Why are haunted houses haunted? Sure, sometimes it’s because they were built on sacred burial grounds, which naturally upset a few spirits. But believe it or not, ancient burial grounds are few and far between.

So, what else makes a house haunted? Can evil acts imbue their surroundings with residual dark energy? In the case of the Devil’s Tree on Hutchinson Island, Florida, the answer is a resounding yes.

And it all begins on a snowy March day in Wisconsin when a boy named Gerard John Schaefer entered the world.

Florida’s first serial killer started young

Gerard John Schaefer didn’t have a pleasant childhood. The son of an abusive alcoholic father, Schaefer found himself hating his gender and wishing that he had been born a girl. While his father released his rage on the young boy, Schaefer’s sister remained unpunished and unharmed.

This led Schaefer to both resent and secretly worship the opposite sex. He began to steal women’s underwear and clothing, wearing them in private. These experiments soon experienced a dark turn, when Schaefer’s dissatisfaction with himself turned to self-harm. In the forested areas of Atlanta, Georgia, twelve-year-old Schaefer would tie himself to a tree and hurt himself. This tree would center in many of his murders and has subsequently been named the Devil’s Tree.

Less than a decade after these macabre self-experiments, Schaefer would commit his first murder.

Schaefer used his position of authority to abduct victims

Gerard John Schaefer tried to gain a position of power and authority before ever finishing college.

He went to members of the Catholic Church and asked to become a member of the priesthood. It seems that the priests found something unsettling about him, though, as they did not grant his favor.

Many believe that the Devil’s Tree was the specific tree used in the torture and murder of Schaefer’s victims. Still, others think that the tree is imbued with the evil that Gerard John Schaefer released into the world.

Within a few years, Schaefer accepted the position of principal at Plantation High School. He was soon fired from the job for inappropriate behavior, leading to his decision to become a police officer.

From age twenty to twenty-three, he murdered at least eight young women and children.

The serial killer was soon fired from his first job as a police officer. It is suspected that he was fired after using police case files to locate and contact vulnerable young women and ask them out on dates. Talk about a red flag.

But Schaefer was soon hired by another police department, and within months of obtaining the new position, he would commit his greatest mistake: letting his victims escape.

He left his victims alone to attend to a police call

After abducting and tying up two young female hitchhikers, Pamela Wells and Nancy Trotter, Schaefer received a phone call from the precinct, asking him to go check something out. Had he not gotten that call, or decided to ignore it, he may have never gotten caught.

The two young women were able to escape their bonds and locate the nearest highway, flagging down a police officer in the process. Because Schaefer never expected the young women to survive, he hadn’t tried to hide his identity.

The two girls quickly identified him, landing Schaefer a trip to prison. While awaiting trial, he managed to commit six more murders.

Gerard John Schaefer Mugshot
Gerard John Schaefer Mugshot / Photo Courtesy: [True Crime Stories / YouTube]

Investigators and detectives used the Devil’s Tree as an origin point when searching for remains

While Shaefer sat in jail, paying for only a small portion of his massive crimes, investigators began to look more deeply into his life and activities. Police searched the home that he shared with his mother and found journals listing his violent acts, as well as jewelry belonging to his victims.

They then began to search Hutchinson Island for skeletal remains, using the Devil’s Tree as a starting point.

In total, the remains of four young women were identified on Hutchinson Island, with many more being found in nearby areas. Nearly all showed signs of having been tied or chained to a tree and viciously abused.

Schaefer died in 1995, either at the hands of a fellow inmate, or a group of corrections officers. No one will ever know for sure.

Many believe that the Devil’s Tree was the specific tree used in the torture and murder of Schaefer’s victims. Still, others think that the tree is imbued with the evil that Gerard John Schaefer released into the world.

Schaefer wasn’t the only evil thing attracted to the tree

Oak Hammock Park is known for its beautiful hiking trails, hanging curtains of Spanish moss, and beautiful wooded areas. But after the events of 1972, it also became known as the place the Devil calls his home.

It is rumored that Satanists heard about the murders on Hutchinson Island and adopted the Devil’s Tree as a new sacrificial site and meeting place. They may have even re-purposed Schaefer’s old cabin.

In total, the remains of four young women were identified on Hutchinson Island, with many more being found in nearby areas. Nearly all showed signs of having been tied or chained to a tree and viciously abused.

Those brave enough to venture through the island’s overgrowth reported hearing strange sounds and chanting through the whispering pines and oaks. Nature trails that were once alluring became darkly ominous.

That’s when the hooded figures began to appear. While some believed them to be hooded satanic worshippers, others had a very different idea.

The Klu Klux Klan may have taken hold of the site

Public interest and morbid curiosity led to many brave (or foolish) people going to Hutchinson Island in search of the Devil’s Tree. While there, many claimed to have seen hooded figures lurking along the treeline, watching silently.

Over many years, more and more sightings of these strange hooded figures flooded in. Authorities suggested that they may be members of the hate group, the Klu Klux Klan. Members of the white supremacist group are known to wear white hoods and robes to conceal their identities.

They have also been known to hang their victims from trees, which may have attracted them to the area.

But not everyone was convinced that the Klan was involved. Some believe that the strange sightings are actually the spirits of the women killed near the tree.

Be careful if you decide to visit

Visitors to Oak Hammock Park are often eager to take a small part of the Devil’s Tree home with them. But bad luck often accompanies those that do. In 2004, a woman took a piece of the tree’s bark and hid it inside of a friend’s car. The car was severely damaged in an accident almost immediately afterward.

Those who need to relieve themselves while out and about in the park should be wary of using the women’s restrooms. It’s been reported that the scream of young women can sometimes be heard emanating from the bathrooms, as though the spirits of the murdered young women are crying out in warning.

Some believe that the strange sightings are actually the spirits of the women killed near the tree.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts or the supernatural, it’s hard to deny that pure evil did take hold of the beautiful 150-year-old oak tree on Hutchinson Island. Seemingly impervious to the passage of time, fire, and sharpened blades, Oak Hammock Park’s curators have tried and failed to tear it down.

Perhaps it is meant to stand as a warning to all: an indication of the long-lasting damage real evil can do.

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