The legend of the "Char Man" was in wide circulation when I was a high school student in the Ojai Valley, a small, quiet, mountain-ringed community about fourteen miles inland from Ventura, California. I have heard the story many times from my peers, and my version seems to be very typical. Here is the story as far as I remember it from high school days in 1963 or 1964.
I became interested in seriously studying the legend years later, because as I considered a number of variants, an interesting pattern of migration began to emerge. In this paper I will trace this legend from its apparent origin and location, on one side of the Ojai Valley on Shelf Road, though its various forms and migration to the Old Creek Road area, all the way across the valley. I will also examine the influences of function and symbolism on the migration and eventual localization of the legend on Old Creek Road, the area with which it is now associated. In presenting variants related to me by informants, I will begin with the earliest versions I collected.
A woman who works for the Ojai Valley News, a local weekly paper, told me that her sons learned the story when the family first moved to Ojai in 1961. Her boys were eight and eleven years old at the time. They told her the following story:
I might say here that Signal Street becomes, at is extremity, a small dirt road known as Shelf Road, as shown on the map included in the appendix. (The map is not drawn to scale, but is merely intended to indicate the topographical relationships of the places mentioned.)
An interview with Sergeant Bill Klamser, a long-time member of the Ojai Police Department, also places the "Char Man" at the end of Signal Street:
Sergeant Klamser is certain that the cancer victim involved in this series of incidents on Shelf Road was the original inspiration for the "Char-Man" legend.
The next most closely related version was told to me by Mrs. Lynn Leikens, a long-time valley resident:
I have included this variant here, as being most closely related to the Shelf Road versions, because the story has not been shifted to Old Creek Road. While it is not a Shelf Road version, it still places the "Char-Man" on one of the lonely roads (Sulphur Mountain Road) circling the rim of the valley in the mountains, as shown on the map (see appendix).
While I was interviewing Mrs. Leikens, her twelve year old son came in the room; curious about the currency of the legend in his age group, I attempted to interview him. He responded:
In a hurry to go somewhere, he departed, leaving me with that as his entire account. Unfortunately, his brother was unavaliable for interview.
The apparent significance of this variant seems to be that although the Char-Man lived on Old Creek Road, he was not confined to that area and could travel to other parts of the valley, even to such an unlikely place as Soule Park.
The next variant is from Mr. Joseph Weaver of Ojai, an attendant at Camarillo State Hospital. His version was as follows:
Mr. Weaver couldn't remember where he heard the story, but he thought a lot of people knew it.
Variants D, E, and F seem to follow a trend toward a generalized spread of the story from the specific locale of the Signal Street-Shelf Road area to other areas of the valley and "the mountains around Ojai." In other words, the legend seems to become detached from its place of origin and "float" freely about the Ojai Valley area.
The other variants I collected were similar to variant A and show a later localization of the legend on Old Creek Road, near Camp Comfort County Park. The first informant with this version was 19 year old Michael Neuoron of Ojai.
Neuron couldn't remember where he had seen the story, but he says, "A lot of people say they?ve seen him."
Tom Weddle, a resident of the Ojai Valley "riverbottom", in the community of Meiner's Oaks, tells a very similar story, but he remembers where he heard it.
Tom Weddle first heard the story from Mark Gates, when Gates recounted to him how he went down to the Old Creek Road bridge with some friends and was attacked by the Char-Man; one of them had his jacket ripped by the Char-Man while they were trying to get away. Weddle was unable to remember exactly when this occured, somewhere he thought between 1965 and 1968. He said that Mark Gates related this adventure to his friends and schoolmates, and everyone started going down to the bridge and screaming "help" to see if they, too, could produce the Char-Man. Mr. Weddle said the police came and spent several nights chasing everybody away.
The next account is one I stumbled onto quite inadvertedly. Attempting to locate and interview Mark Gates, I called his home. A person, who has requested anonymity, answered, said Mark wasn't there, and asked what I wanted. I told him I wanted to talk to Mark Gates about his encounter with the Char-Man. He said he could probably tell me more about the Char-Man than Mark could, and much to my surprise, declared, "I was the Char-Man". He then proceeded to tell me his version of the legend and then to relate the events which had occured at the bridge on Old Creek Road:
At this point the individual told me how he and a couple of his friends had perpetrated a Char-Man hoax, not only upon Mark Gates, but on a good portioin of the county, as well.
An account of the incident, did, in fact, appear in the 6 July 1967 Ventura County Star-Free Press:
THE CHAR MAN MAY BE LURKING OUT THERE SOMEWHERE IN THE OJAI VALLEY
By Jerry Thomas
This account of the incident led me once again to contact the Ojai Police. This time I spoke with officer Gene Meadows, who had personally chased the Char-Man on several occasions and was one of the officers who responded the night Eddie White reported he was attacked. Officer Meadows' recollection of the event was rather vague because of the time elapsed - he thought it had been "about four years" - but he remembered going out to the bridge after recieving a report of a boy having his jacket ripped off. However Meadows said he remembered the person responsible as being sort of a "wild looking colored man" from Los Angeles, who just happened to be down in the creek bed when the boys started yelling "Help!" He thought they really needed help, so he came running up; the boys were frightened, and a scuffle of some sort ensued, during which the jacket was ripped off. He said the rest of the problem, trying to keep people from congregating down at the bridge, was handled by the County Sheriff's Department, because it was in their territory.
It is not my intent to try and resolve the discrepancies between the various accounts of this incident. What is important is the role of this incident, and its coverage in the local news media, had in helping to localized the legend on Old Creek Road.
The last interview I conducted at the Ojai Valley Stables, which lie just down the road from the bridge on Old Creek Road. Riders from the stables ride extensively in the area, and I had heard that occasionally riders and their horses had been frightened by the Char-Man. I went to the stables and talked to two young men who were working there. Together, they related the following variant:
The growth and migration of the "Char-Man" legend and its eventual localization to the bridge on Old Creek Road have in large measure been determined by the story's functions and symbols, which it shares with other frightening local legends and which help explain its development and popularity.
According to Linda Degh, "scary" stories like the "Char-Man" tale are especially prevalent among teen-agers, filling them for a need of adventure in an otherwise "dull world". With new-found mobility, teen-agers can drive to locales of extraordinary and frightening events in search of the "chill of fear". Vists of the "whole gang" to these locales, as in the "Char-Man" account, also serve, argues Degh, as a rite of passage, as a chance for participants to challenge dangers and prove their courage.1
The "Char-Man" story shares not only common functions with "scary" legends but at least three major symbols as well. The first is the bridge where the legend is now localized (Variants A, E, F, G, H, I, and J). In an article on haunted bridges, Degh speaks of a "cluster" of bridge legends which have two parts: first, an account of a supernatural or extraordinary "event that occured in the past...[explains] a present phenomenon attributed to it"; second, a personal experience of the narrator "as he explores the phenomenon" (in our "Char-Man" account this experience is often related second or third hand and is not usually that of the immediate informant.2 The bridge in the story, Degh points out, is a universal symbol of the passageway between life and the world beyond. She cites several examples of this association in German and English folklore and notes that bridge stories are prevalent in North America, as shown by the number of references made to them in Baughman's Type and Motif Index of the Folktales of England and North America.3
The second and third symbols in the "Char-Man" legend are the "forest" and the "dangerous wild man". In discussing the legend of the "Laughing Woman", C. Richard K. Lunt states that stories of lost, wild people are frequent in tradition. He also speaks of the "ancient literary motif of the forest that harbors ancient and death dealing creatures" and the "equally ancient and lingering distrust and fear of those persons whom we judge insane."4 In our legend, the primeval forest is simply the heavily wooded and remote area of Old Creek Road, and of course the Char-Man is the insane and dangerous creature who lurks there. There seems to be no special symbolism or motif involved in the fact that the Char-Man was disfigured by fire. The combination of the bridge and the forest creates a favorable "legend climate,", which contributes to the setting necessary for a good scare.
The "Char-Man" legend then, originated with the events on Shelf Road and was initially associated with the 1948 fire and the ruins of the old Sanderson home. In the early 1960s the Sanderson home was fairly remote. As Ojai grew, it expanded into this territory; as a result, the home is now well within the fringes of the town. This circumstance interfered with the legend's function of providing young people an excuse for a journey to a remote locale in search of adventure. Furthermore, the setting had been impaired by the building of other homes in the area of the valley so the mood could no longer be the same. With the Char-Man no longer associated with Shelf Road and freed to wander in any remote area of the valley, these functions could be restored. The Char-Man could easily be invoked anywhere. However, the legend was thus removed from a concrete and real setting, impairing its credibility. It would seem only natural, therefore, that the story would tend to become attached to some other suitable location. Old Creek Road is remote, a short drive out of town being necessary to get there. The area is about as much a "forest" as there is within the valley, and the relatively heavily-wooded hilly landscape provides a good habitat for a Char-Man, furnishing him with protection from civilization, yet at the same time affording ample opportunity for his occasional encounters with travelers in the area. The symbolic value of the bridge on Old Creek Road also plays an important role in the story?s being located there. So too does the bridge?s functional value. From it, it is possible to play out the right of passage, to challenge danger without venturing to far from one?s car. The car can be parked on the bridge, and the ritual of crying "Help, help!" can be carried out without actually venturing into the woods. Degh mentions the motif of the automobile being strangely considered as adequate protection from similar dangers, and Eddie White, in his account of his "attack" in the Star-Free Press article, says that they locked themselves in the car and the Char-Man banged on the windows and trunk but apparently could not get to them.
The importance of the "Char-Man" legend lie in the "living laboratory" it provides us, with all the events taking place since the fire of 1948, well within the memories of most adults and well within the comprehension time of younger people. It is not too removed chronologically to seem remote or impossible. The migration of the legend gives an excellent opportunity to observe first-hand the processes and influences involved in the legend?s origin and development. The evidence from these observations indicates that both function and symbolism are important in this legend?s formation, migration, and locaization. We also have an excellent example of the importance of a printed newspaper account in the reinforcement of a local legend; although arising from a contrived prank, the newspaper article helped to further establish, stabilize, and lend credibility to the legend.