Decoder Ring

How Do You Start a Conspiracy Theory?

The wild and woolly tale of Ong’s Hat.

Credit: Benjamin Frisch
Benjamin Frisch

The Pine Barrens is a forest of more than a million acres that sprawls across the southern part of New Jersey. It’s thick with pines, oaks, wildlife, and carnivorous plants, but it’s called the “barrens” because of its acidic, sandy soil, which prevented early settlers from cultivating crops there. And so the Pine Barrens is barren in another sense, too: There’s almost no one there.

Starting in the late 1700s, a town called Ong’s Hat began appearing on maps of the northwest corner of the Pines. Ong was the surname of a family that had lived in the area, but it’s unlikely there was ever a real settlement there beyond a building or two. Nevertheless, the location stayed on maps into the 2000s, and to this day, people show up in the Pine Barrens looking for it.

These searchers aren’t just looking for a hidden village, though.

In 1978, a jazz musician named Wali Ford purchased 200 acres of land in the Pine Barrens, near Ong’s Hat, and set up an ashram there called the Moorish Science Ashram. It was for seekers interested in studying spirituality, radical politics, tantra, psychopharmacology, and other counterculture interests. A couple of former Princeton scientists ended up there, and other oddball researchers soon followed. They founded the Institute for Chaos Studies at the ashram, full of people who were interested in exploring hard science using esoteric, spiritual tools.

By the late ’80s they developed a device called The Egg to explore something called “cognitive chaos.” It was a kind of modified sensory deprivation chamber. They were hoping it would help them determine the point at which a wave becomes a particle. But during a test of The Egg, with a young man inside of it, the whole thing just disappeared. Seven minutes later, it came back, and the young man, who was still alive, told them what had happened: He had dived down to the quantum level and followed a wave all the way into an alternate dimension, into another version of Earth.

This other Earth is geologically similar to our own, thick with forest, but with no trace of human life. Over the next few years, the scientists moved their operation over to this alternate Earth, leaving behind only a secret laboratory where The Egg occasionally returns with its passengers to restock supplies.

OK—maybe you’re confused now—but allow yourself to sit in that confusion for a bit longer. Because that sensation, when you’re not quite sure when fact has ended and fiction has begun—that’s the essence of the Ong’s Hat legend.

And the Ong’s Hat legend is real, in the sense that it’s a real story that was relayed in a series of documents that first started appearing in 1989, hitting the peak of its popularity on the internet between 1999 and 2001. It’s a real story in the sense that those documents have now been downloaded 2 million times. It’s a real story in the sense that it is still inspiring real people to go to the real Pine Barrens, looking for Ong’s Hat. It’s a real story in the sense that it captivated thousands of people who encountered it on the early internet, and who didn’t quite know what it was—a spiritual quest, a game, a cult, the truth? All they knew is that they wanted to find out.

If you want to find out—listen to this episode of Decoder Ring.

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