The Bunny Man: Evolution of a Legend
The idea of a grown man wearing a bunny costume and chasing down people while wielding an axe sounds too ridiculous to have any truth to it, right? Well, for the most part, it isn't true. However, there is a grain of truth to the story, as hard to believe as that might be.
There are many variations of the Bunny Man legend. But the most prominent and well-known version of the urban legend was spread online in the late 1990s by a poster going by the name "Timothy C. Forbes." This version states that in 1904, an asylum prison in Clifton, Virginia, was shut down due to complaints from the locals. When the inmates were being transferred to their new home, one of the buses crashed. Most of the passengers and the driver of the bus were killed, but ten inmates escaped. Afterward, a search party was formed, and all but two inmates were found: Marcus Wallster and Douglas J. Grifon.
While Wallster and Grifon were still on the loose, locals began to find skinned, half-eaten rabbits hanging from trees. The area was once again searched, and this time the police found the remains of Wallster, skinned like the rabbits. On his foot was attached a note which read, "You'll never find me no matter how hard you try! Signed, the Bunny Man." Reports differ on whether he was found hanging from a tree or under a bridge overpass. The overpass became known as "Bunny Man Bridge." Supposedly, this was along the railroad tracks at Colchester Road.
Authorities were eventually able to track down Grifon, but he managed to evade capture and make his way to some train tracks near where the original bus crash took place. He laughed maniacally at the police, and then was promptly hit by a train. Later, it is revealed that Grifon was placed in the asylum after killing his family on Easter Sunday.
For years afterward, around Halloween, bodies of both rabbits and humans were found hanging from the overpass and in trees in the surrounding area. Some people even claim to see a figure walking through the one-lane bridge tunnel under the overpass. Other variations say that if you walk down the tunnel at midnight, the Bunny Man will grab you and hang you from the entrance.
A "Demonstrably False" Story
That's a pretty horrifying story. But that's all it is—a story. Brian A. Conley, Fairfax County Public Library Historian-Archivist, calls this story "demonstrably false" for multiple reasons. There was no asylum in Fairfax County, where the legend is meant to take place. Also damning is the fact that there are no court records showing either Grifon or Wallster even existed.
Other Versions of the Legend
But that hasn't stopped this legend of the Bunny Man from spreading, let alone other versions. Another lesser-known origin story tells of a teenager who decided one day to put on a white bunny costume and murder his entire family. He later hanged himself on the overpass. The teenager's spirit now haunts the Bunny Man Bridge, hunting down and disemboweling anyone who is unfortunate enough to encounter his restless ghost.
An article on Urban Legends Online reports on many other claims made in regards to the Bunny Man Bridge post-Grifon. These include strange deaths connected with the bridge, such as a young man from Clifton, Virginia, who stumbled upon the bridge during his travels and then later killed his family and hung them from the bridge before killing himself—similar to the origin story of the teenager in the bunny costume.
Supposedly in 1943, three teenagers were found hanging dead from the bridge with the Bunny Man's note attached to their feet. And finally, in 2001, it is alleged that six local students and a guide found mutilated rabbit parts in the forest and heard noises and saw figures moving around in the woods.
The Real Story
So where is that grain of truth in this story? What really happened that caused the legend of the Bunny Man to grow so outlandishly? Well, the real story is quite a bit more mundane, though admittedly still very terrifying for those involved.
According to Brian A. Conley, the Bunny Man urban legend very likely originated from two incidents that occurred in 1970 in Fairfax County, Virginia. Conley has done extensive research into the legend and has found two reported events of a man dressed as a rabbit threatening people with an axe. They occurred about a week apart in Burke, Virginia.
The First Event
The first event occurred on October 19, 1970 and was reported by US Air Force Academy Cadet Robert Bennett and his fiancee. Around midnight, they had parked their car on Guinea Road in preparation for visiting a relative. While still in the car, the two noticed movement near the rearview mirror. Immediately after, the front passenger window was smashed. The couple then found themselves being screamed at by a "white-clad figure" about trespassing. Some time later, after they had driven away, they discovered the hatchet the man used on their car floor.
Robert Bennett later told the police that the man had on a white suit with bunny ears, but his fiancee stated that the man was wearing either a white capirote (a conical, pointed hat), or something resembling the hoods worn by Ku Klux Klan members.
The Second Event
The second event took place on October 29, 1970. Paul Phillips, a construction security guard, approached a man who was standing on the porch of an unfinished house on Guinea Road. Phillips later described the man as wearing a gray, black, and white bunny costume. After being confronted by Phillips, the man began to chop at a porch post with an axe and complained about trespassing.
Additional Sightings and Reports
In the weeks after the incidents were publicly reported, more than 50 people contacted the police to report sightings of the Bunny Man, as he had been named by the media. One of these reports even involved a sighting of the Bunny Man eating a man's runaway cat.
The Fairfax County Police did take these reports seriously and conducted an investigation into both incidents. Unfortunately, there was a lack of evidence and the mysterious man in the bunny costume was never found. Both cases were eventually closed.
It's not entirely clear how the legend evolved so drastically, but it's possibly linked to the unsolved murder of a girl in 1918. 14-year-old Eva Roy was beaten to death and hanged near Colchester Bridge, and the prime suspect—who was later proven innocent—was an escaped mental patient from the nearby Lorton Prison. It's plausible that the man angry about trespassing was crossed with this tragic case for the Douglas J. Grifon legend propagated by Timothy C. Forbes.
The legend of the Bunny Man has has some cultural impact. Most notably, the movie Donnie Darko drew some inspiration from it.
Of course, being a horror fan that has actually seen all three movies, I have to mention the Bunnyman trilogy. The Bunnyman trilogy consists of Bunnyman, or The Bunnyman Massacre (2011), Bunnyman 2, also confusingly known as Bunnyman Massacre (2014), and Bunnyman Vengeance (2017). These movies are probably the most infamous that are based on the urban legend, but really the only thing they take from it is the idea of a killer in a bunny costume.
There is also the short film Nightmare at Bunnyman Bridge, which I personally find far more enjoyable than the Bunnyman trilogy, mostly because it seems to be self-aware. It also takes elements from the legend, which is a plus for any film that claims to be based on an urban legend.
So how did we manage to go from a man with a hatchet who may or may not have been wearing rabbit ears yelling about trespassing to a trilogy of terrible low-budget horror movies about a cannibal axe murderer in a generic Easter Bunny costume? All we have to go on is speculation, and even that is unclear.
I guess that's just the way urban legends are.