Nuggets of Wisdom

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Nightly Frights: Grad Night In The Haunted Mansion


Schmoes Know

There’s an urban legend that claims that, when the Haunted Mansion attraction first opened in Disneyland, that it was so frightening that a guest was scared to death from a heart attack, forcing the attraction to be promptly shut down and revamped.

Obviously, that urban legend is simply that: a legend.

However, there have been elements of the ride that have been changed and removed during its lifetime. One such element was an animatronic ghost known as the Hat Box Ghost, thusly named because it carried around a hat box with something sinister inside.

Since its initial removal from the ride, fans have speculated as to why it was removed. Some say it was too frightening. Others claim its mechanics were outdated. But still others have claimed that there is a far more sinister reason for the ghost’s removal—a reason that three friends would discover after sneaking aboard the ride during the annual grad night:


The big plan for the night was kind of ambitious and maybe a little reckless – to this day, I can’t remember who suggested it first, only that we all thought it was a great idea. We had already gotten into the park and gone on a number of rides when it was brought up, while we were sitting on a bench in Frontierland eating churros. From where we sat, we could look across the Rivers of America to Tom Sawyer Island, and past that where the river curved to New Orleans Square. Poking above the trees was the cupola of the Haunted Mansion, with its clipper ship weather-vane. The sun had just gone down, and the sky was awash with dull orange and purple clouds, most of which seemed to loom behind the cupola. I pointed out how perfect and spooky the whole thing looked, and that got us talking about it. The mansion was a collective favorite, and being dumb kids, we agreed to do a little exploring: to effectively “spend the night” in the Haunted Mansion.

We laughed about as we got in line for it, moving past the brick columns and up the walk toward the mansion, but inside I was a bit nervous. You have to understand security was a bit more lax back then, so it was plausible that we would be able to pull this off if we were careful. Plus, Grad Night always had kids getting into trouble, and the likelihood of us getting banned for good was not as high as it could have been. But I still felt tense, that feeling you get when you’re scared about going on a thrill ride for the first time, excited but hesitant.

The three of us – Mike, Karen and myself – had it all worked out: when you first enter the mansion, you’re escorted into a room that seems to stretch and warp before your eyes, which is actually an elevator that takes guests below ground, where a hallway connects to the ride building beyond the park’s berm. As everyone else crowded out of the room and into the Hall of Morphing Portraits, we lagged behind (which the disembodied voice of the Ghost Host jokingly warns you not to do) and fell in at the very back of the line. By the time we piled into our “Doombuggy,” there was no one else behind us, and the black, endless procession of clamshell-like cars were empty.

We went through the ride as normal, cracking jokes and making banter at all the old familiar scenes, until we reached the exit crypt. We stepped out onto the moving platform and walked toward the escalator ramp that leads from the crypt back to the park outside. If you don’t know, the escalator hugs the wall on the right, but on the left is a small crypt scene where a tiny, ghostly bride stands on a stone shelf and tells you to “Hurry back…Hurry back…” Mike took charge here, deliberately turning backwards as we went up to watch the cast member near the buggies below us. Mike’s a big, broad-shouldered guy, a football player through-and-through, and his bulk hid me and Karen from view as we slowly ascended. At his signal, when the cast member monitoring the exit had his back turned, Karen and I climbed over the rail and dropped down into the crypt scene, where we quickly scurried under the dusty space beneath the escalator. Mike was over a moment later, and we laughed and congratulated each other on a job well done.

We must have spent a good hour or so down there, giggling into our hands whenever we heard footsteps and voices overhead of unsuspecting people exiting the ride. Karen even had some snacks she’d brought with her, and we sat there in the dark and ate and whispered to each other. It was like being in a weird clubhouse, and it felt good that we three shared this delinquency together, even as the narration of the ghost bride looped over and over again in the background: “Hurry back…Hurry back…Be sure to bring your death certificate. If you decide to join us, make final arrangements now. We’ve been…dying to have you.”

Eventually the novelty wore off, and we got quiet, and then listless. Sure, we’d managed this much, but then what? Karen pointed out that it had been eerily silent for awhile – other than the monotonous speech of the bride and other spooky ambient sounds, there were no more people coming up the ramp. Mike said he thought maybe the park had closed, but that made no sense because it was open all night on Grad Night. Not wanting to get in trouble, but also wondering what was up, I volunteered to clamber back up and take a look. When I did, using some of the crypt scenery for hand and footholds, I saw that there was no one around, not even a cast member down at the unloading platform at the end.

When I reported this, Mike and Karen climbed back up as well, and we went back down the unloading station to look around. All the Doombuggies coming along the corridor were empty, and there was not a person in sight. It was odd, to say the least, and I felt like something was definitely off to have the place so empty. I was about to suggest turning around and heading back outside when Mike said he’d always wondered where the Doombuggies went after they dropped you off. They rounded a dark corner in the crypt area and vanished from sight, and Mike was curious what was down there.
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