[Dark in the Park Writing Contest]




The Last Tour by Roderick Markham


     “I don’t get it.”

     Jeff, my best friend since we were both in grade school, looked down at the photographs I had carefully arranged on the table.  They were pictures taken inside Brigantine Castle – that most famous of beachfront haunted houses.  These were taken on the very last tour that ever took place, before the plywood castle crumbled into the sand.

     “What your camera saw in there…” Jeff stammered, his face a mask of confusion and revulsion,  “it just isn’t possible!”  He could not look away from the snapshots.  Neither of us could.  We stared and stared, while an icy rain tapped at the windows, and a fire crackled in my parent’s book-lined study. 

     The season was late autumn, winter nearly upon us, but that isn’t why I had built the fire in the grate.  You see, I had opened that package of photos and had a private look at them hours before Jeff’s arrival.  The fire was meant to relieve the chill that invaded my body as soon as I saw the snapshots.

     Jeff could not understand what our disposable beach camera had revealed.  He is a wonderfully easy-going guy, but not the most imaginative person one could ever meet. 

I cannot claim I truly understood those pictures myself, not in the way of absolute certainty, but I had formed a pretty good idea of what they might represent.  That is about the time I started building the wood fire.

     Before I can describe these photographs in detail (they do not survive, we burned them that same afternoon) you will need to understand the context in which they were taken.  Which means you will have to go back to that moonlit boardwalk with me, and enter the magnificent, crumbling Castle, to experience our final tour.

     Understand that this wasn’t a legitimate tour; those had ceased a few years before. After the entrance was padlocked for the final time metal fencing grew up around the perimeter.  ‘No trespassing’ signs blossomed.  Not long after this final flurry of activity, the pier itself began to crumble from neglect.

      No, our tour was not a sanctioned visit.  More of a last, desperate effort to recall a special time and place from our youth – or, what had remained of that place by 1987.   We undertook our adventure in the true spirit of ‘urban archeology’.  The police probably would have used a different term.  “Breaking and entering” comes to mind, although technically, as Jeff pointed out at the time, we did not break anything.  The front door was no longer padlocked.

     We approached the Castle from the beach, hoping to avoid the attention of the local constabulary.  This was sometime after 10pm near the end of the summer.  The Castle was revealed to us that night only as a moonlit outline.  Somehow the very lack of direct light, and the workings of our imaginations, made the building itself more impressive.  You couldn’t see how abandoned and desolate it truly was.  For, by this point in time, the pier was well on its way to oblivion.  Entire sections of boardwalk were missing between the pilings.  No longer a place to stroll children in prams; it was a true suicide’s walk now.

     Our arsenal that night contained only the most basic supplies: two flashlights, a disposable Kodak camera with built-in flash, a crowbar for use on the padlocks.  That last item proved unnecessary.  As I mention before, there were no locks across the main entrance door, only thin plywood nailed into place.  We pried it off with our hands.  That is how bad the dry rot was.

     Before going inside, I took a last look into the shadowy ticket booth window, half expecting to see the hooded ghoul of my childhood (her face the usual tapestry of white base makeup with black smudges beneath the eyes) still standing vigil at her post.  In reality there was nothing left inside the ticket booth.  Not even cobwebs.

     “Roddy – quit messing about!  Let’s get inside before some cop notices our flashlights.”  From the mouths of babes.  Jeff may not be imaginative, but he is practical.  We stepped inside.

     The odor hit us like a reprimand.  It smelled exactly the same as the interior of a 1958 Buick I had once explored in a salvage yard.  Maybe all derelict things eventually wind up with this same smell.  Dampness, mildew, and the sharp tang of rotting carpet.  We panned our flashlights around.

     I’ve been avoiding the subject, but I guess now is as good a time as any to explain what we were actually doing here.  We are not vandals – not by a long shot.  Neither are we souvenir hunters.  I had come here for one reason and one reason only:  to confront my childhood fears.  Jeff was here because he was my friend.

     When I was nine years old, I had a bad experience at Brigantine Castle .  I made the mistake of going inside the place with my older brother.  This would have been during the summer of 1977.  Disco was just coming in, Evel Kneivel was still jumping his motorcycle over sharks, and I nearly died of fright inside one of New Jersey ’s most elaborate haunted house attractions.

     Different things scare different people.  Jeff is deathly afraid of scorpions.  I doubt he has ever seen a live scorpion in his entire life, outside of the movies.  But that unreasoning fear of these insects persists.  For myself, I have no problem with scorpions.  It is mannequins that I cannot stand. 

     How is that for irrational?  With all the knife-wielding, club-wielding, axe-wielding live actors inside the famous Brigantine Castle …it was actually the inanimate figures that disturbed me most. 

     I didn’t care for the tableaux on display as you first enter the attraction.  The front door closes behind you with an ominous thud, you walk forward down a short hall, and there they are.  The most notorious dealers in death the world has ever seen.  Or, so the recorded voice tells visitors.  Frozen forever behind a huge wall of Plexiglas, in a dinner scene concocted by a fevered imagination.  Hitler…Idi Amin…Satan himself!  Notoriously evil men captured forever in time.  It wasn’t hard to imagine the atrocities they might consider discussing over a good meal.  It was even easier to imagine that the wax figures had moved – ever so subtly – the moment you turned your back on them.

     My nine year-old self raced past this “exhibit” and up the winding staircase.  I was repulsed to turn a corner on the stair, and find I was looking down upon the very same tableaux from above!  But was it the same?  Satan was now perched atop the fireplace mantel, laughing at his assembled guests below.  Had he been up there a minute before?  Or was he seated at the table then?  Every hair on my head stood on end; I took off down the hall like a shot.  The next corner held another still figure: a hooded reaper on horseback.  The horse itself was so large and realistic, I could not help wondering if they had used an actual…

     I ran as fast as a nine year-old can run.  Never to set foot inside that castle again, until the night Jeff and I broke in.  We were both 18 by then.  Legal adults, so I guess we were taking a risk.   

     Times had changed.  Alas, as I had heard from folks who toured the place in later years, Brigantine Castle had not evolved.  Attendance inevitably lessened as the novelty of the attraction wore off.  It closed for good in 1984.  Word had it the building would soon be demolished.  Anyone looking at the Castle exterior, that summer of 1987, knew it was only a matter of time before nature would take a hand, if human intervention did not.

     That is why it was so important for me to get inside the Castle while it was still intact.

I needed to confront those mannequins, to show my adult mind they were as inanimate as the wax, fabric, and plastic of which they were probably made.  I needed to see that they still looked the same.  That the dinner was still in progress, the seated gentlemen had not moved on to dessert.  These figures were powerless and immobile.  My adult mind knew that must be true; the inner child still wanted to see the fact demonstrated.

     So we stood there in the cold, smelly hallway, panning our flashlights down its length.  Light reflected back off something at the far end.  I knew what that something had to be.  We moved slowly forward, until we stood in front of the dusty glass tableaux.

     Nothing I have ever done in my life was more difficult than aiming a thin flashlight beam into the darkness of that glass.  First it picked out the edge of a dusty chair, then the big wooden table, still laden for dinner.  I panned the table’s length in search of the wax figures that haunted my childhood.

     They were gone.

     Nothing there now but empty chairs, and uneaten wax food that would never rot.  The fireplace was still visible at one the end of the room.  I slowly panned upwards.  Satan, like his earthly companions, had left the building.

     Or had he?  True, the figures could have been removed by the artist who originally made them; they might be gracing a haunted house in Wisconsin right now, for all I knew!  There was also the possibility that they were still inside this building somewhere.  Perhaps they had been hoarded together into a storeroom, where they might be less of a target for vandals.

     It came down to three choices.  The figures were removed by their creator.  Or they were sold as props for another attraction.  Or someone had shifted them from the tableaux to storage in another part of the Castle.  That was as far as my adult mind was willing to go.  My inner child hinted at a fourth possibility.  I refused to pursue it.

     “Let’s try the stairs – the figures might have been moved.”  Jeff was pretty good at reading my thoughts.  I doubt this was true clairvoyance, more the natural ease of the understanding that creeps up over the years between good friends.

     Wooden stairs creaked in protest beneath our Nike’s.  Why this place had stairs at all was something that always mystified me.  Chasing terrified kids in the dark, up and down flights of stairs...the insurance adjusters just had to love that!

     We turned a corner at the top.  Feeling like I was nine years old all over again, I trained my flashlight down upon the tableaux from above.  Nothing had changed.  The meal was still over, the diners adjourned.  I noticed an ugly stain atop the fireplace mantle that probably indicated where Satan had been glued down.  We walked along the hallway toward the alcove with the horse – not that I expected that display to be intact, either.

     I was wrong.

     The black, equestrian outline loomed up in front of me, my flashlight’s beam making a ghastly shadow on the wall behind.  The horse was there, looking as real and cadaverous as ever, but its hooded rider was gone.  I began to see a pattern.  All the human figures were missing.  They must have been salvaged long ago, or…

     “Let’s get through this.  I don’t like it in here.”  I couldn’t see Jeff’s face, but I could feel the edge creeping into his voice.   Not out of character, really.  Jeff was not imaginative but he was practical.  And practical people often have an uncanny knack for  sensing danger.

     We made our way slowly through the gallery of changing portraits.  Some of their outer canvas screens were in tatters now, revealing the light bulbs behind that had provided their clever transforming illusion.  We passed through an opening at the end of this room…then around the corner, where guests were cued to wait before the next stunt.  A glass case on my right still contained a monster’s tentacle, reaching through a crack in the faux mortar wall.  The writhing woman this tentacle once gripped was gone.  There was a pole sticking out of the ground where she had been.

     I think, in retrospect, this is the moment we first heard the sound.  It was slow, deliberate, and unmistakable.  The sound of hoof-beats moving steadily through the room behind us.

     My first thought was of Satan with his cloven hoofs.  Then I thought of that blasted stuffed horse and that seemed a far more sensible idea.  What if the people that dressed Brigantine Castle had obtained a real horse from a taxidermist?  If it was, in essence, an equestrian cadaver, then why not an actual haunting now?

     Neither of us dared breath.  The only sounds were the distant crash of the sea, and the incessant ‘clop, clop, clop’ of the specter animal’s approach.  Jeff trained his flashlight down the hallway behind us.  I almost saw it, a dark shape rounding the corner, before Jeff hurled his flashlight at the thing like Ray Milland in The Uninvited.

     We both started to run.  Crazy, blind, panic running.  We ran through rooms fitted out with cobwebs.  I didn’t know if this was stage-dressing, or the real thing, and I didn’t care anymore.  I just ran as fast as my 18 year-old legs could carry me.

     I burst through a door and we were outside again.  Not free, not by a long shot, but at the very top of the Castle now, where a platform with a railing overlooks the crashing surf of the Atlantic.  You couldn’t see the ocean that night.  A fog had rolled in across the beach.   But I could hear water moving far below me.  The sound was not quite loud enough to drown the steady approach of hoof-beats from within the Castle.  My flashlight was trained back against the door.  The fog looked like miniature raindrops, falling sideways across its feeble beam.  This had the uncanny effect of removing detail.  When our pursuer emerged, it was exactly like we were seeing the thing through a film of gauze.

     Or things.

     There were more than one.  What I had mistaken for the sound of a horse’s hooves, must have been the lifeless padding of several sets of wax feet.  In the instant before I had sense enough to run, I saw the guests from the dinner tableaux stagger through that doorway into the darkness of the night.  One figure had two distinct horns crowning the outline of his head.

     We ran.  I tripped.  With a sinking feeling, I heard my flashlight cascade down the wooden staircase into the blackness of the Castle.  The only light we had now was the outline of the doorway back onto the balcony.  It was a feeble light at that; moonlight filtered through a gauze of fog.  I could hear the wax figures dragging their feet across the balcony.  Coming for us.

     Jeff fled down the spiral staircase into the bowels of Castle Brigantine.  I could not move.  Even when I saw the familiar wax silhouettes filling the doorway, I remained rooted to the spot.  It wasn’t until I realized how close they actually were that my feet finally took action.

     There is nothing more frustrating than trying to navigate unfamiliar, winding staircases in absolute darkness.  Except maybe trying to navigate unfamiliar, winding staircases in absolute darkness, with animated wax creatures from hell chasing you.

     Can’t explain why I did not trip and break my neck.  I had a vision of what might happen in that eventuality.  The next kid to pry open the door into Brigantine Castle would not find an empty showcase at the end of the first hallway.  He would see the dinner still in progress, just as it always had been, except their would be an extra figure in the tableaux – and that figure would be me.

     How far did these stairs go?  I felt I was descending the entire height of the Castle at once.  Judging by the sounds above, the wax figures were gaining ground.  They knew this place better than I did.  They were almost upon me now.  I would have given my soul for a little light in this infernal darkness.

     Then I remembered the disposable camera.  The cheap little Kodak, with its built-in flash.  I didn’t even think about pictures at the time – I was only thinking about the possibility of illuminating my attackers.

     I felt the familiar square box in my pocket, and managed to slide the flash switch on.  It took forever for the orange “OK” light to wink back at me.  The instant it did, I aimed the disposable camera up the staircase and started firing.

     Until that moment I could glimpse my attackers only as shadows.  My mind had filled in detail based upon their familiar outlines.  Now the camera’s flash revealed them, if only for the briefest of instances, in all their crimson detail.  It was worse than I expected.

     Yes, all the ‘dealers in death’ from my childhood were there, clambering down the old staircase.  But the years had not been kind.  An arm was missing from one figure, another had some sort of fungus growing down its cheek.  There were deep cracks in several of the wax faces.  These were not living creatures, they were lifeless icons of devilry.  Yet some how they moved.

     Our camera’s flash seemed to slow them down.  It froze the figures in time, just like they had been seen in the tableaux.  There was no perceptible movement from these creatures during each flash burst.  Yet, in the seconds of darkness between each flash, they managed to advance their position down the staircase.

     My body took over at this point.  For the life of me, I do not know how I made it all the way down the spiral staircase without falling, but I did manage.  Before I even realized it the floor had leveled out, and my forehead slammed into a closed door.  The door grudgingly swung open from the impact with my cranium.

     I had a blistering headache.  My heart was racing.  But I was alive, and on the boardwalk, and in the shadow of Brigantine Castle.  Jeff grabbed my shoulders and gave me a good shake.  When he spoke, it was only two words:  “Let’s go.”

     We said very little on the drive home that night.  It is a curious thing, but when you’ve known someone practically all your life, words become less essential in communicating.  Even more curious is the fact that we never really discussed our experiences afterwards.  We both knew what we had seen; we left it to each other to derive an explanation.

     The Brigantine Castle Amusement Pier caught fire just weeks after our visit, and burned to the ground.  Human demolition was poised to begin when nature took a hand. There was an article on the fire in our local paper.  I’m sure Jeff must have seen that piece as well.  But we still didn’t talk about what had happened to us that August night.

     The disposable camera lay forgotten in my Camaro’s glove box, along with two or three others we had used that summer at the beach.  I guess I’m not much of a psychic investigator.  But then, I had never thought of the camera as a recording device that night.  It had been used as a weapon.  A source of light to arrest, if only temporarily, the incessant advance of those horrible wax figures.

     The camera might have remained forgotten, if I had not run a stop sign late that October, while trying to get to an economics class at Middlesex County College.  All-too familiar red and blue lights filled my rearview mirror.  When I popped open the glovebox to retrieve my registration card, three disposable cameras fell out onto the passenger seat. 

     Now those final Brigantine Castle images had been developed.  Jeff and I sat puzzling over them, by the firelight in my father’s study, while a cold rain tapped at the windows.

     “I still don’t get it.”  Jeff’s nervous eyes darted from one frozen image to another.  “We both know what we saw in there.”

     Did we?  Ever since these pictures had come back from the lab, I had been reconsidering the entire experience.  The conclusion I reached was not going to be easy  to explain.  I tried to keep my voice as natural as possible.

     “What exactly did you see Jeff?”

     “Oh, come off it!”  He was obviously annoyed.  “The same thing you saw.  And neither one of us was high or drunk that night.”

     “Yes, but could you describe --”

     “They were scorpions!”  He spat out the words.  “Scorpions as big as dogs.  Crawling down that hallway after us…hundreds of legs clicking against the floor.”  Jeff’s hands were shaking.  “Are you happy now that I said it?  We both saw the same thing in there.  It was no illusion.”

     There are times when it may be best to withhold information, for the sake of maintaining a friend’s precarious grasp on sanity.  I had seen no scorpions inside Brigantine Castle.  Jeff, apparently, had not seen the wax figures.

     For the first and last time I will commit to paper what those amazing photographs contained.  Pictures that, by mutual consent, we fed into the fireplace in my father’s book-lined study.

     One of the images showed an empty stairwell.  The wooden steps were festooned with a drapery of cobwebs.  Another picture showed a rectangular opening onto a dark balcony.  One of the boards framing this doorway had come loose and hung askew.  The third picture in this remarkable set actually depicted a living creature.  In this shot, my flash had illuminated a dark corner of an empty room, where a rat was huddled against the floor.  Rather than looking at the flash of the camera, this little rodent was staring into the blank corner.  Although this might have been a trick of the light – the fur along its back seemed to be bristling, as if in terror.  The animal’s small red eyes were very bright.

     The remaining photos showed only emptiness and decay.  There were very few pieces of set-dressing left to identify Brigantine Castle.  These pictures could have been taken inside almost any condemned building, anywhere in the world.

     My first thought was that the Castle had actually done something to our camera to neutralize the images, to protect its secrets.  That theory didn’t sit well with me.  It was too elaborate, and required the vacant building to have a consciousness, a power of independent thought that would have made its demolition something akin to murder.  The whole premise seemed unlikely.

     I started to think about the nature of fear itself.  Fear is an emotion, something only living creatures can experience.  A building cannot be afraid of its own impending demolition.  A camera cannot be afraid of what it might see inside a crumbling plywood Castle.  A camera can only see what is truly there. 

     Brigantine Castle was a very special building.  It was specifically designed to frighten people.  As a child, I had an experience inside this attraction that literally haunted me for a decade.  Yet I was only one among hundreds of people who went through the Castle that same summer day; one among thousands who took the tour that season.  How many other people had experienced a similar intensity of fear inside this place?

     In 1984, the doors were locked for the final time.  The Castle was truly lifeless after that point, but I somehow doubt that it was empty.  I suspect that in the haste to protect the Castle interior from vandals, the doors were locked so quickly – and so securely – that the bottled up fear, accumulated over the years, could not get out. 

     Strong emotions seem to have an energy all their own.  Each person who toured Brigantine Castle my have left a little imprint of their own fear behind.  If so, the structure itself must have become, over the years, like a kind of psychic storage battery.  A reservoir of fears.

     Scorpions have always been Jeff’s greatest phobia.  He was certain that scorpions ‘as big as dogs’ had chased us down those winding hallways.  I was equally certain about what I had seen.  Those wax figures from the dinner tableaux, source of countless childhood nightmares, had finally come for me.

     I took one last look at the only photograph that revealed anything at all: a seemingly terrified rat, staring into an empty corner.  What did it mean?  Had the poor creature believed it was surrounded by phantom cats? 

     One by one, my friend and I fed those remarkable images into the crackling wood fire.  We saved the negatives for last.










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