Ong’s Hat is one of the internet’s earliest conspiracy theories, named after a ghost town deep in the woods of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Rumors swirled for years that something profound had once happened there, opening a door into strange, unfathomable worlds.
On a sunny morning in early 2000, Joseph Matheny woke up to find conspiracy theorists camped out on his lawn again. He was making coffee when he noticed a face peering in a ground-floor window of the small, three-story building he rented in Santa Cruz. Past the peeper, there were three other men in their early 20s loitering awkwardly. Matheny sighed and stepped outside. He already knew what they wanted. They wanted to know the truth about Ong’s Hat. They wanted the secret to interdimensional travel.
They were not looking for trouble, just information, and he was able to get them to leave with some cryptic comments and a quick lecture on personal boundaries. But Matheny, a mobile game developer who said he spent the 1990s working for some of tech’s biggest names had been on edge since about a year earlier, when he had to march an unruly intruder off the property at gunpoint, after an attempted break-in. According to Matheny, he and his girlfriend at the time had been receiving threatening phone calls and emails. Someone was anonymously contacting his employers claiming Matheny was dangerous, a liability. After more than a decade of secrets, the chickens were coming home to roost. The Ong’s Hat experiment had grown out of his control.
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