man with pale blonde hair and the scraggly blonde beard, and my stomach turns when I consider what he planned to do when he caught us.
But I have other reasons for writing this down now. For thirty years I have uncovered precious little new evidence surrounding what happens in Dutchman’s Hollow, but all of that has changed in the last few days. I have already told the story of Raymond Hess, the only known survivor of all the people who have ever disappeared in the region, about how his later years were marred by accusations of involvement in several murders, accusations never proven. For years I knew nothing about what happened to him or where he went when he left the United States in 1980. Recently, I came into possession of information revealing this exactly. He floated around different countries in Central America, first in Mexico and then Belize, before eventually turning up in Chile several years later. In 1987, he arrested, charged, and convicted of a string of twelve murders in central Chile, a region he terrorized for years as a widely feared serial killer known as the “Vampire of Valparaiso”. In 1988, while serving a life sentence, he granted an interview to a Colombian psychiatrist named Heriberto Zayas, an interview that was videotaped but kept confidential for several decades. I have seen this video. I can’t tell you how I managed to get a hold of it, but be assured that I did, and it cost me dearly. What follows next is a transcript of the interview, which Hess gave in English, and he describes what exactly happened to him those two weeks he was missing in Dutchman’s Hollow. The tape was rather poor in quality even for the time, but after several viewings I am confident that I have transcribed it in its entirety. I can’t tell you what you should make of what you read; you’ll just have to form your own conclusions.
Zayas: This is Doctor Heriberto Zayas, interview with prisoner designated CF-1855334, name Raymond Hess, from United States. Convicted 19/11/87 for murder, sentenced to life term. Ah, can you speak into the microphone please, Mr. Hess.
Hess: Uh, yeah. Hello.
Zayas: Ah, good. So, Mr. Hess, I have some questions for you here, but I may ask some others as we go along. Is that alright?
Zayas: Excellent. So Mr. Hess, you are from the United States, verda- uh, correct?
Hess: Yes, that’s correct.
Zayas: Where in the United States? I mean, where did you live?
Hess: Uh, I’m originally from Pennsylvania. Altoona, actually.
Zayas: I see. It is a nice place?
Hess: Yeah, good place. I kinda miss it.
Zayas: Ah, I’m sure you do. You grew up there?
Zayas: Do you wish you could go back?
Hess: Yeah, all the time. I can’t, though.
Zayas: Why not? You have family there, right?
Hess: I just can’t. Can’t go back to America at all. Some shit happened back there, and I just can’t go back.
Zayas: What happened? Could your family help you?
Hess: They can’t help me. I… I just can’t go back, not to them, not to anybody.
Zayas: But why not?
Zayas: Uh, Mr. Hess?
Hess: (Sighs) I can’t go back because… because for the same reason I’m in jail right now, in this country.
Zayas: You… have a criminal record in America?
Hess: Yeah. I’ve been accused of stuff, but I never got put in jail for anything.
Zayas: What were you accused of?
Hess: Same stuff I’m jail for right now.
Zayas: You were accused of murder? Of… cannibalism?
Hess: Something like that, yes.
Zayas: I see. Ahem, well, I have some other questions as well, about you personally. Is that okay?
Hess: Yeah, sure. Doesn’t matter.
Zayas: Okay, well… Can you tell me about your childhood? Your parents?
Hess: What about them? They were okay.
Zayas: So they were good to you? Caring, loving…?
Hess: Yeah, they were fine. Never hit me or anything, except when I really had it coming.
Zayas: And the rest of your family? How were they?
Hess: Uh, good, I guess. I have an older brother.
Zayas: Were you close to him?
Hess: Yeah, sure. Usual brother stuff.
Zayas: What sort of ‘brother stuff’?
Hess: Usual stuff. Walk me to school, help me with bullies, playing catch, that kind of stuff. Wasn’t anything fucked up, if that’s what you’re getting at.
Zayas: No, it’s fine. I see what you mean.
Hess: Sure you do.
Zayas: Well then… let’s talk about your school. How was school?
Hess: Okay, pretty much. I wasn’t that good at it.
Zayas: You had difficulty in your classes?
Hess: Sometimes, sure.
Zayas: Were your ever, ah… mocked? Made fun of, for not doing well?
Hess: No. I don’t think so.
Zayas: You mentioned bullies earlier?
Hess: Sometimes. Nothing too bad.
Zayas: I see. Well, uh…
Hess: It was all pretty normal.
Zayas: Come again, Mr. Hess?
Hess: I said it was normal. My childhood, I mean. I didn’t have a fucked up childhood or anything, it was normal. Above board. Nothing weird or sinister or anything like that.
Zayas: Uh… I see. So, ah…
Hess: Look man, I know you’re trying to get into my childhood and all that, but there’s nothing there. I know I’m in jail for some bad stuff, but I’m not Ted Bundy or the fuckin’ Zodiac or something. I’m a normal guy. Well, I used to be pretty normal…
Zayas: (clears throat) I see. You said… you said you used to be normal?
Hess: Yeah… I guess I did.
Zayas: What do you mean by this?
Zayas: Mr. Hess? Should we continue, or…?
Hess: Yeah. (Sighs) I could tell you about it, maybe. I can’t say you’re gonna believe it, but I’ll tell you. But don’t you go telling anybody else about it, huh? They’ll just think you’re nuts or something.
Zayas: Um… okay, Mr. Hess.
Hess: I’m serious, man. If you’re just gonna write me off as nut job, then I’m done here.
Zayas: No, that is not what I am suggesting, Mr Hess.
Hess: I’m not a real bad guy, okay? I’m not a psycho or anything. I’ve done some nasty shit, but none of it’s really about me.
Zayas: I understand how you feel, Mr. Hess. But, you say these things, but your crimes… they speak for themselves, no?
Hess: (Raises voice) What did I just say, huh? I ain’t a fuckin’ lunatic! I said, none of that stuff is really about me!
Zayas: Please, calm down. You say… it is not about you? What do you mean by this?
Hess: I… look, I’ll explain it, but you gotta listen real close, you know? I mean, look… imagine, like, a coyote or something. You got coyotes here, right?
Zayas: Yes, we do.
Hess: Right. Well imagine a coyote, and he’s real hungry, so he goes out catches and kills a little baby bunny. That’s sounds bad, right? At face value, I mean. Kills a little bunny, and eats it. But we don’t get all pissed off about a coyote eating a little bunny, do we? He’s gotta eat, too. And everybody’s gotta eat. I gotta eat. That’s life. You just take what comes to you, what you catch, and you end up living another day, ’cause the alternative to living is even worse.
Zayas: I understand your meaning, Mr. Hess, but…
Hess: But what? You don’t sound like you get it.
Zayas: I understand. But you say that you must do these things because… you must eat?
Hess: Yeah! That’s not so fuckin’ hard, is it?
Zayas: Mr. Hess, you are in prison because you killed and ate many people. You say you must eat, but why like this? There is other food, is there not? These people, they have lost family, you cannot understand why you are here?
Hess: You think I don’t know there’s other food out there? You think I don’t at least try eating it? Because I do. And it ain’t the same. It just ain’t. I couldn’t live only on rib-eye steaks any more than I could live on eating only dog turds. And I fuckin’ try. Back home, I tried with pork chops. I heard that’s almost like eating people, you know? I would take these pork chops and just whale on them with a meat tenderizer, tryin’ to get ’em real soft, you know? And I thought I was getting real close, too. But it just didn’t work.
Zayas: But why? Why do you have to eat only human flesh? You can’t live your whole life this way, you would have to kill a man every day to live on only that.
Hess: I try to get by on what I can. Don’t think I don’t try. I tried the pork chops, I tried steaks and chicken and duck… I found a guy in Valparaiso who can get all kinds of meat, even that African bush meat, like monkeys and that kind of shit, illegal stuff. And it was close, man, but there ain’t nothin’ close enough to live on forever. That stuff could get me by for weeks, maybe a few months, and when I couldn’t stand it no more, I just had to have the real deal. You don’t get it, man. I feel like if I don’t have that stuff, I’ll just die.
Zayas: You mean to say… you are addicted to eating it?
Hess: It ain’t quite like that, man. It ain’t like drugs. Junkies can just quit that stuff for long enough that they get over it. I tried, and I couldn’t, not even after six months. It’s not an addiction. It’s the Hunger.
Zayas: The… Hunger? What is that?
Hess: What it sounds like, man. It’s the Hunger. You can’t fight it forever. Once you get it, it doesn’t go away. You always get hungry for that one thing, and nothing else fills the hole. If you can’t have it, you starve. Well, you feel like you’re starving, but only worse. You feel like you’ll just turn inside out if you can’t get it, like the whole god damn universe will cave in on you if you don’t feed it.
Zayas: You… you think this is why you must eat human meat?
Hess: I don’t think I have it, I have it. I got it, years ago. Nothing makes it go away. You feed it for a time, and it goes down inside you for a while, but you always know it’ll be back.
Zayas: What caused you to get this ‘hunger’?
Hess: Shit… I know. I think I know.
Zayas: What was it?
Hess: It wasn’t always like this, man. I was normal. I was a good person. Shit like this shouldn’t have happened to me.
Zayas: It happened back in America?
Hess: Yeah. Eleven years ago, now. Almost a third of my whole life.
Zayas: Go on.
Hess: You know… not a lot of people can say there’s one moment, one exact moment, where absolutely everything in your whole life changes. I was just driving down the road late one night. A normal thing, something I’ve done a thousand times or more. Just driving through one of the state forests up in Pennsylvania, on my way to my next job. And I was happy, you know, I didn’t give a damn about anything. A job here, a job there, spend some dough in the local bar… that was my life. Now I can’t even remember what it felt like. (Sighs) I was driving along the road, and I saw this guy just… lyingthere on the side of the road. Looked like he was dead or something. Kind of a dirty guy, long hair, scruffy beard, so I thought he was just bum or something. So, I figure, I’ll be a good guy today. I’ll stop and see if this guy is hurt or something. If I was down on my luck like this guy, I’d want somebody to help me out. I pull off the road to go check on him, and I’m leaning over him, and pow! Something just knocks my lights out, I didn’t see what. I come to maybe a minute later, and no shit, I’m hogtied, being dragged by my feet through the woods, face in the dirt. I had no idea just what the hell I walked into. So I start yelling and carryin’ on, trying to get a good look at who’s doing this, but it’s dark, and I can’t lean up to get a good look. Then I start thinking about what’s going on, I mean, I got ambushed, I’m getting dragged through the woods all tied up, I don’t know where I goin’. So, I’m thinking I’m about to get roped into to some kind of shit from Deliverance or something, like I’m gonna get raped or tortured by some fuckin’ hill people.
Zayas: You were kidnapped?
Hess: Well, yeah, I didn’t volunteer to go with this guy. And this guy was walking real fast too, and I feel like my face is gonna look like an old tire by the time we get where we’re going. Eventually we do. I get chucked into this cave or dugout or something, and I’m just left there, still tied up. I’m like this for days. For days, just pissing and shitting in my own pants, not that I had much to piss or shit, ’cause I wasn’t getting food or water. Every couple of hours this guy, that same bum I found on the side of the road, comes in and just… kicks the shit out me. He doesn’t say a word, either. He’d be in there for close to an hour, just throwing rocks at me, or pouring water on me, and then he’d start kicking me and hitting me with this long stick. He does this routine for days.
Zayas: Torture is a very traumatic event, I can imagine you still have some issues from it…
Hess: All that was just the warm up. One day he comes in, and I’m expecting more of the same, except he picks me up and drags me off somewhere else. This time it’s a shack or something, kinda wedged in next to hill, looked like some place a witch would live. He takes me in there, and I’m expecting he’s gonna kill me, rape me, something like that. Instead, he shows me something looks like a… like slaughterhouse or something, just full of meat hanging on hooks, dead animals, all kinds of dead things. And it fuckin’ stank, too. Felt like I was sticking my head down an outhouse. He props me up against the wall, then he takes some kind of meat off the wall and starts hacking away at it with this big cleaver, except its made out of sticks and rocks or something, like something a caveman would use. He’s flinging this stuff everywhere, getting little bits of blood and flesh all over the place, even on me.
Zayas: You say it was full of meat?
Hess: Yeah. See where this is going? Anyhow, he’s making me watch while chops this stuff up, then he pulls me over and cocks my head back. Then he picks up this bit of meat he’s been chopping, and he stuffs it right into my mouth. God, it was fuckin’ gross. You ever eat raw meat? It’s nasty. And I don’t know what the hell kind of meat that was, either. I try to spit it out, because I don’t know what he’s trying to do. That just pisses him off even worse. Pretty soon, I’m getting the usual treatment, beaten half to death for not eating what this guy’s trying to make me eat. I get thrown back in the dugout, and the next day, he repeats the same thing. Every day he’s got some new kind of meat he wants to me to eat, and at first I try spitting it out. But you know, I was there for days without food or water. By this time I’m getting real hungry. Maybe not hungry enough to actually eat that shit, but now I’m thinking about it. So every day I’m in there, he makes me eat some kind of disgusting meat, and kicks the shit out of me if I put up a fight.
Zayas: But you ate it eventually?
Hess: Yeah, I did. Anybody whose gone hungry a day in their life knows what I felt. When you’re that hungry, you don’t really think straight. So one day, he gets me to actually chew and swallow some of it. So that was a slight improvement, according to him, because he didn’t beat the hell out of me afterwards. Then one day, he tosses me back into the dugout for the night. But this time, he leaves me there for days, again, except now he doesn’t turn up at all. I keep figuring I’m gonna take advantage of this, try to make my escape, but I’m tied up so tight there’s no way I work something out in time, even after a couple of days.
Zayas: But you did escape, no?
Hess: Sort of. I got out of it, anyways. But after a couple of days, he shows up out of nowhere and drags me back up to his little slaughterhouse, and I’m starving at this point, so I don’t put up a fight. Instead, when I get in there, I see… I see…
Zayas: Are you alright Mr. Hess? Do you need a moment?
Hess: No, no… I’m fine. He sets me down, and I see this… this young girl, maybe fourteen years old, tied up just like I was, sitting right across from me. But she’s awake, so she sees what’s going on, and God… she was just petrified. Crying, moaning, but she couldn’t talk because she had something stuck over her mouth, like… like some kind of transparent… like, some kind of animal guts, but it was stretched out so you could see through it. And this man, this fucking butcher, he comes in and she just loses it. So I got no clue what he’s planning, but I might have some idea. I think he’s just gonna do the same thing as before, making us eat more meat. But he doesn’t. He just stares at both of us for a few minutes, then he takes the girl and slam her head down on his carving board. This time I put up a fight, because I know he’s going to something to this girl. He could kill me for all I gave a shit, but I didn’t want something to happen to her. He leans over and kicks me in the stomach, then he takes his giant cleaver, and… God… he starts in on her, chopping her head off. He’s really sloppy, too. He didn’t take her head off right away. He just… hacks away at her neck, and she’s screaming as much as she can, until the cleaver chops through her throat. Must’ve taken him ten swipes to do it.
Zayas: That’s… horrible. I can’t imagine how you felt, seeing that.
Hess: No, you can’t. But that wasn’t the worst of it. He’s starts chopping all over, taking off bits of meat right where I can see it. Do you understand? Now I can actually see where the meat is coming from. This time it isn’t that mystery meat he was giving the last few days. He pulls off a big strip right from her back… skin and everything, and he… he… he forces it down my throat. I can’t spit it out. He holds my mouth shut. I have to swallow a chunk of meat right off the girl he just killed, the girl I saw killed. Then he takes a piece and eats it in front of me. We do this, back and forth, for hours. He lit up a fire at one point, started roasted the bits he cut off. He’d eat some, then he’d force me to eat some. For hours. Until there wasn’t anything left. Just a body with all the meaty bits stripped off. Not a skeleton, you see. Like a skeleton that still has all the tendons, the cartilage, all the bits of meat that can’t be eaten, and some of the organs, too.
Zayas: Good God… this is true? This actually happened to you?
Hess: I wouldn’t just make this shit up, man. You think I’m just telling stories, trying to fuck with you? No. You asked for the truth, and there it is. I told you it was hard to believe. I didn’t think things like this happened. I sure as shit didn’t think it would happen to me. But it happens to somebody, I guess.
Zayas: How did you get out of this?
Hess: Well, he chucked me back in the dugout, leaving me to digest it. I tried to throw it up. I tried. I thought for sure I would vomit after seeing this. But I couldn’t. I was just too hungry. He left me shacked up for days, remember. That was the first thing I ate for days. I can’t help if I was fuckin’ starving. But he left me there after that. I guess he was satisfied. One day I wake up, and the ropes are off me. I think it’s some kind of trick, but I look around and I don’t see him anywhere. He’s gone, and the ropes are off me. And god dammit, I still wanted to live. So I ran out of there. I just ran and ran, until I found myself wandering along the side of a road. That was where the cops picked me up, and I found out people were looking for me.
Zayas: You didn’t tell anybody what happened? You could have saved some lives if a killer was on the loose…
Hess: I was out of my frickin’ mind when I came out of there. I didn’t want to talk about any of it. I wasn’t even sure it really happened. And even if I did, what would I say? I mean… they might have believed me. Maybe I didn’t have anything to lose by telling them. But time kept passing by, and by the time I was ready to talk, I don’t know if anybody would have listened. I’ve got some trust issues. I was afraid they’d think I made it up, especially if I waited so long to tell anybody. I already told everybody I didn’t remember what happened. And that was around the time I first started feeling… it.
Zayas: “It”? You mean, these tendencies….?
Hess: Yeah, the Hunger. That’s where I got it. You know, I thought it was all bullshit, all those stories about people eating human flesh and getting obsessed with it. But it happened to me. It wasn’t bullshit after all. That… fucking freak in the woods turned me, man. He gave it to me. And I’m pretty damn sure he did it on purpose, too. Like, he wants other people to get it. Why? Why does somebody want that? He… he ruined my life. The Hunger ruined my life. The only life I’ve got. And now I’m here in this hellhole, and I’ll never get to feed it again. I can’t possibly live like that. I’m tainted. Now I can’t do the only thing that will keep me alive.
Zayas: Don’t lose hope, Mr. Hess. There is treatment available for your condition. It’s purely psychological. You don’t need to eat human flesh to survive. With treatment, this condition will not control your life.
Hess: No. I’m not worth it. I’m pretty damn sure there is no cure for this. Doesn’t matter anyways. I’m gonna die in this place. Unless you think the judge believes otherwise…
Zayas: Any illness is worth treating, Mr. Hess. You don’t have to lose your quality of life, even in these circumstances.
Hess: Look, I’m tired. I’m tired, and I’m done. I don’t want to talk anymore. That’s the truth. I’m just tired. Just… think what you want. I’m finished with all of it. You got all this on film, don’t you? Just watch it again. I’m done. I’m… I’m just done. That’s all, folks.
Zayas: Ah, Mr. Hess, are you sure abou-
The next day after this interview, Raymond Hess, an American citizen convicted of multiple murders and incarcerated in a Chilean prison, was murdered by a fellow inmate, ostensibly in “self-defense.” According to this inmate, “El Americano” attacked him without provocation in a prison corridor, attempting to bite him before being stabbed and beaten in return. So ended the sad, sorry life of Raymond Hess, devoured whole by the silent suffering that would drive him to claim the lives of many others. Few would mourn the passing of the “Vampire of Valparaiso”, but prison legend would keep his memory alive, legends of a vicious cannibal that once stalked the halls, threatening to feast upon the flesh of any unfortunate enough to cross his path. Few would ever know the true origin of this legend. Fewer still would believe it. But this world has dark corners that few would expect, and I sincerely hope that one day I will live to see the legend of Dutchman’s Hollow come to its end.