Ending up at the closed Excitement Park carnival complex in Pennsylvania was honestly a bit of a twisting road. One of my new habits in the morning is to check out the urban legends and hauntings site I’ve bookmarked and look for updates in the areas I’m visiting. Usually they’re pretty mundane and the same story over and over and over again. I swear if I ever hear one of those stories about the bus load of dead kids who will push your car over a railroad tracks I’ll have a mental breakdown. Every once in a while I’ll actually find something that feels right. In this case, it was reports of a wild man that stalked the ruins of a carnival somewhere in the forests of Pennsylvania. It seemed to be a relatively recent legend too, popping up within the last 10 years or so, pretty much springing to life in the digital age.
I wrote down the details in my notebook, and over the next few weeks I did a bit of research into the closed park. Excitement Park had originally been a permanent carnival ground operated in the wilds of rural Pennsylvania, and had apparently been quite the spot in the 1960s and 1970s. From the looks of things, it had all the carnival staples: Tilt-A-Whirl, Tunnel of Love, a Ferris wheel, and an arcade section that spanned a city block. Its prosperity ended the way most of these places do, with the company running the place mismanaging funds and refusing to adapt to the changing times. The 80s brought a severe decline in profits and quality of the place, with a reputation burgeoning as a good place to get drugs or just get fucked up on a Saturday night.
By the 1990s, there had been a revitalization attempt on the park, but funding fell through and the park was placed into foreclosure. Most of the rides were sold off to amusement parks across the country, and the park itself was left to rot silently in the woods.
The legend though… that’s what drew my attention to the story. The tale was corroborated by several posters to a local forum I found as little as that means, and the pictures seemed to at least make me consider the story. As they told it, each time local teens would drive to the park at night to try to sneak in, some strange man would emerge from the woods and chase them off. During the day he was rarely seen, but as soon as night fell he would charge out and scare the ever-loving shit out of people. This left the ruins remarkably free from graffiti and with the exception of normal deterioration by the environment, most buildings were relatively intact.
A few weeks later, after passing through the area for work I decided to stop in and see the area for myself. I went at dusk, carrying my flashlight and the .45 hidden in my bag. As I approached the park, I could have sworn I heard faint organ music drifting towards me on the breeze. I shook off the feeling and quietly made my way through the darkening woods.
The tree line ended suddenly as I stumbled out into a clearing that was once a parking lot. The asphalt laid cracked and ravaged by weeds, the painted lines long erased. The admission booth in the distance had collapsed in on itself, leaving shards of broken glass and splintered boards littering the unlocked front gate. I continued forwards and swung the gate open, the rusty shriek of grinding metal filling the dark.
The sound echoed into the night, and I waited. There was the noise of something stumbling through the brush, and my hand instinctively groped for the .45 in my bag. I half expected Sasquatch himself to come charging at me out of the woods. The vision of a seven-foot tall Wildman, hissing and shrieking and throwing some of the broken chunks of asphalt in my general direction did little to calm my nerves. What slowly walked out of the woods though was merely a man, nothing like the crazed Wildman descriptions from the internet. He was in his late-forties, and honestly looked more like he’d be more at home preparing someone’s taxes than wandering around an abandoned carnival at night.
We looked at each other, and my hand slipped off the gun and out of my bag. The man had a look of sadness and weary resignation on his face. The silence between us persisted for a few moments longer, and I took the first step.
“Hello, I’m John. You honestly don’t live up to your reputation.”
He laughed at this. It was a low chuckle of a man who had been caught off guard.
“I thought you were one of those kids. This isn’t a good place to be by yourself at night you know. I’m Derek.”
We walked quietly through the ruins of the park, until he broke the silence.
“You’re here to find out why I wander these woods at night, aren’t you.”
“Yeah, I figured there would be a story here somewhere.”
“You could say that. You a reporter?” he asked.
“No, I just need to know where the hell these urban legends come from.”
He stared quietly off into the woods for a minute or so. Each passing second I found my chances of an interview dwindling. Suddenly, he smiled.
“Ok, I figure that its time I told someone.”
With his permission, I set up my phone as an impromptu recorder again, kicking myself for not bringing the nice digital voice recorder I had left in my truck.
“This place was beautiful once, you know. When I was a kid my parents would bring me up here and we’d spend the day just meeting my cousins, going on rides, and having a picnic before it got dark. Some of the kids I knew went to Disneyland, but this was more than enough for us.
“Anyways, after high school I joined the Army and didn’t give this place a second thought. It was the early 80s and I ended up in Germany for a few years in case the Russians ever decided to push through the gap. When I came home though, there was a bit of a job shortage, so I ended up here again. I got a job with maintenance and learned the ins and outs of every piece of machinery here. It paid like shit, but it was fun.
“Beautiful nights with happy people enjoying their time away from the world.
“Feels like as soon as I started working there the place began to change though, my shifts slowly became more about cleaning up spray paint and helping the security guys throw people out of the park instead of just fixing the water guns at the one booth. One June night though, I was trying to fix a slipped belt in the Tilt-A-Whirl when we heard a woman scream from the woods. Normally at this time me and Greg, one of the security team members, would do a quick walk through the woods and check lighting and shit like that, but the ride came first since that was the money-maker.
“The security guys tore off into the trees, but my manager said that I had to keep on fixing the ride. Damn near killed me as I worried if that poor woman was ok. The security team came back and called the sheriff, and management closed down the park early. Later I had gotten it out of one of the security guys that they found a woman stabbed to death in the woods. Her purse was missing, and the cops said it was a mugging gone wrong. Probably some drug addict that was looking for an easy fix.
“For the next day we remained closed while the cops poked around the woods and cordoned off an area, finally rolling away a body bag and leaving the place empty by nightfall. They expected heavy rains that night, so I had to stay on to lockdown some of the machinery and weatherproof some of the stands. They liked having a few people on staff during weather emergencies ever since the Tunnel of Love flooded because of a pump failure a few years back. The security guys had the night off considering what they had found the day before, so I volunteered to stay on alone. I had a lantern and a poncho so I didn’t think too much of anything.
“It must have been about 10 o clock when I drifted to sleep. I didn’t mean to, but I kind of nodded off when waiting for the rains. In it I had the weirdest dream, the carnival was lit up and all the machines were going but with no people around or even manning them. I walked through the abandoned grounds, and in the distance was a beautiful woman. She had to be in her early twenties, and she was eating cotton candy and smiling at me. Now I know what kind of dream you’re thinking this turned into, but it wasn’t like that, it was different.
“It was like love at first sight. We walked and linked arms quietly. Enjoying the slow playing organ music and just being happy in each other’s presence. It was a song I had never heard before, but it had a memorable and haunting tone to it. Have you ever heard a beautiful song at a funeral or memorial service that you never heard, and if it hadn’t been now associated with sadness you actually would probably listen to it on your own? I don’t know if I’m making sense, but that’s how I feel to this day.
“I told her my name was Derek, and she told me her name was Julia. She was tall and thin, with straight brown hair and sad green eyes. Even now I can’t do her justice, but I knew I would never forget her face. We began to walk to the woods but she pulled me back and shook her head. I asked what was wrong, and in a small voice she said that there were monsters in the woods.
“Just then I saw movement in the brush by the tree line, and she looked at me with pleading eyes.
“It was the last thing I heard her say. I don’t know why, but I sprinted towards the lights and sounds of the midway as she walked straight into the woods.
“The lightning from the rainstorm woke me up, and I shrugged off the dream. The grounds were dark and cold. The only sound from the rain drops striking the canvas roofs of the arcade booths. The storm and night passed by uneventfully, and the security team was due back in the morning. In the light of the new day I checked the grounds for any storm damage, and saw sets of footprints heading towards the woods.
“Checking the mud, I saw 2 sets of prints, one matched the treads on my boots perfectly, and the other was that of a barefoot woman. I almost fainted right then and there.
“So, I gathered my courage and pushed my way into the woods. The boots had turned back, but the woman with bare feet had walked defiantly into the brush. I tracked the footprints through the brush and about thirty feet in the trail ended. There was a man’s body on the ground. He had a knife sticking out of his chest and about a dozen stab wounds covering his body.
“I threw up and stumbled out of the woods and called the cops from our emergency phone. They came off and blocked off the scene again. Management was pissed because now we were closed for another day and they expected some pretty bad rumors to start flying around. The cops did their thing, and I was pulled over to the side by one of their detectives.
“’Did you see anyone else here last night?’
“I told him that I hadn’t, but that I had fallen asleep temporarily while waiting for the storm. He looked troubled and I asked him what they found.
“’The footprints that you found going into the woods, they ended at the body itself. Wherever she is, unless she climbed through the damn trees she didn’t leave those woods.’”
“When they did the autopsy on the guy, the papers revealed that it was a local, Jack Thompkins, who had a pretty damn long rap sheet for armed robbery and drug possession. I picked up the paper and they mentioned the other body that had been found a few days before as a young woman back from college named Julia Shannon. My heart stopped when I saw her picture, and she looked exactly like the beautiful girl that haunted my dreams.
“The police made a statement and said that they believed the deaths were related, and shortly afterwards I received a visit from the detective again. He was still clearly bothered trying to put the events together, but he told me in confidence that the knife that killed Thompkins was the same knife that had been used to kill Julia. They were convinced that Thompkins had killed her, but he had no idea who the hell could have killed him. I was lucky enough to be ruled out when the lone surveillance camera on the property had a bird’s eye view of my sorry ass sleeping on the job.
“The thing is… I don’t know what happened. I think she saved my life honestly. Apparently that asshole Thompkins had been staking the place out and the cops think he was watching me since I was alone and sleeping. The damned thing though is that according to the video I never actually walked in that direction until morning. I don’t know if maybe it was fate and I was supposed to be in the woods the night she died and save her or something, or if we were just supposed to cross paths later in the night until a man with a knife got in our way.
“Regardless, the next week I was back and planning on filing my two week notice when I opened my locker and caught the gleam of a silver locket hanging from the coat hook. I hesitantly took it, and looked around a bit to see if anyone was playing a prank on me before I finally opened it.
“Inside was a picture of that girl, of Julia.
“I damn near started crying, and that’s why I’m here almost every night. She’s tied to this place, and I guess I’m stuck with what could have been. I keep those kids out of here because she deserves better than that. I’ve seen her again you know, and anytime I do it’s preceded by that beautiful song. I saw her earlier tonight in fact, even before you showed up. I just want her to know she’s not alone here.”
We sat quietly for a few more minutes before he led me into the woods where he had been when I arrived. He had turned the area into a beautiful garden, in stark contrast to the crumbling park we left behind. Derek explained that it was where they had found her, and even if he had never truly met her, he wanted her to know she is still remembered. He still had the locket on him, and it looked exactly how it he had described it. A bit tarnished due to age, but the picture of the girl still looked vivid and unblemished. Her eyes though, there was happiness in her eyes.
I gave him my card, and he gave me his number and we promised to keep in touch. The next morning when I was in the shower after driving the rest of the way back home I received a voice mail.
“John, I had a dream about Julia last night. She spoke to me for the first time since that night I met her. She is terrified, John. She said that something was getting closer to you and it had almost chased her away. She said it was a burning man. I don’t know what that means, but please be safe. I’ll let you know if I hear anything else.”