My youngest daughter, Peeps, loves scary stuff. Movies, stories, games- all of it. Ever since she was 4 (she’s now 6) she’s loved Halloween because that’s the one time of the year that scary stories are ENCOURAGED, and out of all her friends, her stories are the scariest.

In fact, back in June I had a neighborhood parent yell at me because their kid was totally freaked out to go to the park. Apparently my daughter told their kid a “very scary” story about a “man in the woods”. I had a talk with her, telling her that not everyone likes scary things, and though she seemed rather shook (like she scared herself with her own story) she promised to go apologise. Still, nobody’s kids played at the park for the rest of the summer, and they all started to have theories and ideas about the “Man”.

It’s a very superstitious neighborhood, and I’ve heard no shortage of tales about “Indian Burial Grounds”, haunted homes, ghosts, spirits, and all manner of creepy legends and supernatural anecdotes from the adults living here. So it’s no stretch of the imagination to think of how the neighborhood children responded to the idea of a “Man in the Woods” (especially since last year’s “killer clown” incidents). As time passed, the myth grew.

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I will admit that the woods really are weird, though. When near them there’s this lurking, voyeuristic feeling that pervades through and induces an uneasiness that’s I struggle to describe. On a quiet evening or night, when walking by them you can hear twigs snapping and leaves crunching. The area is pretty rural, so I know it’s just animals, but it’s still super creepy when alone. Have you ever walked into your bathroom, noticed the shower curtain was closed, and began to panic slightly while imagining who could be in the tub? If so...that. That feeling. That’s how our woods feel always.

Anyway, the stories started getting out of control. Some kids claim that “they told me, he said, she heard” that “The Man” tried to lure them into the woods. My own kids were too freaked out to go to the park. Eventually, the office had to issue a statement assuring all residents that there was no “Man in the Woods”, and asking them to both reassure their kids and tell them to stop spreading this tale because it was getting out of control.

Not long afterward, mid-August, a neighbor had the idea of heading into the woods and looking around. His thinking being that the neighborhood would calm down if we came back empty handed, and also that we should err on the side of caution by investigating (ounce of prevention and whatnot). He asked my brother and me to join him on his “Man” hunt. So, we obliged.

We decided to journey out on a particularly bright day to look around. I had my hat (because I didn’t have sunglasses), my brother had his sunglasses (because he didn’t have a hat), and the neighbor had snide comments about not being able to “handle a little sun”.

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The plan was to enter the woods near my building, work our way up and around the park, then head down the other side- thus sweeping the entire wooded perimeter of the whole complex. After we walked through and came back empty handed, the neighborhood could calm down.

It was exactly what we expected, at first. Little paths wound through the trees, forcing us into single-file formation as we marched quietly. Sometimes we would fuck with one another, sometimes we stopped because somebody thought they heard something, and nerves undoubtedly played a role in the already-palpable atmosphere of the ominous growth. But overall, there was nothing out of the ordinary.

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Until we were behind the park.

Near the basketball court it was just regular old woods. That area had the least amount of pathways to walk on and we were mostly trudging through a thicket of “elephant ears”, those stupid things with the sticky, round, Velcro-on-Steroids seeds, and a myriad of other plant life. But as we made our way behind the jungle gym area, it was like night and day.

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Plenty of paths- some large enough for two adults to walk side-by-side in relative comfort- criss crossed the area, and there were little clearings strewn about. It was the kind of area I would have loved as a child, especially since there was a clear walkway from the jungle gym to where we were standing. I stood soaking it in and daydreaming for a moment.

“Dude, what the fuck is THAT?” My brother, eloquent as always, snapped me back to the present.

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“Strange,” the neighbor added.

I was about to ask, “what?” But I noticed as soon as I turned around.

Toward the back end of the woods, in a little clearing all its own, there lay a mattress. Old, dirty, and stained, with a few minor rips and tears, but a mattress nonetheless. We were incredulous. Why was a mattress, a nasty mattress at that, here...in the middle of the woods? Obviously we had to check out this anomaly. We began our approach, cautiously. As we got closer we saw all the beer cans.

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Some looked very old, stomped into the ground by footsteps and weather. Some were definitely newer- still containing those last few drops of liquid that prevent finished drinks from truly being empty. There was also garbage- empty Doritos and jerky bags, candy wrappers, and other foodstuffs. The neighbor, being more, shall we say...rurally inclined, pointed out a “tree stand” above us, saying that the area was too small and too close to residential property for hunting. We were more than a little freaked out, assuming I even have to say that.

Basically, we either stumbled upon the lair of a psycho killer or the party spot for local teens, and considering that our journey hadn’t started off as trying to figure out where teenagers could be partying... We decided to continue on through the woods.

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We finished our jaunt with nary an incident after that. Despite all the hairs on my neck standing up and losing my hat...

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As quickly as the stories had appeared, they faded with similar speed (I like to think our “brave” trek played a role). The end of summer/start of school began to guzzle up all the available focus from the kids, and things went back to normal rather swiftly. After a month of learning and homework, the “Man in the Woods” had all but disappeared from conscienceness.

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I’m thinking now we should have paid more attention.

After school on October 6, we were all hanging outside my brother’s apartment. Damn near every kid in the complex decided that Friday was the perfect time to hang around our area. That aside, it was a typical day, our kids were playing, the adults were bullshitting, etc. This little boy from the building behind ours showed up with some toy guns, and Peeps decided to teach him how to play “Metal Gear”.

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As the day wore down, so did the number of kids. By dinner time, the vast majority of the random kids were gone. By dusk the rest left, along with the little boy, leaving behind only close friends and family. After the sun was gone and everyone was cleaning up, Phoenix realised the little boy had left two guns behind and asked if she could go return them. My partner said she could, and she happily skipped off into the blackness towards the other building.

Quite a few minutes passed when I realised she was taking kinda long to return. I asked if she had returned without me knowing and my partner said no, so we walked over to the side of the building to see where she was.

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We saw her frozen at the neighbor’s door. I don’t know how to explain this, but it was clear just by looking at her that she was afraid- like she was hiding at the door- and she was looking off to the side.

“What is she doing?” I asked my partner.

“I...I dunno,” she replied before calling to our kid, “Peeps! Just leave the gun there if nobody’s ans-”

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Before she could finish the sentence, Peeps dropped the guns and came running toward us like she was being chased. Tears streamed across her face and a look of sheer terror was etched so visibly in her expression that worry instantly started to fill in my body.

I have never in my life seen her scared like that.

“MOMMY!!” she screamed when halfway across the parking lot. We walked a little closer and she ran to our embrace.

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“There’s a Man! There’s a Man in the Woods and he’s trying to get me!”

“Calm down a second, baby,” her mother said. “What are you talking about?”

We took her around to the front so she could sit down, take a drink, and explain. She said she went walking down to the little boy’s house to return his guns. Halfway between buildings, she noticed a man standing by the woods. His eyes were “all black” (probably from shadow) and his clothes were dark, all she could see were his hands and his “scary smile”. She said at first his hands were up in “a monster grab” position, but as she got closer to the building “he started waving them like ‘come here’”. She was really scared so she ran to the little boy’s house and started knocking at the door, hoping they would answer before “the Man came and got [her].”

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By this point, all the other adults came over to take turns questioning her and her mom (and since not one of them is a lawyer, no one could say “Objection, leading”).

I didn’t know what to do or think, I went to talk to my brother about it. The way we saw it, if someone WAS there (and my kid’s demeanor told me there was) they wouldn’t still be there after hearing us yelling. So any attempts to catch them had to occur on a different night. The ladies felt differently, and as they left in a hunting pack to search the perimeter, our neighbor came over to us (the one we walked with before).

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“You reckon she’s telling the truth?” I told him I did. “Ok. I got an idea on how to catch this guy. But we gotta at least wait until tomorrow, he’s prolly gone now.” We told him we agreed.

“I’ll come over after work to discuss the plan. But you guys gotta keep it between us, word spreads way too fast here and if it turns out to be a neighbor...”

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He wasn’t kidding about how fast a story spreads, either. Before the “hunting pack” even left, my partner’s phone was utterly inundated with calls and texts from friends and neighbors- some of who we never spoke with- wanting the story. People came out of the woodwork that night to join the search and get a slice of that hot goss.

Meanwhile, the kids were having their own gossip session. They were asking Peeps different questions about what he looked like and what went down, while also throwing in their own 2 cents on “His” appearance and their own “encounters”.

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“No, he spoke to me. He was like, ‘Hey kid, come here I have presents!’...” “I heard he dresses like a clown and...” “My cousin had to fight him off!...”

I told the guys it was good that we already got the story from Peeps already, because her version of events would be super warped once everyone was done telling their own stories. That’s when I was informed that a helpful neighbor had called the police. Something I only then realised had never crossed my mind.

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The first officer arrived about 20 minutes after everything happened. Pretty fast, all things considered. Another neighbor pointed him our way, and he came to speak with me and my partner.

We told him our version of events, informed him of another child who swore this had happened, and introduced him to Peeps so she could share her tale. He talked to her and had her take him to where she saw the “Man”. He looked around the area before returning and asking for the Man’s description. My previous worry was validated as Peeps described the man in much more elaborate detail, adding in bits and pieces from the other kids’ accounts.

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Shortly after, another officer showed up, got the story from Cop #1, chided him for not taking our names, and proceeded to be “Doubting Dickhead Cop” (DDC) in contrast to “Compassionate Hero Cop” (CHC).

DDC decided to ask her about the incident without us being around, then go through all the same steps as CHC (with bonus, unknowingly-racist questions added in for flavor). When they all returned, DDC gave his professional opinion that our daughter made it all up in her imagination because of television, nothing was ever there, and it’s just a silly situation. CHC offered that she could have seen a deer’s eyes reflecting the lights off the building, but mostly agreed with that take on it.

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I told both officers about the mattress and beer cans, but they waved it off. “People dump shit in the woods all the time.”

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October 10, a day I will never forget.

We sent the kids off to school and went to lay back down until around lunch time. That nap was cut short by the sound of police sirens around 10 o’clock, followed shortly by my partner’s phone going wild. She checked it and said she had to go talk to the neighbors.

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I could hear her from the window, a bunch of people were near our building and they were all talking to her. She text me shortly after.

Her:”They found him.”

Me:”Who?”

Her:”The Man in the Woods. [Somebody] was walking their dog and they saw him.”

Me:”Wtf?!”

Her:”Yeah. Guess it wasn’t just tv, huh?”

Me:”Or deer.”

I text my brother to see if he knew what was going on, but he was at work. The group outside received some news that made them get real intense.

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Her:”OMG babe he ran into the empty apartment!!!”

The people who lived behind my brother had moved out recently and no one had moved in yet.

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Me:”He’s trapped now. Po po gonna gitum! Lol”

Despite it being on the opposite side and end of our place, I could hear the bumping around through the walls. The Man must’ve been trying to find a way to escape.

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Her:”They’re headin down from the woods now & look pissed! Guns drawn :O”

The bumping sound started to intensify and I was real confused as I tried to think of explanations for how. As the sounds made their way overhead and realization began to form in my brain, I received another text.

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Her:”What about the attic?”

That’s right. Every apartment has a closet with access to the “attic”. It’s really just a crawlspace, a little area between the ceiling and roof. Technically, you could enter any apartment from another using it.

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I heard sounds coming from my closet.

I quickly looked around and grabbed a double-bladed Batman knife I received as a Christmas gift. I stood ready for attack, scared shitless, in my boxers and t-shirt. I heard him drop into the closet.

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My closet door began to open, and there he was. A tall, lanky man, clean shaven. He wore black jeans, a dark blue hoodie, working boots...and my hat. He had dark eyes and an evil look on his face. We stood there for an eternal moment, staring at each other.

I’d like to say that I did something. I lunged, I screamed, I slashed, anything. I’d like to say I was overcome with “Fight or Flight”- that, without thinking, I just DID. But I didn’t. No fight, no flight, just “freeze”. I stood frozen, mouth half-open, throat too dry to speak. He looked at my knife, then back, winked (he fucking winked at me!) and ran downstairs.

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I was still standing there, sweat now pouring down my face, hands trembling, when I heard my front door open and the group outside shriek. My partner began calling out to me, audibly worried. I snapped out of my trance, grabbed my phone and headed outside.

When I got there, the police were already heading back into the woods, and more sirens could be heard approaching from all around. I saw DDC running into the woods with a few other officers and I couldn’t help but think of all the things I’d like to say if he caught the guy.

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Off in the distance we all heard shouting from the police, followed by some gunfire. We saw a cop come bolting out of the woods like an Olympic sprinter. Wait, no...it was the Man! He was headed straight at us.

Everyone scattered back except me. Not because I was brave, quite the opposite. I was once again frozen in place, watching this man barrel closer and closer, getting larger with every step.

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“Babe, move!” my partner screamed. But I couldn’t. I just stood there like an idiot.

Right before impact, someone came from my left and tackled the Man to the ground. It was CHC, and I stood there as he read the Man his Miranda rights.

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...

The Man had no ID, and no one knew who he was. So far, police have found a couple areas where he allegedly stayed, and I hear that there’s a few local kidnappings he might be linked to. As for me, I’ve decided to take my daughter seriously the next time her stories involve real things.