I’m writing a collection of #iHunt short stories that detail the time between #iHunt and the sequel, #iHunt the Magdalene Dawn. It’s going slow, because of my new day job as a JRPG designer. But it’s been really fun. Since I haven’t actually done a real release in way too long, I want to share the first few bits of the story.
According to California state laws, human corpses constitute “both sanitation and public health risks.” This means you can’t just leave human bodies lying around. It’s icky. It’s unsightly. And people could get sick. You most definitely cannot decorate your amusement park with human remains. Unless you’re an amusement park owned by terribly influential corporations who get to bend and twist laws to suit their whims. The world renowned Movieland theme park is known for bending and twisting laws to suit their whims. They basically write copyright laws. They’ve redistricted their property to make sure not a single police precinct has jurisdiction in the park. Very few people know this particular story, though. This is the story of Anna Feigel’s skull.
“I hate exorcisms, and I’m not doing it.” I’m this close to hanging up. She knows I don’t do exorcisms.
“It’s not an exorcism, Lana! I don’t even know if it’s really a monster!” Karen is a liar. She’s a really bad liar. But that means she’s pretty obvious when she’s telling the truth. Which is to say, she doesn’t think it’s an exorcism. And she has no idea if it’s a monster.
“Well that’s fucking convenient now, isn’t it? I kill monsters. If you don’t know if it’s a monster, then you also don’t know if you should be asking me to solve the problem.”
“Oh Jesus Christ Lana, grow the fuck up.”
I… don’t have a comeback for that.
Fortunately, after about five seconds of uncomfortable silence, she continues. “You don’t kill monsters. I mean, you do. Of course you do. You’re really good at it. But that’s not really what you do. You solve people’s problems. You’re like a handyman. Except instead of fixing broken toilets, you fix wolfman infestations.”
I grit my teeth. I really, really don’t like when people play to my superhero complex. “Fine.”
“When things are tough and people really need you, you come through—“ She pauses. “Wait. You said fine?”
“Yeah. I said fine.” I sigh.
I’m technically not allowed on Movieland property. I ended my employment there on not-so-great terms, and then I was kind of sort of technically maybe caught on camera killing three people in the middle of the park. In my defense, they were vampires which were trying to kill both me and my girlfriend on our first date. Also, they turned into big piles of ash, and those vampires would have hurt a lot of paying customers who—look—it’s complicated okay. Also, they were assholes.
Karen tags me in with her employee pass. She gets ten “friends and family” passes a year. Which is to say, I’ve got to solve this crime within ten days.
“I’ve already used six of my friends and family passes so far this year. So you’ve got four to solve this.” She walks with me over to one of the many “employee only” doors.
“Great. Four visits to solve a haunting. No pressure, right?” I look her over. She’s dressed for work. She’s working the Rock-A-Billy-Ball today, which is this California 1960s hot rod ride that’s basically just a reskinned bumper car arena. She’s got this blue poodle skirt and apron; she’d look at home carrying a tray full of milkshakes.
“Sorry. But Tuesday night’s graduation, so maybe we could get you snuck in for an all-nighter? Sorry Lana, I’ve got to get back to work. I’m late back to my fifteen minute break.” She smiles regretfully and closes the door.
Graduation’s hell at Movieland. Every year, the local high school graduating classes have full reign of the park after closing at 9pm, until about 2am. It’s utter bedlam. Employees have to work late while putting up with the snottiest, most entitled brats on the face of the planet. It’s five thousand teenagers, each one a bigger asshole than the last. The employees spend all night stopping them from fucking in not-so-secluded corners, drinking, smoking, fighting, and trying to break park property. There’s no way I’ll be caught dead there. After my first year working here, I called out sick every year on graduation night.
The investigation in question’s happening at the Hollywoodland Theater. It’s a ride that’s part museum, part gift shop, part art installation, and part haunted house. It’s quite lovely, but I’m here for exactly one reason.
“I’m so sorry!” A woman says, and I turn to look at her. Something slams into my stomach, and I fall back on my ass, on my tailbone. It sends a stabbing pain up my spine. When the initial red in my vision fades, I look around and scramble to my feet. She hit me with a baby stroller. A big, huge baby stroller with no baby. It’s overflowing with plush toys, cotton candy, and bags of souvenirs. So much so, apparently, that she couldn’t control the damned thing.
I shake my head and dust myself off.
“I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” Her voice is shrill, like a satirical nagging secretary in an old movie. She doesn’t release the stroller. She’s still trying to maneuver it around me. I put my hands up, and wiggle my ass to the side to make room for her. Then, I realize she was apologizing before she even hit me. I briefly wonder if she’s possessed, and maybe she’s the monster I have to slay. Then I realize I’ve got a tear in my skirt from the concrete when a little wind tickles my skin. Like the kind of iconic movie starlet or princess they exalt here, I reach around and feel my butt to assess the damage. Fortunately, it’s not that big. Just a little ventilation. It probably won’t even stop me from keeping this skirt.
I turn and do the video game introduction scene slow pan over the Hollywoodland Theater. It’s a work of art. While the corporation that owns this thing is huge and soulless, you can tell that the people who built it loved every single second, every little corner. It’s big, but uses angles and proportions to make it look utterly massive. When you’re on the main park walking path, looking straight at the main gate to the theater, you don’t see anything but the theater towering over you. It’s styled after an ancient Babylonian palace. Or, I guess more appropriately it’s styled like an old 1920s style movie palace that was styled after a Babylonian palace. The queue for the ride takes you through all these giant stone pillars with sort of Assyrian-style sphinx statues watching you as you wait to buy t-shirts and overpriced photos of your reactions to the jump scares. If you walk the full queue path around the entire theater, the etchings on the wall tell a story of a rich guy who transported the palace bricks from a haunted tomb in the Middle East. At least, that’s what the employees are supposed to tell people who ask. They just look like a bunch of pretty etchings to me. But it’s one of those corporate-approved, canned stories. As an employee, you’re not supposed to say the bricks come from modern day Iran or modern day Turkey. No, they come from the vague Middle East. You have to keep the story loose enough that people can’t start poking holes in the fiction. That’s how movie magic works—specificity is the bane of authenticity.
But I’m not here for the stories of etchings distributed by company-approved channels. I’m here for the real story. The one only the really invested employees and a few obsessed fans know about. There’s a popular Youtube video about the Hollywoodland Theater hauntings, but it’s poorly written and poorly voice acted and doesn’t even mention Anna Feigel by name, so you can tell it wasn’t done by an employee. That, and all the hauntings are total bullshit. There are enough real hauntings at Movieland Park that you could do a whole Youtube series based on them. Every San Jenaro local knows about the Gold Rush Coaster killer and how you could hear his victims at night throughout the early 80s, so eventually the park installed canned moans and wails in the ride to drown them out. I’d call that common knowledge. These Youtube guys are lazy.
And… now I know what I’ll do for a living if I get an injury that keeps me from the hunt.
The theater is really four parts. There’s the queue. Which is nice if you’ve not seen the scenery about eighty five million times already. Which I have. Then there’s the museum, which is an extended queue. It’s a fictional collection of morbid treasures collected by a fictional movie director from the golden age of cinema. In his story, he had all these haunted trinkets that he set up as a gallery in the theater lobby to feast on the souls of the guests coming for movie premiers and glitzy parties. It’s really quite cool, full of weird pieces you’d expect to see at a boardwalk freak show, but with tons of details you’d never catch unless you knew what you were looking for. Then there’s the ride itself, which is a dark style ride that slowly goes through the theater. There’s a lot of fun pepper’s ghost projections and theater screens with ghostly actors jumping out at you. It’s a classic ride for a reason—it’s tons of fun even after the eighty fifth million time. Then there’s the gift shop. It’s styled after the fictional director’s fictional apartment. When they first launched the ride, there was a red plush “casting couch” decoration that they recently pulled for obvious reasons. A bunch of white people threatened to boycott because apparently ancient pretend rape couches are apparently “part of their culture.” Which I’m not actually gonna argue against, really. They kind of are.
I cut right through the queue. That’s not too hard, if you’re willing to have everyone look at you like an asshole. You cut through a rope here. You dodge under a gate there. You turn the quoted 90 minute queue into twenty minutes, and the cost is just some shitty looks and people mumbling about how you don’t belong in their happy vacation space. I grew up poor. I’m so used to being in wealthy people’s ways that I almost give a negative number of shits. I offer them great big giant grins to let them know I hear the shit they’re saying about me to their frustrated and embarrassed spouses. It’s the kind of grin you learn in a job at Movieland, where entitled assholes treat you like less than dirt, and your livelihood comes down to how well you can pretend you still like them and love serving them.
It’s convenience culture—the people who can afford convenience have to get convenience from somewhere, so of course it’s off the backs of the less fortunate. It’s like the rest of life being poor, except they codified it as company policy. We tell ourselves we’re “killing them with kindness.” That phrase is a defense mechanism. We smugly remind ourselves that when we grin, they get angry. But really, they were going to get angry no matter what we did, because they feel entitled to whatever they think they’re entitled to. Be it a free replacement for their shitty hot dog their kid dropped on the pavement, or the cost of their admission because the rain stopped the laser light show, or just some hypothetical apology that was so polite and so perfect that it was actually impossible to give. These people hate us. The only difference between this interaction in Movieland and this interaction on the streets of San Jenaro is $9 an hour.
A few minutes pass, and I’m stepping into the museum.
The museum’s a weird sort of pseudo-queue. You’re not in a line—it’s very much an open space with oddities to look at. But the idea is, everyone’s politely, subtly encouraged to move on. The crew lets forty people at a time into the museum, and they have three minutes while the other crew members prepare the ride for boarding. They board those forty, and another forty are let into the museum. I guess in a way, the museum is more like an airlock. I like that. I make stories up in my head about the haunted house being real, and using the museum area as an airlock to protect myself from the monsters inside. One’s chasing me, and I slam the door shut and gasp out in relief. It’s a perfect little piece of fiction.
Then I remember that the haunted house is real, and I don’t have the luxury of running away from the monsters.
I get back to the plan. I scan the place for cameras. I remember where they were a year ago, but the park constantly changes them to foil former employees. Not this one. I spot four in the main museum area, and they offer pretty solid coverage of everything except the little areas underneath them. So, that’s where I go. I sneak under one, and pull a backpack out of my purse. It’s a dollar store backpack. $3. Canvas. Basically a shopping bag with straps and a zipper that works once or twice if you’re lucky. But it serves the purpose. I put a couple of blocks of dollar modeling clay in the bag, and I toss it on the floor. Then, I walk away like nothing happened. This is the seed that’s not quite ready to grow.
I poke around the “museum,” looking at the artwork. There’s a great installation that’s basically just a bunch of jars and tubes and machines set up to look like a mad science lab. There’s the obligatory babies in jars section. There’s a werewolf paw, which is total fucking bullshit because even a rookie knows werewolves revert back to human form instantly when you kill them, and their disembodied limbs turn human before they even hit the ground. That shit totally breaks immersion for me. How am I supposed to suspend disbelief when they can’t even get werewolf body parts right?
I watch as families oooo and awww over all the little pieces. It’s totally deserved—this stuff looks amazing. Except for the werewolf paw, which I’m never going to let go. Then, they start filing into the ride loading area.
“Be minded for a meander into the mysterious menagerie of Monsignor Mathieu. We ask that you keep your arms, legs, and… other appendages inside the shuttle at all times. Please refrain from flash photography, as the creatures within Monsignor Mathieu’s collection startle easily. We hope to see you on the other side. Or whichever creature leaves in your place…”
“Prepárate para echar un vistazo a la casa de fieras de Monseñor Mathieu. Le pedimos que mantenga sus brazos, piernas y … otros apéndices dentro de la lanzadera en todo momento. Por favor absténgase de la fotografía con flash, ya que las criaturas dentro de la colección de Monseñor Mathieu se asustan fácilmente. Esperamos verte del otro lado. O cualquier criatura que se vaya en tu lugar …”
The people get into their little carts. I get in near the back, in my own private little cart. I’ve got a ten-minute window to work with. Gotta act fast. As soon as the carts start moving into the first hall, I pull out a burner cellphone and call park customer service. I hammer the 0 button to force the system to give me a live person.
“Movieland guest services. I’m Jane, and I’m happy to meet you today. With whom am I speaking?” Jane’s perky and chipper and a perfect company go-getter, I can tell from her voice—that’s perfect.
“Yeah… I’m Suzie. I’m at the Movieland Theater ride. I just wanted to say I saw a weird bag in the museum lobby. It was black and sort of bunched up in the corner behind the ropes behind the employees only sign. I don’t know why someone would have put it there.”
“Why thank you for telling me that.” I can hear fear and apprehension in her voice. She’s bought into the company line. She listened very closely during training. “Did you tell any of the staff in the ride?”
“No. I’m on the ride now, and I wanted to call you before I forgot.”
“Okay. Well, can I get your—“
“Oh crap. Gotta go. Not supposed to be on the phone on the ride! Bye Jane!” And I hang up. I hang up, and I wait.
You see, Movieland takes bags very, very seriously. Ever since September 11th, 2001, when terrorists took duffel bags full of explosives to a theme park and… ran airplanes into the World Trade Center, every big business has added ridiculous policies based on hypothetical terrorist encounters. Every major theme park introduced “unclaimed bag” policies, which mean employees are told to treat any unclaimed bags as if they may be bombs or bioweapons. This means rides get shut down and evacuated in a large perimeter.
About a minute passes.
The ride stops. The lights come on. The creepy music cuts out. The loudspeaker comes back on.
“We’re sorry for the abrupt stop. We’ve encountered technical difficulties, and for your safety, a staff member will come around to help you out of your carts. Please wait until the staff member comes around to release your safety bar before exiting the carriage.”
Gotta move quick, Lana.
I lean over out of the cart, and feel around for the foot pedal the staff members can use to release the safety. I jam it down with my hand, and the bar pops up. Nobody notices because they’re all mumbling and arguing about what’s going on. I slip out of the cart, and put the bar back into place so nobody notices I’m gone.
Anna Feigel’s skull has been a staple of staff ghost stories for almost thirty years. Ever since the Hollywoodland Theater first came into existence, the staff told stories about hearing voices and seeing shadows in all the wrong places because of Old Anna.
If the stories bear out, Anna was part of the original park staff from way back when. She was in all the pictures on opening day, smiling and just plain giddy to work there. She walked the paths with an ice cream cart, entertaining kids and replacing their dropped ice cream cones.
Anna, like so many people from her generation, got lung cancer. Even with good health insurance, which I’m sure she didn’t have, the prognosis wasn’t good. There’s a clip floating around of the local news in the 70s, interviewing her because she was trying some experimental cancer treatment. She said the only thing she regretted was not getting more years to entertain families at the park. I wish I could understand that kind of optimism.
Then the story got weird. She got a chance meeting with the park founder, Merl Perche. It was one of those things where dying people get one chance to meet rich people. She told him she wanted to be part of the park forever. She wanted to be buried on the lot. He, being totally fucked up and I guess sentimental in a weird way, tried to make that happen. But California has complicated laws about burial sites. So, he got his team of lawyers in on it. And they found a weird loophole that says dead bodies can be put on display at a non-funerary business. They talked with Anna, and she agreed to become part of an upcoming ride.
The stories don’t usually say what happened to the rest of her body, but Anna’s skull got added to the end of the Hollywoodland Theater ride. As you’re just about to exit, there’s a diorama of the fictitious Monsignor Mathieu’s bedroom. On the vanity, there’s a skull. The ride’s story says it’s his dead wife’s head, because he couldn’t bear to sleep in a room without her. But, really, it’s Old Anna.
I make my way toward the bedroom. To Anna. I don’t really know what I’m looking for. At least, not properly. That’s my problem with ghosts—you never really know what you’re doing. It’s messy and abstract, and most of the time you just can’t take a chainsaw to it. You have to figure out what anchors the ghost to the world of the living, and it’s all fucking bullshit, and I hate it.
You’re freaking out and you don’t even have a reason to freak out, Lana.
I reach in my purse and pop a couple of Vicodin. I can’t afford to be on the edge right now.
The ride’s hard to navigate. The staff catwalks don’t actually cover the whole ride, you have to duck down onto and off the tracks every here and there, and you have to cut through some of the displays and dioramas to get to the next segments of walkway. It’s awful. Everyone I know who worked this ride ended up with scraped and bruised ankles. I don’t know how California hasn’t shut them down for this health hazard.
It’s mostly pretty benign. That is, except for my least favorite part of the ride. There’s a bit where there’s a bunch of ghost puppets they project with mirrors so it looks like there are ghosts in the path of the ride. The ghosts are little 1920s orphan kids with little newsie hats and nightgowns. I hate them. Can’t stand them at all. They make this sound that reminds me of my dead brother when he’d cry. It reminds me of when dad used to hit him.
The ride’s off. The ghosts aren’t moving. The sounds are all shut off. But I can’t help but to hear it. The crying. The wailing. I have to pass through the racks of puppets to get to the next section. They’re hanging, dangling, swinging softly. It’s like a butcher shop back room, with racks of meat hanging from the ceiling. Except instead of slabs of beef, it’s fake wood and styrofoam children.
Oh my fuck Lana why are you even focusing on this?
I bump one and it swings wide, coming back and smacking into my arm. I look at it. Its dull white face with deep black eyes stares at me. My muscles lock up. My hair stands on end. My fists clench. I want to hurt something. I want to break something. I want to scream. I want to run.
I want my fucking brother back.
I shut my eyes and push through the racks.
The bedroom’s exactly like I’ve seen it hundreds of times before. Cutesy 1920s Hollywood. Beautiful, but with dark accents. Artistic, with paintings whose eyes follow you around, and furniture that subtly rattles every minute or so. That’s all off now, though.
“Okay Anna. What the hell have you been up to?” I say, looking the old girl in the face.
You’re talking to a skull, Lana.
I look around. I look at Anna. Nothing looks out of place. Nothing looks any different than I’m used to. And why should it?
If she’s anchored to this place, the skull’s the answer. So I grab Old Anna, and throw her in my purse. I brought the big purse today. The kind that could hold a bowling ball. Or an adult woman’s skull. And I get the fuck out of Hollywoodland Theater just as the ride starts back up.
The park has three parades a day throughout the week. These are terrible if you’re a family with a stroller trying to get from point A to point B, B for bathroom, of course—you basically have to wait twenty minutes and hope your kid doesn’t shit her pants. Spoiler alert: She does shit her pants, and it stinks in the hot California sun. They’re great if you’re a criminal or a monster hunter trying to get from the scene of your crime to literally anywhere else where eyes aren’t on you.
I dodge through the crowd, pushing and waving and swerving through person after person. They’re gawking over some mimes on stilts. I’m trying to take my rightfully stolen human skull somewhere I can sit and process what I just did. There’s nowhere to sit in this damned place—every bench has someone on it, every chair has someone sitting there and their kids climbing on them, and everything else is just standing room space. So I choose point B. The ladies’ room.
“Alas, poor Anna. I knew her, Karen, a lady of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” I sit in the bathroom stall and hold the skull up, looking her in the eyes. I consider sending Karen that in a text message, but I figure she probably won’t get the joke. Then I realize I’m holding a skull for no reason in particular.
I’ve got to do something with her. Why did I even move her? What in the fuck is going on with me right now?
I look around the stall. I notice the vent shaft above my head. I pop off the cover and store Old Anna for the time being, that way I can’t get caught smuggling human remains. That’s got to be a felony, right? Coupled with the drugs in my purse, that’s liable to end up a life sentence.
You know what? I’m sending her the damned text, whether she gets the joke or not. The joke’s really for me anyway.
I pull out my phone and as I tap my message app, I get a message from Karen.
Lana you’ve gotta get back to the theater, quick. There’s some shit going down.
Because of fucking course there is.