I wish that I had those Jean Shepard stories of growing up. They were heartwarming and enjoyable. And although there were troubles abound as life brings, there was a satisfying happy ending. Well, not every one's life gets to be so lucky. Mine was a world of freakishness, sadness, and anger, which all went by me like a blur. Thanks to having ADD and being diagnosed as hyperactive from my teachers, life moved quickly. But when things slowed down and I could understand what was going on, they got downright ridiculous.
Case in point: The year is 1979,it's early August and I'm twelve years old. My mother had gotten in contact with some family members and we were set to go off to a reunion in New York. What made it interesting was the fact that we never knew of these people until three years previously after one of them came up with the idea to trace his family. So, my mom, my younger brother Rocky and myself all piled in a large conversion van along with our other cousins on a Thursday night and we made the trek to see the rest of the relations. The trip was long, the van was hot and the rest of the family was a pain in the butt, figuratively and literally. Even though there were at least four rows of seats in this monster van, four adults and five children in one van is never comfortable. I did my best to keep myself occupied by bringing as many comic books as I thought I'd needed. While the rest of this crowd would wonder at the site of a cow in the meadow, I stuck my head in the lastest issue of Marvel Two-In-One. It's not all the time I get to read about The Thing.
By Friday afternoon, the van pulled into Yonkers and we all checked into the Holiday Inn. I was so happy to finally get out of that van and to get away from all these strangers called cousins. My own family checked into a large room with two big beds and we got comfortable. At least I got comfortable. I immediately turned on the TV and flopped down on one bed, coveting it for myself while Rocky bunked with Mom on the king sized sleepers. That's when I saw what would be the most coolest thing ever.
The television had been flickering on and off when an ad for The Long Branch Haunted Mansion appeared. I remembered that the ad showed monsters, ghouls and more and I clearly remember a voice saying it's the most frightening excitement EVER. For thirty seconds, I was hooked. "Mom, I gotta see that! Can we go to the Haunted Mansion while we're here, Mom?", I asked with glee.
"Boy, you get scared when you see a cockroach", Mom said. "There ain't no way in the world I'm letting you go there." I knew then if I wanted to go to the coolest place ever, I would have to pour it on as thick and rich as a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's.
"Mama, please! I wanna go bad! I won't be scared! It'll be cool and all! Please, Mama, pleeease!" I thought if I could suck up just enough, I'd know she'd concede just so she wouldn't hear me whine about it.
"Alright, alright. Let me talk to your cousins. Since they live in Long Branch, maybe we can all go in. But you're taking your brother and you'll do what I say the whole time you're here, got it? Everything." I knew that "everything" was going to be tough to pull off, but if I wanted to see The Haunted Mansion, I had to seal the deal. I gave her a big hug and assured her that I would be on my best behavior all weekend long at the reunion.
The next day would be when we got to see all the family. Other than the people I came with, everyone else was strangers. There were folks coming up to me I'd never seen before in my life. They would walk up and say, "Ohh, you must be Sara Gordon's boy, the smart one. I've heard so much about you!" Old women who smelled like mothballs and mentholated rub squeezed the life out of me. Old men who wore over sized leisure suits and smoked stinky cigars rubbed me on top of my head till it hurt. But I took it all because I had to. I had no choice if I wanted to go to The Haunted Mansion and my mama knew it. She got me good and probably had a good laugh out of seeing me getting the life sucked out of my body by all this boredom. But, I took it like the little man the senior citizens called me. For I would be going to the coolest place ever the next day.
Later that night, we were all back in the hotel room after a day of hugs and strange people I would never see again. I turned on the TV and caught up with "Saturday Night Live". Once again, the ad for The Haunted Mansion appeared. This time around, the ad seemed darker. The monsters and ghouls seemed bloodier. I thought for a moment, what the heck did I get myself into? But I knew it couldn't be this scary. Nope, I'm gonna go and I'm gonna have a good time. I'm not let any ol' monster get me. No sirree.
That night, I slept with the lights on until daylight.
The next day, all the cousins piled in the van to drive to Long Branch to meet with the rest of the strangers/family for a cookout. I had never been to New Jersey before, so the entire place seemed foreign to me. For one, here it was early August and the temperature was cool, in the low seventies. Down south around this time, it was in the low nineties and hot. Also, there was fog in the middle of the day. I had never seen fog like that before in my life. Something like that should have been my sign that things would definitely be different this day.
After doing the meet and greet with everyone for a couple of hours, it was decided that the teenagers of the family would take the younger kids down to the boardwalk were we could all go to The Haunted Mansion. It turns out that I wasn't the only one who wanted to check out the coolest place ever. So the other kids who lived there would be our guide to the pier. So we all banded together, about ten of us. Before we left, Mom stopped me and said, "So, were you planning on taking your brother?" I knew I made her a promise and if I wanted to go with the others, I had no choice but to drag Rocky with me. Reluctantly, I said yes and took his hand. I felt so dumb around all the older kids. I wanted to show those Yankees that us Southern boys were tougher and cooler than they could ever be, yet here I was holding the hand of a seven year old boy. Wonderful.
As we all walked towards the pier, I noticed that the fog got thicker and thicker as we went along. When we got near the shore, one of the cousins told us about the many sharks that inhabited the waters of Long Branch and of the many attacks recently. One guy had gone in to surf the beach, but great whites had jumped out of the waters and torn him apart, leaving only his broken board as a reminder of who controls the Jersey waters around the town. I suddenly began to get an uneasy feeling as he went into detail of how the sharks took the man piece by piece. Soon, my feeling of excitement turned to a slow fear. I still held on to Rocky's hand, but now there was a heavy amount of moisture coming from my palms. I looked down at the kid brother and asked was he scared. Old Rocky looked at me and laughed. "You're a big chicken. You're a big chicken", he began to sing-song. I held my head high and took a deep breath. "I'm not afraid, Rocky", I said to him. "You just hold my hand and don't let go for anything or I'm telling Mom, got it?" I then grabbed his hand tighter and walked faster with him in tow as we made our way to the front of the crew. I was going to The Haunted Mansion and nothing was going to scare me. Not one thing, not no how. Until we came up to it .
When we got to the building, it was ominous. It was dark and foreboding. Sounds came out of speakers that shouldn't be coming from houses, especially in the daytime. I had finally come face to face with what at first was the coolest place ever that somehow turned into the scariest place ever: The Haunted Mansion. The entire house was painted dark. The windows were shuttered and nailed down so no light could go in or out. It was five stories of black on the New Jersey pier and it had dozens ready to enter. You know, it's funny. It looked much smaller on television. Yet, I said I was going to go in and I was going to do it, scary or not. I held on to Rocky's hand tighter now and I said to him not to let go. We got in the long line with the rest of the family and others who were there and paid our dues to be frightened. Soon, the entire family was at the doorway waiting to be let in. Soon, the wooden door creaked and a robed ghoul in red stood in front of us. Her voice creaked out, "Welcome to The Haunted Mansion. We hope you enjoy your stay here. Because once you go in, you may never want to leave." The ghoul then cackled an evil laugh as we began to walk inside. The first thing I noticed was a deer head on the wall with blood on it's mouth. I then looked to my right and saw a coffin in the corner. One of my older cousins looked at me and asked was I okay. I looked at him and with all the bravery I could muster up at the moment, I said, "I'm fine, man." Rocky then piped up,"He's a big chicken." I then slugged Rocky in the arm to keep him quiet.
To get rid of the image of seeing a coffin in the first room, we moved on the the next room. It was a Victorian sitting room that was dark and barely lit, except for a few lights shining down on the couch. There, we saw a body without it's head, with blood dripping where the skull should be. We all looked over at the center of the room and saw the head, sitting on a platter in the middle of a table. It looked in mid shock, as if it was in the midst of a beheading. Soon, I began to piece together who this room belonged to and remembered the infamous rhyme...
"Lizzie Borden took an ax,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
gave her father forty-one."
I knew as a kid that this was a true story after reading about it in books and seeing stories on it on TV, so I knew that this could really happen. I began to catch my breath, when all of a sudden, who should step out of the darkness but a woman in Victorian dress, covered in blood, wielding an ax. We all screamed when she jumped out. "Looks like I'll be chopping up more tonight!", she yelled. We all quickly ran out of the room to get away for the sight of our own blood. I held on to Rocky's hand as tight as I could and never let go as I hauled butt.
We all then got to a rope bridge. I had seen that one in the commercials. It didn't look as scary as it did in the ads, with a roomful of stalactites above and stalagmites below, but I knew we had to get across. I looked at the kid brother and said, "whatever you do, don't let go my hand." He looked angry at me and loosened his grip, running off with the other kids. Here I was trying to be as brave as the heroes in the comic books I was so fond of and now I was all alone in a haunted house. I had to find Rocky and fast or else the biggest horror would be my mama giving forty-two whacks. By this time, fear was the only thing that kept me moving and I knew that I had to keep going on. I had no choice at this point.
I saw him up ahead as he stood by the older kids. They were trapped in what looked like a jail with what looked like a man who had been there for centuries in tattered clothing dancing about. But by the time I could catch up with them, they had already gone on ahead to the next room and disappeared from my site. Rocky was gone, but I knew I had to stay with him somehow. But how could I? At this point, there were noise and people coming from out of nowhere. My senses were on overdrive. The place I had seen on TV that I wanted to go to so bad that I had to beg my mama to go see had become my living hell. This was no longer a Scooby Doo episode. Soon, every bad thing I had done all those years had caught up to me and asking me down. Every time I said a bad word, every test I cheated on, every time I hit my little brother. This was it. I was going to die for never listening to my mother. Tears came rolling down my cheeks in floods. I was shaking like an over loaded washing machine. Sam Johnson would forevermore be gone from this realm.
As I got to the jail cell to try as I could to catch up to the rest, I couldn't see the madman. I ran as quickly as I could to meet them. Suddenly, my exit was blocked off by the cell door. I then heard a voice behind me that yelled out, "Lizzie, look what I found!" It was the madman! He's trapped me and I was doomed as doom could be! I then began to freak out as I had never freaked before. I grabbed the madman by the collar of his prison suit and yelled at him, " Stop! I can't take this anymore! I gotta get out of here now!" The madman's look then changed to concern. The freaks in the mansion couldn't touch the visitors lest they could get a lawsuit of any of them got hurt.
"Calm down, kid. Calm down. It's okay. We're just actors here. Just calm down, alright?", spoke the madman in a normal tone. I must have been really freaked out of my freak at this point, as other visitors around me began to stare and wonder how this kid ever got into this place. Soon it got worse as Lizzie Borden ran into the room and I began to panic even more. She soon dropped character when she saw the madman trying to calm a frightened kid and asked me where were the others I came with and I began to babble that they had gone on ahead without me and I was all alone and I was going to have a heart attack and I was from Savannah and I came with my brother and he's run away from me and my mama was gonna kill me and I was scared out of my wits end and I need to get out here now!
She took a deep breath and told me there was only one way to get out of here since there were no exit doors nearby and I would have to go the way I came in. Lizzie said softly to relax me, "Now I know it's scary, but you have to stay calm, alright? Just run as fast as you can the way you came in and don't look at anything. Whatever you do, don't stop running, okay?" I took a deep breath of as much oxygen as I could and hauled ass out of that room. I knocked down as many people who were in my way just so I could get out. I could hear the haunted laughter of the visitors who could see me make my way over the rope bridge, but I quickly blocked them from my mind. I could sense the eyes upon me as I made my way back to Lizzie's parlor, but I knew that if I wanted to live, I needed to run faster than I ever could. I soon got back to the front entrance and closer to freedom. But as I made my way back to the door, my exit was once again blocked by the opening ghoul in red and a caped vampire.
"Hey kid," the ghoul in red said in a Jersey girl accent. "Where do you think you're going?" I looked at her and in the middle of fear and defiance, I screamed, "I'm getting out of this house now!".
She looked and laughed out loud along with the vampire. "You know you can't get you're money back." I could have freaking cared less at this point. "I just want to get out of here, lady!", I said in between the heaving sobs.
The vampire said, "You're gonna be famous, kid. No one has ever left the house from the front door. You are the very first." It didn't matter to me now, as long as I was out of there. They then made a spectacle of me, letting me out of the door. I could hear them in the background as I made made my way through the line. Folks were staring at me while I was on the way out. "There he is folks! He's the first person ever to leave The Haunted Mansion alive and walking out of the front door!," they bellowed behind me. That day, I'll bet the kids in line became more scared as ever to go in, but I didn't care. I was free of that place and I never wanted to return. I just wanted my mama at this point.
I began to walk down the Long Branch Pier and I was crying and talking to myself the entire time. I was having a nervous breakdown in New Jersey and I had never been there before. But I knew I had to get back home as quickly as I could and get away from this place. Adults had seen me and tried to stop me asking, "Young man, are you alright? Is everything okay?" But I never paid attention to them. I kept having my nervous breakdown and continued to walk back to my family where my mother waited for me. I knew she would be there her arms wide open to let her little boy know that everything was okay. The ghouls and monsters where all gone. Mama was here for her twelve year old boy.
I had remembered every step I had taken from the house of the reunion to the pier and now I would take them all backwards to get home. I wandered for what seemed like days, but only took a half hour. I could see the house in my blurred horizon and I knew that Mom would be there for me. As I grew closer, I ran faster and faster when finally I could see my mama and all the older cousins in the backyard cooking out, when they noticed that I was all alone and having a nervous breakdown of the senses. I then collapsed on to my Mom when I got close enough to he and I could hear her say to me,"Boy, what in the Hell is wrong with you?"
I then began to explain the entire story of how evil The Haunted Mansion was and how Rocky ran away from me and how I escaped the mansion's clutches and I to loose it even more in front of my mother and the rest of the grown folks.
"Lord, Jesus." She just looked at me and shook her head in embarrassment as the rest of the adults began to laugh at me. "You left your brother with the other kids?", she yelled at me. I tried to explain how he got away from me, but all that could come out of my mouth was unexplainable speaking in tongue that I would never do anything bad ever again.
I could hear one of the grownups say, "I told y'all that place wasn't no good. All them folks up in there scaring all them people like that. That place'll give a strong man a coronary!"
My mama just looked at her now clinically insane son and said to me, "Boy, carry your Black behind in that house and go lay down. I don't want to see you no more until we leave, understood?" I babbled "yes, ma'am" and one of my adult cousins brought me into the house and lead me into a bedroom and told me to lie for a while. I flopped on the bed, going into shock, talking to myself the whole time like I was Renfield from those scary movies for the thirties, saying over and over the monsters where gone, the monster were gone, the monster were gone. After an hour and a half of this, I began to calm down a bit. But what of my little brother? Was he safe? I looked out of the window and I could see the others had returned safely. They had related the story of how I cracked up to the rest of the family and I could hear them laugh out loud of my adventure. It turns out that Rocky was okay, too. They never got through the entire house, either. The others had gotten too scared as well and made it out through an exit door on the third floor. But they had heard the legend of the kid that left out of the front. That would be a milestone for every family reunion they'll ever have. I would never hear peace from that day on from the rest of the cousins in the way as we made our way back to Savannah. I was just glad to get back home at that point and kept my head in my comics.
Mom has passed on since that day. I've gotten older and so has Rocky. I've gotten a bit braver now, but that day in Long Branch, New Jersey still gives me chills every time I think about how it grabbed hold to my inner fiber and wouldn't let go. I'd since found out that the Haunted mansion no longer exists. After a few years, the place went from being the scarest place ever to a family friendly amusment area. Then in 1987, a gas leak started a fire that would burn the entire pier, including The Haunted Mansion. There wasn't enough insurance money to repair the damage, so the area was sold and now there stands a hotel where once was the mansion. My childhood fear is now gone and in ashes now. To that, I say "thank goodness." I'm glad I never saw those other cousins again or that freaky old mansion.
If you'd like to see photos of what scared the living Hell out of me and possibly still could if it were still standing, go here
. Just keep saying to yourself, "It's only a picture. It's only a picture. It's only a picture..."
Labels: College, essay, Haunted Mansion, my life