The Green Man Legend: How Real Life Tragedy Became a Regional Ghost Story
Every region of the U.S. has its local ghost or monster, whether it’s the New Jersey Devil or Bigfoot. Some of them are harmless. Some are pranksters. Some are downright evil. All of them are born from stories that circulate through the area. Everyone knows a fearless teen or unassuming trespasser who has encountered them and lived to tell the tale. Everyone knows which woods to avoid at certain times of the night or which homes house the troubled spirit. Even those who don’t believe in the supernatural tend to stay clear of the eerie feeling that surrounds these tales.
But what if there is truth to these legends? What if when we discover this truth it is just as fascinating yet just as tragic? In my experience, it is ignored in favor of the more embellished tale. The local legend that I grew up with proved that no matter how interesting the truth can be, the fiction is the preferred version.
Green Man’s Tunnel is located off of Piney Fork Road in South Park, PA, a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh. It’s a secluded section of a mainly suburban area, the kind of neighborhood people flock to for long walks, picnics, and summer swims. This road, though, is very wooded, a place that people pass through to get to somewhere else.
For decades, teenagers have been visiting the tunnel. It’s now used for salt storage, but in the '70s, visitors used to drive their cars in, honk the horn, and call out to the Green Man to reveal himself. If they were lucky, the glowing, green ghost would appear and stall their car to confirm his presence, or perhaps they would see him, illuminated, walking the quiet country roads at night. The true story has since been revealed countless times, but because it discounts the supernatural horror and replaces it with the real life tragedy of a lonely man, people are still telling the “fun” version of this story, and they still flock to the tunnel for a chance to get a look at this spiritual entity.
The Real Story
The true story that inspired The Green Man legend takes place 70 miles away near Youngstown, OH. Ray Robinson was a disfigured man who was nearly killed in a power line accident when he was just a boy. After climbing up the lines to retrieve a bird’s nest on a dare, Robinson was electrocuted, losing an arm and most of his face in the process. He wasn’t expected to survive but did, now blind, having lost both eyes in the accident, a hole replacing the space where his nose once was, and two swollen pieces of skin that formed his nearly toothless mouth. It sounds like something out of a horror novel, a real life Frankenstein’s monster having been zapped into a horrific form.
He was a shocking sight to see, especially back in those days. Robinson was born in 1910 and was disfigured in 1919. In those days, the mentally and physically handicapped were kept locked away, sentencing him to a lonely life. There were no TLC reality shows or YouTube vlogging outlets to help people like Ray tell their story and help the public empathize with his struggles. When people did see him, they were often appalled by his gruesome face and ran away in horror.
As an adult, Ray lived with his mother in Koppel, a similarly rural town in Pennsylvania, still over 50 miles from Green Man Tunnel. He learned to make floor mats, belts, and wallets to earn money. At night, he would take walks were he couldn’t be seen as easily, as walking during the day tended to startle neighbors who were not accustomed to seeing such disfigurement. However, those who did approach him came to know him as a kind and lonely man who was just looking for some company. He liked to drink and smoke and listen to ball games on the radio. The locals called him Charlie No-Face.
People driving by would often stop to talk to him if they weren’t too taken aback by his appearance. Sometimes, though, their intentions were not noble. Teenagers especially would prank him, pretend to swerve as though they were about to run him over, and even get out of their cars to beat him up. At one point, he began carrying a pistol when he walked in order to protect himself from these violent pranksters. Such treatment would have left the average person bitter, but his legacy has proven him to be nothing but kind and gracious to any type of conversation or gift of food or drink according to those still living who claimed to have known him personally.
His ghostly legend began long before his death in 1985 and spread from town to town throughout western Pennsylvania, spilling into Ohio, West Virginia, and other neighboring states. Each town adopted Green Man sightings, saying that the disfigured entity had a green glow to him and was the spirit of a man electrocuted to death. The story trickled down to my hometown just a few miles from the tunnel where parents and friends’ parents would tell their stories about going to the tunnel in the 70’s to drink and watch for paranormal activity the way that novice astronomers watch for meteor showers. Meanwhile, the Green Man himself was still taking his nightly walks up north. Some say the green had to do with people’s overactive imagination combined with their knowledge of his accident and the reflection of the green shirt he often wore being illuminated by car headlights.
Stretching the Truth
The Green Man tunnel is located in a remote area whose location is ideal for its eerie legend. Even Google Maps identifies it as “Green Man Tunnel.” It reminds me of a steep hill next to our church that we neighborhood kids called “Devil’s Hill” because of the number of kids who got hit by cars riding their bikes down the hill. To this day, I still hear kids refer to the hill as Devil’s Hill and wonder if a supernatural legend has grown around it. The Green Man likely never stepped foot in the area, yet his name is synonymous with it. In my research, I haven’t been able to find a connection. Some who passed the real Ray Robinson in the road at night had mistaken him for a ghost at one point. Perhaps they told their ghost story to friends who told their friends, and the legend traveled down until the truth was twisted and misinterpreted to think that the incident happened nearby, not up in Koppel. It doesn’t take many re-tellings of a story before the facts are stretched and the horror is heightened into a masterfully crafted legend.
The tunnel itself is not on the main road. It’s located on the hill to the left of the Piney Fork Tunnel, which is in itself a treacherous landmark. The tunnel on the street is only wide enough for one car to pass through so it’s important to stop and honk your horn going through so that anyone coming from the other direction will stop and wait for you to pass. Any drivable old road leading to the actual Green Man Tunnel has since disappeared. So, the brave must climb out of their cars and climb in with the salt to chant The Green Man’s name. Many claim to have seen the glowing green figure or know someone who has. Others say they’ve been there dozens of times without any incident. It was just a cool place to drink with friends. Besides stalling your car, The Green Man stories never made him out to be an evil presence, besides the few stories where he chased people down the street. The Green Man is simply a lost soul, baring the scars of his death by electrocution in a way that most resembles his real life inspiration and how Ray bore the scars of his real life accident.
Despite so many knowing Ray Robinson to be a real man living up through the mid-1980s, The Green Man stories still spread, inspiring numerous stories of sightings and a growing collection of “facts” about the entity and where he lives. The fact that he is so synonymous with a tunnel he never even visited says a lot about how truth can be blown up into a complete fabrication. Surely, if Ray could have traded in his legendary status for a normal life, he would have. All evidence to his lonely yet friendly character points to this yearning to fit in.
This is the book I was reading when I first discovered the true story behind the Green Man ghost story.
At the very least, I like to think that people are more accepting of the physically deformed these days. Certainly, no longer locking them away in rooms and allowing them to tell their stories and expose their unorthodox appearance helps to de-stigmatize them. Still, it can’t be an easy way to live. If I were to meet Ray Robinson today, I would be intimidated to talk to him, and probably a little grossed out at first. Exposure, though, reduces appearance to one of the least interesting aspects of a person as you get to know them.
But telling the true, tragic tale of Ray Robinson has done little to reduce the Green Man story to mere myth. My first introduction to the story in the late '90s still presented him as a ghost story, local to the area, complete with glowing skin where I imagined green electrical currents shooting throughout his body, part superhero, part movie monster. However, you can separate the two, especially once you know the true story and can surmise that even in death, he is unlikely to haunt Piney Fork Road in a town miles away from where he once lived.
Over the years, the story has evolved into its own tale, even breaking off to include versions in various towns claiming him to be their legend, a prime example of neighborhood gossip gone haywire. But there is no longer a Ray Robinson to deal with the effects of the fictional parts of his story or to carry the burden of one childhood act on his back for eternity. His story is simply the seed of a harmless ghost story that has been scaring locals since the 1930s, barely resembling his origin at this point. Pulling the curtain back to reveal the truth does take away from the excitement of the tale, but it also provides a better understanding of how a few facts can grow into its own alternate truth, how we as a society view the strange and unusual, and how those affected, especially in more ignorant times, paid the price.