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The Gray Man of Cape Hatteras

Updated: Sep 1, 2023


It's an apropos tale to tell on a stormy day on the coast, like this day, as the remains of Hurricane Idalia churn the Atlantic Ocean to foam. Hurricanes and storms also churn our souls, exciting and terrifying us with these screaming whispered promises on the wind. We wonder when is it going to end, will it ever stop, and, as the trees sway or the water gets closer and closer, how will it end for us. I've been there, I've seen how this ends, and it always is slightly different than the last time we wonder how is it going to end.

But with all the fear and trepidation, there always is a small offering of assurance that things will be alright. The Gray Man Of Hatteras is just such a legend. It is one ghost story where I actually hoped to see the ghost.


The tale begins not with the ghost, but in a much more mundane way, with a family down on Hatteras Island. It could be a local family to the island, living and working in Buxton or Kinnakeet. Sometimes, it is a vacationing family, mother and father, two kids, all who came down at the end of the summer season to escape the inland heat one last time before school starts. Mom hangs the sheets to dry, Daddy carries his fishing pole and bucket to the shore in vain hopes of catching something, even if it's just a story to tell his friends at work. The kids play in the sand on the dune. Somewhere in the background, a scratchy radio plays a far distant station while the ocean waves beat a rushing tattoo on the shore. It's cloudy and rough compared to the days before. Mom has to warn the kids to keep out of the water, even though it's warmer than usual, because those waves might reach out and grab them. Fearless, but wary, the kids mind their raisin', and stay well clear of the foaming surf.

Daddy casts his first line. He's trying frozen shrimp in a vain hope of a nibble or pull. He wonders if any fish will find the bait in this roiling sea. No one else is out this early, but that may be why. It's still early, and with the gloomy day, the scudding clouds, and rising wind, it may not be good for fishing.

Or, maybe, the fish are all there, just waiting for him.

He glances down the shore, north, then south. To the north, there are vague figures on the beach, shadows in the mist that run out and then back to the safety and comfort of the shacks and houses that sporadically litter the coast. To the south, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse blurs into the spray. The new light, installed in 1950, would not come on until dusk, but the candy striped tower is already disappearing. No human walked the shore that way, he sees.

Until one does. He seems to appear literally out of the mist. A figure in gray walks the shore toward the father. He may be a local, out on the beach for a daily constitutional, ocean spray not affecting the old salt in the least. He certainly seems to look the part, the father thinks. The figure seems dressed for the occasion, in a rain slicker and hat.

Daddy goes back to his fishing. Something has pulled off the shrimp from his hook. He baits his line and recasts.

The figure is closer now. Ready to give the typical sullen nod to another beachgoer, the father makes eye contact. He waits for the typical question of "Catchin' anythin'?" in the brogue of the Banker, or perhaps the cantankerous joke of fishing on a windy day. There was a storm steering down south, but no real hint of it coming close to the Outer Banks when they had left for the vacation at the beginning of the week. With no TV and no good radio, it had been a peaceful escape from the noise of the day. It might have been nice to know just what the storm was going to do, though, he thinks. He looks again at the figure in gray, now closer.

The father notices that he cannot notice much. There are no features to the figure. He's just a shape in gray. Then the father stares. The man has no face. Only a vague outline, perhaps a mouth and eyes, black and cloudy, under the darkened rain hat. The figure stops, just far enough away. He seems to be saying something to the shocked father, a wordless litany, along with gestures toward the waves now accumulating on the shallow coast. The waves and wind pick up with every motion of the gray figure.

Then the figure vanishes in a swirl of misty salt and gusty wind.

For a moment, the father stands still, alone now, with only his thoughts as to what he just saw. A gust seems to purposefully blow at him, spitting salt water into his face. Then he realizes what he has seen. He's been down to Hatteras long enough to know the stories. He just had a visit from the Gray Man of Hatteras. It is a warning. It's time to leave. Now.

He reels in his line, grabs his bucket, and runs to the dune, and to the house beyond. His wife has stopped her work to listen in between the static about a report on the radio that the hurricane may be turning north, toward the Hatteras coast. The father says it will come, and sooner than most know, and that it will be dangerous and deadly. They need to leave.

Now.

Instead of gathering their things and packing the car, as the mom protests about the sheets on the line under the porch, still sheltered from the spray, they take a change of clothes and some food and get into the car. It will be a long drive just to get off the island.

They are fortunate to get to Oregon Inlet early enough to get on the short ferry ride across the now bouncing water. Others may not be so fortunate. The drive is long, and the dad quickly decides to stop about an hour inland. They find a little motel in Plymouth to stay in as the storm rolls across the Outer Banks. The kids jump on the beds as the wind and rain drum on the windows. But it's not that bad here, certainly better than on the coast.

And the father knows it. He knows the legend of the Gray Man. With no way to predict the path of oncoming hurricanes, they were of a great risk for loss of houses, and lives. When the Gray Man appears to someone on the coast of Hatteras, it was a warning. The hurricane is coming, and it will be deadly to those who stayed in its path. Some thought the Gray man was the ghost of a lighthouse keeper, still doing his job of protecting others even from the afterlife. Others thought it could be someone lost to a watery tomb in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. While a few theorized it was a spirit of the storm itself, a projected wish to save lives while unable to control its own destiny as nature steers the beast of a hurricane wherever it desires.

None of that matters to the family. They are safe inland. Yes, they left things at the beach house, and it may all be gone, but they are safe, that was all that mattered.

What the kids don't know, and the father now believes fully, is that as much as the Gray Man seemed to offer a promise of destruction, he also offers a reciprocal offer of protection. The family would discover this the next day.

When they return to their house on the shore, it is as if it has been untouched. Other houses are damaged, with broken windows and shutters torn off, roofs with holes in them, sand piled into broken doors, floors soaked with the flood waters of a raging Atlantic. But their house, they discover, is clear of sand on the driveway. The tires of the station wagon crinkle with the sound of pebbles on the tabby concrete. Inside, the windows are closed tight. It is stuffy, dry, hot, still, and dark, but everything is just where they left it. Outside, as the screen door screeches, Daddy finds his fishing pole and bucket still on the porch. The only damage is that his bait has dried to the hooks. The sheets are miraculously still clipped to the white rope. They are clean, maybe a bit salt rimed and stiff, but they still hang on the line. Only a bit of sand has blown over the ocean facing sun deck.

Mom picks up a broom, but the kids take the tool and dustpan from her hand. They mind their raisin', again, and let her walk out on the beach to see the shore, now smooth and slick from a lowering tide, with no footprints of any kind to mark it.

The Gray Man has kept his promise.

I have loved this story since I first heard it as a little kid. It seems like a creepy and horrifying tale at first. Imagine seeing a faceless wraith in a gray hooded cloak walking down the beach in a storm, coming straight at you, especially if you are eight years old and maybe alone. His bony hand points at you from under a cavernous sleeve, as he wordlessly mouths some strange curse out of a dark toothless maw. It is nightmare inducing fuel for any little kid on the beach, that is assured. But then, when you hear the rest of the tale, how the Gray Man offers a promise of protection, then he becomes not only more benevolent, but almost wanted. I actually hoped to see him. I always worried that a hurricane would come and put the snatch upon my beautiful old beach house, with its wooden paneled rooms like the one seen in this photo. Any extra protection, ethereal or not, well, I would take it. I sometimes get a little sad knowing that it wasn't a hurricane that got our cottage, but a bulldozer instead.

There are other stories of a gray man, attached to Oak Island and Pawley's Island, SC. And there are the occasional attachments of some gift of protection, but nothing like the tale from Hatteras. With the advent of hurricane prediction technology, it may be that the Gray Man of Hatteras has been able to finally move on to more peaceful weather, a calm green hurricane hole to ride out eternity in a peaceful hammock. But he may be out there still, on the lookout, just in case. So if you see a figure when you do a sideways glance, be ready to heed the call.

If you like this tale, I wrote a similar version of this in my book Haunting The Outer Banks, my bestselling collection of ghost stories of ghost legends on the NC coast. You can check it out here at my book collection along with several other great ghost books including Haunting The Cape Fear Coast and others. Pick up a couple books now, before the next storm!






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