On June 4th, 1983, my high school was one of many that took us to Disneyland for Grad Night. If you've ever been to Disneyland on Grad Night, you know how much fun—and how crazy—it can be. The park stays open extra late, the skippers who drive the Jungle Cruise boats let loose and tell dirty jokes, and there's plenty of opportunities for people to sneak booze and weed in. Getting a bunch of amped high-schoolers in Disneyland is one thing, but with a nightlife and party atmosphere behind it, things can get pretty nuts.
My two friends and I, Anaheim locals, were particularly excited. We all loved Disneyland, and while we didn't get to visit often, living practically in the park's backyard gave us more opportunities than most. In addition, we hadn't been since the new Fantasyland opened earlier that year, going from a sort of Medieval fairground into a storybook village, so I was kind of looking forward to that. Unlike a lot of people who were there, we intended to keep things clean and have a grand old time of it, hit as many rides as possible, and just revel.
But 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 clam shell-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.
Now really, I should have said no—that there was no point and that we could get into some serious trouble if we snooped around back there. It was probably just a utility corridor anyway, since the buggies just looped back around to the loading room anyway. But I was young, and I was stupid, and when presented with a golden opportunity like that, it was hard to pass it up.
So we went ahead and jumped into a Doombuggy going by, and it slowly rounded the corner into the darkness. This was uncharted territory for us, and even if it turned out to be boring back there, at the very least we'd get a chance to see it, and maybe get another ride out of it.
Hardly a day goes by where I regret not having said something.
The main thing I remember was how spartan it was. It wasn't quite pitch black, but it was even gloomier in there than the rest of the ride. There were small lights set into the walls on either side of the track, but they were low to the ground and far between. The walls were painted black, and the corridor seemed so narrow that I felt boxed in. It was quiet too, other than the hum of the track moving the buggies. I felt tense, and Mike and Karen weren't helping that, because they looked tense too; I think it was dawning on all of us how much trouble we might get in.
I think a minute or so had passed like this, us going down that dark, featureless backstage corridor, when the ride suddenly stopped and I nearly jumped out of my skin as a voice came from somewhere overhead — and laughed when I realized I'd been startled by the normal breakdown spiel. "Playful spooks have interrupted our tour," the recording went. "Please remain seated in your Doombuggy. We will proceed in just a moment."
The teasing was immediate, as we all pointed out to each other how we'd jumped. We waited for the ride to start again, and every thirty seconds or so, the spiel would play: "We have been unappointedly detained by prankish spirits. Kindly remain seated in your Doombuggy. We will continue our tour momentarily." This went on for good long while—ten, maybe fifteen minutes—and still the buggies hadn't moved; no one had come looking for us. We were getting antsy, and the silence between the announcements was becoming unsettling.
Then Karen leaned out a bit and looked around, and she noticed the door first. Just ahead, past the buggy in front of us, work lights revealed a little alcove and a utility door on the right-hand side of the corridor. We were so sick of being in the buggy by that point we were willing to try anything, so after a short discussion, we all squeezed out of the buggy, pressed against the wall to go past the next one (Mike had trouble here) and stood before the door. I pushed it open, finding it unlocked, and it led to a metal staircase leading down into the darkness, footlights like the ones in the corridor revealing where to go. I was thinking up excuses in my head as we went down the stairs, to explain why were likely stepping into Disney's underground utility corridors—the infamous "Utilidors" said to run like a spiderweb beneath Disneyland—if someone found us. And by this point, I hoped someone did.
At the bottom of the stairs, another closed door with a sign on it, reading "Cast Members Only." We pushed through that as well, and were legitimately surprised to see that it opened into what looked like a themed hallway. Disney, even backstage, seemed to be paying attention to style, as this hall sported the purple "demon wallpaper" and wainscoting of the rooms above. It was even lit by candle sconces on the walls, the fake flickering bulbs coated with cobwebs and dust. Several detailed wooden doors lined the hall, with out-of-place white placards mounted to them. Each was marked as a Prop Room, with a corresponding number.
As we made our way up the hall, we tried each door we came to and found them all locked. The first door, Prop Room 1, shook a bit but wouldn't budge. Same with 2 and 3. Mike chuckled and said he wondered if we would find Walt Disney's frozen head down here, but I could hear a nervous waver in his laugh. Even I was feeling some sense of dread with each door we tried, something hard to place but nagging. At Door 4, I put my ear to the edge of it and thought I heard what sounded like rushing water or faint TV static from the other side, and at 5 I noticed that the faux candles flanking it were flickering more sporadically than the rest, like they were faulty. Door 6, to left and near another plain utility door that marked the hall's end, was the only one that yielded to us, and I was the one who turned the cold handle and opened it for the first time.
It's difficult for me to describe what I saw in there without shuddering, because even now my telling makes it sound fairly normal... That is, as normal as a room hidden under a theme park attraction can possibly be. It wasn't very big, almost like a large storage shed. Unlike the hall, this one was the bland utility black, and lit by a single fluorescent light in the ceiling, albeit a dim one. The walls were lined with metal cabinets, and there was some sort of large, archaic gadget shoved into one corner, not unlike the old computer banks from the 60's. But what caught my attention right away was the grinning figure near the far wall, across from the door—a dummy or animatronic of some sort, lifeless and unmoving but standing on its base.
The discovery was fascinating to all of us, and without thinking we all edged into the room and immediately approached the figure. It was clearly meant to be one of the ghosts in the ride, a specter in a top hat with a skull-like face, cartoony bulging eyes and a leering smile; one of the teeth was even painted gold. He stood in a bow-legged stance, one gnarled hand holding a cane and the other a hatbox. None of us had ever seen this particular character on the ride before, though Karen said its face looked a lot like the tall, skinny hitchhiking ghost from the end of the ride.
I was just turning away from the figure to look at the cabinets when there was a combustion roar from the hall outside, like the sound of a passing motorcycle, followed by a loud, bassy boom that made the floor shake. The door to the room swung shut, and the fluorescent light sputtered and went out, leaving us in total darkness. Mike gasped and Karen screamed, and I was just reaching out for them in the dark when I heard a peculiar whirring sound. Another light came on, this one a concentrated green light above the hatbox ghost, showing its skeleton smile for a moment before that light faded and another faded on, illuminating the hatbox. I could see through the material of the hatbox now, and saw the ghost's head grinning at me from inside. The pattern repeated itself rhythmically, making it seem like the ghost's head was disappearing from his shoulders and appearing in the hatbox. It wasn't a terribly convincing effect, but in the dark and with the strange things going on around me, it genuinely scared me.
I turned and stumbled through the room, ready to get out of there, feeling around for the door. Now even the light on the ghost shut off, and I heard Karen and Mike's feet behind me, a crash, and the sound of something solid tapping the concrete floor. I tried pushing the door open, but it wouldn't budge, and somebody slammed into my back in the dark and caused me to hit it hard. I was dazed but unhurt, and another scream from Karen fueled my adrenaline even more. I instead gave the door a tug and it opened.
I was out in the hall without a second thought, without even looking back. I started running, sprinting back the way I had come, gasping for air. I was never a very athletic kid, but panic kept me going. I heard sounds behind me—footsteps, Mike and Karen yelling in terror as they followed, and what seemed like rapid knocking and banging on the doors around me—but I refused to look over my shoulder. Up the stairs and back into the Doombuggy corridor in what felt like a matter of seconds. The Doombuggies were moving now, endlessly traveling through the shadows. I knew it was risky to jump into one in this narrow corridor, and for a moment I stopped, trying to figure out what to do.
I finally looked back, back down the stairway I had come from. I thought Mike and Karen had been right behind me, but they were gone. I called out their names, my voice echoing down the stairs, but there was no reply. Not until I heard something tapping the metal stairs, coming up toward the door, and saw an unfamiliar vague shadow on the wall that I flung the door closed and dove into the nearest buggy, which carried me down the corridor a little ways before finally emerging into the limbo-like loading room.
All of the effects were still running here, including the eerie music and sounds, but there was still no one else around. I yelled for help, but no one appeared. As soon as I could I jumped out of the Doombuggy and ran back up the line, into the Hall of Morphing Portraits. Ahead was the door to the elevator, the Stretching Gallery, but I remembered that this area had a more immediate chicken exit, meant for those too scared to ride the ride and wanted to head back up to the park. The door was marked with an obvious exit sign, sitting between two shuttered windows that made it look like it led outside to a stormy night, and without hesitating I pushed through that as well.
Beyond was another corridor, on either side of me flashing lights pointed at the windows to simulate lightning, flickering with each thunderclap that boomed through the hall, disorienting me even further. Turning left, I followed the hall as the floor inclined gently up, my throat tight and a stitch in my side.
And then my throat closed altogether as I turned a corner almost ran into the hatbox ghost.
It was standing smack-dab in the middle of the hall, between me and the door that led outside. I scrambled backward instinctively, but the figure didn't move. It was a static prop, grinning its cadaver grin, back-lit by a ceiling light further down the hall. The light also broke the illusion of the hatbox, and I could see vaguely the shape of the disembodied head through the scrim.
I was convinced—thoroughly convinced at that moment—that thing was going to suddenly jerk to life and come after me, but it didn't. I had no idea how it had gotten there from down in the sub-level, or how it had so quickly. Maybe the one I'd seen below wasn't the only figure; maybe Mike and Karen were pulling a fast one on me, and had dragged the figure up with them. I was frozen, trying to figure out where to go next, not wanting to go anywhere near the ghost but not wanting to backtrack either, because I still felt like there was something sinister behind me. Nervously, I croaked out the names of my lost friends, but there was no reply. Noises from the ride seemed to come floating down the hall, muted but ever-present.
Then I heard the groan.
It could have been a human groan, or something mechanical, but I definitely heard it. It didn't sound like any of the standard audio, and it came from a point somewhere near or past the hatbox ghost, maybe even from further down the corridor past the exit. As if this were a trigger, I realized that either my eyes had adjusted to the dark or the lighting had somehow changed, because I looked again at the hatbox and saw the thing inside through the scrim.
There was still a head in there, but I know it wasn't the ghost's head. It wasn't even a cartoon caricature of a head. It wasn't Mike, or Karen.
It's at this point the details allude me. I know that what I saw shook me to my very core, and that's part of the reason it has taken me so long to recount this. I remember seeing the thing in the box, seeing that it was indeed a human head—a man's face, a face I didn't recognize, seemingly looking back out at me with shocked, pleading eyes—but after that there's a blur of sheer terror and snatches of frightening images: gnarled hands; tombstones; pneumatic hissing; the stretching room going in reverse, shrinking, shrinking too fast, the ceiling rushing toward me, the corpse hanging in the rafters descending on me...
I try not to dwell on them too much, because now I'm no longer sure which really happened and which were the results of the nightmares I'd have for years after.
The next thing I can remember clearly after that is being on my hands and knees just outside the fence of the Haunted Mansion, vomiting onto the pavement, while around me crowds of people stood. Most of them weren't paying me any mind, there was lots of whispered talk and a few were crying. There were red-and-blue lights, police cars parked nearby, but I couldn't tell why. I just sat there gulping and sobbing until a cast member finally noticed me and led me to a first aid station.
Karen was there when I arrived, and she jumped up and hugged me tight when she saw me. I don't think either of us made much sense; we were both at our wit's end, but it was such a relief to see her after all that that any questions I had fell by the wayside. I'll never forget how haunted she looked, wide-eyed and pale, barely able to form a sentence without tearing up.
Mike never turned up.
That fateful night has never left me, and in the years since then I've slowly begun to piece together the details, trying to (vainly) make sense of what happened. It became sort of a private obsession, something to do in the background as I moved on with my life.
First, it didn't take long for Karen and I to learn why the police cars were there, and they weren't for us. According to the reports we heard later, an eighteen-year-old guy from New Mexico had died while we were in the Haunted Mansion. He and a friend had snuck into a backstage area on Tom Sawyer's Island and stole a rubber emergency boat to go for a joyride around the Rivers of America. Apparently this guy was pretty drunk and it wasn't long before he hit a rock, throwing he and his friend from the boat. His friend went for help, but he drowned before they could find him. His body was discovered an hour later.
I wonder now if that's why there was no one around when we crept backstage. I managed to track down a few cast members who were working that night, and though most of them claim that they were told by management to not cause alarm and keep to their posts, several admitted they had gone to check out the grim spectacle... especially those CMs that were on attractions near the river, like the Haunted Mansion. Was the timing such that everyone turned a blind eye while we stumbled into something hideous?
Mike's disappearance was something Karen and I both felt deeply, and we tried for years to get something from anyone about it. His parents told us later that he'd shown up again a day or so later, behaving erratically, barely registering them, deeply disturbed by something. Mike had planned on moving out beforehand, but that night after lashing out at his folks, he grabbed very few personally belongings, took the family car and drove off to points unknown. After that, he dropped off the face of the earth.
Karen and I eventually drifted, probably because we blamed each other for what happened. She never expressed to me what she experienced after we got separated, either because she wanted me to feel guilty for leaving them behind (oh Karen, you have no idea) or that she, like me, can only recall so much. We were both too shaken to recount to each other. But time and distance make things easier, and with the advent of the Internet there was suddenly a wealth of new information. I've since begun to piece together clues.
Almost immediately I found our Hatbox Ghost. Plugging that into any search engine will turn up multitudes of pictures of that bow-legged, grinning figure that has often floated through my mind's eye in the dark. It was apparently part of the attraction when it first opened in 1969, and much of the promotional material of the ride at the time featured this character and his ubiquitous hatbox. He originally stood in the attic scene, right across from the ghostly bride with the beating heart, but was quietly removed from the ride after only a week; apparently, the effect of his disappearing head never worked properly, or so the official account goes.
In recent years the Hatbox Ghost has gained a fan base, groups of Haunted Mansion fans that want to see him restored to the ride. It's wishful thinking, I'm sure, because that figure had to have been stored downstairs for a reason.
It took longer to find out about the backstage area where the Doombuggies go, that empty corridor not originally meant to be seen by guests; disabled guests, however, travel that route all the time. Wheelchair access to the ride is done through the Limbo-like loading room, and guests travel back around to this room to reclaim their wheelchairs and head back out. I've posted about it and posed queries for details about that area, but no one has given me a description that sounds anything like what I went through. It's been described as short, bland, and with some sort of catwalk going over the track, but no mysterious alcove or obvious doorway. It takes less than thirty seconds for the Doombuggies to go through, and then you're back in the loading room. I suspect Disney might have changed that area since the 80's, but why?
Most recently though, I've come across an odd factoid that seems more like a morbid curiosity than anything else, unless one's been through what I have. It's not about the Haunted Mansion, however, but its nearby E-ticket neighbor, Pirates of the Caribbean. According to the story—and this has been published in various Disney-owned books, so it's no vague rumor—the Imagineers who built the ride felt that the faux skeletons of the time weren't convincing enough for the underground grotto scenes. So they borrowed real human remains from the UCLA Medical Center, dressed them up as pirates, and put them in the caves. Let that sink in for a moment: millions of people went by on boats and had no idea they were looking at real skeletons, all propped up in pirate garb. Eventually, a later team of Imagineers would replace these with more convincing facsimiles, and supposedly the bones were returned to their countries of origin and given proper burial.
But who's to say they were? What if something was left behind in that basement when the bones were taken? And what if Pirates wasn't the only ride that did this? The show building of the Haunted Mansion was built along with the rest of New Orleans Square in 1963, but it took another six years for the actual attraction to open. Why the delay? It couldn't have just been the gridlock from the 1964 World's Fair and Walt Disney's death in '66, could it?
All of this is speculation, a string of understanding that raises more questions for me than it does answers. I want to get to the truth of what happened that night, but everything I've found doesn't add up to a concrete explanation; perhaps there isn't one, though I desperately want there to be. And I can't go back—I won't—not after the things I saw and felt. I haven't set foot in Disneyland since that night.
Maybe, though... Maybe it's time I tried again.
Karen, if you're out there and you're reading this, I'm sorry about everything. I'm trying to make it right, trying to put some meaning to this. Contact me if you can. I need to know what happened to you and Mike—maybe you have the key to the mystery in your memories. I can't do it alone, but together we might get to the bottom of this.
For everyone else, let this stand as a testament: some things are backstage for a reason, and a company like Disney must have a multitude of skeletons in its closets. Think twice before you pull some stupid stunt like I did, because it might not be security that finds you.