This post is part of the Haunted Ocala National Forest, the now-defunct book project that was a part of Tripping on Legends. These stories were originally to be part of a book that was to act as a follow-up to our Haunted Florida Love Stories book, but that ship has sailed. Whether it is the nature of the forest or the nature of Tripping on Legends itself, the project did not work out. We are, however, left with these unfinished chapters which range from local legends to a rambling thread trying to make sense of people’s first-hand experiences. Either way, we present these chapters hoping to resurrect the project someday and continue the search for haunted legends.
Enjoy, and feel to contribute to the avalanche of the unexplained that is Ocala…
Please contact me with any corrections, additions, or clarifications. This project begs for it…
There are unexplained things even in the world of the unexplained. While no one call really give answers for the weird things outside the lines, some phenomena have appeared to people for so long and has been looked at by so many people there has been time to classify it. Ghost lights, for example, might be natural or supernatural, but they are such a part of the paranormal landscape that those who spend time studying them can offer theories that make sense or offer some level of understanding. There are other phantoms that defy explanation but pop up when people share stories or talk about legends. Usually their appearance is cyclical, pushed forward by television shows or ghost books. People look back on their experiences and something clicks. Others have always been there, but because they do not conform to what the witness understands about the paranormal, they dismiss it. Maybe there is a whisper to someone they know, just enough of a tease to see if someone else had experienced the same thing, but for the most part they get pushed back into the dark spaces of memory until someone else comes forward.
The Dark Man is one such character, and his constant appearance in the Ocala and the surrounding towns adds an element of confusion and terror. People almost expect to see weird people or even ghosts, but when these dark figures make themselves known, it always inspires fear. There are some theories as to what these men are. Some feel they are just any other ghost but for some reason they look different than what is considered a standard specter, while others add a little folklore and attribute their darkness to something evil they had done in life.
Other, observing they are reported as thick shadows with no features, call them demons or elementals. The fact they are much more likely to be around place where other supernatural things have happened adds some weight to this. They seem to be watchers, witnessing the activity and our reaction to it, maybe even feeding of it. Then there is another breed of them that wear hats, conjuring thoughts of transdimensional creatures, maybe even shadows of us from another place or time.
I first came across them when taking stories from my students who had been tormented by them while serving time in a converted mental health facility in Massachusetts. These were juvenile criminals and not entirely trustworthy, but I recorded dozens of the reports over the course of five years among kids who had never met each other but who suffered from the same experience. It continued as I looked into the Pukwudgies, a mythical creature people were still sighting and one who was often accompanied by these dark men. Then I moved to Florida and took reports of them in St. Petersburg, where we were tracked by one looking for the Mini-Lights and ran into one waiting to see why we were in a cemetery looking for the Haunted Pants of Holiday. Then there was Safety Harbor, the Devil’s Tree in Port St. Lucie and Shiloh cemetery in Sanford and Stetson University in Deland. When they are mentioned in relation to the Ocala, there is never a nice context. In the forest, they are always considered more than a ghost and never friendly.
Haunted locations such as Tiger Trail Road in Dunnellon or the many streets of Astor have a bit more lore attached to who the creepy men might be, but other places are left with just stories told in bits and pieces. According to author Kathleen Walls in her book Finding Florida’s Phantoms, people have seen him in the woods and sometimes lying down on paths and roads within the Ocala. Timothy reports spending time in several of the campsites inside the forest and sometimes waking up as a kid to see a strange Dark Man sitting staring at the embers of the fire they had made. “Each one we went to. I used to wonder if he was following me, but I would ask other kids I ran into. You see the same people every year, but new people too. They said they saw him too. He’s always looking into the fire. I’m just staring at him through this little hole in my tent because I’m freaked out.”
Heather had many odd experiences on her street in Silver Springs, most associated with a stretch they used to call Little Green Bridge. Her and her mother are into the paranormal and have done research on sighting in their town and the Ocala. They came across reports of a man in a long trench coat and top hat but laughed them off until she saw the man herself. “I was driving home and saw a man appear out of nowhere in a black top hat and trench coat walking across the road. There are no streetlights on that road, so the only light was from my headlights. I thought it was really a man, and I slammed on my breaks and in a blink of an eye he was gone.” In the moment, she was concerned about hitting him, but looking back she realizes the man did not come out of the woods or walk into the trees after. He was just there in the middle of the road instantly and then vanished as soon as she should have hit him. “I looked all around and nothing was there. I remember thinking to myself when I first saw the man ‘What is he wearing; it’s hot as hell out.’” Heather describes the man as being at least six feet tall and solid enough that she thought he was a real person.
Kimberly’s experience was in Gainesville, a little more than a half hour from the forest, but for some reason she connects the darkness in the forest with her experience. In early 2020 she found herself alone in her apartment because her boyfriend was in the hospital. She was not scared or nervous; she had lived alone often. She was a big fan of horror movies and documentaries and did not scare easily. “I woke to the sound of the coffee maker. Now [my boyfriend] is the only one who makes the coffee, and he wasn’t home. Before I even opened my eyes, I felt a chill, because who or what would be making coffee in the middle of the night. When I opened my eyes, I saw a dark figure standing in the doorway.” She immediately grew scared and felt what she describes as negative energy coming from whatever was there. “I couldn’t make out much detail, but for some reason, I could feel that it was male. He had a hat on with a brim.”
Almost immediately, the man was gone. She ran out to the kitchen to check and see if coffee had been made, but the machine was off and the pot empty. She sat down in her living room trying to make sense out of what had happened. The Dark Man had definitely felt threatening, but she was unsure as to why it would chose to visit her and why he had chosen that night. She eventually fell asleep only to be woken up by a picture she had placed on a shelf being thrown six feet across the room. She tried to make sense out of what had happened but could come up with no way it could have travelled that far, especially when nothing else around it had been disturbed. “After two hours of trying everything I could think of to try to make them fall, so that it could make some kind of sense, I gave up. I came to the conclusion that there was no way on our planet, our gravity, that what happened to those objects could naturally happen. You see, I really wanted to believe that somehow it could happen naturally. But it didn’t, and then I was faced with the problem.”
Kimberly felt she couldn’t tell anyone what had happened or ask for help. She eventually made her way to Otter and Trout, an herb shop in Gainesville. They suggested she use black sage to remove whatever it was and protect her in the future. It seemed to have helped. She has not had another experience and has no desire to ever experience anything like that again. She also is now scared to stay anywhere overnight by herself or be alone at night. “I will never sleep alone in the house again. There will always be that fear now. I don’t think I can shake it.” While she still does not know why it happened (she feels it had something to do with her boyfriend being in the hospital and may have even been a message), she recently read something about shadow men and feels she came face to face with one.
Then there is the bunker. Not far from Rodman Dam in Palatka, Florida, is a thick section of the Ocala which becomes swampy in the summer months but is broken up with thin roadways made of dark orange sand. It’s popular with local hikers and people who race their four-wheelers and dirt bikes through the woods because you can drive the path for miles, slip into the smaller, lesser known trails among the trees, and then come out to campgrounds. The roads, like most in and around the forest, can only be identified by their numbers, so anyone unfamiliar with the area is taking a chance relying on their phone’s GPS to find their way through.
Road 77 is one of several dirt roads which cuts across the main path and leads back to County Road 315. Less than a mile from 315 is a bunker hidden about twenty-five yards into the woods. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, there is no way to find it, but those who have come across of it spread the word about the odd structure and tell stories of something evil that may live there. The bunker itself has no history to it. Unlike some of the other shelters seen in other parts of the forest, this one is small and not connected to bombing locations or military maneuvers. It is, however, made of thick concrete like the others, but unlike its possible brothers, it looms in a random location and is over seven feet high but only about ten feet long. If you can climb the moss-covered cement to the top, you find the entire structure is closed with a hole, sticking out like a chimney, which obviously used to have a cover. Take a rusty set to stairs and you’ll be another seven feet under the ground, knee deep in murky water and staring into complete darkness.
The bunker has taken on a life of its own, with explorers coming up with their own history or reason for its existence. Some say it is military or was built by the Civilian Corp back in the day, which makes the most sense given the number of these buildings they actually did build in the area. Others point to the crudeness of it and claim it was built by biker gangs or cults to be used for sinister reasons. This does not make much sense because it can be seen easier in the winter months and stands out in the woods because of its height. Criminals and cults in other forests tend to build entirely underground. The bunker can be found by Geocachers who have marked it off and leave gifts and messages for each other there.
But there are other things that find their way there. Allen was using his geocaching app to find it one night around dusk. He had already hit several locations near Rodman Dam, and this one was an afterthought. He only wanted to see it because he had heard it was spooky and a hideout for serial killers. He did not believe the stories but loved the idea of a concreate block in the middle of the woods. When he got there the sun was setting quickly, so he almost missed it. “The app went completely out. I was pretty close, like a hundred feet, and it just won’t work anymore. I just started walking into the woods to the last location I got. It’s a huge block of concrete in the middle of trees. It should have been easy to find.” As he walked, he began to feel as if he were being watched. He remembers even snapping his head side to side to try and catch whatever is was. As he got closer to the bunker, he saw a dark figure run away from it. “It was still light out. Dark, but still light. This was like a shadow, but there shouldn’t have been a shadow. I had my flashlight, just in case, and tried to follow him, but he was gone.” Allen looked for the geocaching artifact but couldn’t find it. He estimates he spent about ten minutes there, and the entire time he kept seeing the same shadowy figure running through the woods nearby. He would appear in one place and then disappear and pop up another place.
Barbara had an even scarier experience at the bunker. She admits she made a few wrong turns to get on the road, but she was on her way to meet her boyfriend to do a little mudding on the backroads. It was a little after midday, which is why it surprised her that a man should appear in the road out of nowhere. “I’m telling you, and you’re going to think I’m crazy, but he was not there and then he was there.” She admits her mind was somewhere else, but that there was no way he could have come out of the trees and into the middle of the road so quickly. She described the man as looking more like a black bear. “It wasn’t though. I just mean it was this thick black color and was really tall.” She immediately hit the breaks and skidded to a stop but felt as if she had hit whoever was standing there. When she got out, there were no footprints and no evidence anyone had been there.
“I was about to give up. The thorns were too much, and I was hot and pretty scared. I turned the corner to start to go back to my car. He was just standing there in my way. No face, nothing. But I could tell he was staring at me.” Allen brought his flashlight up, but there was nothing there. He started to run back to the road, straight in the direction he had come from. He ran and ran, but for some reason he could not make it back to 77. “I started to pray. I asked to please help me out, and then there was the road.” When he checked his watch, more than an hour had passed, although he was only there for about twenty five minutes.
That was when she heard what sounded like moans from the woods. “I wasn’t driving fast, but I thought maybe I knocked him into the trees.” She followed the sound, which she realized afterwards kept coming from deeper into the woods. After a few minutes she came across the bunker. “I’m not sure how tall that thing is, but there was no ladder or anything. There is no way he could have gotten to the top that fast.” Barbara says the figure was sitting cross-legged on the top looking in her direction. “Except there were no eyes. It was just this black thing in the shape of a man with no face. It looked like it was wearing a cape or something and a hat. I don’t think it was human.” She ran back to her car and drove immediately home, making an excuse to her boyfriend as to why she never met him and telling no on about what happened until years later.
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