Constructing an outline of his life is tricky, but the files offer this starting point: He once was an employee at the National Agriculture Research Center in Prince George's County, where he conducted unspecified research on goats.

Then something went wrong. Terribly wrong. And this is where his story gets really murky.

At some point, he turned into an evil hybrid--half-man, half-goat. He started to carry an ax, though the files do not explain how he was able to clutch it tightly with a cloven hoof. Most sources say he has always stuck close to Fletchertown Road in Bowie, but others have spotted him as far south as Charles County.

His name is Goatman, and his story--patchy as it is--is one of thousands of local legends that can be pieced together using the files hidden in 32 cardboard boxes in a back room of the University of Maryland's McKeldin Library.

The lids of the boxes have been taped shut. The dates on some of the files are more than a half-century old, and the paper clips affixed to them have oxidized, bonding onto onionskin typing paper in a rusted crust. They're not, in other words, the kind of files scholars consult every day.

But the titles--so esoteric, so unsorted--jump from the folders and grab the eye: "Tales of Ghosts and Boogey-men of Anne Arundel County" (1978); "The Tragic Comedy of the Gasoline Shortage" (1974); "Folklore of Boy Scout Troop 299 of Hyattsville, Maryland" (1989); "From Hell to Fraternity" (1990); "Goatman: Who He Is, Where He Lives and What He Does" (1971).

Collectively called the Maryland Folklore Archive, the files have been dormant for about 10 years. But from the early 1950s to 1990, English students at Frostburg State University, Salisbury State University and the University of Maryland were periodically assigned to ask area residents about local legends and transcribe what they heard. Hence, the archive.

"It's just a mishmash of things," said Beth Alvarez, the university's curator of literary manuscripts. "It hasn't been weeded at all."

Alvarez is apologizing, but the unkempt spirit of the archive accounts for much of its charm. Reach into a box and there's no telling what you'll find. You might pull out an inventory of hangover cures compiled in the mid-1970s. Or you might end up with an index of jump-rope rhymes popular in the Gaithersburg area around 1960. There's even a file somewhere inside that lists the most popular euphemisms for unspeakable body parts, circa 1969.

And if it weren't for the files in the archive, a lot of colorful figures might have passed on undocumented.

Consider Bunny Man, for example.

He's the subject of Patricia C. Johnson's 1973 contribution. She collected testimony from 44 residents of Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District, each of whom told her all they knew about the elusive rabbit-suited man who--like Goatman--was said to stalk local children with an ax.

Of Johnson's informants, all but three indicated that Bunny Man actually existed, though few admitted to seeing him. Some said he was based in Hyattsville. Some claimed his stalking ground was limited to Northern Virginia. Even the District had its share of sightings, particularly near elementary school playgrounds.

"In some cases, whole families were involved" in telling Bunny Man stories, Johnson wrote, "and habits and personal routines were altered because of Bunny Man."

Habits and personal routines were altered--that gets to the heart of why the Maryland State Arts Council at one time set aside money to catalogue these files. The thinking was that local folk stories have a real impact on people's lives, even though libraries traditionally don't reserve much space for them on their shelves.

The state put students to work devising an elaborate cross-referencing system for the archive, but the project withered when funds dried up. Alvarez said that when the library inherited the files in 1996, the index was nowhere to be found.

If it were still around, a lot of the entries would refer to scare stories, like the Goatman and Bunny Man legends.

"I've heard he's intensely mad at young people," a 17-year-old witness was quoted as saying in a 1971 file on Goatman. "I don't know why."

It's a motif running throughout the archive: youth-directed villainy. Frank Caherty, in his undated inventory, "Goat-men, Hermits & Murderous Woodsmen," observed that informants tended to place their legends in spots where supervising adults probably would not want children to play. Storm drains were popular hideouts. So were areas near railroad tracks and abandoned buildings.

Barry Lee Pearson, a folklorist at the University of Maryland, said folk legends often originated as cautionary tales from adults. However, modern examples like Goatman are most commonly generated by teenagers themselves. Instead of serving as a warning to stay away from areas mentioned, the stories end up stirring interest in those sites. Consequently, more young people flock to places like Fletchertown Road.

"Students will get together, go to someone's house, drink some beer and go to the site," Pearson said. "They'll continue to hang around, eventually scare themselves, and someone will say they saw something. The legends stay alive because people continue to go out and look for them."

The archive shows that it's not always an evil man-beast that people are trying to find. It's often something more spectral. For every Chessie (a Loch Ness-type monster of the Chesapeake Bay popular in the late '70s and early '80s), the archive documents a multitude of haunted houses, roads and cemeteries.

Frederick has Spook Hill, on Gapland Road, where people say that if you put your car in neutral at the bottom of the incline, mysterious forces will push it uphill. On Lottsford Road in Prince George's County, people for years said you could hear the wails of a baby who was supposedly killed on Cry-Baby Bridge, which spanned Western Branch creek. Another recurring story in the archive is that of the Black Aggie, a statue that once stood in a Baltimore cemetery and was said to be lethal if viewed at midnight. The statue is now in the courtyard of the U.S. Claims Court in Washington.

If cemeteries aren't convenient for an eerie setting, old churches often are. One informant told the following story, transcribed in Edward Jarboe and Nancy Pacunas's 1967 file, "Folklore of St. Mary's County":

"Down on St. Andrews Road there's a church down there, you know, and if people walk by there late at night they can hear the church organ playing and see that the lights are on inside the church, but there is no service going on. If you go up and look in the windows you can see there are no people inside. Sometimes when you get close by the windows the light will go out and the music stops, but this is just sometimes."

More than one student-author noted the pleasure and excitement that seemed to imbue the speakers when they told such tales, a kind of winking delight at being given the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of the possible--if only for the time it takes to tell a story.

"They can intellectualize the infeasibility of such a person as Goatman, but emotionally they still harbor the feeling that maybe it's true after all," summarized Rose Ann Duley in her file about the legend. "Every time they drive down [Fletchertown Road] on a dark Saturday night, they hope they're right."