On August 21st 2019, Madison of the will-o-the-witch blog made a post that would soon grab the internet’s attention. Madison was a self-described Jewish Witch with a blog about magic and witchcraft, but this post wasn’t about that, it was about a piece of local lore from their time living in North Carolina.
The author had made an earlier blog entry about Appalachian lore they had heard from their mother. This included an offhanded mention of things near them that looked like deer but supposedly weren’t. An anonymous user posed a question asking them to clarify what they meant by this. While the first post received little attention, Madison’s clarifying story it seems touched upon something.
Madison decided to give the answer in the style of a camp fire story, phrasing part of the post as a first person narrative to possibly frighten the reader. Madison’s short tale is meant to guide you through the experience of discovering a deer by the road that looks, moves, or behaves strangely – resulting in the driver speeding away in fear. The following is quoted with permission:
“You’re in a car at night, in a rural, heavily wooded area, and probably a bit lost. It’s not wildly uncommon to see a opossum crossing the road, see blips of little animals with your headlights. You see a deer … and slow down in case it leaps in front of you.”
“[When you get a better look at it, you notice] there’s just something wrong about it. There’s something about its eyes. You feel your stomach get heavy like a rock, the hair on your neck raise. You sense intelligence that you shouldn’t. It doesn’t move like a deer … Oh god, what is that thing? … You hit the gas and get the hell out of there.”
In the continuing post, Madison told of a group of their friends having an odd experience with strange deer on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The deer reportedly seemed off to them and more intelligent than usual. They said it stood up on two legs and gave the viewers a feeling that something was very wrong.
“A group of my friends got lost on the Parkway once and reemerged with a chilling story. They aren’t the kind of folks to lie or over exaggerate. Among other freaky stuff that happened, the driver claimed she saw a deer in the road. Then she noticed the deer was on two legs.”
Madison said that a general understanding had come about among locals regarding odd deer encounters. Everyone they talked to seem to know about these deer that somehow weren’t like normal deer. The label Madison chose to coin for these bizarre animals was the “Not Deer.” With admitted exaggeration, they said that anyone who spends enough time in Appalachia would know about the Not Deer. What wasn’t an exaggeration though was that a lot of folks online were about to know about it.
In 2020, the post found its way onto the subreddit r/Appalachia where a user, stating they couldn’t find anything else about it online, inquired to see if anyone had heard of this obscurity before. The comments at the time were filled with folks from Appalachia who rightfully had no idea what they were talking about. Others tried to debunk the tale with information on chronic wasting disease which can cause deer to act strangely.
Then something curious happened.
People began sharing their own strange deer stories in the comments, perhaps re-contextualizing experiences they’d had in the woods or on the road when they saw a deer that didn’t seem right. People had stories but they’d never thought to call them a “Not Deer” or to take them all that seriously. A genre of report was forming with the birth of this new label.
Madison chimed in under the post on reddit to clarify that their comment about “anyone in Appalachia” knowing was hyperbole, stating that it was intended as a camp fire story of sorts though many people they knew had indeed seen odd deer in North Carolina before Madison moved from the area. They said they of course couldn’t attest to the validity of the other stories being shared there in the comments. The popularity only grew from there.
Micah Informs Me of The Story / Theresa’s Tale:
On June 5th 2021, Micah, a correspondent of the Appalachian Mystery Society (AMS) shared with me the story of the Not Deer by linking to the reddit post which then led me to the original blog post. Looking around the internet, I saw that it had become a bit of a trend on Tumblr and Reddit with plenty of fan art and supposed sightings. None of the Not Deer posts predated Madison’s 2019 blog entry though and it seemed it be the source.
I saw the blog was filled with content on witchcraft and magic. In one post the author said deer were their favorite animal. I immediately thought this could be some sort of attempt at a “thought form” creation or something. I wondered if the popularity of this trend was indeed a purposeful intention of sorts. I’d soon learn I was wrong in at least one regard – it being on purpose.
Of course the story being billed as the “Appalachian Not Deer” naturally interested me as an amateur folklore researcher from West Virginia, so I reached out to the author to interview them.
In the meantime, the correspondents in my AMS research group were abuzz with their own personal encounters of strange deer. I was very surprised to see this. One correspondent told of a deer with three legs that he and his friend would see in his backyard.
Another correspondent, Theresa of the blog “Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State”, told of an experience that supposedly happened to her mother about 15 years ago. She permitted me to share the details here.
“My mom has a Not-Deer story[.] This logical, educated, no-nonsense woman cannot be convinced that what she experienced didn’t have some sort of supernatural element to it. She was driving along Route 817 between St. Albans and Winfield one night and was in the vicinity of the AEP plant. She saw something massive in the middle of the road up ahead, so she hit the brakes and stopped right before hitting the biggest buck she’d ever seen.”
“She claims that it’s head towered over the top of her car, and it was at least a 15 pointer[.] It bent its head down and stared at her through the window until she was officially creeped out enough to start driving around it. She said as she drove off, it stayed put, never moving from the middle of the road, staring at her car as she drove off.”
“She dubbed him The Deer of Death, and still warns us not to travel that way after dark. It’s been a great source of amusement for my sister and I, but my mom swears that this was no normal deer.”
Even I had a story that could be re-contextualized as a “Not Deer story” if I really wanted to. In October of 2020, while meditating and praying in a graveyard, a deer emerged from the forest to stare at me. The deer weaved gracefully between the tombstones and didn’t avoid me at all as if it wasn’t afraid of people. I found it to be a pretty cool experience but I didn’t consider it paranormal. Could I call this a “Not Deer” encounter?
There seemed to be a lot of stories that could fit this new mold.
The Not-Deer Interview With Madison:
The interview with Madison over voice-call occurred on July 19th 2021. I asked Madison if the Not Deer was some form of magical working or thoughtform.
“Not intentionally,” they responded.
They stressed repeatedly that they didn’t expect the post to take off the way it did or become known. I got the impression that this was a very local piece of North Carolina folklore, or an odd story between friends, that had made its way onto the internet. Madison’s group of friends had an experience, which caused them to ask around, which caused them to learn (as I did) that a lot of people have had bizarre deer encounters.
If there was anything paranormal or unexplained behind them was another issue all together. It should be said that animals seen momentarily in the dark can take on strange shapes and the human perception is an incredibly flawed tool.
In their blog post Madison hinted that other weird stuff had happened on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In my interview, they told me one of these odd experiences was a lapse in memory which could be called missing time.
UFO researcher Budd Hopkins is known to have coined the term “missing time.” He investigated and documented “Close Encounters of The Fourth Kind” aka “Alien Abduction cases.” Perhaps not what you’d think of within a Not-Deer story, but apparently something that was part of the original tale according to Madison and their friend.
Another thing that reported anomalous or paranormal abduction cases are known for is “screen memories” which are supposed images placed in the mind of witnesses to conceal what truly happened to them. An iconic example of this are owls as pointed out by author Mike Clelland in his book “The Messengers: Owls, Synchronicity and the UFO Abductee (2016).“
Perhaps there is something more to that upright standing deer their friend saw on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Perhaps the Not Deer could be called a screen memory. To paraphrase the David Lynch series Twin Peaks, maybe the deer aren’t quite what they seem.
The idea of a person or an animal that doesn’t seem quite right falls into ideas of the uncanny. In UFO lore, the legend of the Men In Black (MIB) is a prime display of this. This is apparent especially in the hands of author John Keel who used the MIB as a catchall generic term for any uncanny impersonator. Technically if these beings aren’t human then they are in fact “Not-Men In Black.”
UFO literature and Science Fiction is rife with ideas of something inhuman creepily mimicking human behavior. Often the MIB in these stories have something only slightly off that makes people consider them to be downright alien. The same applies here to animals and with folkloric ideas of animal mimics. A “Not-Deer” is therefore simply a generic label for an uncanny deer. Madison applied this label to their friends’ stories and the readers then apply it to their own.
The Public’s Response To The Not-Deer:
After the interview, the popularity continued to grow on its own. I was seeing references to the Not Deer in the oddest of places including even in YouTube content about sasquatch. Soon the trend made its way over onto the bright lights of the short video platform Tiktok to be enjoyed by the teenagers of generation Z. This is where a lot of people, including anomalous researchers, were first exposed to the concept. To some, it seems it became a bit of a nuisance.
Strong feelings were displayed both positively and negatively from fans and critics of the Not Deer phenomenon. Folks took to reddit declaring the Not-Deer to be their “favorite cryptid” and flooding forums with talented fan art and praise. While others cringed at the supposed silliness of the sightings, considering them too outlandish or too easily explainable as ordinary deer. The Not-Deer became the subject of many tongue-in-cheek comments and jokes as well.
Because of its popularity on platforms like Tiktok, the Not-Deer has come to be seen by some as just a teenage internet trend or meme despite its reported origins in North Carolina on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A lot of folklore spreads through the teenage rumor mill or through gossip of course. The famous urban legend of the hook-handed killer or “Hookman” comes to mind as well as many sasquatch and other creature stories.
Adam Benedict of The Pine Barren Institute, author of “Monsters In Print (2019)” and other books, didn’t mince words on his opinion of the Not Deer. In 2022, he took to Twitter to write:
“I’ve said it many times before and I’ll continue to say it until the day I die,
the Not-Deer is the stupidest fucking thing ever.”
A bold statement for sure, but is the Not-Deer really the “stupidest fucking thing ever” as he so elegantly put it? I myself can think of many things much more stupid than that: those bits of dust in photographs that people call spirit orbs for example.
The Jackalope is a legendary animal, a rabbit with the antlers of a deer. Like the Not-Deer with the chronic wasting disease explanation, the idea of bizarre growths in rabbits that look like horns is reported to be a possible explanation for the Jackalope folklore. Despite the creature’s inherent silliness, people embrace the Jackalope as a folksy carnival gaff.
They have no problem with hanging a taxidermy rabbit with deer horns affixed to it on their walls or representing the creature in artwork despite the origin very likely being misidentification. So, what makes one more objectionable than the other?
I’ll remind that many of the most famous Fortean cases began with a group of teenage witnesses at lover’s lanes who only a handful of reporters and investigators took seriously. Perhaps this could be the modern form of that. Folklore has existed long before the internet and it will continue to exist through the online age we find ourselves in now.
Parsing through it all, separating the wheat from the chaff, will always be a difficult task.
Black Dogs and White Stags:
For those who have no interest in folklore or the paranormal at least, the irritation with the tale makes sense. Not-Deer stories thus far are clearly not trying to present such sightings as some type of undiscovered deer, so those of amateur zoological pursuits will rightfully have little interest in them. These tales are presented more as paranormal encounters in nature. Modern folktale fits the bill much nicer it seems.
What is the real difference between say a “black dog” of Celtic folklore (something that is more akin to a ghost than a literal animal) and a strange deer that isn’t quite right? As a weirdo, I tend to be fascinated by a lot of legends – both new and old – but time does play a factor for the general public. Funny ideas from long ago are sometimes afforded more legitimacy than recent ones despite similarity. A question we could all ask ourselves is: are we perhaps too accepting of old ideas or too dismissive of certain modern ideas?
Within Celtic mythology, a white or albino deer – specifically a white stag – has meaning as a spiritual messenger of the otherworld. In Christianity, Saint Eustace and Saint Hubert both have legends associated with them about receiving a message of Christ from a white stag or seeing a visionary image between a stag’s antlers. So there is a bit of precedent there in lore that Appalachian people might be familiar with, though more specifically with white deer.
I had a conversation with a fellow researcher of the bizarre who was very dismissive of Not-Deer encounters. He said people are often too glued to the pale glow of their cellphones to know about the natural behavior of deer in order to distinguish it from odd behavior. A fair point. Sightings of odd things in the woods or along the roadside are often taken more seriously when seen by rugged outdoorsmen. My contention would of course be that there are folks who have seen strange deer throughout history, and even recently, that are indeed the outdoorsy type.
Plenty of lights in the sky can be explained and turn out to be nothing, but it doesn’t mean to throw out the entire genre of aerial anomalies. The researcher in question proudly files all Not-Deer sightings in the big file labeled “trash.” I wouldn’t be so quick to do so. Sure, when a folklore is in the spotlight there are bound to be plenty of low quality reports coming in but the same is true with UFO waves and the like. I think it’s better to take these things on a case by case basis. There could be diamonds in the rough, if Theresa’s story is anything to go by.
As someone who studies folklore, I think this tale actually has some potential. Deer are very common animals in America and in Appalachia. Any place with deer will naturally have deer folklore and perhaps this will be a genre or label for those reports. Plenty will be misidentifications no doubt, like with any other Fortean report, but tales of strange or mystifying experiences with nature aren’t new of course. People applying spiritual meaning or interpretation onto animals has also been around forever and will continue in its many forms.
Madison has indicated online that the popularity of the Not-Deer as a concept has overwhelmed them. The idea is fully beyond their control at this point. They had no clue an offhanded comment like that would ever make it outside of their blog let alone grow into a internet phenomenon with devoted fans and harsh critics.
Perhaps this is how pilot Kenneth Arnold felt when reports of “flying saucers” poured in and filled the newspapers after he offhandedly coined the term in 1947. Perhaps this is how the public reacted to reported stories of ape men in their area after being introduced to “California’s Bigfoot” for the first time in 1958. If a genre of report can be carved out, the sightings will come. If folks start looking for something, many will think they’ve found it. If a name can be given to a prior experience, people will gladly apply that name.
Though make no mistake, I’m well aware that a lot of oddities are just a flash in the pan that are quickly forgotten and never turn into anything more. This could certainly be one of those. It’s not in my control or anyone else’s for that matter.
Madison had no idea what they had gotten themself into when they published that blog post. Like so many others online who by chance resonated with the zeitgeist, it was a quick thing with no big thought put into it that wasn’t supposed to mean much. Another example to show that sometimes ideas are more powerful than us.
Can the Not Deer survive past the internet trend or will it fall by the wayside? It might be too soon to know. The tale is still currently evolving. A better question might be: if it does stick around, what will it turn into?
Listen To The Full Audio Interview Here:
If you’ve experienced anomalous phenomena,
please contact me via my email: AppalachianOddity@Gmail.com
Madison’s Not Deer Post (8/21/19) – https://will-o-the-witch.tumblr.com/post/187173287979/what-do-you-mean-by-thats-not-a-deer-in-the
Reddit Post (2020) – https://www.reddit.com/r/Appalachia/comments/est8f2/not_deer_stories/
Adam’s Twitter Post (2/4/22) –
Testimony (6/6/21) via text from Theresa.
(Her webpage: http://theresashauntedhistoryofthetri-state.blogspot.com/)
An Independent Interview conducted with Madison, July 2021 (see above).