Four-year-old Little Brother starts to get nervous when his older sister Hao Hao reads the fluorescent green sign: “Chicken Exit” (left arrow) and “Certain Doom” (right arrow). But he is riding on my back, so there is no getting off this ride.
He had been asleep earlier when Hao Hao and Niu Niu were reading the gravestones, “Diane Rott,” “Rick A. Mortis,” “Ben There Don That,” and “Edgar Allen Poe.” Smoke shoots out of the demonic heads on the fence posts as a glowing winged skeleton hovers above us. Hearses line the curb. A woman ghoul in a bonnet screams and laughs maniacally at us, her eyes bulging. As we line up along the rusted skull-topped fence, Hao Hao reads the historical marker that tells the story of the Hain family, their interest in the occult, their untimely deaths, and the founding of Brandywine Cemetery, on Brandywine Drive, north of Packard east of Platt.
Brandywine Cemetery is the annual two-night (October 30 and 31) creation of Robert Beech, who moved to Ann Arbor eight years ago from California, where he worked at Disney in animation. He says he does it to create memories for kids and to keep Halloween alive. As a fellow Californian who always loved the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland best, I can tell you that this is a local treasure in the same vein (so to speak).
After being allowed in through the padlocked gate by a silent cloaked figure, we enter the crypt of the Hain family and then descend through a hole in the wall down into the earth. It’s so black that our eyes do not adjust. We push our way through long hanging roots, punctuated by blinking bats’ eyes. We finally emerge into an open cavern, where an Indiana Jones-type character is breaking open a coffin to steal the treasure inside. He calls us closer to get us to help. I start to notice the dead bodies around us, but I reassure Little Brother that they are not real, just props. Then they start to attack. Zombies!!!
Little Brother starts to cry, but there is no easy escape as we still have to get through another chamber with skeletons reaching out for us, clutching at our hair and our clothes.
Finally we burst out into the open air, where an old woman rocks calmly in a rocking chair, passing out candy and assuaging Little Brother’s fear. The next night, when we discuss whether to take his other sister, Margot, who missed it because of her Japanese class, Little Brother says, “Yes, let’s go again. But this time, let’s go the Chicken Way.”