Once upon a time, I was a good ghoul.
Yup, I was … a very good ghoul. And all good ghouls back in the late 1970s and 80s ended up in the only place meant for all good ghouls to gather … The Haunted Mansion of Long Branch.
It’s Halloween … many, many years later. Yeah the number is pretty scary, too. Yet, I can’t help but think of the place that managed to, all those years ago, gouge its own fiendish dagger in my monster heart. I know there are plenty of others like this ghoul out there, too.
Just thinking about the unique experience of being a Mansionite and I can see and hear it all very clearly again.
The 10,000 square feet of horror amusement in three ramped floors was a Halloween treat to be had perched on the end of the boardwalk. You could see it from miles away … a huge building jutting out into sometimes eerily choppy Atlantic Ocean waters. Its outdoor theme music called to people like spooky sirens of the sea.
After spending a day on the boardwalk in or out of the Mansion, you could hear it in your sleep … drum roll, horns ablazin’ and chords hit to strike fear … over and over again (click here to hear the outside music). But somehow you just couldn’t get enough of it.
And on a misty evening, fog rolling in off the ocean, music blaring,
ghouls manning the front door and stationed in about 30 prime spots for
scaring inside, it was frighteningly irresistible.
Lines of people
wrapped down and around the boardwalk to get inside the house of horror
known as the best of its kind anywhere. There were television ads
touting, “The Haunted Mansion of Long Branch … It’s waiting for you.”
There were billboards on every major highway. The Mansion was the IT place to be and people are still talking about it. Though it is long gone, after burning down in a horrific 1987 boardwalk fire.
It was dubbed an amusement attraction; and it was there all for the sake of a good scare. There was just something uncannily enticing to people about getting the crap scared out of them.
But, it was even more of a draw to those who worked there. Most were college students from the area, as was I. They were theater geeks, techies, security guards and just plain students with a creative bent and penchant for the catharsis of being a monster for 12 to 13 hours a day.
Yup, that’s right. We ghouls worked endless hours, drank water from a head with a hose hanging out of its mouth, shared bottles full of Chloraseptic for our raw, sore throats that usually remained sore for the entire season as we went from one shift of, say, Lizzy Borden axe-wielding to another as, maybe, a headless woman or the rat professor.
There were themed rooms in the mansion: Jack the Ripper, Lizzy Borden, Dracula (or Presentation, as they called it, ‘cause it was the first), Rat Professor, Wolfman, Tavern, Cathedral and much more.
If you were what we called “rippee,” the woman whose head got cut off
about 1,000 times a day by Jack the Ripper, you usually went home with
butter knife marks on your neck and no voice from screaming as he sliced
it off those 1,000 times.
If you were Lizzie, your foam axe usually had to be repaired by the end of the day, your voice was gone from telling people, Mommy's head in one hand and axe in the other, the tale of how you took an axe and "gave mama 40 whacks ..." then asking, "Wanna play tag? You're it!" And then there was the stage blood you had to shower only for it to get splattered all over you you the next day for some other part.
If the make-up artist didn't like you, you got staining purple that stayed with you for a few months. Then there was the candy apple sugar a few of us welled up in our mouths and drooled for effect ... and a very sugar-encrusted chest at the end of the day. And, hey, if you were in the coffin, it meant you got to sleep in between crowds, which was about a minute or two at a time, if you were lucky. People loved coffin on second shift.
If you were Rat Professor, you got people to do all sorts of crazy things to pass by you without consequence, only to get scared into a tunnel, rat tails swatting at your feet (OK, rubber hoses). "Come forward, slime!" you'd hear Back Door Dave (Bass) bellow as he shooed you out the exit from which many went flying. You had to stay away from that back door if you were on the boardwalk.
And there was NO TOUCHING. Despite what people have incorrectly said about such amusements — like, “That lady beat me up with her hatchet!” or “That damn monster man spit on me and pulled a knife!” — it was usually the other way around.
When people are scared, they do crazy things. And people were scared in the Mansion. It was freakin’ scary and we were proud of it! Most of us had been spit on, punched, had knives pulled on us or, well, seen people faint or actually go into cardiac arrest from fear. It’s true. People were, unfortunately, carted out on stretchers at times, from fainting or worse. You’d hear it on the intercom system, “Code 5 (or 3, I think). Got one down here in Ripper."
Sometimes, they were in such a worked up state that all you had to do was walk up to them and say, “Boo!” or even something random (and it’s been done) like “Oooo lala Sasson!” or “Tuna, tuna, tuna FISH!” and the patrons would fall back in fear on top of their own army of kids.
They’d be screaming, kids arms flailing from underneath them. And in
the middle of the mayhem, you’d hear “OHHHHHH GOD! Help me! Help me! My
shoe! My shoe! I lost my shoe! Whaaaaaaaa. That lady got a hatchet!
And up the ramp they’d crawl and sometimes even roll back down. That was OK. All you had to do to get them moving was shock scare them again, like pop out from behind a ramp curve or wall and say you were hungry for some flesh — “Flesh! Flesh! Mmmmmm I’m hungry. Come here …” and away they’d go.
I was thrown into a grandfather clock in a scene once, because a man
was terrified of my bloody vampire plea for help from him. I just stared
and tilted my head (OK, so the stare was pretty evil and scary).
blood no sooner oozed out of my mouth and onto my purple chiffon costume
than the man hoisted me up and threw me across the room and into the
clock like a rag doll. I was fine, but they hauled him out of there. He
actually came backstage and apologized. He said he was so scared, he
just didn’t know what he was doing. I did. Hey, it was my job and I did
it well! Scary thought, right?
No wonder why my mother was afraid of me working in that place.
Didn’t think a thing of it at the time. None of us did. We were young,
had boundless energy and loved a good scare. And sometimes, we got
spooked ourselves as well.
At one time or another, we all had heard voices in there and seen transparent figures whisk through. Or maybe it was something else, like fatigue from working endless hours running around like a misbegotten nut case.
These kids today, they don’t know a thing about earning a good living!
Hey, it was the best, most gutsy (yes, gutsy) job any young person could have. Call it an endurance builder. That's exactly what it was. It taught us all an awful lot about endurance and good times, for the love of ghouls!
Wait, is that “Toccata and Fugue” I hear somewhere in the distance,
no doubt played by the Phantom? It must be. Mansion mode. Check. Make-up
time. Daily cast list. Check. Who am I today? Face. Check. Blood.
Check. Axe. Check. Shroud. Check. Reaper? Creeper?
It’s Halloween. Wait. Let me grab some of my guts for a little snack. Has anybody seen my guts? I lost them with age and the demise of the Haunted Mansion, but I didn’t lose my love of a good ghoulish scare.
Boo! As we Mansion ghouls used to say, “I’m scared o' you, baby!"
* Photos courtesy of Lillian Grauman and Larry Wolfe.