The Pine Rat’s Revenge
In assembling my splendid book — which one reviewer called, “Scattered unclear writing”…“Mr. Sprouse never truly does get to his point”) — I was reminded of certain fundamental division in the cultural life of our great republic, a divide so obvious and elemental that I almost dare not speak its name, a sort of enormous cultural bifurcation that is reflected across the spectrum of American experience — in politics, in education, in entertainment and in my own particular field of journalism. Such is the mystery and importance of the ECB that I have been unable to stop thinking about, and unable to write about it either. But maybe today’s the day.
Despite earlier failures, my lonely task again today is synthesis. I want to talk about reality television and class tourism and the art of trolling and about the responses available in a civil society to the trolls that have lept from their anonymous internet dens and onto the mass media. I want to talk about the enormous bifurcation. But mostly, I want to talk about Harry Leeds and me.
But first, a thought experiment: Imagine, dear reader, that I am a struggling freelance journalist and you are the editor of an internationally esteemed journalism outlet — say The New Yorker magazine maybe or The Atlantic Monthly — one of those ones founded in the nineteenth century.
Let’s say I approach you with a story idea: There is an old folk tale that circulates in the neighboring state of New Jersey — the one you drive through to get to the airport. It concerns a monster said to live in the Pine Barrens. Some people think this monster is real. I do not. I wish to demonstrate for the benefit of your urbane and sophisticated audience the reasons why I am right and they are wrong. What thoughts have you on the non-controversial controversy I propose to resolve in your pages?
I’m guessing you the eminent editor would be lukewarm, assuming that your readers no more believe in a Jersey Devil than they do in Santa Claus and that they’d be about as interested in a story debunking the former as they would the latter. And you’d be right, of course. And all would be well in the republic, if there weren’t some other audience out there, over the horizon, that did entertain such controversies, and if there weren’t another other end of the media spectrum busily pandering to and exploiting that audience even as we speak.
I refer of course to the monster-hunter-entertainment industrial complex that has infiltrated a segment of our media once associated with sober, serious science and history programming — from the Discovery Channel to the History Channel to the Travel Channel to National Geographic to A&E — in order to peddle the most abject nonsense, testing the limits of its own audience in search of backlash.
With varying degrees of overt sarcasm, each of the above networks has gone in search of the Jersey Devil as part of this elaborate game of audience chicken, wherein they seek to exploit concern over a monster that the high-brow media think too silly to bother even debunking.
Now, it is my conjecture that the average monster documentarian no more accepts the validity of the Jersey-Devil controversy than does the average New Yorker editor. The difference lies not in the attitude to the monster, but in the attitude to one’s own audience. The monster entrepreneurs (monsterpreneurs?) have been trolling, to use a contemporary term, their audiences. And since these are not anonymous internet trolls but high-powered media executives, they’ve been trolling you and me as well.
But either way a troll is a troll, I say. Which is why the more egregious examples of media malfeasance — the unfortunate Monster Shark Lives episode of 2014 or the even sadder Are Mermaids Real? incident of 2013 or the extra-terrible Shark of Darkness scandal of 2014 — feel less like jokes than insincere apologies. We’ve been kidding all along! they’re trying to say. Some of you just failed to get the joke. But they haven’t been kidding all along. They’ve been trolling, which is different.
Today’s other working assumption is that a species of social-class tourism is at the heart of the reality TV enterprise. In an era of great industry realignment, one proven way to achieve cross-over appeal is by putting onscreen members of certain under-represented social classes, and then staging televisual car crashes. If some part of the audience finds itself in sympathy with the protagonists, all the better. But the rest of us may gawp and whoop and hollar, secure in the knowledge that we get the joke.
In my home state of course we have the guidos and guidettes of Jersey Shore fame, who were neither from New Jersey nor particularly Italian but were more effective proxy trolls for both those reasons. A&E has the Robertson clan of Duck Dynastyfame, who used to look suspiciously like middle-class-suburbanites before they prole’d themselves up with beards and camos in response to new modern realities. Even NBC’s Donald Trump — though born to money in New York City — was class-touristic in that he was a kind of crude stereotype of what a working-class person might imagine a rich person to be like in real life.
Every so often, one of these proxy trolls would go off-script and do something contrary to best practices — like revealing himself to be a rabid homophobe or running for president on the Know-Nothing platform — sending the brand managers into great displays of public distress. But make no mistake, your media have been encouraging these shenanigans for years in their attempts to sell soap to the unwashed masses.
In the realm of monster reality TV, the P.R. machine behind The Blair Witch Project — an ersatz Independent movie, marketed on the back of a military-grade disinformation campaign — must bear much responsibility for this situation, for showing lesser industry lights the great rewards that can be accumulated by the clever troll. But either way trolls is what we have. And high and low-brow media alike must cope with the damage of the troll’s mischief: which is that some people make documentaries that aren’t really documentaries and some other people don’t understand that what they’re watching is nonsense.
For the purposes of Jersey-Devil reality TV, the indispensable man was always Harry Leeds, the sometime mayor of Galloway Township and Piney aristocrat, who made a kind of second career as a spokesperson for the Jersey Devil (see my splendid book). As a Leeds from Leeds Point, Harry could, and did, position himself as a distant relative of the legendary monster, which gave him a cultural authority of great value in telling its story.
In social-class terms, Harry represented the South Jersey Piney population, the traditional community of cranberry-and-blueberry pickers and all-around woodspersons who eked out subsistence livings in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Pineys and the Jersey Devil go together like cheese and crackers and have done so since 1859 when, in an article in The Atlantic magazine, a reporter claimed that the “Pine Rats” (his charming term for the group) displayed widespread fear of what was then known as Leeds’s Devil.
Since 1859, the literature on the Jersey Devil (with a few exceptions) has existed as a kind of subset of the literature and reporting on the Pines, whose fearful residents are inevitably conscripted into any story about the monster. In a traditional piece of Pine Barrens reportage, one or more Pineys is called upon to give specific testimony to the Jersey Devil’s reality and to affirm that the Piney population in general (whom he represents) take the story very seriously indeed.
Thus when Harry went on TV and said that he’d seen the Jersey Devil and that his neighbors lived in fear of the beast, he was participating in a time-honored Piney tradition of media pantomime.
I imagine it all started innocently enough for Harry. He was quoted in a New York Times story that ran for no particular reason on April 26, 1998. The reporter had interviewed a number of leading exponents of Jersey Devil studies, including the state’s foremost folklorist, Angus Gillespie, the esteemed historian Maxine Lurie, the co-author (James McCloy) of the famous Jersey Devil book, and a sales manager at McCloy’s publishing house who said they sold 5,000 copies of the book each year. But the reporter opened and closed his narrative with Harry Leeds, the lifelong Galloway resident (not quite) and Mother Leeds descendant, who told him, “When I was a child growing up, you didn’t go out and walk the dark roads alone. There’s the fear of the Jersey Devil lurking out there. So he is a security blanket, in a sense, for South Jersey.”
Which, in P.R. terms, I’d say was a win for Harry.
I thought of Harry as what’s sometimes known in journalism as a fixer, the kind of local contact that legitimate reporters use when they parachute into Indian Territory and need help navigating the local culture, someone familiar with the standards of the profession who can arrange interviews, scout locations, translate the language and generally assist in putting together a story in an unfamiliar country. But then fixers don’t usually end up in the final product, delivering the money quote, like Harry did.
When I met him in 1999, Harry had recently appeared on a Discovery Channel show called Animal X, wearing his Galloway Township (official hometown of the Jersey Devil) jacket that bore a logo that got him in trouble for copyright violations. Though the show was remarkably candid about Harry’s wish to preserve the spirit of Jersey Devil folklore, Harry also did his Piney duty by stating that a recent uptick in sightings meant the monster was, “trying to alert the people of something bad that’s going to happen.”
“He’s very knowledgeable,” Harry deadpanned. “He gets around. He knows what’s going on.”
In 2000, Harry again appeared on TV on a paranormal reality show called Scariest Places on Earth, where he was identified as the “one remaining descendant” of Mother Leeds and where he acted as a kind of tour guide to a group called the Devil Hunters who used to go looking for the Jersey Devil before they retired a few years ago.
2002 saw Harry once again in the pages of The New York Times where he was identified as a “former mayor of Galloway Township,” which I’d say is an improvement over the unprepossessing “local resident” of earlier stories. The article, prompted by the release of a feature film (13th Child), said Harry took exception “to the cinematic portrayal of the creature first known as the Leeds Devil.”
“I’ve never heard of the Devil killing people,” the Times quoted Harry’s saying. “Of course, there’s the movie version and there’s the real version.”
At some point Harry went on a “weird” hunt with the genial publishers of Weird N.J.magazine — Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran — to discuss his own personal “encounter” with the Jersey Devil when he was an eleven-year-old boy. Then in 2010, not long before he died at the age of 75, Harry appeared on A&E’s Paranormal State, another paranormal reality TV show, to describe his other encounter with the Jersey Devil.
While not an exhaustive list of his public performances, this will have to do for today, as anyway it demonstrates Harry’s impressive range as Jersey Devil spokesman. On two occasions — for Weird N.J. and for Paranormal State — Harry said he had seen the Jersey Devil in person, one sighting (Weird N.J.) took place when Harry was eleven and the other (Paranormal State) at some indeterminate time before that. But in every TV appearance Harry suggested, or went along with the suggestion, that his friends and neighbors lived in fear of the Jersey Devil.
Which is A+ Piney reality programming.
But before we continue, lest I seem to impugn Harry’s character, let me break from this scattered narrative to share a personal anecdote about the time I might have gone out there into the airwaves of the high-class media to discuss my owninteraction with the Jersey Devil, if only I’d had one. Much is made of course in the Jersey Devil literature about the long history of eye-witness reports over the years, crucial since they are the only evidence to help establish the controversy of the monster’s possible existence, so this is important. Harry claimed he was such an eye witness. Alas, when invited, I could claim no such thing. That neither I nor Harry had actually encountered anything does not mean that I am good and Harry is bad, or that I was truthful and Harry dishonest. It means only that Harry was clever and I am not. Which is a given. But it is the nature of Harry’s cleverness that is ultimately our theme today.
But my anecdote.
When I was somewhere in the fourteenth minute of my highly localized, fifteen minutes of book-related fame, I got a call from a certain high-brow media outlet. About this outlet the less said the better. I only note that its audience probably shared some characteristics with what’s called the book-buying public. These weren’t the people watching Shark Week a two-hour drive from the nearest Barnes & Noble, let’s just say.
How to explain the opportunity this presented to me — an unknown, self-published author — to go out into the high-class media to promote the book I’d produced, at embarrassing cost to myself and family, which costs I hoped to recoup through book sales, or at least through some professional validation that might form the basis of a viable career. To me this person held the keys to Valhalla itself.
They were preparing a Halloween episode — spooky theme — my new media friend said, and they thought the Jersey Devil a possible topic. They’d bought my book (sounds fascinating!) but not read it yet, and thought me a potential resource.
For my part, I tried to sound like I’d be a good guest, thoughtful and reflective and articulate. My voice was resonant and melodic, if also a little nasal. But no matter, this was the branch of the media that had kept Garrison Keillor in business for however many decades, right?
In retrospect my interactions with reporters were so few I didn’t realize I was still being vetted. I thought as long as I didn’t say something crazy, like that the Jersey Devil was real (ha!), or that it was being held prisoner by the C.I.A., or that I had a specimen in my living room and we’d be traveling shortly to the Royal Society for a formal presentation, I thought I’d probably get to be on their show. Which is why maybe I was unprepared for this question:
So, have you ever, um, had…an interaction?
Excuse me, a what?
With what, the Jersey Devil? (I’m not fast on my feet.)
No. Sorry. I haven’t, I said.
Some air definitely went out of the conversation at that point.
To put it back, I began desperately to throw out any facts that seemed relevant: The many people I met who had had Interactions (or said they did), my insights into the career of Harry Leeds who’d made so much media hay by claiming he’d had interactions. I think I even threw the Devil Hunters out there, citing their alleged manipulation at the hands of a certain wing of the reality TV industry, who they claim had staged an Interaction. Surely my media friend didn’t share journalistic values with that crew, right?
More unimpressed noises. Plangent. Disappointed. For me. Because I’d seemed like a nice person.
Yeah, I get it, my friend said…ethnography.
With that word, ethnography, reality hit home at last. Ethnography might cut it in grad school, but out there on the mean streets of high-brow media, where they were competing for hearts and minds, they needed blood and sweat and drama — Interactions — to carry the day.
After a polite interval, we parted ways.
They say life comes down to a few moments. When mine came, my assumptions were all wrong. Which was ironic since I’d spent the better part of fifteen years deconstructing why certain persons might go into the media and tell other persons exactly what they wanted to hear on the subject of the Jersey Devil — specifically that they’d Interacted with the god-damned thing. It was a situation I’d spent some time thinking about. Not that it had done me any good. When the crisis came, I still thought the truth would save me.
In retrospect I should have said yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Of course I’d had an Interaction with the Jersey Devil. On this very spot where I’m standing. And all’s I remember was those piercing red eyes. Then we could have seen how long I got away with it. But that would have required a performance artist of the caliber of Harry Leeds. And I’m no Harry Leeds. But I wish I could have been.
Of the four videos under consideration today, Harry’s first, Animal X, best showcases his talents as Jersey Devil spokesman. Note for example the way Harry’s distinctive syntax and grammar work to his advantage in his first lines onscreen when he uses the phrases “I believe” “Bigfoot” and “Jersey Devil” in succession to convey an impression that he thinks the monster is really “out there” even while he’s saying something quite different, only that “the most famous legend that the United States has is the Jersey Devil.”
Later the narrator informs us that Harry is not in fact afraid of the Jersey Devil, another rhetorical coup in that it floats the suggestion we might reasonably have expected him to be. And that other people (Harry’s Piney compatriots presumably)are afraid of it. In general however the show was remarkably candid about who Harry was and what his motives might have been, saying he “considers it his job” as an eleventh-generation descendant of the Leeds family in America to keep the story going.
For sheer benign legend-tripping hijinks, the Weird N.J. video is, unsurprisingly, best in class. The Marks — Sceurman and Moran — while not South Jersey royalty on the order of Harry Leeds — are lifelong New Jersey residents, and they are simply out to investigate the origins of a quirky local legend.
In this video, Harry displays a very different face. Gone is the fretful, fearful Piney, gazing pensively into the forest. Instead we have Harry the Galloway public servant and Piney ambassador, fast on his feet and trading comedic barbs with Mark and Mark on the roadside. At one point, they step into a shop in Smithville where, the woman behind the counter directs them to Harry, which is very like the way I met the man.
When Harry tells them he’s distantly related to the Jersey Devil, one of the Marks checks under Harry’s hat.
“You don’t have any horns on there do you?”
“Not yet,” Harry says. Which is just like him.
The trio set off in daylight, thank god, to find the Jersey Devil’s birthplace, with Harry proclaiming that the legend has been passed down through his family since 1735.
“Hopefully we’ll have an encounter with the Leeds Devil,” he says (emphasis mine).
“Well if we do, it’s ok because you’re kinfolk, right? So he’s not going to hurts us.”
“He wouldn’t hurt you, Mark.”
Despite some dubious claims about Joe Bonaparte and Stephen Decatur — pro forma for the genre — and one other notable Harry moment that we reserve for later, the piece ends on the same lighthearted note, with the Marks thanking Harry for letting viewers “in on your family tree.”
“Your twisted family tree.”
Fox’s Scariest Places on Earth is a very different production tonally. Here we are in reality TV land in all its absurd glory. Gone are Mark and Mark, the affable curators of the weird, and their good-natured trip to Smithville (it’s “kinda cutsie”). Instead we have host Linda Blair (The Exorcist) and narrator Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) and a lot of spooky noises and reality TV tropes that feel about a million years old.
In a weirdly lazy piece of writing, we are told that the Pine Barrens (“a very scary place”) are “a 25,000-acre woods.” Now, informed viewers might wonder why a writer who wishes to convey the great size of those woods by use of a large-sounding number would not go with the equally handy and even larger-sounding1.1 million acres, which is the customary figure for Pine Barrens’ acreage. But such are the complexities of using real people and places in your make-believe TV show.
In Scariest Places, Harry plays his role as fixer — not off-screen for the filmmakers (though I’m sure he did that too) but onscreen for the team of Devil Hunters, whom he leads on a nighttime field-trip in search (once again) of the Jersey Devil’s birthplace, with night-vision equipment and walkie-talkies etc. This is all very Blair Witch, and I’m afraid the Devil Hunters (who are nice people) were being taken advantage of. Indeed they later said as much (on their recently decommissioned website), claiming that the producers had fabricated the climactic, alleged, encounter with the Jersey Devil. And that Harry was an accomplice in these shenanigans when he made fake Jersey Devil tracks the Hunters found/were unimpressed by.
Onscreen however Harry positioned himself as present to assist the Devil Hunters (“the young folks”) in their quest for understanding, and while the drama unfolds he remains blissfully above the fray. During the climactic scene, when Laura Leuter (Devil Hunter president) goes running off to confront an unidentified woodland object, referred to archly by Harry as “a big eyeball,” Harry advises her to “be very careful.” But then at the end of the video, after Leut and Co. have been chased out of the woods, Harry says, “People can see, and think they saw, different things. Low and behold, she got her wish. The Devil does exist.” Which is vintage Harry. And anyway must have struck Leut as insincere, since she said, in an admittedly much smaller forum (her shut-down website), that she’d done no such thing that night.
In terms of outright malevolence the Paranormal State episode, in which Harry made his final TV appearance, takes the cake. But as this is also the highpoint of Harry’s P.R. career, the key to understanding his entire oeuvre, it’s worth examining in some detail.
The TV series Paranormal State starred Ryan Buell, who allegedly founded his Paranormal Research Society while a student at Penn State, which is an argument against sending your child to that taxpayer-supported institution, if you were looking for one. The show’s producers were established reality TV execs who’d recently done things like Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. While naive viewers may have assumed this show the product of some longstanding interest in occult phenomena on the part of its wealthy backers, readers of Broadcasting & Cable magazine might have known that by 2007 paranormal reality shows (“spooky fare”) were yielding “ratings spikes for traditional linear players like Sci Fi, Lifetime and WE,” with A&E (the network Paranormal State would call home) “hoping to cash in next.”
Apparently in the aftermath of 9/11, some viewers weren’t ready for reality monster programming, but by 2007, the healing had taken place, and audiences were once again available, “to be emotionally challenged by dramas that tackled horror scenarios,” as SyFy exec Dave Howe said. Which is a sobering thought, that a side-effect of the National Security State might be an atmosphere more conducive to monster-hunter entertainment.
Paranormal State executive producer Gary Auerbach, in the same B&C story, said his show mixed scary-movie methods with reality-TV formulas to produce what’s known among business professionals as a successful synergy. Or as Auerbach put it, “When you’re dealing with something in the reality space that’s scary, that double-intensifies the feeling.”
Paranormal State debuted in late 2007, and despite crappy critical reception, it stayed on the air for five seasons, eighty-three episodes, before Buell went into hiding, pursued by a clack of angry fans whose dead ancestors he’d suggested he could communicate with.
Harry Leeds appeared in season four of the program (February 2010), as the second of two eyewitnesses who testifed they’d seen the Jersey Devil (probably) in real life. When we meet him (identified only as “Harry”, with no reference to his political career, previous media work, legendary pedigree or highly relevant last name) he’s standing on what’s supposed to be his own property but what I’m guessing is really the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.
“This is where I had my first encounter, right here,” he says.
In fact Harry took me to this same spot, or somewhere very near, and enlightened me on his routine when members of the media came to town. In fact, it was probably around the same time the Paranormal State crew had blown through. We stood beside the Phragmites reeds at the bottom of Scotts Landing Road in Leeds Point, and Harry told me how in the army he’d done P.R. work with a film crew, which gave him a sense of lighting and of the kind of shots that TV crews were looking for.
“I usually get them out here just before it gets dark,” Harry had said. “That way you see that sun coming through the leaves. It’s really beautiful.” And indeed it is, because shit if that’s not exactly what he’s doing right here.
Onscreen, in character, Harry describes what we later learn was the first of his supposed two encounters with the real-life Jersey Devil.
“I pulled my boat up and out of nowhere there was this creature, standing right about where you’re standing now. It’s hard to describe other than the piercing eyes, lookin’ at me.”
“Do you remember the color of the eyes?” the interviewer asks.
“Oh, there was as reddish cast to them.”
Later Harry cautions against walking outdoors after dark in the greater New Jersey shore area, the destination for millions of tourists each year, even as the skyline of one of those beach towns, supported entirely on the back of that very non-Jersey-Devil-related tourism, is visible on the horizon over his shoulder.
Harry’s Paranormal State performance was the second time he claimed for the benefit of a camera crew that he’d had an encounter with the Jersey Devil. The other was the one he described for Weird N.J., when he said he’d been walking along just at “dark time” and the Jersey Devil accosted him on the spot where he happened to be standing with Mark and Mark.
“And the most prominent features of the Devil was those piercing eyes that were at ya’,” Harry had said.
As luck would have it, Harry had taken me to that spot as well, by an disused cranberry bog in Smithville, which was cinematically valuable for a number of reasons, not least of which was that Harry had been banned from taking camera crews to the Jersey Devil house in Leeds Point.
Harry said the Weird N.J. encounter took place in 1947 when he was eleven, but it was apparently the second time in his young life that he’d come eyeball to eyeball with his distant ancestor. Because this other encounter by the Forsythe was the first.
Apart from the eye color, this Forsythe encounter was noteworthy in that it took place when Harry was a young boy — eight-years old? nine? — yet he was tooling around the mouth of the Mullica River in a big boat. Also because he didn’t mention it the first time he was asked if he’d seen the Jersey Devil. Also because he throwsout that other encounter to the remarkably bored-seeming Paranormal State guy almost as an afterthought, like he’s mentioning it for the benefit of some future biographer who might be sitting down with the tapes all laid out in front of him, and who might be able to tell a cranberry bog from a salt marsh.
When I interviewed Harry, standing by the Forsythe, he told me that, in his various media interactions, he never claimed to have seen the Jersey Devil himself, but rather that he always spoke “from the legend,” rather than from the “thousand or so sightings” leaving it “up to the reporters to do that.” Which as we have seen is not strictly true. But then maybe the Paranormal State people occupied a different category.
Toward the end of the PS episode, Harry makes a second appearance onscreen, after the investigators, having collected some thermal imaging footage, reconvene to examine the evidence, which they says is, “the most compelling evidence that has ever come out about the Jersey Devil.”
Does it look like a deer, the investigators wonder?
Pensive Harry, wearing glasses and scratching his face, considers his lines.
“At first blush it does. But then you see those protruding wings…it looks like the hideous creature.”
The hideous creature…
There’s a moment at the end of Paranormal State where the goateed investigator delivers a speech, apropos of the great public service his crew has provided, where he says the much maligned eye witnesses to the Jersey Devil phenomenon (i.e. Harry) have at last been supported in their claims by the physical evidence (i.e. the absurd thermal image), which his crew was able to collect because they had the courage to take those claims seriously.
“I think what’s cool about it is for the first time all these thousands of people who have seen this, now because of this, they got a bat to swing back. They have something to say, ‘I’m crazy? What is this?’ It’s easy to say it doesn’t exist, right? That’s simple. It’s very difficult to trust people and to go out and take their word and find something of value, and we did that. And now there’s something to argue in favor of those who swear on their life they’ve seen this thing.”
Which is pernicious nonsense of a very high order.
Critical responses to Paranormal State from the high-brow media were predictably grim, see for instance this critic tasked with reviewing the show for The New York Times who seems to earnestly wish the program were a joke. It really would be better if it were a joke, better anyway than confronting the alternative, which is that there exists — in some far corner of the American experience, where Timesmen fear to tread — a sincere audience that thinks it’s real, and that kept Paranormal State on the air for five seasons and another 80-plus episodes after the Times dreadful review ran.
But even to call Paranormal State a joke was to miss the point. Paranormal State was trolling, which is different, if only because a joke doesn’t stop being funny when the audience finds out the person telling it is a comedian
How then do we understand the interesting career of Harry Leeds? Was Harry lying when he told interviewers he’d seen the Jersey Devil or that his friends and neighbors lived in fear of the beast? Was he joking as more optimistic observers prefer to think the reality TV people themselves were doing? Or was Harry engaged in some altogether more elaborate enterprise?
Arranged side by side, Harry’s performances I think leave little doubt that he wasn’t exactly rocking it straight sans bullshit. But they also make it clear the reality TV people were, if anything, playing it even less straight than Harry. If we accept, therefore, that reality TV was trolling at least some portion of its own audience, where then does that put our illustrious spokesman, Harry Leeds?
Consider, if you will, the practice of the troll, which is to say something so provocatively terrible (“Fact: Ninjas are mammals”) that his target will feel compelled to respond, usually with something “correct” and clever (“don’t have a clue what real ninja are do you?”) to remedy the troll’s multi-variate confusions, but no response can be “clever” since to respond at all is merely to feed the troll its required attention. But just as Nature has decreed there must always be trolls, so too must there by troll victims who feed them, usually in the form of some “clever” response that is itself inevitably, provocatively, terrible. And so we go round and round in the great troll feeding frenzy that is reality TV. And which is why at the center of so much successful reality programming there is a hard core (real or imagined) of useful idiots.
What are the valid responses to a troll attack? To my knowledge there are only three. One is silence. Simply ignore the troll and he will go away. Another is to call the troll by his true name (troll), and thereby rob him of his powers, since once you know you’re being trolled, the attack loses all effectiveness. There is also is a third, highly dangerous response, which is to go along with the troll and bring him into your confidence until a successful counter-attack can be launched, to in effect troll the troll itself, and it is this daring third option — which represents the very pinnacle of the trolling art — that I hope you’ll see was Harry Leeds’s particular business.
For starters, Harry was not some obscure figure on the fringes of Piney society. He was a prominent local citizen and politician, the one-time mayor of Galloway Township. Which by the way is not some isolated Pine Barrens settlement but rather a suburb of Atlantic City, whose population (of about 35,000 people) is made up of fireman and policemen and schoolteachers and blackjack dealers etc., many of whom who derive their incomes directly or indirectly from that nearby city.
Within this community, Harry was a well-known advocate of the Jersey Devil story, as a piece of folklore. When he was not serving as press secretary, he would travel around to the local schools and teach the kids about the legend, which was an important part of the shared history of their community, and of his family, which he saw it as his duty, as a descendant of the Leeds pioneers, to help preserve. Harry was also a person — maybe the main person — behind a push to adopt the Jersey Devil as the official mascot of Galloway, perhaps as part of some scheme to make dozens of dollars through increased tourism and tee-shirt sales. But what’s important is that people in the community knew Harry’s TV routine and kept directing reporters to him — even though he grossly misrepresented their attitudes to the famous local monster — because (enough of them) were in on the joke too.
But even if you put Harry’s background to the side, there are moments when his unsubtle gestures to the knowing audience are unmistakable. Note for instance the scene in Animal X where Harry, having implicitly agreed there’s been an uptick in sightings, interprets these as a sign the Jersey Devil is “trying to alert the people of something bad that’s going to happen.”
“He’s very knowledgeable. He gets around. He knows what’s going on.” It’s like he’s talking about Barbara Walters.
In Paranormal State the strongest troll moment takes place at the end of Harry’s first scene, when what might be considered a heartfelt testimonial turns to farce as Harry advises the audience, in the age old Piney tradition, “Don’t go out at night. Do not ever go alone because there’s something out there.”
But Harry’s achievement is best visible when his body of work is considered together. His continued usefulness to so many different programs across such a long period of time was its own counter-trolling, because it showed that whatever the reality monster TV people were up to, it probably wasn’t conscientious journalism. His collective performances undermined a central claim of the monster promoters: If South Jersey was so chock full of people frightened of the Jersey Devil, how is it they ended up using the same guy in their goddamned videos, even though everybody in town knew this was basically his part-time job? And why by the timeParanormal State came around, did they not bother mentioning Harry’s last name?
Harry’s long con also meant that Paranormal State, the most overtly malevolent of the TV under consideration, also got trolled hardest. How for instance do we square the fear expressed by Harry in his Paranormal State testimonial with the curious levity he displayed to his Weird N.J. friends, with whom he jokes about his nonexistent horns? Or if he thinks the Jersey Devil is truly frightening, as he says, why is Harry wearing a jacket with the Jersey Devil logo on the back of it in Animal X?
Harry was not always trolling. There are moments, I think, when he was simply using the forum provided to promote his own agenda, which was the preservation of folklore. But in general I think it’s safe to say whenever Harry was required to say something ridiculous and then did so a little too perfectly, he was trolling.
Who was Harry’s target? One group we can rule out is anyone sincerely concerned about the Jersey Devil, if only because, technically, Harry was counter-trolling, and the true believers weren’t trolling him. They were collateral damage. But anyone who thought he was watching an uneducated Piney advertise his embarrassing superstitions (class tourists, e.g.) was in fact watching a very clever person’s imitation of just such a Piney. Given how much of the reality TV industry seems built on that class tourism, you could say Harry was trolling the whole industry, and I’d congratulate you on your perceptiveness.
Harry was also trolling his confederates in the media who thought they’d found in him, if not a genuine Jersey Devil believer, than at least a genuine co-conspirator, because Harry was leaving an obvious enough trail of breadcrumbs that he was eventually going to expose what they were collectively up to.
Lastly by allowing himself (Harry Leeds folklore advocate) to be misleadingly depicted onscreen as Harry Leeds the fretful Piney (afraid of the Jersey Devil) he was perhaps lampooning the whole monster TV enterprise, which entails the exploitation of traditional folklore for commercial purposes.
I know when I found out that a) there was a joke and b) Harry was in on it, it felt like a victory not just for Pineydom but possibly for humanity in general.
Which brings us back to the great divide in our media culture. There was a moment in my conversation with the producer from high-class media land where I offered to put them in touch with people who go out looking for the Jersey Devil — monster hunters — who probably would have said they’d had an Interaction.
No, the producer said. That’s probably not going to work, not if they’re actively looking. It works better if they’re skeptical.
You see, it is like Mad Libs. The story has already been written, and we are required only to fill in our lines. If Harry hadn’t stepped forward with his Interactions, someone else would have been found. Some token skeptic can always be produced to give a veneer of credibility to the story. But without the interaction, there’s no story to begin with.
Which is maybe why Harry’s achievement seems so impressive. By mouthing his Piney lines too perfectly, Harry managed to turn the reality TV machinery against itself and to do what the high-brow media could not, which was — if not to call a troll a troll — then at least facilitate the troll’s own self-parody.
When my opportunity presented, I couldn’t follow Harry’s routine. But I can appreciate his artistry, and the history in which he was participating. And help you do so as well. Which maybe counts for something. I think in the end Harry would have wanted the audience to know what he was up to.
And maybe his trick’s not over. With any luck there’s some high-class producer running around the Pine Barrens right now in search of their Interaction. And with any luck we’ll have a good laugh this Halloween.
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 As I begin my splendid book with essentially the same gambit, readers may evaluate for themselves the depths of my hypocrisy.
 In my experience, real-life Harry spoke normally.
 With the difference that I was with my grandmother, who wanted to strangle Harry (see splendid book).
 The Weird N.J. guys for instance played it pretty straight (i.e. for laughs) and Harry played it straight back with them, up until the point where he had his mysterious interaction with ol’ red eyes by the cranberry bog, but perhaps even then he was laying the groundwork for future mischief.