Growing up in Central New Jersey, there were two things we could always count on; an influx of people from North Jersey invading our hometowns along the shore every summer, and Weird NJ coming out twice a year.
Reading Weird NJ was a rite of passage for many people my age, and I’m sure still is for teenagers today. I remember when I came across it for the very first time when I was 15, in a magazine rack at Barnes and Noble, and tearing through it in no time. I was enthralled by the stories within its pages, the tales of the paranormal and slightly off-kilter, all taking place within my home state. How could that be possible?!
Of course, since I was the oldest of my friends, and wasn’t old enough to drive, it was another two years before I was able to go out to discover some of these local legends for myself. The first one that I had to see for myself was the Midget House, mostly because it was actually located in my town of Brick, NJ, and come on, who doesn’t want to see a house that was dwarf sized? So, late one night, my friend Mike and I set out to find it. It took a few tries, despite it being located in a residential neighborhood, but eventually, we found it. We stared in awe out of windshield. We had found our mecca.
From there, the obsession just got worse.
The two of us went to William Paterson University, in Wayne, NJ, which was conveniently located in the heart of many of these weird locations. It was a 20 minute drive to Shades of Death Road, Clinton Road, Midgetville (yes, we had a thing for these dwarfed dwellings now), and so much more. Of course, we always went to observe, never disrespect, these locations. We were interested but wanted to leave it alone for the next group to see.
Over the years, I never grew out of my love for Weird NJ. As a kid who grew up in love with all the weird stories, legends, and things that go bump in the night, it was like Weird NJ was made just for me. Even after college, I continued to purchase the latest issue and read it in one sitting. Years later, and a book series was released; at first, just for NJ, but then for other states as well. And then books about ghost stories were made under their banner (in which I actually contributed stories to both!). A TV series soon followed for a few episodes. Weird mania was sweeping the nation! Hell, I live across the country now, and STILL have them delivered to me every 6 months. I don’t miss much about NJ, but Weird NJ is definitely one of those things I will never, ever let go.
The magazine started in the early 90s as a newsletter that Mark Sceurman circulated to his friends that featured weird local news items, folk tales, and things of that nature. When he had an article written about him in the Bergen Record in 1992, others began to reach out to him for the newsletter. He stapled together his first three newsletters, and sent it out as the very first issue of Weird NJ.
From there, Sceurman got a letter from Mark Moran, after having read the article, and wanted to help. The two partnered up, and the magazine has been non-stop ever since. Readers began to send them tales, which they would publish. By the time they got to the 8th issue, they decided they had to begin investigating these things for themselves.
While the Marks, as they are affectionately called, are the creators, publishers, and the life blood of the magazine, they have also assembled a team that helps keep it running. One of those team members is Joanne Austin, who is currently Senior Editor of the magazine.
I first “met” Austin through the internet, when I submitted a story for Weird NJ about a ghostly encounter I had at William Paterson while I was attending. She contacted me to tell me they were compiling a new “Weird” book about hauntings, and if I would be interested in my story appearing in the book as opposed to the magazine. Of course, I agreed, because who doesn’t want their freaky ghost story seen by all? The book, Weird Hauntings, came out in 2006, and while I am biased, I think it is great.
With kept in contact over the years, and I’ve always found her to be incredibly warm and friendly. Despite chatting quite a bit, it may surprise you that we STILL have yet to meet in person. It’s been almost 10 years, and pretty much all of our interactions have been over email and instant messages, despite living in the same state for most of that time! However, that didn’t stop the friendship we do have.
After the latest issue of Weird NJ arrived in my mailbox, and with having HorrorBuzz as an outlet now, I thought it was high time Joanne could a little bit of the spotlight for her work within the Weird NJ world. As senior editor, she is, to me at least, the unsung hero of the magazine. Editing is not an easy job, especially when you have writers of all skill sets sending things in. Austin is the person who makes sure everything is readable when someone picks up the magazine, with one story flowing into the next in a coherent manner. It may not seem like a lot, but trust me, it’s a hard job, and the fact that you probably don’t even notice her work shows how good she is at it.
“Weird NJ is an aspect of New Jersey where weirdness is not judged, but celebrated,” said Austin when asked what Weird NJ meant to her. “The state’s residents have a particular attitude…maybe because we’re always the underdog compared to other states. You get tired of being asked what exit you live off of, especially when you know there’s so much in this state that is great, weird or not. So it’s a little bit of that combined with what we call the “weird eye,” which is being able to see the odd in things that other people just pass over. The weird eye is not unique to New Jersey residents, but for those of us who have it, we’re like Ninjas.”
Austin got involved in the magazine after it was featured in the Newark Star-Ledger article in 1998. After reading the article, she knew it was the perfect fit for her, having almost all of the same interests. She sent a story in to them, entitled “The Doll House of Salem Street”, along with some photos that she took of another site in her town. Both were published in Issue #10.
As a kid, Austin was always interested in the weird stuff. She loved watching reruns of In Search Of and Project Blue Book on TV, and watched all of the scary movies they’d show on early Saturday afternoons. When she was 12, she received a copy of a Readers Digest compilation called Mysteries of the Unexplained, which she read a few times, mostly because it had everything weird in it: spontaneous combustion, alien abductions, cryptids, and ghosts. She still has the book.
She even had a close encounter herself, after seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when she saw oddly-lit clouds in the sky…just like in the film.
“It was more than likely heat lightning, but it definitely made an impact on me,” she said.
When she submitted her original stories to the magazine, she also made the offer to help other submissions. While the Marks didn’t take her up on the offer right away, when they began working on their special issue about Clinton Road, they asked if she could help assemble the stories into some kind of order, do some editing, and write the introduction. After that first foray, they invited her, and a few others, back to help with the magazine when the Weird books and TV show began to really take off.
“I started to write the News and Updates section for them at that time,” she said. “The key thing here is I was now getting paid in actual money, as opposed to free copies of the magazine. So that was nice! And eventually, I became senior editor, though it’s still strictly a part-time, freelance gig.”
When it comes to the actual time spent editing each issue, it usually varies. According to Austin, Sceurman will spend six weeks assembling each issue’s layout before sending printouts her way. She’ll then mark up each page with edits, before bringing them into the office to make the actual edits in the file. The last issue took her about 25 hours to edit.
Austin has published two books under the weird banner, Weird Hauntings in 2006 and Weird Encounters in 2010, both of which focus on true ghost stories around the United States. Both are anthologies and feature writers from around the states, telling their tales of ghostly encounters.
“Local writers make the stories much more authentic,” she said. “I got to meet a lot of great writers, including those who worked on the other Weird state books. We fit their stories into chapters focusing on different locations: private homes, historical sites, schools, restaurants, and more. I wrote the chapter introductions and a few of the stories as well as editing the others.”
The idea for the books sprang from the Marks themselves.
“Everyone loves a good ghost story,” Austin said. “They knew I was a die-hard ghost story lover, so they asked me if I wanted to work on it. The first book was successful enough that I was able to do the second one, too. Making sure we had locations that people could actually visit helped a lot, I think.”
As for the future of the magazine, Austin is optimistic about the Garden State’s weird output.
“I’m sure Mark and Mark will continue to produce the magazine for as long as there’s weird stuff to write about. And there always seems to be more of it!”
The Weird NJ family has also found their way into other aspects of publishing as well, such as their first eBook, Home State Hauntings. While Austin didn’t work on it directly, a lot of her writing and editorial work does appears in it. They keep finding new forms for the weird to get out, and Austin is happy to be along for the ride.
Aside from her workings with the weird, Austin has a fairly busy day job that keeps her occupied. She also continues to contribute to the magazine, most recently an article on Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, and she still writes the News and Updates section.
“I’d like to get involved in a project again and maybe get some of my fiction writing published. So we’ll see what happens!” she said.
However, despite everything else, Weird NJ is never far from her heart. The magazine, to her (and to me) carries a great message for the residents of NJ.
“It’s about celebrating the weirder aspects of the Garden State, which are legion,” she said. “We try to promote an understanding and respect for them, whether they are people, things, or locations. We also give a voice to those who wouldn’t normally be writing about their experiences with the state’s folklore and legends. I think they find a level of comfort in Weird NJ that they may not find in more ‘historically accurate’ publications and websites. We try to make history fun, and people are more inclined to share as a result.”
For more information on Weird NJ, check out their website at www.weirdnj.com.