There was a time we called them fairy tales, but now they’re known as urban legends: stories that frighten and bewilder, stories that enforce norms with the often gruesome results of what happens to transgressors. But sometimes, when one looks closely at an urban legend, a true story emerges, and sometimes, the legend turns to look back at you.
Diego and his friends had heard the legend of the Melon Heads many times while growing up around Cleveland, Ohio. The stories said that a mysterious Dr. Crow or Kroh had conducted hideous experiments on children, turning them into huge-headed monsters. Or they said that he operated a home for children suffering from hydrocephalus and, after mistreating them, the children killed their tormentor and went feral in the woods.
“So, yeah, the stories were silly,” Diego tells me. “We didn’t believe any of it, but it was fun to try to scare each other.”
One night in 2004, Diego and his friends were, like generations of teenagers before and since, bored. It was October 30th, the night before Halloween, and scary stories like the Melon Heads were making the rounds again.
“One of my friends, Josh, had just gotten his license,” Diego says. “So, I said, screw this, let’s go up there and find some Melon Heads.”
Diego’s friends exchanged nervous glances, but no one was willing to call the bluff. The four boys piled into Josh’s mom’s Camry and headed out to Wisner Road, where the Melon Heads were said to lurk.
The rural road cut a winding path through dark, deserted woods. The leaves were dying and falling, and many trees were already bare and skeletonized against the car’s lonely headlights.
“There was a spot where they said a trail led off to where the Melon Heads used to live,” Diego tells me.
After driving slowly through the woods, Josh brought the Camry to a stop just before a small bridge. On the side of the road, there was the faint trace of a trail marked by old tire tracks overgrown with weeds.
The boys sat in the car, the engine’s soft whine the only sound. The trail in front of them, distorted by the shadows thrown by the headlights, looked like a huge hole torn in the woods.
“We were all pretty charged up until that point,” Diego recalls, “but something about the look of the trail shut everybody up.”
The boys drew courage from their shared fear and, after many teases and threats, managed to get out of the car. Josh left the headlights on because the boys had forgotten to bring a flashlight.
“We went looking for mutants or ghosts or something and we didn’t even have a flashlight,” Diego tells me. “Yeah, it was pretty dumb.”
The quiet woods awoke to the sound of nervous laughter as the four boys warily picked their way along the trail. The crunching leaves punctuated each tentative step, taking them farther and farther away from the halo of the headlights.
That was when one of the boys, Ken, remembered the two glowsticks in his coat, part of a Halloween stockpile. The glowsticks were cracked and the faint green light that illuminated the few feet around the group only served to heighten the sinister atmosphere.
“Two of my friends, Ken and Dave, they wanted to go back and wait in the car,” Diego tells me, “but Josh wouldn’t give them the keys.”
The quartet were well beyond the light from the car and the path they had been following was becoming difficult to make out in the green glow.
“I was just about to call it off and make fun of those guys for going out there,” Diego tells me, “when we saw the first one.”
Off to the side of the trail, Diego and Josh both noticed a strange bulbous object reflecting the weak glowstick light. “It looked like a white balloon or something,” Diego tells me.
The two boys stopped and stared, whispering their discovery to Ken and Dave. As the boys tried to make out what they looking at, the balloon-shaped object began to sway and bob.
“That really freaked us out because there wasn’t any wind,” Diego remembers. “And then Ken and Dave just took off.”
Before Josh and Diego could react, their friends were already back at the Camry. “I said to Josh, let’s check it out,” Diego tells me, “and he said, let’s do it, so we did.”
Josh and Diego tried to walk quietly through the underbrush but the dried leaf crust made it impossible. Whatever it was they were approaching, it was going to have plenty of warning.
“We got right up to it,” Diego recalls, “and I still didn’t know what it was.” The boys stood within two yards of the strange object and held their glowsticks above them. The object was whitish with an irregular surface, reminding Diego of a mushroom, and its shape was like an oval or a balloon or a melon.
“I remembered why we were there, and I thought, shit, that’s a head,” Diego tells me. “Then I think the Melon Head finally realized we were there.”
As it dawned on Josh and Diego that they were looking at the back of a bizarre head, the Melon Head turned around. Two empty holes that seemed to only mimic eyes faced the boys and a wide slit opened to reveal a mouth full of brown fibrous gills. A thin root-like body held the head above the ground and two long white stems that ended in crude hands jutted out from the sides.
“I dropped my glowstick and ran,” Diego tells me. Behind them, the boys could hear a strange shrill cry, barely audible, that seemed to sound more like a rallying call than one of fear.
Diego and Josh ran straight for the Camry. In the woods around them, they could see more of the Melon Heads rising above the forest floor, watching them go.
Diego and Josh rejoined their friends and the four boys scrambled into the Camry. As the car sped off down Wisner Road, the headlights arced across the face of the woods, but from the road all seemed quiet and ordinary.
Dave and Ken barely believed their friends’ strange story, but all four boys had heard the eerie wail of the mushroom Melon Head. “I tried not to talk about what happened,” Diego tells me, “but of course it got around the high school.” A few months of teasing were all the boys had to show for their terrifying encounter.
In the spring of 2008, Diego was away at college in Pennsylvania when he received an email from Josh. Josh had sent along an article detailing an extraordinary find in the woods of Ohio.
An enormous fungus, covering an area approximately two square miles, had been discovered living under the woods along Wisner Road. The amazing fungus was a huge collective organism and thought to be over two-thousand years old. Like any underground fungus, it was capable of producing fruiting bodies, what we know as mushrooms.
“I thought maybe we solved the Melon Head mystery,” Diego tells me, “but now the story is even weirder and gross.”
Could fungal life evolve to include animal-like locomotion? Fungi can grow at prodigious speeds and, after thousands of years, who’s to say what a fungus couldn’t accomplish. The Melon Heads are still out there somewhere haunting the woods of Wisner Road, but it may be that the real mystery lurks below the ground more than it does above.