I first read about the forest in Christopher Balzano's Dark Woods: Cults, Crime and and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest (2008). Balzano, a Massachusetts-based paranormal investigator, spent quite a bit of time talking with with Freetown residents about any strange experiences they may have had in the forest. As a result the book is mostly a collection of first-person accounts, which gives it an immediacy you don't find in books that are collections of older legends.
It also makes the book pretty creepy. The stories in it are the kind teenagers tell around a fire in the woods or that adults tell their close friends late at night after a few drinks. Ghosts? Little monsters? Serial killers? Undead witches? They're all in Dark Woods. To his credit, Balzano also acknowledges when there isn't any proof to back up a story, but that doesn't make these tales any less creepy.
Tony and I decided to focus our trip on the Assonet Ledge, a significant landmark in the Freetown Forest. (The word assonet is a Wampanoag word meaning "place of stones.") There are a variety of legends connected with the ledge, including stories of ghosts, weird lights, and malevolent little creatures.
Balzano proposes a few theories for why so many weird stories are associated with the Freetown State Forest. The area was possibly the site of Native American massacres at the hands of the Puritans, and it also sits inside the Bridgewater Triangle, an area notorious for paranormal phenomena.
After visiting the forest I can understand why it has a weird reputation. It was indeed creepy. I'm usually skeptical about the reality of paranormal phenomena, but as I've noted before it's easy for me to be a skeptic in the comfort of my well-lit house. Put me in the middle the woods and I'm more likely to at least admit the possibility of the supernatural. Put me in the middle of creepy woods and I'm almost a true believer!
|Does this feel welcoming to you? Me neither!|
The walk to the ledge just got more unsettling as we went along. There were creaking trees - lots and lots of them. Eventually the creaking trees gave way to trees that moaned and banged against each other in the wind. Good Lord, get this city boy out of the woods! There was litter as well, and some graffiti. Were we going to meet woodland demons or surly teenagers? And which would be worse?
We didn't meet either. (We did meet some teens, but they weren't particularly surly.) However, once we got to the ledge we both stopped feeling unsettle. The ledge was really big - about 50 or 60 feet high - and despite some graffiti it was beautiful. It wasn't creepy, it was impressive.
|He's hard to see, but there's a tiny person on top of this ledge. It's big!|
During the 17th century war between the Puritans and the Wampanoag and Narragansett Indians, several Indian warriors leapt to their deaths from the ledge rather than die at the hands of the English. Some visitors claim to have seen ghosts of Native Americans walking in the trees near the cliff. But as Balzano points out, the ledge and its pond didn't exist in the 17th century. Both are the result of 19th century granite quarrying. However, much of the land in the Freetown State Forest is actually a Wampanoag reservation, so there is an authentic Native American connection. Perhaps the ghosts died in some other way?
If that story doesn't strike your fancy, try this one. Many years ago, a young man and woman were deeply in love. They would meet secretly at the ledge at night because their families disapproved of their love. One night the woman arrived at the ledge and waited for her beau. She waited, and waited that night but he never came. In despair she threw herself off the ledge to her death in the cold water.
|Tony and some perfectly well-behaved teens on top of the ledge.|
It's hard to say if this story is true. It has all the hallmarks of a classic legend (doomed lovers, a ghost, etc.) but there has been at least one actual suicide at the ledge. In 2004 a man visiting the Assonet ledge leapt to his death in front of his friends and girlfriend. His family said he had no previous history of depression or ever expressed suicidal thoughts. In addition to this one authenticated suicide there are several that have been rumored, and some visitors to the ledge claim they've felt compelled to jump (but happily haven't).
Other weird phenomena beyond human ghosts have been encountered at the site. For example, glowing lights have been seen in the pond. Souls of people who died at the ledge, perhaps, or something else? The Freetown State Forest is said to be the stomping ground for Pukwudgies, small elfish creatures of Native American lore. I'll do a separate post about the Freetown Pukwudgies later, but they are said to delight in pushing people off cliffs...
|Saying goodbye to the Assonet Ledge.|