WHEN HINGES CREAK...
Scully visited a lot of unexpected places with Mulder, but none this ridiculous. Over the years, the two saw tiny towns, big government facilities, and worst of all, Los Angeles.
No, she thought, this is the new winner. No doubt about it.
Scully's flashlight danced across a nearby sign. She read it aloud, making sure to keep the two words distinct, “Haunted. Mansion." They emerged with all the sarcasm she could muster as she looked up at Mulder from under thick eyelashes. “Just when I think…” her words trailed off but she held her gaze.
“Come on,” he smiled and walked ahead on the winding, well-manicured path. Scully followed reluctantly through the wrought iron gate.
She turned off her flashlight and let out a long deep sigh, “We don’t even need these.” She held it aloft. Behind her, a workman in a hard hat drove a cherry picker, very slowly. The machine beeped in a comical, exaggerated rhythm.
Mulder turned to comment. She silently and emphatically gestured at the workman. She was out of words. All she had left was an incredulous pantomime. He smiled, turned around, and continued down the path. Scully let her head fall backward for just a moment, then trudged on, looking defeated.
Moments later, they stood at the front door to the picturesque white manor. Mulder broke the silence, “What's wrong? Christmas flashbacks?”
“Sure. I’m terrified by all the atmospheric maintenance workers,” she said in full deadpan. Almost as if on cue, the cherry picker backed up again in the distance. She looked toward the sound and then back to Mulder, “Weren’t we supposed to have an escort?”
“Escorts? We don’t need no stinkin' escorts.” He searched for a way to open the door from the outside. The handle didn't work.
“Mulder, they specifically told us to wait…”
“What’s the matter? Afraid of a little mouse?” He was still preoccupied with the door.
“Do you ever tire of reverse psychology?” Scully took out her phone, ready to dial.
“Not when it works so well.” The door opened on its own. He smiled wide and stepped aside. She placed her phone in her pocket and walked into the darkness. He followed. The door closed slowly and gently behind them.
IN DOORLESS CHAMBERS...
They walked into a small receiving room. Lamps on the wall and a chandelier above flashed an artificial flicker. Organ music drifted in through nearby speakers. Scully turned her flashlight back on; Mulder promptly swatted it down. “You're gonna ruin the magic.”
“Honestly Mulder, this is a very large corporation we’re dealing with here. In fact, one of the biggest in the world. You obviously blew off our corporate liaison. We’re backlogged with actual cases that need our attention and you very likely put us over our travel budget for the month to get here. If you wanted a break, you could’ve said so. You’ve never been one to flash your badge to get…”
“You always do this,” he said. He seemed the opposite of bothered. His shoulders relaxed.
“Whistle in the dark. You talk in circles when you’re nervous.”
"Irrelevant," she said. The faux antique wall in front of them slid open. They stepped into the center of the next room. Scully looked around for a few moments. The octagonal chamber had striped wallpaper and dark wood wainscoting. Painted portraits hung on every other wall. Wooden gargoyles held electric candles. Mulder pointed them out.
"Just like the kind you see in windows at Christmas," Mulder clarified, "The candles, not the gargoyles."
A voice began a pre-recorded spiel. Mulder had to shout so Scully could hear him over the soundtrack. “Our liaison is meeting us at the start of the ride. Your theory about me playing corrupt cop to get in for free is a good one. Just one problem. They called us.”
“This isn’t the start of the ride?”
He stopped. “Come on, didn’t you ever come here when you were a kid? Didn’t you ever dream of riding alone? Get into the spirit of things.” He raised his eyebrows again at the word spirit.
“I grew up in San Diego, remember? It was kind of a drive.”
“You’ve never been here before? I just assumed,” Mulder didn't even try to hide his shock.
Scully shrugged her shoulders.
“Not even YouTube? Nothing?” He smiled. This wasn't the first time he pop culture shamed her. When he did, she usually reminded him that the majority of her youth was spent achieving. While everyone else partied in college, she fixated on graduate work, then her doctorate, then the Academy, and ultimately, the FBI. After all that, he'd call her Clarice a couple times, then give up when she ignored him. This time, they skipped the routine.
“It’s just a ride, Mulder.”
“Boy are you in for a treat.” The lights went out, a high pitched scream permeated the darkness. When the lights came back on, Mulder was an inch away from her, his face frozen in mock fear. Scully was less than amused. He backed away, looking sheepish.
Another wall slid open. This one led to a long hallway. On the left, billowing lace curtains framed tall windows. On the right, a row of cartoonish portraits lined the wall. Lightning struck periodically, illuminating glow-in-the-dark, sinister overlays of the paintings.
Mulder stepped aside and extended his arm, showing her the way. She didn’t budge. He acquiesced. “I’ll go first.” Speaking aloud to no one in particular, he asked, “Can we get some lights here?"
“I’m not some stoic harpy. I might even make the odd pop culture reference myself from time to time. But yes, Mulder, this does bear a certain similarity to the last haunted house we visited.” She made air quotes when she said the words haunted and house. “I just like to know what I’m walking into, or next to,” Scully looked at the portraits on the wall to her right. Their eyes followed her. “Cute,” she said.
Mulder turned back to her, “What’s cute?”
She pointed at the eyes. “You know…” She took a few steps backward, then forward again. The eyes still followed.
He smiled, “Uh…they’re not supposed to do that.”
“Mulder, if you don’t start treating this like an actual case, I’m walking. Right here, right now.”
“I’m serious. I’ve never seen them do that before.” He walked up to the last portrait on the wall, a medusa. He stood in place but swayed back and forth. “Sure enough,” he said aloud as the Medusa's eyes followed.
“Well, they’ve probably changed the effects since you were a kid,” Scully said. Mulder looked sheepish and tried to seem busy. He scanned the wall more intently. “A teenager?” Scully tried to hide a smile by looking down and covering her face with her hand. “When was the last time you visited?”
“Last week. For research,” he admitted. “I didn’t expense it.”
This time, Scully took the lead. She stopped at the end of the hallway in front of two marble busts. She reached up to touch one of them. “What do these do?”
Mulder looked confused. “These shouldn’t be here. I mean, not like this. They’re supposed to be an optical illusion. A relief.”
Scully turned around while Mulder took pictures with his phone. She asked, “Where do we go now? Another secret door?” He stopped taking pictures and turned to his right.
“There should be a space right here. I mean, this is where the ride starts. Right here.” He ran his hands over the wood looking for seams. He even pushed on the wall.
Scully was almost ready to have fun until she noticed Mulder switch into serious investigation mode. He turned his flashlight on and aimed it at the busts. He searched every corner of the room while Scully did the same. “You need to give me some context, Mulder.”
He finally started talking like a grown-up, “The ride has been functioning normally. But every day for the last two weeks, guests have complained about changes. Not that complaints aren't standard for theme park geeks. They don’t always take so well to upgrades. But people were saying some scenes were too violent. Too scary. Children were running out screaming." She raised an eyebrow in his general direction, "More than usual. Guest services reported the complaints, but as far as maintenance and managers could tell, the ride was exactly the same. Until they looked at security footage, where they saw that entire rooms were…"
“Changing?” Scully pushed on a windowpane, testing its strength. It wasn’t going anywhere. She tried, to no avail, to pull up a corner of the carpet as Mulder continued.
“Changes that would’ve taken weeks were manifesting on the ride in the middle of the day. The company assumed hackers were altering to the footage digitally and the people making complaints were part of it. They thought maybe someone was trying to pull a Banksy. Making a statement about copyright. If you want to talk about something haunting a company…wait,” he took a soft jog back toward the now-closed sliding door they used to get here. He stopped to orient himself for a minute rubbing his forehead, turning from right to left, then back to right again, “It should be here.”
“The chicken exit,” he said as he parted some curtains. Behind them was an average-looking door. Mulder looked triumphant. Scully pushed it open. They aimed their flashlights into the stairwell ahead.
“Mulder,” she said, unable to tear herself away from the sight.
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
THAT IS THE TIME WHEN GHOSTS ARE PRESENT
Their flashlights illuminated a stairway full of bizarre trinkets, small statuettes haphazardly tied to railings by yarn. Crude markings were drawn on the wall. Small mason jars of unidentifiable liquid sat in neat, organized rows on the concrete floor.
“Scully, what does this look like to you?” he asked as he bent down and picked up a jar filled with red liquid.
“Some form of voodoo. Hoodoo, maybe? But it doesn’t look...authentic. There’s something off about it. Homespun, almost.” She took the jar from Mulder’s hands, unscrewed it, dipped a finger in, and inspected the contents.
“Blood?” he asked.
“Paint,” she offered him a sniff of the jar. “Acrylic.”
She put it back down and looked for a place to clean her finger. She settled on the inside of her blazer and aimed her light at the walls.
“Some of these symbols though, they don’t really match. That one’s Egyptian,” she said pointing to an eye.
“But this,” she grabbed one of the small statues tied to the stairwell, a black and white skeleton. “This is Mexican, meant to be used on the Day of the Dead. And that,” she pointed to a dimly lit prayer candle at the top of the landing, “…is a Catholic prayer candle you can buy at a grocery store.”
Mulder couldn’t help it. He glanced at the delicate gold crucifix around Scully's neck, then looked away quickly. “Maybe somebody wasn’t getting a long enough lunch hour...decided to skip human resources for another alternative.”
“This is hastily thrown together, but it does make a kind of sense.”
“This is death worship, Mulder, from multiple cultures. Some of it ancient, some very contemporary.”
“What are you saying? Somebody watched too much Bergman and wants to play a quick game of chess?”
“Not badly enough to use real blood. I can’t speculate on their aim, but it's ritualistic which suggests a deep emotional motive,” Scully said. “Practitioners of these types of traditions claim to need energy in order to manifest…whatever it is they want. Despite misconceptions, there’s no real energy in a cemetery, or so they claim. And there aren’t any modern American temples dedicated to death. At least, not any commonly known. But this? If you believe in that sort of thing...”
Mulder continued her thought for her, “Talk about putting the magic in magic kingdom."
"Where else do thousands of people a day come to look for...death?" Scully walked back through the chicken exit and found herself standing in the hallway again. “Hey, Mulder?” she called.
He walked through the door. She pointed up. “I think we missed something.”
Mulder’s head popped through the curtain. Scrawled on the ceiling were the words “All we have to do now, is take these lies and make them true somehow.”
“I know my Biblical texts, even apocryphal scrolls. But I don't know this,” she continued searching the ceilings.
Mulder smiled again. “You wouldn’t. They're George Michael lyrics.” He started to sing George Michael's Freedom. Off key. “I won’t let you down, I will not give you up. Gotta have some faith in the…” he stopped.
Scully’s mouth was hanging open.
“No? Nothing? You know JAWS, but you never listened to the radio? MTV? It’s a song, Scully!” A third voice interrupted. A slender blonde man in a well-pressed Disney uniform breezed through the now open space at the other end of the long hallway.
He sang loud and on key, “I won’t let you down! So please don’t give me up! Cause I would really, really love to stick around. Oh yeah!” The harsh glare of their flashlights was suddenly on him. He shielded his eyes.
“Hey! Those aren't consistent with show lighting!”
They lowered their flashlights but didn't move or speak. The man smiled wide, "Off, please." They obliged, clicking the lights into instant darkness.
Mulder spoke up, “And you are?”
“Your liaison, silly! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Mulder and Scully looked at each other, conveying a thousand words of surprise and confusion without having to say a single one out loud.
The man cheerfully gestured for them to follow, then whipped around the corner. They lingered for a moment too long. The man popped his head around the corner, this time sounding a little terse. "Guys?" They followed immediately. Scully took the opportunity to gesture to the lyrics on the walls. She held up her paint-stained finger. The shades matched perfectly.