The man-made oasis Possum Kingdom Lake, situated among the limestone-flecked Palo Pinto Hills in North Texas, has long been beloved by divers and anglers for its stunning cliffs and deep, placid waters. But its surrounding shroud of mesquite and Ashe juniper trees turns shadowy and mysterious at night. The darkness envelops everything.
In 1994, a killer was said to roam the craggy shores of Possum Kingdom Lake. As the story goes, the prowler, presumed to be a man, approached a young woman one night. Making overtures of romantic flattery, he invited her to walk with him around the lake. He lured her behind a boathouse, and it was there that he revealed his true intentions. He intended to take her as his “bride.” No one ever heard from her again.
The killer was never caught, nor was his victim ever found. The story never made the papers; if local law enforcement knew anything, they’ve kept mum for a quarter-century now. Yet to this day, the tale remains firmly entrenched in Possum Kingdom lore, passed down as one of many stories of the terrors found lurking there. After all this time, we know one thing for certain: it’s complete horseshit.
“I just made it up,” says Vaden Todd Lewis, laughing. Lewis, the singer for Dallas-Fort Worth band the Toadies, concocted this entire ghoulish spiel for his song “Possum Kingdom,” the breakout single from the band’s 1994 debut, Rubberneck. As the macabre hit eked out a slot in the Top 40, “Possum Kingdom” made the Toadies (alongside bands like Tripping Daisy and Deep Blue Something) one of Texas’s most famous contributions to the ’90s alt-rock frenzy. Today the song remains a radio staple. And thanks to its cryptic lyrics—along with a video, steeped in serial killer imagery, that landed in heavy rotation on MTV—it’s become an urban legend unto itself.
Decades later, “Possum Kingdom” still inspires impassioned arguments over what it’s really about. Some say it’s about a man who killed his girlfriend out by the lake. Others believe the killer had multiple victims, as the song supposedly refers to a spree of still-unsolved abductions. And then there are the song’s allusions to eternal beauty that, to some, seem like an obvious homage to the undead who have long made Possum Kingdom their home. This particular theory became so popular that the Toadies commanded a devoted following of vampire enthusiasts in the ’90s, many of whom would turn up to their shows in full capes-and-fangs regalia.
Lewis used to shy away from explaining “Possum Kingdom,” conscious that the ambiguity was part of its appeal. He’s more forthcoming these days. He says that the real story of “Possum Kingdom” can be found within another Rubberneck song, “I Burn,” told from the point of view of a guy who throws himself into a sacrificial bonfire as part of a cult ritual. “It’s very Stephen King shit,” he says. “Then I was writing what would be ‘Possum Kingdom,’ and I started thinking about this guy out there, tricked into this netherworld. He’s floating around, looking for a mate that he can trick into doing the same thing.”
To Lewis, Possum Kingdom seemed like a natural setting for his “ghost story.” His brother’s family owned a fishing lodge out by the lake, he says, and he’d spent summers there in his teens and twenties, soaking in the atmosphere. “It was just always kind of a moody area,” he says. “And, of course, you’ve got places like Hell’s Gate and Devil’s Island—the names are already there. It lends itself to some storytelling.”
Like many Texans, Lewis heard tall tales growing up. His East Texas grandfather once told him one about a guy seen skulking around Tyler, peeping into windows. (This became the subject of the Toadies song “Tyler.”) He also remembers being a teenager, traipsing after squirrels through Arkansas’s Boggy Creek, along with one of his friends who feared running into the Fouke Monster. In high school, he says, rumors swirled of a Satanic cult that went around collecting baby skulls, even if no babies ever actually turned up missing. “People like to talk,” he says. “People got bored before the Internet.”
But Lewis says he never really heard any chilling stories about Possum Kingdom, specifically. No one ever told him anything about the vampires or vengeful ghosts or secret cults supposedly hiding in the woods. To him, Possum Kingdom just seemed like the kind of place where something bad could happen. And because he put it in a song, many people have come to be convinced that it did.
People have died at Possum Kingdom, though. This past summer alone, two men drowned in June after their boat capsized near the Morris Sheppard Dam. A month later, an Arlington man drowned after falling off a pool float on the Fourth of July. A Lubbock woman drowned, also over Fourth of July, back in 2013. A nineteen-year-old man from Lubbock died in a jet skiing accident in 2015. A seventeen-year-old from Coppell died in 2012 after diving from a cliff. And a fifteen-year-old from North Richland Hills died that same year after jumping from a dock. Those waters running between the canyons are clear and cavernous, extending one hundred feet down in some places, and many have disappeared beneath their calm blue surface.
The sky-scraping cliffs of Hell’s Gate have also long attracted daredevils. From 2014 to 2018, it was one of the few U.S. stops on the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. The area just behind it, known locally as “Party Cove,” has become notorious for bacchanalian revelry that, on occasion, turns reckless. As Possum Kingdom historian Kevin VanDuser tells me, “There have been a lot of bodies pulled out of the lake over the years.” He says that nearly all of these could be chalked up to accidents, such as a misjudged dive, a neglected life vest, and the often deadly combination of alcohol and water.
VanDuser says none of these deaths were the result of violence. The rare exception came in 1996, when a Fort Belknap woman fatally drugged her boyfriend, then chopped up his body and scattered the pieces across four separate counties. Eventually his torso washed up in Possum Kingdom Lake. To this day, VanDuser says it remains the “weirdest true story” he’s heard in his many decades there, and the only one he can think of that could have possibly inspired the Toadies. Except it happened two years after “Possum Kingdom” was released.
For stories of violence or murder along the lake itself, you’d have to look back to before the body of water even existed, to the skirmishes between Anglo settlers and Native Americans along the Brazos River. Like most of the West—and much of the United States—Possum Kingdom is a place with blood in its soil. The very name of Hell’s Gate hails from those times: supposedly it earned its ominous sobriquet after a fur trader stole some pelts from local Comanches, swearing he’d pass through the gates of hell before he’d give them back. The cliff marks the spot where he died in a hail of arrows.
It’s a foundational myth for Possum Kingdom—as is the story of Pickwick, the tiny ghost town that was submerged when the lake was first constructed. Today, when the lake is low, you can sometimes see Pickwick’s bones jutting from the surface. Somewhere down there, too, is the original Carter Bend Cemetery, whose residents were all exhumed and relocated to the Pickwick-McAdams Cemetery in Graford. According to O.K. Carter, a veteran Fort Worth writer and Possum Kingdom native, this has spawned another local legend. “The rumor is that not all the bodies were moved,” Carter says, “which accounts for the ghostly presence divers sometime see in the water or the whispers that come ashore mixed with waves.”
Similar spirits are said to haunt the adjacent town of Mineral Wells: manifesting inside the abandoned Beach Army Hospital, in the empty barracks of Fort Wolters, or in the crumbling Art Deco edifice of the Baker Hotel. But not everyone believes in them—or has even heard of them.
“About the only spooky ghost stories I have ever heard were around the campfires at Boy Scout Camp Constantin, and they were probably stories told at every Scout campfire,” VanDuser tells me. “Any apparitions described by locals and visitors probably came out of aluminum cans and glass bottles.”
Many of them have also been lifted wholesale from a rich tradition of American folklore. The lake’s seen its fair share of Bigfoot sightings, and, according to the internet, there are at least a few who are still scarred by Hugo’s Monster, the albino ape with the piercing scream. (Hugo was a favorite of my grandfather’s, too, a Fort Worth policeman who also loved pulling our legs with stories about chasing the goat-man of Lake Worth.) Plenty such yarns have always been spun about things going bump in the North Texas night. But as VanDuser points out, most are just variations of the same hoary old tales you’ll hear all around the country. None of them have much to do with Possum Kingdom, specifically.
To really understand why “Possum Kingdom” struck such a nerve, somehow convincing a generation that the Toadies unearthed the “dark secret” behind this seemingly serene retreat, you have to look away from the lake—some two hours east, to where the band was born. Fort Worth was a scary place to be in the ’80s and early ’90s. People, particularly women, were being attacked in unprecedented numbers. A string of unexplained disappearances and gruesome murders in 1984 and 1985 spurred police to form a task force as panic crept over the city. Even after the arrest of several serial killers known to have preyed on Tarrant County, including now-infamous names like Ricky Lee Green and Curtis Don Brown, the aura of fear they’d helped create endured for years. As Lewis himself acknowledges, all that tension could not help but creep into his songwriting and the way that local listeners received it.
Around that same time, in 1982, the bodies of three murdered teenagers were discovered by fishermen near Lake Waco. It was a horrifying scene straight out of a slasher movie; all three had been stabbed multiple times. The resulting trial of the accused perpetrators dragged on for nearly a decade, and spawned a TV movie starring Robert Conrad. It was the sort of traumatic event that lingers long in local news reports and our collective memory, even as the specifics become hazy. It’s easy to see how any Texan who grew up with it might have recognized echoes of it in “Possum Kingdom,” eventually conflating the very real murders happening in Waco and Fort Worth with the one Lewis had only imagined.
Add another 25 years of older-sibling hearsay—and factor in the rise of the know-it-all Reddit rando—and it starts to make more sense why so many people still insist “Possum Kingdom” is based on a true story, even after the songwriter himself has clarified that it isn’t. “Possum Kingdom” and Possum Kingdom are inseparable now. An internet search brings up the Toadies video first, winning the Google race over the park’s official website, even.
VanDuser isn’t much of a Toadies fan—although the 70-year-old blames this on “a generation gap thing” more than any particular animosity toward the song, or what it’s done for the place he loves. After all, that sinister image created by “Possum Kingdom” hasn’t slowed the annual tourist deluge, he points out, nor has it waylaid the many “upscale developments on the lake, with million dollar-plus lake homes that urban folks will pay for to have their view of a little of piece of Texas that was once was wild and scary.” To VanDuser, gentrification is the most terrifying threat you’ll find there.
Nevertheless, there’s something about “Possum Kingdom” and Possum Kingdom that makes listeners so ready to believe 25 years on, still trying to crack the mystery. “I can see where folks can see the lake as creepy with its plateaus of live oak and juniper cedar, rattlesnakes, and hundreds of soaring vultures overhead,” VanDuser says. “I can still hear the howling of coyotes. I’ve seen a mountain lion cross the road.”
For Texans, perhaps “Possum Kingdom” taps into something innate about living where we do, forever aware that we’re surrounded by untamed wilderness, danger lying in wait just beyond the tree line. “Texans love that kind of storytelling, because it’s what we grew up with,” Lewis says. “The ghost stories—the metal hook on the car roof and all that. It’s just fun to sit around and scare each other.” Then, he laughs again. “I should have just made up a better story.”