It was the bleak spot in in Disneyland. As the months, weeks, days past till we traveled the 400 miles from Utah to Disneyland it was always there in the back of my mind, never letting my excitement or anticipation get a full hold. I'd have dreams of Disneyland, running from ride to ride, no lines in sight, Mickey and Goofy with me, but always I'd end up in some horrible mistake that always led me to the Haunted Mansion. It was my boogie man. I was never afraid of the dark, of boogymen, of wild beasts or whatever else kids are afraid of, but I had nightmares of The Haunted Mansion.
How old was I? Hard to say, especially because when it comes to Disneyland, hight is more important than age, right? I was at least 40 inches as I could ride Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain no problem. Probably six I guess.
We went every year, once a year and we loved it. On our return our friends would gather around and listen as we told them the sights and wonders that were there as if we had returned from some great journey around the globe, but when talk turned to the Mansion, I would leave.
Outside I was filled with nerves, my brain wildly trying to come up with an excuse not to go in. My dad had an official policy when it came to vacations at Disneyland: Everyone went on Every ride we possibly could. No wimp outs.
The weather vane was the worst. Everything else outside had the trappings of a line, albeit a bit creepy. I'd done spook houses and the like. I knew the deal. Tombstones, creepy music, it was all there, but that vane... a ship. Had it been a bat like it's cousin, or something more deliberately spooky it would have been easier, but a ship. It was too real. Like the spooky house in my neighborhood had an old dutch windmill in the front yard. The spookiest thing isn't anticipated.
The cast members didn't scare me either. They were human just like I was, and seeing one or more of them obviously bored or distracted let me know, for a moment, it was just a ride, but the thing is they were never in the worst of it. You saw them in the hall way as the candle lights flickered and the air became deathly still, and in the gallery.
Those paintings... My mom told me to look, that they were funny, but they just seemed so awful to me, The tightrope walker was hard for me, she was younger. Evil obviously, but younger. I could relate to her for some reason, and she was going to be alligator food for sure. What a trick. What a horrible trick.
The hangman I didn't see till much later, by then my eyes were shut tight and my fists were crammed in my ears. The sensation of a stretching room was too much. When I did open my eyes, they always seemed to land on the face of the tightrope walker.
In the hallway the paintings changed. They didn't scare me much, except for the April/May one. A young woman who looked a bit like my mother transforming to some monstrous gorgon... maybe it unlocked a deeper fear than I realized. The possibility of hurt from my mother? The assurance that my mother, who takes care of me and loves me, will become some ancient thing who lost her mind? Yes.
The busts that follow you were obviously tricks that did nothing for me other than kindle a small spark of wanting to know the secrets. I knew one: inverted mask, and I wanted to know more. How did Disney do all this?
The Doombuggy felt like a coffin closing in on me. Never claustrophobic though, the opposite in fact. It felt to open, to inviting. Some nameless arm or spongy hand could grab my leg from outside and pull me under.
Up the stairs and in the hallway I first saw Hell. The candelabra floating in the endless hallway. A maid (I always thought she was a made holding that thing) had piddled her life away and was paying the eternal consequence by being lost forever. This was the endless torment of Hell. Not the cartoony "devil and pitchfork" thing from cartoons or Mr. Toad.
Through the hallway of doors, past the coffin with the body trying to escape I could see out the window and we weren't in Disneyland anymore. On the top of some dead hill from the fairy tails that never seemed quite right, but I understood it had to be. Disney brought you the happy and joy from stories, but they all have their torment and anguish. They all have their villains.
Madame Leota freaked me right the hell out. It was a real face in the ball, eyes flitting at me before bouncing to the rest of the room. The instruments floated in the air reminding me of the real scary stories I sometimes heard adults tell each other in hushed tones about people being flung around by evil spirits.
The ballroom scene was a madhouse in my mind. Loonies, dangerous deranged loonies had killed each other and now their spirits were continuing the lunacy. My eyes once again clamped shut.
Heartbeats opened them up again. Staring into the vacant stare of the ghost bride, her loneliness and sorrow only a ruse to get me to fall to her, to help her. That's when the blue-green of her face would melt away to the black skull underneath (Like the phantasm at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark). Repulsed and afraid, I couldn't look away, afraid I already was hypnotized by her.
Out the window, down the ledge I came across the caretaker and the dog. That dog... ribs showing through, haunches shaking in fear, doomed to live as a mortal trapped, with no way out. If I was to shed a tear, it would be at the sight of that dog.
The rest of the ride is a blur in my childhood memory because of the jumping ghosts. I saw the others: The king and queen, the opera singers, the mummy and father time, but they all had a purpose, a story, you know? They were there with or without me. But those jumpers, they only had the fear. My childhood mind created a story where these were not the ghost of departed humans, but the materialization of fear itself, existing only to add to its horrific power. Around every turn it would jump at me, making me scream. I didn't want to scream for I knew every one would make it grow stronger and stronger until it was released from it's captivity and allowed to kill me with the fear.
When I heard the Ghost Host say "Oh, there you are..." I knew it was over. The hitch-hiking ghost were a joke I got. Funny. the "Follow you home" bit was funny too, especially if the ghost to do it was one of the trio you had sitting on your lap a moment ago whom you put your arm around or watched as you sister kissed on the cheek.
And then little Leota was only a blur as I rushed to the light and safety of the Disneyland I knew.
People may disagree about my father's rule, some may even think it child abuse to put a kid though all that, but I'm glad. It honed my imagination, allowed me to create stories I still think about and smile, and shiver.
It gave me courage to face my fears, and learned that the fears I created in my head were far worse than anything out there.
I love the Haunted Mansion today. I ride it with a sense of relaxation and fondness that no other ride matches.
But deep inside of me is the little 40 incher that remembers, knows, fears. And I love it.