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First Ride

By Cory Doctorow

This is the story of how I first rode the Haunted Mansion, which is the greatest ride ever to come out of the fevered imaginations of the Imagineers. My love-affair with the Mansion continues to this day. I am the author of a well-received science fiction novel about the Mansion, and my home and office are overflowing with Mansion memorabilia. I kissed my first girl while wearing a glow-in-the-dark Haunted Mansion shirt. I am one of the Mansion-otaku who mouths the narration in time with the voice-over, unconsciously, making shy eye-contact with the others who are doing the same, the recognition symbol of a secret society of cultists who have the Mansion stuck in our minds like a lyric that won't stop repeating, like a kernel of popcorn in a back molar. I am 31 today, and I was six when I first went to the Mansion, and when I ride it, 25 years telescope to nothing.

We had three E-tickets left. It was 1977, Christmas Break, in Orlando. The sun had set, and my mother produced a jacket from her bag and wrestled me into it while my dad peered at the tickets and at his guide-book, arguing with himself over which E-ticket ride would be our last.

I didn't care. I'd had burgers at the Pinnocchio restaurant, and I was slipping into a starch-coma. The mountains of candy and ice-cream consumed through the day had taken their toll, as had the unfamiliar heat -- I'm a Toronto boy, and my body didn't know what to make of Florida weather in the middle of December.

"The Haunted Mansion: 999 happy haunts," my father said.

Mom shook her head and narrowed her eyes. "He's too young," she said, quietly.

"Am NOT!" I said. "AM NOT! What is it, I'm not too young!"

In 1956, Mom, Grandma and her sister and brother had ridden the train out to Los Angeles to meet my grandfather, who was thinking of moving the clan out there. They'd gone to Disneyland, and ridden the Matterhorn, and she'd come back with pink Minnie Ears with 'Roslyn' stiched in cursive on the back. The Ears came out of the toybox whenever I played at my grandparents, and triggered my grandfather's Matterhorn stories, stories of daring so breathtaking that you'd think anyone who set foot on the ride was taking his life into his own hands. I'd expected rides of that caliber in Disney World, but so far, everything had just been... fun -- not terrifying at all.

Dad grinned. "The Haunted Mansion," he said.

Oh, that sounded just right. "Haunted Mansion!" I tugged at Mom's sweater. "Haunted Mansion!"

She looked from me to Dad and sighed. "Are you going to get up with him if he has nightmares?"

Dad nodded, and hoisted me up on his shoulders, and we set out for Liberty Square.

It was the last ride of the night, and the entryway was deserted except for three teenagers who reminded me of the heroes of Scooby Doo. They howled along with the recorded wolf, which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Dad read the epitaphs off the tombstone, and I learned all about "Dear Departed Brother Dave," who "Chased a Bear Into its Cave," and I pestered him into explaining how chasing a bear would get you dead, even though I could guess, but I was really getting into it, working up a good head of scare, and I wanted to hear my father tell me about the claws and the fangs.

The doors swung open. The woman in the green, rotting maid's outfit took us all in with hauteur, making eye contact with each of us, then looking away, dismissing us. We stood there, in the silence, which stretched. Finally, she opened her mouth and boomed, "Master Gracey requests more bodies!" You wouldn't think a girl of her size could be so loud, but there you have it.

Look, you know how the Mansion goes, right? But put yourself in my shoes. Be six years old, on the hallucienogenic tail end of a sugar and stimulus binge, your mother's hand in your right hand and your father's hand in your left, and you know, you just know -- this is the scary ride.

When the lights darkened in the stretch-room and the corpse appeared overhead, I squeezed my parents' hands as hard as I could, but did not shut my eyes, not even when the scream resounded through the room. hen Madame Leota hove into view, I nearly climbed out of the Doom Buggy to get a closer look. When we passed through the ballroom, I thought I would explode. When we reached the graveyard, I was actually *bouncing* in my seat, in time to the music, levitating a foot off the bench with each measure, my eyes as big as saucers.

And then came the hitchhiking ghost. I was sitting in the middle, and there, in the mirror, was the tallest of the three ghosts, superimposed over me.

I screamed.

I wasn't scared, but it was just too much. Too cool. Too strange. I couldn't even begin to catalog the marvels I'd just seen. When I got off the ride, I immediately began to talk, to try and recite every single detail of the ride, to commit it to memory forever.

Dad read me the names of Bluebeard's wives, and started to tell me more about the pirate, but Mom shushed him. The lights were dimmer now, Liberty Square nearly deserted, the only bright light coming from the gift-shop by the landing for the Empress Lilly. I knew I still had some saved allowance left, and I broke free of my parents and tore over to the stall.

I mortgaged my soul, and a year's allowance. The cast-member working the cash register was clearly delighted by the merch at his disposal, the ghost that "flew" on an invisible thread, the glowing skulls and spider rings, the tombstone with Here Lies ____ Do Not Disturb.

The cards that showed pictures of smiling men and women who transformed into glowing monsters in the dark.

The mantelpiece skull.

I don't even remember cajoling my parents for this stuff. From the moment I saw it, it was a foregone conclusion that I would happily trade them in to the gift-shop man in exchange for the tchtochkes on sale. Dad opened his wallet, and I wore the vampire teeth all the way back to the main gate, all the way on the ferry to the parking lot, all the way to the rental car we'd driven down from my grandparents' retirement condo in Ft. Lauderdale.

I fell asleep wearing them, in the back seat, as Dad and Mom murmured to each other. I heard my dad say, "Cemetary Village," which was his name for Century VIllage, the gate-guarded shuffleboard condo where Mom's parents spent the winter.

When I woke up, I was on the fold-out sofa in Cemetary Village. Grandma was in the kitchen, juicing oranges. She kissed me and hugged me and asked me if I'd had a good time.

It all spilled out: the teenagers from Scooby Doo, the howling wolf, the tombstone, Dear Departed Brother Dave, the bear red of tooth and claw, the wretched bodies and the stretching room, the singing busts and the ghost right on top of me. By the time I got to the truly excellent gewgaws I'd bought, Mom was up, a look of creeping horror on her face.

"Cory," she said, softly, interrupting my rant.

I looked at her. She lifted me onto her lap.

"The car," she said. "It broke down on the way home last night. The rental agency sent out a new one. You slept right through it when we carried you to the new car." Sure, I slept like a log. They used to take me on drives when they wanted me to fall asleep. "We didn't bring your toys over from the other car."

I didn't pitch a tantrum. I think it's much to my credit.

The merch never showed up. No one turned it in at the rental agency. I probably got chucked out, or maybe it ended up with some tow-driver's kids. In 1979, on my next trip there, they'd stopped carrying most of it. Especially the cards that glowed monstrous. I've never found them for sale at any price.

Cory DoctorowCanadian-born Cory Doctorow is the European Affairs coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He is the coeditor of the popular weblog Boing Boing — boingboing.net — with millions of visitors every month. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the 2000 Hugo awards and his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom won the Locus Award for Best First Novel the same year that his short story collection A Place So Foreign and Eight More won the Sunburst Award for best Canadian science fiction book. His other books include Eastern Standard Tribe and Rapture of the Nerds (with Charles Stross). Doctorow wrote this piece for DoomBuggies.com.


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