I am posting this article because the original presence on the web has been removed or archived by the magazine. Thanks to the good people at http://www.darkinthepark.com/ for saving this digital copy. I don't know who deserves credit for the photo, but I am pretty sure it is the photo that accompanied my article in the magazine.
Fire at the Haunted Castle
Assistant marketing director Bernadette Kopacz deserved to let her hair down. She had been working non-stop on a two-year drive to rally Great Adventure attendance. 1983 had been a banner year; actually, it was the park’s busiest ever. Revenue was up $13 million dollars since 1982, and attendance rates made Great Adventure the third most attended amusement park in the country, behind Walt Disney World and Disneyland. GA was quickly becoming the crown jewel of the Six Flags chain. They were the highest grossing park outside of Florida and California. Her marketing team had worked hard to gain that distinction, and on May 11, 1984, their work was to be recognized by top management at a dinner party. They were ready to celebrate and rally their troops for continued success. 1984 was forecast to be the park's best ever. They were enjoying their highest-grossing season opening in history. Everyone was on top of the world that night. Briefly. When top-level managers were missing from the party, word of a fire at the Haunted Castle hit the marketing department. That was followed by another word: casualties. No one felt much like partying anymore. When Bernadette left the party, the DJ was playing to an empty room. Marketing execs huddled together in doorways and hallways, sharing hearsay about what was happening at work. On her drive home, the local radio stations blared with news of deaths at GA. She was shocked. For the next few days, she would hear more information about the fire from the radio than from her own company.
According to official Jackson Township fire records, a cigarette lighter inadvertently engulfed the Haunted Castle in flames between 6 and 7 p.m. on May 11, 1984. Eight teenagers, most on field trips from various schools in the metropolitan area, died. Eight separate families still suffer the unthinkable loss of their sons and daughters.
Though eventually absolved of any wrongdoing, Bally’s Manufacturing and Six Flags Corporation, the parks’ parent companies, became hopelessly tangled in years of lawsuits and horrendous press. It would be nearly a decade before the park would shake what locals refer to as the “Haunted Castle jinx,” costing the amusement giant millions in revenue…and its credibility. By 1987, four years after being named the most profitable amusement park not called "Disney," GA was one trustee vote from closing its doors forever.
Some managers will go their whole careers without ever experiencing the nauseating pain, anxiety and downright horror that would fill the days and nights of Great Adventure managers in 1984. An acute fable is hidden beneath the headlines of GA’s Haunted Castle fire. Like most fables, this one is filled with devastating twists, ironic turns of fate and one underlying lesson. It is a lesson that may have once again been forgotten by present-day haunted amusement managers basking in high autumn attendance rates. As these accounts of May 11, 1984 teach us, whether or not a manager ever fully realizes the scope of such a tragedy is of little importance. What is of tremendous importance is that they prepare for it with employee training and careful crisis management.
The Haunted Castle was considered a “backburner attraction.” As one former employee described to me, “(The Great Adventure management) never gave (the Castle) much thought. It was buried in the back of the park, and it didn’t have a coaster attached to it.” Management and marketing initiatives centered on premiere attractions, especially newer, cutting-edge technology. Despite this stance, the Castle was the park’s largest single-show attraction since it opened in 1979. When at full capacity, which it was not during the fire, the Castle could host thousands of daily visitors. Years of “not giving the Haunted Castle much thought” came back to haunt GA. On May 11, 1984, the Haunted Castle quickly and permanently became one of the park’s premiere attractions.
The Haunted “Castle” was actually a maze of 17 aluminum trailers connected behind a medieval façade. “Rooms” filled with costumed employees jumping out of dark corners to frighten visitors amid spooky exhibits filled with coffins, hanging spider webs and giant skeletons, were actually separate trailers attached by a central control room. “You don’t know where you are; it can be very disorienting in there,” said a former visitor. “Sometimes it’s totally black.”
Originally created by George Mahana, owner of the now defunct Toms River Haunted House Company in 1978, Great Adventure leased the Castle as a temporary October attraction in 1979, not unlike the park’s current Fright Fest attractions. The Haunted Castle, not originally designed to be a permanent attraction, was to be returned to Mahana when the park closed for that season. However, instant popularity and positive patron reaction persuaded managers to sign a longer lease. With the new lease came a single renovation. Mahana’s company “mirrored” the Castle, doubling its size to increase throughput, and permanently added it to the park’s list of attractions.
As the Asbury Park Press reported: “GA officials clamped a lid of secrecy on the tragedy, providing few details until late Friday [the 11th] night, when they finally acknowledged that people had died in the blaze. No further announcements were made until 3 a.m.” During an early morning news conference at the park, Ocean County Prosecutor Edward Turnbach pointed out the possibility that the fire did not alarm victims because they “probably thought it was part of the amusement.”
To this day, though sixteen years have gone by, the New York/New Jersey public at large not only recalls the events of May 11, 1984, but also widely blames Great Adventure for the accident. According to a 1993 Public Relations Society of America report, the park was still struggling to regain the Philadelphia area attendance rate it enjoyed prior to the fire. The valuable lesson here is that patron memories linger longer than actual headlines, even when such memories are untrue. “I remember how they chained the doors closed and locked all those people in the fire,” said Mike Gatis, one Rowan University student and New Jersey native. Mike’s sentiments were in the minority of memories shared in a random, unstratified survey of the tragedy.
Pasteur George Riddel, principal and founder of the Victory Christian School in Williamstown, NJ, still refuses to attend the park, and encourages others to boycott it as well. Members of his parish travel twice as far to enjoy amusements at Pennsylvania’s Hershey and Dorney parks. His main gripe with the park is not that he considers it unsafe, but that Great Adventure never apologized or displayed remorse for the death of 15-year-old Tina Genovese, one of the eight victims.
Rich Hanley, lifetime haunter, remembers being boycotted at a temporary 1987 Haunted Attraction in Toms River, New Jersey, ten minutes east of the Great Adventure park. He recalls parent and church groups coming out in great number to denounce his work, citing the Great Adventure tragedy. The burden of blame the public places on Great Adventure would not be so significant, if it were not so unwarranted.
After a yearlong criminal trial, the park’s managers were absolved of all wrongdoing. Jurors left the courtroom pointing harsher fingers at the Township of Jackson, which repeatedly allowed the attraction to slip through cracks in the fire code. Jackson considered the Haunted Castle a “temporary structure,” even though it had been at the park for five years. This designation was based solely on the fact that the attraction was on wheels. According to newspaper accounts, Ocean County Prosecutor Edward Turnbach tried diligently to prove that the fire code enforcer was persuaded to keep the attraction designated “temporary” by free park passes. Regardless, the once strongly anti-GA media depicted a different scenario after the trial. The public-at-large was eager to point fingers at Jackson township officials for the functional disregard that led to the disaster.
To this day, no one is completely sure how the fire started. Official police reports describe an unidentified boy using a cigarette lighter to see in the dark. The boy then inadvertently set an exposed foam bumper on fire, but the identity of the boy remains a mystery. He never came forward and was never found. According to newspaper reports, another boy, claiming to have “witnessed” the fire’s start, had a history of arson. However, he never cracked under the pressure of the defense lawyers, and it could not be determined whether he, or his unidentified companion, accidentally, or even purposefully, set the fire.
The Gateway to Hell, also created by Mahana’s company and identical to the GA Haunted Castle, closed permanently from the Casino Pier amusement park in Seaside Park, NJ. Bucking a sad trend, Seaside considered the attraction too high a liability. Though increasing municipal dissatisfaction also played a large role, expenses from increased safety and insurance provisions played a hand in closing the now legendary Brigantine Castle, which sat at the foot of an amusement on an island that bears its name, outside of Atlantic City, NJ (the Brigantine Historical Society showcases a tribute to the attraction).
Even the Haunted Mansion in Long Branch, NJ, which spun itself positive media attention during the GA fire (owners and managers conducted several interviews and walkthroughs of their attraction with various Ocean County media. The purpose was to highlight how safety precautions and communication network would have prevented tragedy if a similar fire had broken out in their attraction). Macabre public interest resulting from the tragedy actually led to a banner business year at the Haunted Mansion (informal newspapers surveys conducted outside GA throughout the balance of 1984 showed a majority of people would have been more apt to “check out” the Castle due to interest peaked by the tragedy). Ownership of the Long Branch attraction changed hands several times throughout the 80’s, but ultimately, the structure burned with the entire Long Branch Fishing Pier in 1987.
With a 2001 fire claiming Dracula’s Castle, it became the last of Jersey’s notorious walk-through attractions to meet an untimely destruction by fire, local government scrutiny, or an owner’s inability to keep up with the escalating costs associated with the state’s new fire and safety requirements.