Weird NJ

Weird N.J. is a publication that has undergone an evolution in format. It went from a newsletter to a fanzine to a magazine, with a spin-off series of coffee table books to expand the empire. You’ve likely seen the Weird U.S. series in Barnes and Noble, orange title lettering on a black background, an edition for your state or region. It all dates back to a photocopied newsletter produced in the late 80s by Mark Sceurman.

This newsletter, subtitled at the time “A Newsletter and Travel Guide to N.J.’s Unknown Byways and Best-Kept Secrets,” spent its first few years as a brief, photocopied list of sites in New Jersey that were home to unusual creations or the sites of unexplained phenomena. After being profiled in a newspaper, Sceurman bound the first three issues of his (brief) newsletter into a fanzine. At this point, he set to work on a fourth issue, to meet the demand of his new audience. This fanzine would come out every year, continuously growing more sophisticated in formatting and content (Issue 6, in 1995, was the first to be designed on a computer, Issue 7 was the first to utilize the internet). For their 8th issue, Sceurman joined with a collaborator, graphic designer Mark Moran, and turned their fanzine into a magazine intended for mass publication. Two decades later, they are going strong, with two glossy issues published per year.

The content of Weird N.J. is varied. There is a small but consistent run of urban exploration stories, dating back to these early newsletter and zine issues. When I reached out to the creators, they sent me a selection of more recent issues that, in their opinion, contained their best recent work on UE (the topic of my next column); but I thought that an investigation into Weird N.J.’s roots and zine period was warranted.

The publication’s content is hard to concisely summarize. The current tagline is “Your Travel Guide to N.J’s Local Legends and Best-Kept Secrets” (changed from the earlier “Unknown Byways” and secrets), and the cover in the zine years lists “odd sites – legends – news – hauntings – roadside archaeology.” These early issues had a smattering of contributions regarding abandoned buildings and the exploration thereof. Most of the contributions involve unusual locations (historical and contemporary), and encounters with the supernatural. Some of these accounts are interesting in a folkloric context, but many are formulaic and untraceable accounts of unexplained phenomena. Weird N.J.’s disclaimer shifts from issue to issue, but accounts for both the supernatural content and the UE content. From the reprinted fourth, fifth, and sixth issue:

Weird N.J. assumes no responsibility for trespassers who cross private property. It is illegal to trespass. Leave that to us professionals. WNJ is intended (as entertainment) to present a historical record of our state’s local legends, modern folklore and sites throughout New Jersey that have previously gone unrecorded…

This is not to say that the supernatural content is uninteresting; some of it is well presented, irrespective of its place on the earnestness/skepticism scale. Some of it is a form of meta-commentary on the subject. For instance Issue 7’s “An Old-Time Space Convention” by R. Lee Evans is an account of a local UFO convention held in the ‘50s.

Weird N.J. casts a wide net for its content, and there is something for off-beat connoisseurs of all types. From the beginning, in addition to plugging organizations like the Forteans and the North American Bigfoot Information Network, Sceurman has also put in a word for the Society for Commercial Archaeology, which concerns itself with the products of 20th century American capitalism. This subject, “roadside archaeology” as some call it, has cast a welcome eye on cultural artifacts that may otherwise go overlooked, due to their comparative “recentness” in the social memory. Low-budget roadside attractions are a particular focus. I’m reminded of the protagonist in William Gibson’s short story “The Gernsback Continuum,” who becomes too immersed in the photography of depression-era “raygun gothic” architecture and trappings and begins to hallucinate the streamlined, technophilic 1930s vision of the utopian future. The idea of the SCA is similar to some aspects of the more intellectualized parts of urban exploration, that buildings from certain historical time periods are a literally irretrievable part of our urban fabric, and can give some insight into the thought processes of that day.

These first seven Weird N.J. issues, its newsletter and zine years (which are available as reprints), do have a few items that are of interest to urban explorers. Though abandoned sites weren’t explicitly on Sceurman’s radar in the newsletter days, these issues did include the location of the abandoned Bertrand Island amusement park; ghost towns in the Pine Barrens (accessible by boat only); Sea Breeze, a decrepit shoreline where derelict ships often wash up (with an excellent picture); and an abandoned insane asylum in Cedar Grove (noted only briefly). There is also recurring attention to interesting junkyards with antique wrecks, which I would have found thrilling in my proto-UE youth. These newsletters follow a simple format, being essentially a typewritten list; but they are jazzed up by art here and there, and from the beginning included interviews with radio hosts and ghost researchers.

The fourth issue, where the newsletter transitions into a fanzine, contains information on an abandoned mansion near Bernardsville. This entry is signed by John Trembly, and does have a brief tale of entering the building (and mysterious footprints in the snow). The same writer also sends in an abandoned sanitarium in Edison, with notes from inside the fenced-off building. There is also an entry on an abandoned ferry on the side of the Jersey Turnpike, which a later letter-writer will thank the zine for providing the back-story (a frequent occurrence).

The fourth and fifth issues are somewhat more sophisticated in format than the newsletters, but advances such as wrap-around text have to wait until the computer-made sixth issue, which clearly provided many more artistic options. John Trembly writes in again to the fifth issue, sending a letter on another mysterious building, neighboring a convent and near the previously-discussed mansion. Other items in this issue are an abandoned railroad turntable in Boonton, from Mark Boyer, who also sent in information on accessible railroad tunnels. An article from American Heritage also speaks of a man named Michael Kauffman who discovered the original mooring lines intended for the Hindenburg, stored in an underground hatch. Meanwhile, there is also a centerfold in this issue regarding Weird N.J.’s series featured on a local news channel.

In the sixth issue, John Trembly appears again to give another update on the mansion, called the Peapack-Gladstone House. It is facing the wrecking ball at this point, two years after its first written appearance. This issue also has an interview with New Jersey natives Doug Kirby and Ken Smith, authors of Roadside America; as well as a profile of Cross Castle, another abandoned mansion that was torn down. An anonymous Marc also adds a story on searching for the Nike missile bases, abandoned anti-aircraft launch sites in various states of abandonment and reuse.

The seventh issue, the final one before Weird N.J went mainstream, includes a letter from Mr. Trembly, investigating an abandoned town mentioned by another letter-writer. Other than that, there is not much UE content, though the issue is much more graphically interesting and has many good articles written by various contributors. Sceurman does have an article interviewing Matt Little, a local historian in Stanhpoe who investigates the cave systems of Sussex County. The zine’s design is showing contributions from Mark Moran, who will team with Sceurman to bring the zine to mass publication.

In creating Weird N.J., Mark Sceurman was clearly able to find an engaged niche audience, as it only took a few years until he was able to launch his magazine as a for-profit venture. In the republished seventh issue, he says “it was just a fanzine of two guys with our friends who travel around New Jersey in search of its weirdly odd landscapes. Our philosophy has always been that the weirdest site has yet to be discovered.” The mix of content does an excellent job of evoking the ghost-stories-around-the-campfire mentality that clearly appeals to the magazine’s audience. Sceurman was lucky to add Mark Moran for the expansion of his project, whom he lists as the 52nd person to contact him about the fanzine. Moran’s graphic design talents are clearly felt in helping to professionalize the magazine. Many of the sites that were briefly noted in the early issues of Weird N.J. are explored in greater detail in subsequent issues; as the creators had no idea at the time of first documentation that they would launch such a long-running enterprise.

The authors themselves suggested to me that other issues of Weird N.J. were the best in terms of urban exploration content, but I found that an investigation of the first issues of the newsletter turned fanzine turned magazine show the roots of UE entwining with the roots of the magazine. It isn’t strictly an urban exploration zine, but Weird N.J. is definitely worth continued attention on this front, as it is still being published and shows no sign of slowing down.