If you’ve been waiting for a rock opera about a hatchet-wielding man wearing a bunny suit who terrorizes necking couples in Fairfax County, then Jim Waters has something he’d like you to hear.
It’s called “The Legend of the Bunnyman,” and it’s a three-CD, 26-song album that Jim wrote with his friend Chris Piller and recorded with their band, the Mantua Finials. If there’s a better record about a bunny suit-wearing ax-murderer, I’ve yet to hear it.
Jim, 56, is a financial adviser who lives in Clifton, Va. A guitarist and singer, he’s always played in bands. A few years ago, he was tossing around ideas for something more complex than a three-minute pop song. Inspired by a column of mine on Luna Park, an Arlington amusement park from the early 20th century, he thought of exploring oddities in our area. Then he got an unexpected phone call: His daughter Lauren had been picked up by the police with some of her friends at a railroad bridge in Fairfax County. Nothing too serious, just the kind of aimless loitering teenagers are prone to.
What Jim found funny was that he used to hang out there as a kid. His brother reminded him of the span’s name: the Bunny Man Bridge.
If you grew up in Northern Virginia, it’s likely you know the urban legend: Every Halloween, the ghost of a murderous escapee from an insane asylum appears at the bridge, which goes over Colchester Road near Clifton. The myth seems to have become conflated with actual events from the early 1970s, when motorists who were parked near Guinea Road reported being frightened by an oddly dressed young man.
“The story gives a plausible explanation as to why somebody would wear a bunny suit,” Jim said.
Jim’s a big Who fan and “Legend of the Bunnyman” contains echoes of that band’s genre-creating “Tommy.” Briefly, a character named Jack escapes from an asylum and falls in love with a woman named Mary. Together they raise a child named Peter who as a boy suffers tularemia — rabbit fever — and becomes synesthetic after drinking patent medicine sold by a mysterious figure. Peter is bullied at school, but finds a soulmate. Then he stumbles upon a family secret.
Although many of the lyrics are cryptic, some songs show the research Jim did, teasing out such local stories as the unsolved 1918 murder of Eva Roy, a 14-year-old girl found tied to a tree near Burke Station.
Jim and Chris are both locals. They named the band after the neighborhood they grew up in: Mantua, near Woodson High. (The “finials” comes from the adornment atop fences, implying that the band is a fixture in the community.) The other members are drummer Josh Rowley, keyboardist Mark Johnson, guitarist and singer Carol Gaylor and violinist DeeDee Nussmeier. Torpedo Factory artist Susan Makara did the CD booklet’s impressive, if slightly unsettling, illustrations.
It’s doubtful that a homicidal Peter Cottontail ever stalked Fairfax County, but the 1970 events did happen — they even made The Washington Post — and Jim thinks he can see a motive: Perhaps the man was protesting the development that was transforming the once-rural county.
“There were some old homesteads in the land adjacent to Kings Park West, a community that was being built,” Jim said. “It seems to me there’s a likelihood that one of these kids who may have lived on one of those old homesteads may have been the Bunny Man. Nobody likes it when a brand-new community is being built right next to your house, especially if you’re fond of the woods.”
The album was recorded in Jim’s basement, which coincidentally is not far from the bridge.
“It’s a behemoth to try to perform,” he said of the work. “It literally took us a whole year of rehearsals to get to point where we could play it all the way through. Every song is in a different tuning, which was a ridiculous thing for me to do.”
The epic has only been played once in its entirety, at Fairfax’s Epicure Cafe in April. Jim hopes to have a CD release party in July at a local club. (Visit www.legendofthebunnyman.com for information and to hear excerpts.)
I asked Jim if his magnum opus had a moral. “I think everybody’s got their own issues they deal with and skeletons in their closet,” he said. “In the end, it’s all about being true to yourself. The battle is with yourself not with everyone else. . . . It’s that old Zen thing that the answer to everything is in the mirror.”
And he added: “The reality is, whoever did these incidents in 1970 is probably still around.”
Perhaps he’ll come forward to set the record straight — and sing along.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.