My first memory concerns the Haunted Mansion. The Disneyland one. We were –Land People, my family. The -World people, we didn’t like.
The first thing about my life I can remember is screaming. Gramma’s pulling me by the wrist into the lobby of the Haunted Mansion. There’s loud organ music. Between that and all my screaming, my eardrums are crackling. There are candelabras and cobblestones and graves and about a thousand strange kids staring at me.
And there is Gramma. My father’s sweet old mother. In this memory, she has been twisted, distorted into a demonic thing. She is all limbs and peeling sunburn flakes. Shrieking “YOU’LL LIKE IT!” She drags my five-year-old, struggling, chubby body into the cartoonish manor. My feet are an inch off the ground. I’m screaming, “No! No! No!”
But we are going in anyway.
I can hear “Grim Grinning Ghosts.” Of the lyrics, I only remember those three titular words. So when I hear the song in my mind, it’s just that. Over and over.
“Grim, grinning ghosts!
“Grim, grinning ghosts!
“Grim, grinning ghosts!”
(It’s the same thing for me with “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Are there other words to “I Think We’re Alone Now?” I think not.)
Finally Dad intervenes. I win the battle. I don’t go into the Haunted Mansion.
Not for decades.
Not until the day in question.
When I took her ashes there.
The thing you’ve got to know about my Gramma is that she is—sorry, she was—a total Disney® maniac. She moved to Burbank when Grampa died to be closer to the park. She went once a month until she couldn’t.
As in, she died there.
In line for the Epcot globe ride. Which is sad, I think, because that’s the educational one, isn’t it?
So she collapsed—heatstroke—into a Japanese man’s arms. He later told me he felt her go.
Mom and Dad and my brother Jack were not in her will, it turned out. My aunt got the house, the (meager) money. I was left with something, though: a request.
In a sweaty office, an attorney explained to me, via Google Hangout, Gramma’s final wish. She would like very much that her cremated remains be spread in the Disney® Haunted Mansion ride.
Now, there are all sorts of things you could read into that. Did she resent me for spoiling her fun that night in 1986? Did she just wish for me to finally experience her favorite ride at her favorite place on Earth? Did she and her mahjong club get trashed one night, make changes to her last will and testament as a joke, and forget the next morning?
I considered all of these things.
But at a certain point, if your departed grandmother asks you to sprinkle her mortal remains on a children’s ride, you do it.
The attorney strongly advised against it, for the record.
I feel like I should say that.
I wasn’t going to, at first. A ticket to Disneyland is worth more than a grandmother’s love. I didn’t have the income to burn.
Then add in the cost of the ‘plane ticket. Hotel.
What am I, Gramma, made of money?
Then the lawyer (again, he was anti-me-spreading-ashes-on-Disneyland) explained to me that a check for about the cost of all of these things had been bequeathed unto me by the old lady herself.
So there went the practical excuse, leaving me only with this:
The Haunted Mansion still scares the living shit out of me.
Things You Never Thought You Would Do In Your Mid-30’s
#1. Have three full-blown panic attacks because you thought about what it would be like to go into Disney® Haunted Mansion
#2. Run out of Family Video because you happened to walk past a DVD of early-2000s Eddie Murphy vehicle The Haunted Mansion
#3. Leave your body
#4. Call into work because a tormented spirit kept you up all night
I took Gramma’s ashes home in a Goofy urn. Until that day, I hadn’t known they even made Goofy urns. It sat on the kitchen table with my unopened mail and never-touched guitar lesson manuals for two months.
I know it was around two months, because she died in July (heatstroke), and it was Labor Day weekend that she first appeared to me.
I’d had a few at Jenny’s cousin’s BBQ and sleep came rough. With one foot slung off my bed to ground me, I had just started to doze off when it happened.
Every nerve and muscle in my body froze. I couldn’t even blink. This is what you might call sleep paralysis. Nothing new to me.
What was new was the floating off my bed. Looking down, seeing my own body, twitching and snoring in a soggy t-shirt.
And Gramma sort of filtering in through the wall like milk through cheesecloth.
She didn’t even say anything.
She had on her Grumpy pajamas. The dwarf, you know? The pajama top showed the little gnome scowling and steaming out the ears. It said:
NOT UNTIL I’VE HAD MY COFFEE!!!
We stared at each other. She shook her head at me. It was just like the look she’d given me when I was five, after she’d zipped through the Mansion with my cousins while I’d been treated to a consolatory ice cream instead.
But that was it. A disappointed headshake, and she was gone. I settled back into myself. Woke up. Shrugged the whole thing off as a dream.
I couldn’t explain the Grumpy coffee mug next to the urn on my table, though.
Or the fact that the drink inside was still piping hot.
The dream came back most nights for several weeks. It got longer every time, more detailed. I’d float up out of my earthly form, she’d sift in through the drywall. There would always be more wrinkles on her face, night to night. Every time, her nails got longer. Sharper. Her skin got whiter. But for several nights, she never said a word. Just shook her head.
Then, one time, she opened her mouth. And my name came out of it. But not in her voice.
In the demon’s voice.
The demon that she’d morphed into in my warped kiddie memory, remember? The foul beast wearing Mickey ears with crooked teeth and yellow eyes, dragging me through roped-off rows of graves emblazoned with puns.
That was the voice I heard that night.
In her death-rattle snarl, she made the sound of my name drag out for a good minute. As she did it, with my floating soul-form hanging there in frozen terror, something else new happened. Like quickly sprouting fungus at least a dozen small children sprouted from the carpet. They were dressed in lederhosen, saris, sombreros and burkas. In shrill, hateful voices they sang:
“It’s a short life, after all!
“It’s a short life, after all!”
It went on.
“It’s a short life, after all!
“It’s a short. Life. After all.”
Then Gramma’s clawed fingers grabbed my cheeks and squeezed. She blew fiery hot air up my nose. My lungs were roasting. I begged her to stop. I begged everything to be over.
Gramma said, “You know how to make it stop.”
I woke, shot out of a cannon. I started looking at Disneyland day pass prices on my phone before I even had a pee.
But when faced with the “BOOK NOW” button, my thumb went numb. Yes, it was cost-prohibitive (and much more expensive than Gramma’s meager check, it turned out). Yes, I’d have to take off work.
Above all, though, I could not bear the thought of entering the Mansion.
Real or not, the encounters with Gramma were detrimental, to say the least. I came to dread bedtime. My pulse quickened the closer my head got to the pillow.
Supposing I really was being haunted by the ghost of my Disney® loving grandmother—and that it could only be remedied by her ashes being sprinkled over the tracks of an amusement park attraction—there was only one obvious cure. It just happened to be one that I found very unappealing.
Having to enter a manor full of ghosts, real or not, did not seem a fair trade to get rid of my one ghost.
This is when I put out the Craigslist ad.
A friend to visit the Happiest Place on Earth in my stead.
One free day pass. One small errand.
Inquire at email address below.
There were some nibbles. I met one guy at Starbucks and went through the entire rundown.
“What’s the catch?” he asked.
I told him he’d have to spread Gramma’s ashes in the Haunted Mansion. At the end, the ballroom scene.
“No, really,” he said. “What do I have to do for the pass?”
I told him: Gramma’s ashes. Haunted Mansion. Ballroom.
When he realized I was serious, he said, “I’ll have my kid with me, man.”
“Why do you have to bring your kid with you?” I asked.
“Because nobody goes to Disneyland alone.”
“You wouldn’t be alone,” I said. “You’d have Gramma with you.”
He left then.
He did pay for my dirty chai, though.
My ash-spreading-by-proxy plan, although brilliant, did not appear to be viable after all. That left me with two choices: Bring in a priest to exorcise Gramma from my apartment (not very nice for her), or go to Disneyland with her ashes in a fanny pack and ride the Haunted Mansion (not very nice for me).
When she appeared to me that night, and opened her devil-mouth to croak my name again, I held up a finger. Or rather, my out-of-body soul held up the idea of a finger. It was the most agency, the most hutzpah I’d ever shown in any of these maybe-not-dreams. It shut her up. Her eyes got all big, like in The Mask, when Jim Carrey’s eyes get all big?
And I told the dream/demon/my dad’s mom:
“Okay! I get it! I hear you. I got the message, Gramma.”
She blinked. Her long eyelash extensions flapped and made a gust strong enough to blow a ripple in my spirit. “Oh, yeah?” she said. It sounded more like her old self.
“Then tell me,” she said, “what are you going to do now?”
I puffed up my chest so my spirit filled up half the room.
“I’m going to Disneyland!”
Smuggling Your Dead Grandmother Into Disneyland
#1. Transference of ashes from inconveniently large urn to portable Ziploc baggie
#2. Cleaning carpet after #1
#3. Getting plastic ash baggie through airport security
#4. Explaining yourself to person next to you on plane when you accidentally pull out Gramma when you meant to grab gummy bears you brought for in-flight snack
#5. Getting plastic ash baggie through Disneyland security
#6. Overcoming lifelong phobia of Haunted Mansion while waiting in very long, very crowded line
The part about my trip to Disneyland of which I am least proud? Probably snapping at that nine-year-old next to me in line. She kept saying how she couldn’t get enough of the damn Haunted Mansion. How funny the ghosts were. How this was her fifth time on the ride today.
So I told her if she wanted to see a real dead person she should get in the cart with me.
It did not go over well.
I was on edge. Sweating, seeing little gray spots. There in the mock mausoleum. Flanked by supposedly hilarious paintings of cartoon characters just moments before their grisly deaths. Whatever made Uncle Walt think all this was so darn fun anyway? It was morbid, is what it was.
Who pays $120 a pop to be reminded of his imminent demise, the inevitable end of everyone they know, the impending doom of his entire species?
Who would do that?
Unless their grandmother’s ghost shamed them into it?
I more or less fell into my Doom Buggie, mumbling. No one got in next to me, and the attendant didn’t make a fuss about it. A loud cartoony-creepy voice boomed over the speaker system, and I cringed—seizing the sandy lump in my fanny pack.
“Whenever candle lights flicker where the air is deathly still…”
And so on.
The voice, recorded in the Sixties probably, walked us through all the standard rules about keeping arms and legs in the car at all times. But, you know, with a ghoulish twist. And we were off.
I mostly fixated on my feet at first. They were bouncing at the pace of a drumroll. It wasn’t that I thought the ghosts were real. Or that they could hurt me. I’m not crazy, okay?
I just didn’t want to have to think about them later.
At night. Alone. In the dark.
So I looked at my shoes. And I hummed The Lion King.
But every once in a while, I’d hear the others—people cackling or shouting, “Ooh!” Children squealing, beside themselves with delight.
Clenching any body part I could clench, I screwed up my eyes to look. This was during the séance scene. With the animatronic mystic, summoning yet more ghosts. The robot running her little routine, just—I don’t know. Trying to imagine how many times she’d gone through these same motions since the park first opened was ridiculous to me, for some reason. Or, that’s not even it.
It was just funny.
I started laughing, too.
I laughed through the whole thing.
I laughed at the axe-murdering bride. The Hat Box ghost. The haunted birthday party. All that stuff. Because it was outrageous. Because it was so stupid. Because they were stuck doing the same thing over and over, trapped in a fake house, and that’s what it is to be a ghost: to be stuck, to be trapped.
And I’m not. So. Ha, ha, ha.
With every chuckle I felt weeks of stress shake off my shoulders. Months. Years.
Honestly? I didn’t hate it.
I remembered what Gramma said back in ’86.
“You’ll like it!”
That’s what she’d said.
What else might I like? I wonder.
I knew what was coming at the end. Everyone knows how the ride wraps up. You go past a mirror and see there’s a holographic ghost in the cart with you. Spooky! Mine waved at me in the reflection and I cheesed, pretending to put my arm around it, so there’d be a good photo on display in the gift shop.
But really, I knew I wasn’t leaving with a ghost.
I had finally rid myself of one.
When did I realize I’d forgotten to spread Gramma’s ashes on the ride?
Oh, a good fifteen minutes after I’d gotten off.
So, to sum up.
The line to get back in was very, very long. That is why you caught me dumping human remains in a potted plant in the Enchanted Tiki-Tiki Room.
I really can’t apologize enough. But for what it’s worth, I think my grandmother got what she wanted out of all this. She hasn’t been back, anyhow. It seems like you should know that, at least.
I hope your administration will reconsider its unanimous decision to ban me from all Disney® parks, cruises, events, and attractions. If I ever have children I’d very much like to visit with them.
Thank you for your time and attention.