Image source: Tony Ciampa
Under No Circumstances Should You Ever Try To Research The Legend Of ‘Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone’
I didn’t know Will could draw, I remember thinking as my friend’s hand quickly moved across the page. And then I looked more closely at Will’s impromptu sketch, and I immediately regretted it. I tried to unsee it. I shifted my attention to other things around me, anything at all that wasn’t ink on the page: the blur of Will’s hand, the beads of sweat gathering at his temples, the gentle autumn breeze creeping through the crack of the window.
Don’t look at the page. Just don’t look at it.
But I knew I had to. So I looked. And it was worse than I expected. Much worse.
Will had sketched a near carbon copy of those wartime Uncle Sam posters, except not quite. The suit was there. Bow tie, check. But no Uncle Sam head.
The Uncle Sam body had the head of a goat.
The animal flashed a welcoming, toothy smile. A hoof pointed at me, nearly coming right out of the page. But it didn’t want me to join the U.S. Army. No, this goat-headed creature had something else in mind:
I want your kids.
Under that declaration, in slightly smaller letters, it read: At Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone! Opening soon!
I’d never heard of Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone before yesterday. The place, I quickly learned, played host to a significant moment in Will’s childhood. And although I’d been good friends with him for fifteen years, he’d never told me the story. But today, he’d opened up.
I wasn’t trying to reopen any wounds from his past. I’d just wanted him to tell me a story. Any story. I’d been listening to a lot of NPR, and being inspired by their storytelling segments and slices of American life, I purchased some professional recording equipment and setup a makeshift studio in my house. My goal was to capture and archive the stories of my friends, relatives, really anyone who had something to say.
Call it boredom. I was a widower with a seven-year old son. Besides doting on my kid, I needed something productive to fill the time.
My recording area was cozy – just a couple microphones, a small table, a few chairs. I’d sit a few feet from my interview subjects. The intimacy would induce real honesty and emotion. That was the plan, and it worked a little too well.
I never thought my storytelling experiments would go so wrong, so quickly. And it wasn’t just Will’s story and his sketch of the Uncle Sam human/goat hybrid thing. Before I’d interviewed Will, I heard another version of Will’s events from the other person involved in the Family Fun Zone incident: Will’s wife and my good friend, Caroline.
Caroline and I dated for a little while in college, a stretch of time we now joke occurred in a “parallel universe.” We were never supposed to happen, we decided – instead, there was some sort of a cosmic hiccup and different universes intersected for the briefest of times. Our relationship was over before it started. Caroline then began dating Will, the two lived happily ever after, and the three of us have been close ever since. Caroline and Will’s history predated our collective existence in college – the two went to high school together. But I never knew exactly what they’d experienced as classmates and friends. Not until I set up my little recording studio.
I interviewed Caroline first, and Will’s interview occurred the following day. Both of my friends requested I not tell the other about the contents of their respective interviews. I’m certainly not planning on it. Both interviews were long and free-ranging. I’ll just transcribe the relevant portions of their stories, the stuff about relationships and about Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone. It’s important that these stories be shared in some form.
Excerpt of Caroline Interview
So how did you and Will meet?
We went to the same schools growing up, but we weren’t friends or anything like that. You know how you kind of know everyone you go to school with, but most people are just on the periphery? That was Will. Always there, but not really. We ran with different circles.
You can’t pinpoint the moment you actually met for the first time?
I can’t. I can remember the first meaningful interaction we had, though. I was writing for the school paper, and – God, I can’t believe I actually wrote for the paper because I was a terrible, just horrible writer – and I was researching a story. It was a legend in our town, something all the kids talked about but no one could prove. Did you have any of those?
I think so. I’d have to think about it, but I’m sure I had some.
Yeah, so you know what I’m talking about? One of those, oh, my brother’s friend’s mechanic had this experience type thing. It was pretty famous growing up where we did. Kind of a spook story to scare kids from staying out late at night or running around doing irresponsible things. It was this place called Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone. (laughs) Gosh, I haven’t thought about that place in years.
Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone?
Just saying it out loud sounds so weird, right? Just completely and utterly made-up. And when we got older most of us thought that it was made-up, because it was just a silly and stupid legend. So of course it would have a ridiculous name.
What was the legend?
It’s been so long. But, from what I remember, it was a children’s play zone type place that existed in the late 70s or early 80s. No one could pinpoint it. But the story was this guy – Gerry Something, but everyone called him Uncle Gerry – inherited a piece of land out in the woods from his grandfather. He took all of his money and turned it into the Fun Zone – you know, slides, games, trampolines, kind of like an indoor-rec type place. But all barnyard themed, so the place looked like a red and white barn with a silo, but inside was all of this kids’ stuff.
He built this out in the woods?
That’s what everyone said. But the messed-up part was what happened there. Apparently like 30 some years ago, a kid slid down the slide and just vanished into the ball-pit. Like, there was no trace of him. I think he was only four, maybe five? I can’t remember for sure. Anyway, they emptied the ball-pit and everything. The only thing at the bottom was a trap door and a crawlspace that led nowhere. It just dead-ended. No one knew why it was there. But yeah, the kid vanished, the town freaked, Gerry split, and the place shut down.
And that really happened?
And that really happened?
Every kid in town believed it. The story was that it was some sort of a hellhole that sucked down small children, that it needed to be fed. Like, it swallowed up that kid, and if anyone went near the place it would swallow you up, too. Don’t explore too far from home or you’ll stumble across Uncle Gerry’s…but you get past middle school and you think it’s all bullshit.
Was it bullshit? You said you were writing a story about it for the newspaper and you met Will?
Yeah, so I’d decided to write about Uncle Gerry’s, and Will heard about it. He joined the newspaper club because he wanted to help (laughs)…I think he just wanted to spend time with me. But he helped me with my research. We talked to people, looked at old newspapers, spent a lot of time in those creepy library stacks…that’s where Will held my hand for the first time. God, we were so young.
Did you find anything?
Nothing. There was no record of the place. We even talked to the police department. They had nothing.
Did they know what you were talking about?
Oh, yeah. Everyone had heard of Uncle Gerry’s. And everyone was really nice about helping us, but nothing factual existed. My article was going terribly! It was all dead ends.
Was that what you expected?
I don’t know what I expected. I just thought it’d be a cool article. So I had a lot of interviews of people telling the stories, and I was going to write this “oral history” type article, but then…God, I haven’t thought about this in years…Will came to me. He said he knew where the Fun Zone was. He said he had directions.
To a place that didn’t exist?
Will said that it did. It was out in the woods. Down some roads that weren’t on the maps. How did he get those directions? It’s been so long…I honestly can’t remember. Did they fall out of some ancient book at the library? I think that’s what happened. But he had them.
Did you go there?
I’ve never told anyone this. No one. I can’t believe I’m telling you right now. Will and I haven’t talked about it since it happened.
Wow, really? It’s okay, we don’t have to keep going.
No, no, it’s fine. It’s just…
Seriously, Caroline, I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you or ruin your marriage by making you dredge up terrible memories. That’s not what I’m trying to…
It’s okay. I want you to know. (pauses) I want you to know. It wasn’t supposed to be there. It just wasn’t. What happened was Will was going to go there first to make sure it was safe. And I’d meet him there later on. And I did. I followed the directions perfectly, down all of these forgotten dirt roads that used to be real roads. Right turn at a rock the size of a Volkswagen, go three quarters of a mile and take a left at the pine tree with the downed limb, stuff like that. All landmark stuff. But the directions were perfect. I drove what felt like forever down this bumpy road, and it just ended. Nowhere else to go. And there was Will, standing at the side of the road next to his car, hands jammed in his pockets. And he had this look in his eyes…he just looked…different. It’s almost like, after that night there were two Wills. The first Will who had worked on the story, helped me research and held my hand in the library…he was so sweet. Just so shy. Tender, innocent. But after that night, he’d changed forever. Like, he never looked at me the same way again. And we’ve been married now for nine years, and together since…junior year of college, so thirteen years? And he’s never looked at me the way he looked at me in the basement of the library back in high school. It was that night at the Fun Zone that changed him. I know it. It was that night.
Have you ever thought about us? Like, what if our parallel universe had fully intersected forever with the real one? And we were together?
I haven’t. Look, I think I should stop recording.
Please, don’t. It’s just…me and Will, nine years, no kids. No babies. And he just doesn’t look at me like he’s supposed to. He’s supposed to give me a baby, and we’re supposed to be living this love story, but…something went wrong. And it all started that night.
What happened? On that night, I mean.
I pulled off to the side of this dirt road that no one had driven on in probably decades, and, like I said, Will just seemed different. I asked him if he’d found it, and he said that it was there. Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone was there. Will grabbed two flashlights from his car, and we followed a path through some brush. Then it kind of emerged before us, nestled in the trees. The barn, the silo, everything. It was so strange. It was almost like it materialized, if that makes sense.
It was dark, so, yeah. I know what you mean.
And there was this picket fence around the place, and each board was painted either yellow, green, or light purple. And it held up better than it should have. The paint should’ve completely peeled off or maybe the whole thing should’ve fallen down, but it was in good shape.
Did you go inside?
I mean, we came all that way, right? The main entrance was this huge, wooden double door. Probably fifteen feet high, and above it was the sign: Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone, with this picture of a cartoon farmer with a piece of straw hanging from his mouth. And the sign had been vandalized. Someone had spray-painted X’s over the farmer’s eyes, and nearly every letter had been scribbled out. Everything except for “Fun,” but the ‘F’ was turned into an ‘R’ and an exclamation point was added. So it just read, “Run!”. So we weren’t the first people that’d been there. And I remember thinking, I don’t know if this makes me feel better or worse.
Who went in first?
Will did. He pushed open the door, and it creaked the whole time. I was nervous someone would hear it, but we were out in the middle of nowhere, you know? So that was kind of dumb. Will raised his flashlight and jumped backwards into me – we were staring at this giant goat statue made out of fiberglass. Had to have been seven feet tall. It was standing on its hind legs with its other front legs reaching out, like it was hugging something invisible. I guess it was a photo-op. You know, stand inside it, take your picture? And they were everywhere.
What was everywhere?
Fiberglass farm animals. Goats, sheep, cows, pigs – all standing on two legs, all of their front legs extended. They were scattered around the whole place, almost like soldiers keeping watch. Most of them were covered with some black soot substance. I ran my hand across one of the sheep. The soot was probably a half-inch thick. I still remember it trickling through my fingers. It was wet, and almost gooey. I honestly don’t know what it was.
What else was inside?
Slides. They were everywhere. Slides, jungle gyms, swinging bridges, a basketball court. We crept around for I don’t know how long, just not believing it was real. And it was just so dark and utterly silent. We got turned around so many times. It was like we were going deeper and deeper, and I know this doesn’t make sense, but it felt like we walked longer than we should have. Like the place was bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. At one point, I remember looking back at Will and saying, “It’s like a maze in here.” And right at that moment we almost ran into a sign that said, “Uncle Gerry’s Amazing Cornstalk Maze!”. We were right at the entrance to a maze, but it wasn’t made out of corn. The walls were wooden with cornstalks painted on them, and there was no way we were going in there. Not a chance.
Did you find the ball-pit?
We did. It was at the bottom of the tallest and widest slide in the whole place. Right in the center of the barn. And the pit was just massive. Had to have been forty feet wide, and maybe six feet deep. But it was empty, no plastic balls. Just a giant, barren pit, and there was a ladder going down into it. And from where we were standing, we saw the hatch. Will looked at me, and he just kind of shrugged, and he said, “This is why we are here, right?” We climbed down, and as we walked towards the hatch our feet echoed, but it was a different kind of echo. Like it died quickly, too quickly. Almost like something was sucking away the noise.
I can’t believe you guys did this.
I guess it was adrenaline. Our flashlights were directly on the hatch, and it had one of those round, steel rings. No lock. We stared at it for a while without saying anything. Almost like we were expecting it to start pulsating or to pop open. But we wanted to know what was inside. Had to know. So we decided to do it together. We grabbed the steel ring with both hands and pulled it up. I thought I’d be greeted by the bones of that dead kid, but there was only the smell that rushed us. It was very cold and crisp, and with a tiny whiff of sulfur. Will hopped right in, and I reluctantly followed. The stories were all true: it was a crawlspace to nowhere. We crouched down and crawled about twenty feet, and the tunnel just ended. Nothing but a smooth, steel wall. We ran our hands across it. Maybe we’d find a secret handle or trigger a button or something, but there was nothing. And then we heard the noises from above.
Something had jumped into the pit, because the first thing we heard was this single, reverberating thud. It was unmistakable. And then the footsteps directly above us, walking towards the hatch. We killed our flashlights and pressed our backs into the steel. Will put his arm around me and covered my mouth, and I did the same to him. My leg started trembling and bouncing on the floor and Will grabbed it, steadying it. We listened as the footsteps got closer to the hatch, and then they just stopped. And I wanted to look down the tunnel, I did. But I didn’t want whatever was there to see the whites of my eyes. Because I was terrified it would give me away. But I felt its presence across the tunnel. I knew it was there. I felt it leaning down and staring at us. I’m sure about that. I even heard it breathing softly.
Did he say anything?
No. It just watched us for a while. And I never opened my eyes. And the next thing I remember is the hatch slamming shut and both Will and I jumping and hitting our heads on the crawlspace ceiling. We stayed there silent for…it had to be an hour. We eventually worked up the courage to crawl to the other end in pitch black, and I was praying, just praying that this thing or person or whatever wasn’t inside this crawlspace with us. We were too scared to even turn on our flashlights. Every inch we crawled I thought, this is it – I’m going to reach out and feel something warm and snarling. But we made it to the end, and we slowly raised the hatch. Thank God it hadn’t locked us inside. We climbed out and we ran, just ran. I don’t even remember my legs moving beneath me. I remember it being, I was in the crawlspace, now I’m outside, now I’m at the car. Just like that, we were safe.
Did you tell anyone about this? Did you write the article?
Will followed me to my house. We promised each other to never talk about it ever again. We were done. No article, nothing.
I think we stumbled across something we were never meant to see. And something knew we were there, and I think it let us off with a warning. We didn’t want to make it mad. We were given a second chance.
You keep calling it it. Is there a reason for that?
Just a hunch. Just the sounds it made when it walked, the vibe it gave off. It didn’t feel human.
I honestly can’t believe you haven’t talked about this since high school. You or Will haven’t brought it up? Not once?
Will is…I love Will. But it changed him. It changed me. (pause) How long has it been since Grace died?
And you two didn’t have secrets or things you didn’t talk about?
We talked about everything. At least for my part. And I’m sure she wasn’t keeping anything from me.
What’s that like? To have a marriage like that and a child to love?
I think what we had was rare. And Tyler is my world. He’s my everything.
Do you ever think…
I turned off the recording. Caroline was traveling down a road that I had no interest in going. She left shortly thereafter, making me promise to not share anything with Will. I gave her my word. At one point I dropped the digital recording of her interview in the trash icon and hovered over the “empty” button for a few seconds. But I couldn’t do it. I dragged it back to a folder on my desktop.
Will came by the next day for his interview. It began plainly enough. The first twenty minutes focused on his grade school years, his baseball playing days in college, and his love of 80s action movies. Nothing revelatory, nothing deep. That quickly changed.
The interview direction veered towards love and marriage. I tried to avoid it, but it came up organically. Will hesitated, contemplating. I’d hope we’d detour right around it, but he looked at me sharply in the eyes, and said:
Have you ever heard of Uncle Gerry’s Family Fun Zone?
I lied, and I told him that I hadn’t. He grabbed a sheet of paper from my desk and sketched out the Uncle Sam-type flyer for that cursed children’s fun zone. That’s where this interview excerpt kicks in.