Angie Proffitt says she'll never forget her first visit. She was 14 and it was the '70s. Her boyfriend wanted to scare her, and the dark tunnel under a railroad bridge at a dead-end road was the ideal place.
Parked near the bridge, Proffitt recalls she noticed two children at the tunnel opening. She watched them and suddenly, poof! They disappeared, she says.
"I'm saying, 'Oh my God!' And seconds later the children were at the back window of the car looking right at me," she says. "I was hysterical."
Proffitt heard of Bunny Man Bridge years later and realized that was it. She returned six times. "The bridge is haunted, I do know that," says Proffitt, who lives in Strasburg, Va., and often visits houses and places said to be haunted. "Those children were victims. They died there."
The legend of Bunny Man Bridge has evolved in Northern Virginia over the past 30 years the way most scary stories do -- kernels of truth transform frightening rumors into macabre tales where the location's ripe for fright.
In one version, the Bunny Man story begins in western Fairfax County in 1905, at a mental institution near Clifton, where the bridge was built. The state demolished the asylum and bused convicts to Lorton. Two escaped and hid in the woods.
Residents found carcasses of half-eaten rabbits for weeks. Then one of the inmates was found hanging by a noose from the bridge. The other convict escaped to become the "Bunny Man."
Then there's the '70s story about the child, or parent, who dressed up like a bunny, killed his family, then hanged himself from the bridge. Other tales, same period, report a maniac wearing a bunny suit attacking people with a hatchet, and two children killed by a local hermit there, and teens found disemboweled there -- in all, 28 horrible deaths are said to have happened at the bridge!
Anyone who goes to the bridge at midnight on Halloween dies a gruesome death! The story even appeared two years ago on the Fox Family Channel's "Scariest Places on Earth" show: Want to see the Bunny Man? Stand in the tunnel and repeat "Bunny Man" three times. He'll appear like Little Bunny Foo Foo on steroids.
The whitewashed Bunny Man Bridge is on Colchester Road outside Clifton. In daylight, it's a single-lane tunnel, 60 feet long, with strange acoustics. In the blackness of night, it's a dead end where homes hide behind thick woods, where crickets chirp like racing heartbeats, frogs cry like babies and the stream murmurs. Peaceful as a graveyard.
Steve Sucher of Springfield says it's creepy. Years ago he would drive by the area going home from work and keep his windows rolled up. "The road is poorly lit, narrow and curvy, which makes one nervous anyhow. But I would get a feeling of dread," says Sucher, 35, a paranormal research hobbyist who doesn't buy the Bunny Man story. "I would get weird vibes but I can't explain why."
There are reports that Fairfax County police maintain video surveillance of the bridge. A sign used to warn: "Under Surveillance." Cops are said to pull up soon after visitors arrive. Supposedly, surveillance footage has caught strange phenomena.
Julie Zyvoloski says police showed up in minutes when she visited in March. "The story is believable to a point. Someone escaping. Eating rabbits to survive. Someone hanged," says Zyvoloski, who grew up in Annandale and lives in Florida. "But I haven't found any proof of it."
Neither has Brian Conley. "If you mean, is there any truth to any of the rumors to anybody being murdered, or anything paranormal, I have found no evidence. I believe that to be bogus," he says.
As the Fairfax County Public Library historian and archivist, Conley has researched the legend's origins over 11 years, collecting stories and searching through crime reports and newspaper accounts. He found none of the county's murder cases matched the Bunny Man saga and no murders occurred at the bridge.
In his report, titled "The Bunny Man Unmasked," he said no insane asylum ever existed in Fairfax County and Lorton Prison was built five years after the convicts were supposedly moved there. Police video surveillance? No power within 600 yards of the bridge.
But Conley did find two stories in The Washington Post from October 1970 that he believes fed the folk tale. "There was on at least two occasions a man in a bunny suit throwing hatchets at people," he says.
Nobody was killed. Both incidents took place in suburban Virginia. And soon rumors of a killer in bunny clothing spread to Maryland and West Virginia. "It took only a couple weeks before the kids are telling stories," he says.
Conley speculates the gruesome rumors stuck to the bridge because it was a good place to get frightened. "You could go under that bridge and there was nothing there except a great place to party," he says. "This is the kind of story that you'd tell if you're back there partying. In terms of how urban legends get started, this is a real beaut."
Urban legend expert Jan Harold Brunvand says such monster or maniac stories are common. He mentions the Mothman legend in West Virginia, made into a movie last year, and classic tales such as "The Hook," "The Killer in the Back Seat" and "The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker" are widespread.
"Often they are about a deformed and insane person who suffered some kind of electrical, chemical or explosive accident, then retreated to the woods where he terrorizes locals. Like Bunny Man, their primary audience is teenagers," says Brunvand, author of "The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story."
In downtown Clifton, Melissa Bettius, 20, says, "All the high school kids this Halloween are going to Bunny Man Bridge even though you're not supposed to."
She works at Noodles 'n' Noggins, a shop on Main Street, but the 2003 high school grad says she has been to the bridge often. "It was scary," she says. "Supposedly on Halloween, somebody in a bunny suit does show up!"
The Haunted Trail at the Park is the Halloween fright hike for trick-or-treaters that has become a tradition. Every year someone creeps around the trail dressed as the Bunny Man.
Tom McNamara, owner of the Clifton General Store, denies it's him despite what some people say. "No," he says bluntly.
Anything to the legend?
"Bunk, totally false," he says.
Tom Peterson's front yard along Main Street displays a fake cemetery to entertain Halloween ghouls. One headstone reads "Axe Murderer Bunny Man" with the parting words: "I'll be back!"
Peterson says last year he drove his children, ages 8 and 12, to the bridge, stopped in the tunnel and turned off the car lights. "My kids screamed!" laughs the Robinson High School teacher. "It's terrifying because of the stories they've heard. Every one around here knows about the Bunny Man."
Officer Courtney Young, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County police, assures that no heinous crimes have happened at the bridge. "We get the usual kind of calls for juvenile trespassing or suspicious vehicles down in that area," she says.
But Halloweeners deciding to cross that bridge when they get to it tonight will find someone ominous waiting. Fairfax County police this week decided to close down the bridge for Halloween and "run out" all gawkers.
So take Alex Picciano's word for it. "It was scary but not that scary," says the Oakton High junior, who went to Bunny Man Bridge the other night with five friends. On the way home, they rented "The Blair Witch Project" and really got scared.
"It would've been a lot scarier," he says, "if we had watched the movie first."