Today we're going to go way down a rabbit hole with some seriously unexpected twists and turns. It began as an urban legend you'd only find out about if you subscribed to certain mail order newsletters. It grew and became a local legend, centered around a place called Ong's Hat, New Jersey, the setting for the mind-blowing events described in the legend. We're traveling not just into this deep green forest, but much farther indeed; perhaps even into another dimension. This is the story of a story, either one or both of which you may have heard. And if you haven't, then prepare for a storytelling experience unlike anything you've heard before.
The story goes that in the late 1970s, a commune formed on 200 acres of land in New Jersey's Pine Barrens, a flat expanse of coastal plain thick with forests, at a spot known as Ong's Hat. The commune was called the Moorish Science Ashram, and was frequented by intellectuals, spiritualists, writers, musicians, and activists. They practiced transcendentalism, psychopharmacology, and wrote and talked about the limits of science and spiritualism. Some of the scientists who lived there began to take these ideas more seriously, and founded a lab they called the ICS, or Institute for Chaos Studies. They experimented with chaos theory, with time, with psychedelic drugs, and with quantum mechanics.
What happened next is what brought the story to the public attention. The ICS had built a sort of pod that they called an Egg. A person would be sealed inside wearing a helmet full of sensors and watching a computer screen with animations designed to put them into some strange state of consciousness. Finally on one occasion, one of the ashram's original residents — a runaway boy named Kit — undertook a journey in the Egg. The entire device vanished. When it reappeared a few minutes later, Kit reported he'd been transported to another world in another dimension. Soon many of the scientists and other residents had made the journey. And, gradually, they became fewer in number. The ICS used the egg to transport themselves, and their entire enterprise, to that other world — where they presumably remain today, only occasionally reappearing in the Egg for fresh supplies. What was left of the ashram fell into abandon, and today nothing remains but forest.
From what's available online, it looks like writer Joseph Matheny was the first to investigate the events at Ong's Hat, and published a book called Ong's Hat: The Beginning. He'd managed to do quite a bit of investigation, and even recorded an audio interview that he did with two young men who had grown up on the ashram. Matheny had also unearthed a brochure for the ICS, titled Ong's Hat: Gateway to the Dimensions, which laid out the whole experiment with the Egg. Matheny made the brochure available via mail order, but to get the ball rolling before anyone had heard of it, he began by stuffing it into the envelopes of people who subscribed to other similar newsletters. Once they began spreading it virally, other people started learning about it. Then as computer bulletin boards took over from these back-of-a-magazine newsletters, Matheny loaded his story up there where more people could find it and share it. Then when the Internet began to appear he put it online there too, and somewhere in this process, the story of Ong's Hat achieved critical mass and marketed itself. Interest began to spread. County offices in New Jersey started getting inquiries about where people might be able to find this place. It achieved a sort of minor cult status among certain communities.
By the 2000s, not only were there actually hikers walking the trails of the Pine Barrens looking for Ong's Hat, but the size of the body of online content written about the ICS experiment grew so large, with so many tie-ins to legitimate names and books and places, that few who followed it doubted that one of the most extraordinary thresholds in the story of humanity had actually been crossed.
But when you stop to think about all of this, from the perspective of a Skeptoid style investigation, one obvious question looms up. What was the source of this amazing tale, and where did Joseph Matheny get all of his information about it?
To explain what happened, I'm going to lay some groundwork by referring you back to someplace unexpected: last week's episode #657 on the Illuminati. When we see pop stars and other celebrities today holding their hands up in the triangle symbol — possibly hoping to persuade their fans that they are members of the Illuminati which they believe to be an ancient, all-powerful sect — we learned that this legend really only goes back a few decades, to a little piece of cultural engineering dreamed up by a few writers at Playboy magazine. Robert Anton Wilson created the reader feedback campaign in the magazine, and co-authored a novel trilogy, that essentially created the entirety of modern belief in a powerful shadow cabal called the Illuminati. It was a fascinating example of how a well-planned and well-executed cultural engineering campaign can effectively create a whole mythology which not only survives, but actually flourishes and persists for decades. Today, intelligent people honestly believe that the Illuminati exist — thanks mainly to Robert Anton Wilson.
When we look into the background literature for Ong's Hat, guess whose name we find: Robert Anton Wilson. That should set the tone for where we can expect the rabbit hole of Ong's Hat to lead. Wilson is mentioned several times throughout Joseph Matheny's writings. In his book, Matheny wrote of having lived in Santa Cruz, California with a group of academics, authors, and pioneers of the psychedelic movement — a group who called themselves the Formless Ocean Group. Among them was Robert Anton Wilson. It was from these folks that Matheny — according to his legend — learned of and first read a collection of documents titled The Incunabula Papers. Supposedly, these papers are how he first learned of the experiments at Ong's Hat.
The Formless Ocean Group — which never actually existed outside of Matheny's fiction — appears to have been based on other similar groups of counterculture intellectuals who came together, lived together, worked and wrote together, got high and broke new ground. Think of the free-living occultists who lived at Jack Parson's house in Los Angeles called the Parsonage and founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as described in the book Sex and Rockets; or those who gathered at the New Jersey property of paranormalist Ivan T. Sanderson called the Farm and refined the New Age mythologies of ley lines, ancient aliens, and the Bermuda Triangle.
To avoid getting too complicated and layering too many story elements on you all at once here, let's take a moment to see exactly what these Incunabula Papers are — or would be, if they were not a fictional invention. First, the title doesn't mean much; an incunabula is simply the word for any book published before the year 1500. The papers comprise a short catalog that appears to have been published by Incunabula Press (which is not a real company) for 1990-1991, edited by Emory Cranston (not a real person). It lists a few paragraphs for each of twenty seven books, articles, pamphlets, or collections. Some are real books that actually exist, like CHAOS: Making a New Science by science writer James Gleick; others are fictional books that do not exist, such as Spiritual Materialism by the New Catholic Church of the Pantarchy; and others are fake works ostensibly written by actual people, such as a nonsense paper called "Holistic Physics, or an Introduction to Quantum Tantra" by the actual physicist Nick Herbert. Together, all these works comprise the history and theoretical foundation for the Ong's Hat story. They give the story of the researchers traveling with the Egg, and they include plenty of both real and fake science seemingly proving that the experiment was both possible and a factual event.
In a nutshell, the entire story of Ong's Hat was a fictional work, created mostly if not entirely by Matheny. Nothing about it checks out. There are no corroborating reports of any group ever calling themselves the Formless Ocean Group, and no record of any of its members living at its given address in Santa Cruz. There never was an Institute for Chaos Studies at the ashram; indeed, there never was a Moorish Science Ashram. No acres were ever purchased in the Pine Barrens in 1978. No group of runaway boys ever lived there. About the only thing that does have a grain of truth is the name of the place itself, Ong's Hat.
Some of what we know about Ong's Hat comes from records that thoroughly predate Matheny's narrative, notably the book The Ong Family of America, published in 1906 by Dr. Albert R. Ong, and donated to the New York Public Library in 1914 by Eugene W. Ong. With proper references to the official recorded documents, this book tells us that in 1702, Sarah Ong and her son Jacob purchased 100 acres in Mansfield Township from Daniel Leeds. Skeptoid listeners may recognize the name; publisher Daniel Leeds was the very same unpopular former British colonial official whose own family history was satirized by Patriots into the monster today known as the Jersey Devil. (I would just like to add how much I love it whenever there is some unexpected intersection between two Skeptoid episodes that seemingly have nothing to do with one another.)
I could even draw a full circle, from Matheny's Formless Ocean Group, to Ivan Sanderson's Farm, to the Bigfoots and other cryptids that Sanderson pursued, to the Jersey Devil, to Daniel Leeds, and right back around to Matheny's ashram. The fabric of our cultural legends is richly interwoven indeed.
What's lacking from the story, however, is a reliable account of where the name Ong's Hat came from. A man named Isaac Haines opened a tavern on the property about a century after the Ongs bought it from Leeds, and though the name of the tavern is not recorded in any official documents, it may have been called Ong's Hat with a picture of a hat on its sign, as many locals were illiterate. The version of the name's origin presented in Matheny's lore, however, is different: it asserts that there was a popular dance hall there as well as a small village; one dancer whose last name was Ong wore a fine hat, which someone tossed up into a tree where it remained, thus giving its name to the town. The idea of there being a dance hall there is at odds with what little known history we have. There is no evidence that the region called Ong's Hat ever had more than one or two small dwellings on the property. When we strip away the story elements and are left only with stark reality, we find Ong's Hat is as barren as the Pine Barrens in which it is nestled.
Some say Matheny was trying to create a game, a type called an Alternate Reality Game, a kind of real world adventure where people follow a storyline, find clues, and solve puzzles. But there really aren't any puzzles or solutions in Ong's Hat. It's just information, the fabric of a detailed urban legend, which you can choose to believe or not; you can take a deep dive and research thoroughly, or you can laugh it off as a silly story. Either way, Matheny did pull off a feat of cultural engineering by inserting the Ong's Hat mythology firmly into pop culture.
What does Matheny himself have to say? Well, he's as cryptic as ever — stating that he's kind of done talking about it, but he's not yet giving any hint that he might have made it all up. Visit his website at josephmatheny.com to read ten times as much about Ong's Hat as I've touched on here today. And if you do, hang onto your Hat.
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