It was a hot summer night in 1993 in the Haunted Mansion’s crypt, when 19-year-old “Sweeper Dave” of Saco pressed his thin back against the wall of his hiding spot behind the bookcase, dusted lint from his black shirt, his black cargo pants, and his newly-dyed black hair, and opened his notebook to write a love poem. The crypt was the most remote spot in the Mansion at Cascade Water and Amusement Park, located along Route 1 in Saco next to its rival, Funtown USA. While monsters in the Mansion’s winery on the ground floor could surround customers in the hallway and send them scampering back and forth like mice between tigers, the crypt shift was by nature solitary, since a dead guy in a tomb would, realistically, wake up alone. Sweeper, a/k/a Dave Gagne, didn’t mind the time by himself. Except for the pasty black and white makeup which made him break out every summer since he was 15, Sweeper actually didn’t mind anything about the job — least of which these hours zoning out to the looped crypt soundtrack of gusting wind, or writing notes to hide for other crewmembers to find. Sweeper peered through the peephole aimed down the darkened stairs. Seeing no customer making his or her wobbly way up, he crouched over his page and wrote to the House that he believed helped him become a braver man:
SEE DEAD PEOPLE: The haunted mansion before its untimely demise.
“I always sit alone
But not really
I read and you read along
When I’m lonely, you stay with me
When I’m happy, you keep men from getting off my guard
How can you be oppressive and friendly?
I understand your deception now
You won’t take just anyone into your confidence
They endure you until they can understand you
When they can, with your help, they can try and understand themselves.”
In 1996, the Haunted Mansion was given to the Saco Fire Department and burned to the ground during a training exercise while Sweeper — so named because he used to sweep the park — and most of the core crew watched from across Route 1. Ten years later, the crew is still blissfully haunted by the house.
Path of horror
The Mansion was one of those rare efforts in life which exceeded the best intentions of everyone involved. While most amusement parks in the new millennium call a creaky ride through a mechanized trailer a “haunted house,” the Mansion, which opened in 1979 and closed after the summer of 1995, elevated terror to a kind of religion thanks to a core group of self-described outsiders who worked there through high school and college and graduate school and into the beginnings of their real-world careers. At Cascade and Funtown, the jocks and the pretty girls stuck to the jobs outside, in the sun, where chatting it up with other unusually good-looking teenagers was as important as running the Galaxi Roller Coaster or handing a pink stuffed dog to a kid who just flipped a rubber frog onto the center of a lily pad. But inside the haunted house, the crew tended to be of a different breed — these were guys who liked math more than sports, who spent their free time making elaborate contraptions and then dismantling them, who doodled pictures of spider webs and skeletons all over their notebooks during English class. In short — these guys were weird.
“Very rarely, in the years that I worked there [from 1989 to 1995] was there someone working you’d call popular,” says Gagne, now 32. “Everyone else was some sort of an outsider.”
To get to the Haunted Mansion, customers over 12 years of age (or tough young ones with parents) had to enter through a wrought-iron gate near the Funtown bumper cars, walk down a darkened path surrounded by high walls overgrown with grape vines and haunted by Death, pass the cemetery with the talking grave, stop on the sagging front porch under the boarded windows to hand their tickets to a dead man as stone-faced as a royal guard, and step inside to an almost completely dark house. Customers would then inch along in darkness, guided by the narrow hallway walls on either side and the whistle-pitch screams from others further on, up a staircase to the first scene in the candle-lit library and then on through other nightmares like the séance room, the dungeon, and the “Bridge of Death” suspended above fake fire. Along the way, six scrawny actors in their teens and early 20s posted in various rooms would scream and thrash around, pretend to eat human flesh off the bone, and whisper things like “I can see you” from the shadows.
“Everybody thinks, all right, I’m going to scare people, I’m going to jump out and give them a good thrill,” says Dave Libby, a former manager of the Mansion who now works as a software developer at DeLorme in Yarmouth. “That’s the cheap scare. After a while, you can get under people. You can go places you wouldn’t even believe.”