My messy office looks like a part-time shrine to The Haunted Mansion.
The wall behind me has a print of the original Disneyland poster promising a terrifying time “in horrifying sight and sound” in a spooky, Victorian mahogany frame and a painted reproduction of the Walt Disney World mansion by artist Larry Dotson.
My desk has a glow-in-the-dark bobblehead of one of the hitchhiking ghosts that my brother and sister bought me for an early birthday present. My computer’s desktop has more Haunted Mansion-themed wallpapers in random rotation than other types by double digits.
It may not sound like the ultimate tribute, but I had to cut myself off somewhere to avoid looking like an obsessive fan. If I take it any further, I’m going look like one of those fans who will name his first child Gracey in honor of the famed Gracey Mansion, regardless if it’s a boy or a girl.
If you knew when and how my love for this storied dark ride started, though, you’d be even more confused, since it stems from one of the most embarrassing and humiliating moments of my childhood.
I was halfway through the third grade at Jean Gordon Elementary School in New Orleans, and my family decided to move our Christmas celebration to Orlando for a week-long trip to Walt Disney World. My mom and her sisters had taken me to Disney World before, but I was so young that I couldn’t remember it. So this would be my first cognitive trip to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center or as I so adorably called it “Efcot.”
The trip to Disney was fun, but even the mere mention of a ride that went too fast or guaranteed a minor startle enacted my inner-defense system with a crying fit. It’s the MOAB of parental defusing especially when you’re in public. If you’re a kid or still live with your parents, don’t do this. It may seem like the perfect short-term solution, but the long-term collateral damage isn’t worth it.
It’s not that I was ungrateful. I was ecstatic to go on the trip especially to the recently opened Disney-MGM Studios. The entire ride from Louisiana to Florida was filled with stories about what we’d see and how much fun we’d have, until the talk turned to the promise of a “haunted mansion.” My parents told me how a ghost would follow me home and I vividly remember picturing the horrifying image of a rotting skeleton looking back and waving a dirt-covered, bony hand at me in the rear-view mirror of our Ford Granada.
The first view days were among the most fun of my life, up until we were told we’d be going through the Mansion. The rest of my family wanted to go on The Haunted Mansion but even the mere sight of the massive Dutch Gothic structure replaced the lump in my throat with a billiard ball… and it was definitely the 8-ball.
We waited under the long awning for our turn to pass through the biggest and most ominous set of oak doors my tiny eyes had ever seen. My mind ran crazy with what was behind them waiting to scar me for life.
The horror started in the foyer as the ominous voice of Paul Frees as the “Ghost Host” warned us what we’d see and the portrait over the fireplace slowly started to morph into a rotting corpse. It looked familiar to me. When the portrait fully changed, it hit me. That’s the skeleton from my daymares! The 8-ball in my throat dropped into my stomach. I knew I was in a house of evil.
We stepped into the stretching room and an unfamiliar feeling of claustrophobia washed over me. Thankfully, the room started stretching and the hidden portraits of the paintings brought a small smile to my face, but the host’s booming voice challenging us “to find a way out” wiped it off as it put more thoughts of horrors to come in my head.
The room went dark and the ceiling disappeared. The same rotting skeleton that appeared in the foyer portrait was now looking down at me from the end of a swinging noose. I don’t remember if I screamed because my crying pretty much drowned out any other noise.
We walked into the bowels of Satan’s waiting room for our transport complete with more morphing paintings. I vividly remember my parents, aunts and uncles with big smiles on their faces. Don’t judge them. If you had to carry a loud sack of water with hair around other people, you’d try to find a happy side to the situation, too.
None of them wanted to ride with a crying kid, so they put me and my cousin (who was also crying) in the same Doom Buggy. We ventured off into the darkness not knowing what evil awaited us. For the first third of the ride, you could tell where we were in the dark from the siren-like wailing expressions of our terror.
Like all great dark rides, we weren’t scared of the things we could see. We were scared of what lay waiting for us in the places we couldn’t see. The things we saw at the beginning of the ride just reinforced our misplaced fears — like the giant spiders that used to hang by the stairs and the glowing eyes of the wallpaper in the hallway.
“How is this supposed to be fun?” my 8-year-old brain told me. “Why do people derive pleasure from horror? And what does ‘derive’ mean?”
The buggies snaked down the hallway as knobs and door knockers turned and shook all on their own, past Satan’s grandfather clock and through Madame Leota’s seance room. We’re just about to enter the balcony overlooking the ballroom and the ride stops in between that small stretch of darkness. My fear is now at a fever pitch. We’re waiting for something to jump out and pretend to eat us or swallow our holy soul. I hear a knock on the back of our buggy. It’s my dad, who I can just tell is getting the biggest kick out of this. I gave him a pass because I knew how expensive college would be down the line.
The ride starts moving again and the ghosts materialize. They don’t look like the ghosts that came to me in my nightmares. These are more entertaining and less life scaring. Two ghosts living in a pair of portraits at the top of the rear wall are having a pistol duel. The ominous organist is playing a song as spirits pour out of the pipes. A trio of happy haunts are swinging on the chandelier having the time of their afterlives.
This isn’t scary. This is funny. This is fun.
By the time we’re out of the attic, past the heart-beating bride and staring over the graveyard as a tsunami of spirits pour into the fake sky, I’m trying to take it all in and notice as many details as I can. I’m looking so close that a head jumps out from behind a tombstone and it startles me but the fear feels like a shot of adrenaline delivered directly to my id.
Our carts curve into the final hallway and we finally see the ghosts who are supposed to follow us home look nothing like the early artist renderings for the Cryptkeeper that my brain produced to shield me from harm. We step off the buggies and onto the rolling conveyor belt and our faces looked like the complete opposite from the way they looked when we first entered. We’re smiling, laughing and talking about how much fun we had.
The entire ride home, the only thing I could talk about was the Haunted Mansion and how much I wanted to go on it again. The incident became a running joke in our family for years to come, but even I could appreciate the humor of it because of how it changed me. It showed me how the bridge between horror and comedy are actually the same, the latter of which I was a huge fan of and still am. I started seeking out more scary stories, movies and shows that fed my need to learn more about the macabre and the monstrous like Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” books and “The Twilight Zone,” something my dad is a huge fan of and had a similar experience with “The After Hours” episode when he was a kid.
Surviving my first intentional horror experience taught me that nothing is more terrifying the images our head can produce and all you can do to fight it is learn how to laugh at the production of your own fear rather than let them keep you from missing out on the more exciting parts of life.
The rotting skeleton in the mirror is still with me except now we’re friends.
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