The Old Mill of Playland
Sometimes I miss the dreamy sensations that came with childhood, like the excitement of visiting an amusement park. Back then they seemed like dreamlands nestled in reality, and it was as though no kid could wait to visit them. My younger brother and I were no exceptions. Whenever summertime rolled around, we would eagerly count down the days until Playland opened its gates.
Never heard of it? Playland is a very old amusement park in our hometown of Rye, New York, and it was always the place to be when we were kids. I made many fond memories at that park: the first time I rode the famous Dragon Coaster, playing frisbee on the park’s beach with my brother and father, and the night my crush kissed me on the cheek as we watched the fireworks display from the boardwalk. One particular memory, however, overshadows the rest.
It was the night our adult sister and her boyfriend had brought us to Playland. The four of us had spent the day riding the coasters, playing minigolf, and so on, but what my brother and I were really looking forward to was going on the dark rides (you know, those indoor rides through dark tunnels with different scenery and animatronics). At the time, there were rumors going around that all of Playland’s dark rides were going to be shut down, so we were adamant about paying them our final respects. My brother insisted on waiting until nightfall before riding them, so I assumed he wanted to go on the Zombie Castle or the Flying Witch first. But once the sun had disappeared behind the sealine, instead he hurried us to the tamest of the dark rides: Ye Old Mill. While the other two dark rides take you through castles infested with zombies and monsters, this one takes you on a boat ride through caves inhabited by Disney-esque gnomes and trolls. I asked him,
“You want to ride this one first? I thought you were our main thrill-seeker.”
“Yeah, I am,” He replied. “But I want to try something.” I could hear a bit of mischief in his voice.
“I heard that if you go on this ride alone at night, you can see a ghost at one part!” Okay, so it was clearly only a rumor he had heard at school, but what would one expect from a 9-year-old? I (who was 11 at the time) just brushed it off, although I was, admittedly, a superstitious kid. “Just wait here, I’m going on first!” He turned to run to the ticket booth when our sister swiftly stepped in front of him.
“No you’re not!” She snapped. “Don’t you remember what happened last year?”
“Oh, yeah…” I muttered to myself. I had almost forgotten about the incident that had occurred on the ride looming above us, a tragedy that had played out like a horror story.
You see, Playland has a small record of deadly accidents, one of which occurred in 2005. A 7-year-old boy had gone on the Old Mill alone, having passed its minimum height requirement. His mother, who had been waiting outside, was terrified to find that the boat he was riding in returned empty. The news later broke out that authorities had discovered his body stuck beneath one of the conveyor belts used to move the boats, under more than 2 feet of water. There were no eyewitnesses to the accident and inspectors found nothing wrong with the ride itself, so it was believed that the boy became frightened and climbed out of the boat in an attempt to escape. According to the boy’s autopsy, the cause of his death wasn’t by drowning, but blunt force trauma to the head.
“He’ll be fine as long as he stays in the boat.” I said. Sis frowned at me as my brother nodded in agreement. Even though I understood why she was worried, I thought she was overreacting. The Old Mill was one of the safest rides in the park, and our little thrill-seeker didn’t scare easily.
“Look, you two can just ride it together. The ghost might appear anyway, right?”
“Yeah guys,” Her boyfriend chimed in. “You can take it like a pair of ghostbusters!” The cheesiness of that line made me laugh, as did the face my brother made in response. I said to him,
“Sounds fine to me.” He just sighed in defeat.
“Oh, all right.” As my brother walked up to the booth, Sis put a hand on my shoulder and quietly said,
“Don’t let him do anything stupid, okay?” I turned to see her face dark with concern. Hell, she sounded like she expected us not to come back. What did she think our brother would do? Jump ship and hide in the scenery? Sounds silly, but it was technically possible. The Old Mill has narrow concrete paths running along the walls for staff access, so people could hop out of the sluggish boats and go exploring. To try and calm her down, I placed a hand on her shoulder and said,
“Okay, I won’t let him get eaten by the robot gnomes.”
“Oh, shut up and go already!” She gave me a playful rap over the head before checking out the nearby game booths with her boyfriend, leaving my brother and me to board the ride.
With no line in front of us, it was only moments before we boarded one of the boats and were on our way into the Old Mill. Rounding the first bend, we were greeted by an animatronic gnome in mining gear perched on a pipe above us.
“Welcome to Playland Waterworks!” it announced in its usual Western accent. “We’re keepin’ it flowin’ down here! But stay in the boat and on the main waterways. There’s hungry trolls hiding in those back caverns!” With that, the boat drifted into the unlighted tunnels ahead.
Do you ever get the feeling that a room seems darker when you know it’s dark outside? Never having been on the Old Mill at night, I was getting that sense. Aside from the lights on the scenery, the tunnels were completely black. I tend to get a little anxious in really dark places since my eyesight isn’t the greatest, but being with my brother helped alleviate that anxiety. For the first couple minutes we just poked fun at the scenes we passed, which consisted of the gnomes performing generic mining duties: digging for gems, blasting stone with TNT, and accidentally blowing each other up (in the cartoony “covered-in-soot” way, of course). At one point I asked him,
“So, when’s this ghost supposed to appear again?”
“I don’t know.” He replied with a shrug. “But it wouldn’t be in here, it’s too bright. Maybe if we’re really quiet…” We had just entered a room full of mock machinery, the set brightly lit. Both of us went silent, so I just listened to the bouncy music playing over the speakers. I heard a sharp clicking sound a couple times as we passed through the room; assuming it was the music skipping or something, I ignored it and thought about the accident. That kid must’ve been really afraid of the dark, that or the “scarier” scenes got to him. But still, to frighten him enough to want to climb out of the boat…My contemplation abruptly ended when my brother turned excitedly towards me.
“This could be it! Get ready!” This is where the memory becomes more vivid for me, as though it happened last night. Ever since I was little, this particular part of the ride struck me as foreboding: as the boat made another turn, the comical music emanating from the machine room faded out, overtaken by the sound of gusty winds. A white strobe light flickered in the distance while faux thunder echoed through the corridor, creating the illusion of getting caught in a summer storm. The chilling atmosphere was amplified by light mist spraying about, surrounding us in a cool embrace. ‘There’s nothing here,’ I thought to myself, ‘Nothing here except us’. But then, I heard it again: Clickclickclick, just like in the last room. Without the music and voices of the animatrons, I could hear it more clearly; it reminded me of the sound a dog’s claws make when it walks across a hard floor. I glanced around, even though I couldn’t see a damn thing, and tried to locate the sound. Then it occurred to me that the only “floors” around were the paths alongside the boat…
“Hey, do you hear that?” I asked my brother.
“That clicking sou-” A crash of thunder suddenly burst from the speakers, cutting me off and making my heart leap. But what frightened me more was that as soon as the thunder rang out, I thought I heard something splash in the water behind us.
“What? Did you hear the ghost?” My brother asked.
“N-no…” I stammered. Disappointed, he turned away from me without even noticing my unease. As our lonely vessel drifted beyond the stormy hall, I listened carefully for the clicking sound again. Clickclickclick; There it was, sure enough. ‘What the hell is that?’ I thought. I was beginning to think it was just in my head, but then I heard something else alongside it: Clack clack clack. It was just like the clicking, only…heavier. Sharper.
“Go back, please!” A worried voice warned us. I noticed we were drifting by the next scene: a gnome with a lantern waving at us from a small cliff. “Last chance! They’ll get ya for sure! Please, don’t go back there!” From that point forward, my imagination started to run away with me. I began to think the puppets were trying to warn us of some real, imminent danger, regardless of the fact that they were only reciting their usual lines. I wasn’t even focused on the scenery anymore, instead fearfully staring at the floor of the boat while my mind ran wild. If a ghost were haunting the ride, would it try to hurt us?
“I warn you, humans!” I heard one of the troll puppets shout. “Go away now!”
What if someone who had come in before us decided to hide in the scenery and scare whoever passed by? What if that person was dangerous? Or maybe, instead of some phantom or adolescent trickster, we were being watched by…something else?
“It’s too late now.” Another troll said, letting out a low, wicked laugh. I finally looked up, recognizing the scene in front of me: the troll was stationed next to a sharpened log suspended by vines; a trap. The log suddenly swung forward as the tunnel was engulfed in darkness, a crashing sound played moments later. Just before the crash, I let a scream slip out as I heard another splash. This time, it wasn’t as far behind.
“What?! What is it?!” My brother shouted back in surprise.
“D-didn’t you hear that?!” I stammered. “Something’s in here! In the water!” He paused a moment, as though to say he had been hearing something as well throughout the ride.
“Y-you better not be joking!” He was trying to sound tough, but he couldn’t mask the fear in his voice. The trepidation I had felt since the stormy hall had finally overtaken me. I was on the brink of tears, glancing every which way to find the source of that godforsaken sound of claws on stone. I hoped and prayed that we would come to a tunnel with more light and fast--
I held my breath, frozen in terror. Whatever was making that sound was right beside the boat. For the first time, I heard it breathing; it took in quiet, shallow, croaking gasps as if it was struggling for air. It wasn’t the mournful moaning of a child’s spirit, however. No, it didn’t even sound human…I had to know. Despite the temptation to just hide my face in my sweaty hands, I had to know what in God’s name was following us. Summoning whatever little courage I had, I slowly turned my head to the path on my left. Fear pierced my heart as I met the incandescent gaze of two green, unblinking eyes. They were wide and blank like those of an angler fish, but I couldn’t make out the head they were attached to. I heard its claws lightly click against the concrete as it crept alongside the boat, its eyes locked onto me. Shivering, I took in only quick, stilted breaths, afraid that any sudden movement or sound would cause it to attack. I wanted to warn my brother and tell him not to move, but before I could…
“What’s that noise?” He asked meekly. I heard his body shift as he turned to face me. Suddenly, he let out a scream, clearly seeing what I saw. The creature immediately averted its eyes from me and locked onto my terrified brother, responding to his scream with a loud hiss. It darted past me and leapt towards him at alarming speed. My brother cried and screamed in pain, snapping me out of my fear-induced paralysis. Without thinking, I reached out to pull the infernal thing off of him, fumbling in the darkness until I got a hold of it. It wasn’t very big, but it was powerful. The rough scales that made up its exterior dug into my skin as it writhed and squirmed relentlessly in my arms. I was about to throw it overboard when I suddenly felt several claws strike me across the face. I shrieked and clasped my hands to my face as the damn creature slipped free.
“Get it away!!” My brother cried. “It’s going to kill us!!” Wiping my eyes of what was either blood or tears, I turned around to see those faint green eyes burning into mine. All at once I felt a churning blend of fear and rage, and as it approached again I swung my leg as hard as I could. The creature let out what sounded like a gasp as my foot slammed against it. Realizing I had the upper hand, I rushed forward and kicked at it again, and again, and again before backing towards my sobbing brother. Still unable to see anything in the darkness but those eyes, I watched as they unsteadily turned from us and disappeared over the rear of the boat with a splash. To my relief, the boat was just starting to pass one of the next scenes, offering us just enough light to see.
“Quick, it’s gone! Get out of the boat!” Thanks to the adrenaline coursing through me, I was able to pull myself onto the concrete walkway beside the set and my brother after me. I could see his wounds in the dim, orange light. His legs were scratched up as was his chest, visible through his torn shirt. But his worst injury was on his left arm, drenched in blood; he was tightly clutching a large mark between the wrist and elbow.
“It bit me!” He sobbed repeatedly. There was no way in hell we could stay any longer.
“Come on, we need to get help!” I choked out, trying to catch my breath. Thankfully, he was still able to walk. By sticking close to the wall, we were able to find our way to the next set without falling off the narrow walkway. The scene was of a troll cutting down a tree, so I knew we were close to the end of the ride. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there! Almost…”
Clack clack clack.
The familiar sound stopped us in our tracks. I began to tremble, ready to sob out of utter disbelief. ‘No, no that’s not real!’ I told myself. But what followed was unmistakable: a furious, hissing roar right behind us. Instinctively I turned around, just in time to see another glowing pair of eyes charging in our direction.
“RUN!” I screamed. We bolted towards the end of the set as the second creature entered the room. I looked back for a moment to see how far behind it was, catching a blurry glimpse of its appearance. It was some ungodly animal, larger than the other one, clawing its way toward us like an enraged crocodile. Its eyes burned bright yellow-orange like twin torches, and its teeth seemed to be bared and jagged. All I could see of the body itself was a greyish-red color, but I wasn’t about to stop to get a closer look. My brother and I scrambled into another black corridor, the longest in the entire ride, and saw the light of the last set visible at the end of it. I thought we were in the home stretch, but the next thing I knew, something clamped onto my right leg. I fell forward and hit my head against the floor, calling out to my brother and reaching out with my arms.
“What happened?! Hurry!” He cried.
“I can’t!” I cried back. I felt the creature tug on me, sending a splitting pain through my leg. Thinking I had been bitten as well, I looked behind and saw that the glowing eyes weren’t that close to me at all. I quickly realized that it had ensnared me with some kind of appendage. With his arm hurt, my brother couldn’t pull back, which left only one option. “Get help! Get out and get help, now!”
“What?! But it’ll--!”
“Go now! Run!” With that, I heard my brother’s crying grow fainter and fainter as he hurried to the end of the tunnel. The beast growled as it tugged on me again, pulling me closer to what would certainly be my demise. I desperately felt around for anything to grab onto or use as a weapon, to no avail. I tried to grip the edge of the walkway and pull myself free, my mind overrun with thoughts of my family, the memories of that park, and the child with whom I was about to share a final resting place…
Then, the creature’s growling became a dry hiss, croaky and shallow like that of its smaller counterpart. Its tugging was more frequent, but not quite as strong. It wasn’t clear to me then, but I now believe that it was losing its breath. In one last attempt to escape, I kicked at my right leg with my left, trying to hit the spot where its extra set of jaws had latched on. Again, and again, and again I kicked with all the strength I could muster. Finally, unable to last above the surface any longer, the creature released my leg and leapt into the water. I watched the fiery glow of its eyes fade as it swam back into the depths of the Old Mill. Fearing that it would return, I didn’t waste any time trying to get away. As I crawled toward the light of the last set, battered and bleeding, all the trauma I had endured suddenly caught up with me. My head throbbed violently and my arms grew weak, the whole world melting into a bleary mess before my eyes. The last I recall of this nightmarish memory is the glint of a flashlight, the garbled voices of Playland staff members, and the last animatronic gnome shouting, “I warned ya! I warned ya!”
I awoke the next day in a hospital bed. My dear younger brother was in the bed next to mine, still asleep. I would learn later that day that he had stumbled out of the ride pale and hysterical, screaming over and over that there was a monster in the ride and that I was going to die. God in heaven…Our little thrill-seeker got so, so much more than what he bargained for. We all did. The authorities later concluded that we had been attacked by wild dogs that had somehow found their way into the ride. What other explanation could they give? There haven’t been any incidents like this since then, so I can only assume the real culprits no longer reside in the Old Mill. Only God knows what they were or where they are now. Those soulless, incandescent eyes continue to haunt me, and perhaps they always will. Even more haunting, though, are the terrified cries of my brother. It brings me to tears to think what could have happened if I had let him get on that ride alone.