Hell's Playground wasn't the most popular Halloween attraction in the Pine Barrens, but with the unseasonably warm temperatures and nearness to the parkway, Jack Salmon was expecting righteously large crowds. Between the giggly teens, wide-eyed cub scouts and Goth kids, his annual fund raiser for the AH Foundation was bound to be a success. Maybe this year, he actually wouldn't lose money.
J.D. didn't like most people. On most days, he could do without the whole human race, but Jack was the sort of friendly, shirt-off-his-back, 365-day-Santa, you had to like. J.D. considered him to be a bit of an absent-minded, hapless bumbler too, always forgetting important papers and having to turn around and drive an hour out of his way right after arriving.
J.D. had run into Jack on one of his hikes and almost immediately, Jack offered him a job helping build the sets and run cables for the electricity in the playground. Normally, the hermit would be heading to the shore this time of year, but with all the heat, he decided to finish out October and make a few bucks for the road. J.D. was amazed that Jack simply hired him. He never asked for references or even a last name. And every day, like clockwork, he'd insist on buying J.D. lunch, as if they were two old buddies and Jack was the delinquent one in the lunch buying duo. Working quietly along side the high schoolers and family members Jack had hired or coerced into volunteering, J.D. noted that everyone on the crew had their own agenda. This made for a chaotic and sporadic working environment, as the high schoolers would disappear to smoke or Salmon family members would take hours to return from lunch. It seemed that as soon as a set neared completion, someone on the crew would create a new excuse to stop working and do something else.
J.D. was preparing to attach the wing material to a large, gargoyle-like devil on display at scene four, when Sarah, a 16 year-old chatter box who was assisting him, decided that at that moment she had to call her boyfriend. Sarah leaped down from the scene platform and was dialing her day-glo cell phone, all in the time that it took J.D. to sign in exasperation. Jack and his special effects man, Drew, walked in from scene five to check on the progress.
"How's it goin'?" Jack asked, as if J.D. was a cousin. "Did Sarah get here?"
"She had to make a phone call," explained J.D. "I'm sure it was urgent."
"Well, everything's urgent when you're 16," noted Jack wryly. "Can you give J.D. a hand with this thing, Drew?"
Drew was a lanky 20 year-old with bad acne, bad tattoos and a sort of forced, sinister attitude that worn thin after the first sentence. Halloween was like Christmas to Drew and the freakier and scarier, the better. He made several suggestions about how to make the wings on the devil look even more evil, but J.D. was more interested in getting finished.
"It should be more tattered," Drew insisted. "And there should be long claws and fangs. Once I rigged a vampire to spit blood using a---"
"It will be fine," insisted J.D. "Besides, I thought Jack wanted to tone down the gore for the little kids."
"Yeah," Drew agreed in disappointment. "This Juan Three isn't even a scary character. They only put it in because of the movie."
That summer, A Stupid Future, a movie which centered around the dimwitted adventures of a genetically engineered mutant named Juan Three, had topped the box offices. It had originally been slated as a story about the Legend of the Jersey Devil, but the Hollywood execs involved in the project had never heard of the legend and made endless changes until the movie resembled something like Waterworld, only less intelligent. J.D. was actually relieved when he heard the news. A real movie about the Jersey Devil would probably make his life miserable for weeks.
"Hey guys!" shouted Jack suddenly. "Over here!"
Jack had drifted off the trail to relieve himself, when he stumbled upon a strange little hill and a pile of rocks with symbols carved into them. Jack was so stunned by the discovery, he almost forgot to zip up when J.D. and Drew walked over.
"Whoa," Drew gasped in awe. "What is that?"
"Is it real?" Jack asked aloud in disbelief.
Jack reached for the top rock, but J.D. stayed his hand.
"Don't," he instructed. "This is an ancient Indian burial mound. Probably Lenni Lenape."
"I didn't think the Lenape did that sort of thing," whispered Jack, as if they were in a library. "Not ones this big anyway."
"Jack!" Drew erupted, suddenly inspired. "Let's move the path over here! Man, people will pay big to see this!"
"Oh, I don't know, Drew…"
"This is sacred ground," insisted J.D. "You run the customers past this, it will be desecrated. A representative from the tribe needs to be contacted and probably some archaeologists."
"Wait a minute, we do that and they could shut the whole playground down," worried Jack. "Look, no one knows about this but us three. Let's just keep quiet about it until Halloween's over, then we'll let the authorities know."
"I mean it, Drew. Keep your mouth shut."
By the end of the next Tuesday, the sets were completed, actors were hired and everyone donned make up for a run through. J.D. was given the job of tour guide. He had requested the Jersey Devil costume, but at the last minute Drew decided he'd look more menacing as "Leatherjaw" from the Chainsaw Murder movies. Donning a red splattered butcher's apron, a fake leather jaw and a plastic chainsaw, J.D. took a group of Jack's friends through the scenes in the daytime. It wasn't very scary, but it was all in fun.
Since there wasn't much to do until the first Friday in October, J.D. thought it best to maintain his "normal" image. Although he suspected Jack might know he was essentially homeless, he didn't need the do-gooder delving too deep into his background.
Making his way to Burlington on foot, J.D. had made a copy of the symbols on the rocks. Hiding in the restroom, he waited for the library to close and spent the night pouring over books about the Lenni Lenape Indians. He discovered that some of the symbols appeared in a book called The Red Record, which was about an ancient American Indian book called the Walum Olum. The Walum Olum was probably the only written account of Native American history from the crossing into North America until the first white man arrived.
Although J.D. couldn't be sure, he got the impression that there had been a very powerful shaman of the Lenni Lenape buried in the mound. The shaman could "speak with the spirits", like no other shaman before him. The shaman had urged the Lenni Lenape to prepare for a great war with "white devils", but the other Lenapes did not listen to him. J.D. read the last symbols and check their translation several times. A chill went down his spine.
"Buried Alive," read the symbols.
Returning to the playground proved extraordinarily difficult for J.D. First, it poured non-stop for the next 48 hours, making the walk back a wet and soggy business and hitchhiking near impossible. When J.D. finally gave up and hopped a bus, he ran into a cousin who hadn't seen him in years. Fortunately, the cousin hadn't seen J.D.'s twin brother, Sam Vern, in years either.
Posing as his brother, J.D. made awkward conversation for a while, until he realized his cousin hadn't spoken to any other family members in years either. At that point, J.D. simply made up facts about Sam's life for the last ten years or so. As his cousin finally got off the bus at Stockton College, J.D. couldn't help but wonder how stupid he'd look at the next Vern Family reunion.
By the time J.D. had hiked to the woods where he had hidden his Leatherjaw costume, it was almost evening. He made it just in time to Hell's Playground's grand opening. The ticket booth was painted Day-Glo colors and had a coffin for a counter. The snack bar sold all manner of candies with names like "ghoul bars" and "skeleton chews". When J.D. arrived at the entrance, he realized there was something wrong.
"Where's Jack?" J.D. asked Sarah, who was decked out in a skin tight, black velour outfit with dyed black hair and custom made vampire fangs.
"Oh, the forest rangers were hassling him about the bon fire, so he went home to find his fire license or something," she answered, as bored as humanly possible. "Like you could start a fire out here after all that rain."
"I was a little surprised you opened on time."
"We almost didn't. Half the sets were under water. But Drew got it all moved just in time."
J.D. was about to walk away, but with this new tidbit of information, he turned and grab the scattered teen by the arm.
"Moved? Moved, where?" demanded J.D.
"Tch, the path," she explained impatiently. "He moved it to higher ground."
The first group of customers lined up in preparation for the walk. The first exhibit was enclosed in a dungeon set and consisted of an executioner, a guillotine and various headless mannequins. He recognized the tour guide as Drew, dressed as a vampire with a bondage fetish. He grabbed him by the arm roughly before he could move the group to the next scene.
"Hey!" squeaked Drew, dropping his sinister voice. "What the Hell, man?!"
"I told you not to disturb the mound!"
"Take it easy, take it easy," assured Drew. "We mark the spot and had the rocks moved right over there."
J.D. turned and noticed the rocks in their exact same position, only right next to one of the generators.
"You idiot. The rocks are just a warning. It's the mound that's sacred!"
"What was I supposed to do? The whole place was under water! The area around the mound is the only dry spot back here!"
"You put the sets on the mound?!"
"Just one and it's right in front! That way, no one steps on the mound, right? C'mon, J.D. This is for charity. Look, follow me in with the tour, if you don't like it, we'll hold up the line and move it okay?"
Reluctantly, J.D. let Drew go, then followed him back to the group.
"Sorry for the delay, meat!" Drew announced to the now, restless group. "Come this way and meet your doom!"
The tour group consisted of two, teenage couples, a thirtyish single mom and her 5 year-old, cute as a button, daughter, a beer bellied trucker and his equally beer bellied girlfriend. One of the teenage girls, who was also wearing a cheerleader's jacket, jumped as J.D. turned and looked at her.
"Oh my God!" she squeaked in delight. "You looked like you came out of nowhere."
"I did," J.D. replied, lurching forward and giving her another scare.
Scene two consisted of a small graveyard and a half buried coffin. The strobe light was the only illumination here, but this was all a distraction. Two of the workers, dressed as bloody skeletons leapt from the shadow of the bushes on either side of the path on a crew from Drew. The scene worked flawlessly, causing the girls to scream into their boyfriends arms, the little girl to cover her eyes and the trucker to proclaim, "Ah, Hell. This ain't scary! You want to see scary? I've seen scary."
J.D. ignored the trucker as he walked past, then looked back at the scene. The two teens got back into position for the next group. At the edge of the clearing, J.D. spotted a third person. He looked like an American Indian, decorated in feathers, hand made jewelry and bones. In one hand, he held a decorated stick with a dog's skull on top and in the other, a handmade axe. His face was scrunched up in a scowl and he reached back to hurl his axe at the unsuspecting teens.
"No!" shouted J.D. suddenly.
But just as suddenly, with the next blink of the strobe and even before J.D.'s word was heard, he was gone, as if he'd never been there. The group stopped suddenly and looked back at J.D.
"Yes!" answered Drew, incorporating J.D.'s outburst into his horror shtick. "We will continue on! On to the Eddie Unger House!"
Scene three had been built around the Eddie Unger movies. Eddie was a demonic figure, who, for no apparent reason, could invade teenagers dreams and slice them to ribbons. Eddie had spikes coming out of his fingers which, in the later movies, shot from his hands impaling his victims in increasingly creative ways. The house, was actually a little shack and the trees in the area were dotted with "victims", who'd been like impaled.
The actor playing Eddie was too anxious and stepped into the light just before announcing his arrival. Only the teenage girl screamed. The little girl smiled and looked up at her mother, while the trucker talked to his girlfriend about getting their money back.
"Hahahaha!" laughed Eddie in his forced shtick. "Can I spike your drink for you?! Ahahahaha!"
Drew shifted nervously. He had wanted to recast this scene, but there wasn't time and the effects he wanted here still weren't ready. The trucker began complaining loudly to anyone that could hear.
"There's no creativity! You just copied a bunch of movies! That's not how ya scare people! It's gotta be a surprise! Am I right?"
Just as the group prepared to leave, J.D. caught a glimpse of movement in the bushes. It was if an invisible man was running through them.
Just then, the spikes exploded from the hands of Eddie. One immediately pinned a cheerleader's hair to the tree she was standing. Panicked, Eddie moved his hands towards the rest of the group. J.D. tackled the mother and daughter, just as two spikes flew towards them. The spikes impale the saplings behind them. And the trucker, who has just pulled out a bottle a beer he snuck past the gate, found it shattered by a spike.
"Hey!" he said in protest, marching over to J.D. "What you guys tryin' to pull out here?! I coulda cut my hand!"
"You're not supposed to have bottles here," explained J.D., helping the woman and the little girl to their feet. "Are you two okay?"
"Was that supposed to happen?" asked the mother in shock.
"Sorry folks," announced Drew, trying to regain their momentum. "The darkness beckons you forward!"
The cheerleader, he hair already freed by her boyfriend, decided to turn back.
"I'm going to sue this place," she announced. "Let's go guys."
No sooner had the foursome taken a step, than the very branches of the trees bent down and closed off the way.
"Oh, my God!" gasped her equally bubbly friend. "How are they doing that?"
"Did you rig that?" Drew asked J.D. hopefully.
"No, I didn't rig that!" J.D. snapped at him. "I saw him."
"The Indian that's buried in that mound. He's doing it."
"Yeah," scoffed Drew.
J.D. looked at him. Drew broke out in a sweat.
"Are you kidding me? A real ghost?"
"More like a spirit of the dead. And this is a bad spirit. C'mon."
J.D. stood in front of the group.
"Folks, you can't go back. Let's just stick together and you'll be out of here soon. Everyone please just watch where you walk," announced J.D.
J.D. pulled Eddie Unger to his feet and the group continued.
Scene four was already in progress when the group reached it. Unfortunately, the mechanically Juan Three wasn't obeying its masters. It reached behind the platform and punched out the first worker, then shoved the next one roughly into the nearest tree. J.D. surged forward.
"Me am Juan Three!" it announced in its prerecorded voice from the movie. "You go squish now!"
"Wait here!" J.D. shouted back to Drew.
J.D. smashed his plastic chainsaw across Juan's Three's head and it shattered into a million pieces. He was hoping he'd be left with something big and jagged enough to cut open the monstrosity, but the chainsaw toy was just too cheap.
"Me am Juan Three!" it shouted, shoving J.D. aside.
Juan turned towards the group, which was unsure whether to run or laugh. The maws of the caricature suddenly elongated and were full of razor sharp teeth.
"You go squish now! White devils!"
Just as the thing moved forward, J.D. realized he was sitting right next to the generator relay. He unplugged Juan, who promptly crashed in a heaped in front of the group. After a second, the head burst into flame.
"Holy shit!" gasped Drew. "It couldn't do that! It couldn't do any of that!"
"Let's go!" urged J.D. "Now!"
J.D. marched into the next scene, the group now nervous and picking up the pace. Suddenly, a man with a hockey mask and chain saw leaped out of the shadows. J.D. popped him in the face before he got more than a foot out of the bush.
"Ow! What the Hell are you doing, J.D.?!"
"Sorry, Steve," J.D. apologized, taking his chainsaw. "You got the chain for this thing?"
"We've got a… problem. Give it to me," ordered J.D. taking it from his hand. "You'll be okay, we have to clear the playground. C'mon."
Steve was a little confused, but radioed to the other workers to get out of the playground. He didn't much care for J.D., but the hermit had that air of respect. When he asked you to do something, you knew you should just do it.
The next scene featured undead cowboys and a makeshift gallows, except this one was manned by an actor who was supposed to scream when the trap door dropped out from under him. He was instead hanging limp with a bag over his head.
"Cut him down!" shouted Drew immediately.
J.D. and Steve charged ahead to assist the actor and almost immediately were beset by nooses that shot from the darkness and wrapped around their feet. They shot upwards into the trees. J.D. started the chainsaw with one hand, then hurled it to cut down the suffocating actor. Unfortunately, when the actor hit the ground, Drew pulled off the bag to realize it was one of the mannequins.
"J.D. look!" cried Steve.
Turning to where the rope was pulling them, J.D. could see the shaman, silhouetted by the light of the moon. Just underneath of the shaman was a branch, which was dotted with dozens of jagged stumps of smaller branches.
"Push off of me as hard as you can!" ordered J.D. "Then grab for one of the other trees. Now!"
Steve and J.D. pushed swinging to the neighboring trees. They held on. J.D. could hear Steve straining to keep his grip. Then, the branches above them gave way and the twosome fell. J.D. became disoriented on the way down, hitting several branches. Finally, he landed in a pile of leaves and sighed in relief.
"You go squish now!"
The burned remains of Juan Three, now carrying the chainsaw, swung at J.D. He scrambled out of its way, stumbling headlong into the next scene, which was called Hell's Gate. He grabbed the grim reaper's scythe from one of the standing mannequins, just in time to block Juan's lunge. Hell's Gate was built upon a familiar looking mound and consisted of several cardboard demons.
Juan swung wide, cutting a rat's nest of wires, just as the group arrived. The lights in the rest of the playground went dark and the startled screams of the waiting customers could be heard in the distance. The face of Juan Three morphed into that of the shaman.
"What have you done to my people, White devil?" demanded Juan suddenly. "Tell me where they are!"
"They're long dead or gone, shaman. These are the people that live here now," said J.D. gesturing to the group.
Juan eyed them suspiciously. To him, there wasn't a friendly face among them.
"I'm too late," said Juan. "The spirits were right! Why didn't anyone listen to them?! Why were they so afraid to fight?!"
"Maybe they weren't afraid of fighting as much as what they'd become if they had killed."
And with that, Juan became enraged, raising the whirling chainsaw towards J.D. J.D. rolled out of the way and the blade plunged into the mound. Juan gave out a surprised roar, as his head split open in the exact shape the chainsaw blade. J.D. dove behind a nearby fallen tree and the group, who had watched it all, also dived for cover. Juan exploded in a burst of flame, raining heated plaster chunks and wires everywhere.
By the time Jack Salmon returned to the playground, J.D. was long gone, having abandoned his costume on the walk out. There were police cars, fire trucks, ambulances and two TV news crews. If Hell's Playground hadn't been on fire, Jack would've been pretty pleased as he got out of the car.
Confused and bewildered, Jack wandered through a sea of angry customers, who'd been waiting hours to get in. Drew, unable to come to a sensible explanation to give to the cops, blamed J.D. for the mess, while Steve defended him. Sarah, who finally had something interesting to tell her boyfriend, sat on the sidelines moping. No one told her she could leave and she had left the cell phone at home by mistake. The police had a million questions for Jack, but for a moment, the chaos stopped and the world's happiest trucker walked straight up to Jack and shook his hand.
"Man, I just want to say, that I've been in some scary haunted houses and such! But this place is the best! Can we go in again?"
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