Man returns to his childhood home to confront the terrifying ghost at the Mansworth County bridge that haunted him as a young boy. Written by Will Mustin.
- SPECIAL GUEST:
Richard “Dippy” Clive could make one hell of a burger.
Just outside of Hallmark, South Carolina – down off the highway at the edge of a far-stretching expanse of dead trees – lies “Dippy’s Diner,” specializing in moist burgers, crunchy fries, and the “1958 Winner for Best Chocolate Milkshake in South Carolina.” And just past the burger-joint is the haunted bridge of Mansworth County, the home of the bloodthirsty-hook-handed-ghost of Brad Stapleton.
It was well-worth the price to delight in both a burger dinner and an encounter with the beyond, the price of $5 (it was 25¢ when I was teen) for old Dippy to continue his 70 year craft and for ole’ Brad to continue his 300 year craft.
The last time I visited Mansworth County was in 1989. It was a place of my childhood, a place I grew up in. I used to race cars, explore the woods, fling myself through the air off the tire swing into the lake, go to the drive-in and the candy shop, go out to make-out point with dates and go hunting with my pop. But when I went back, everything was gone, save Dippy’s and the old bridge. The entirety of Mansworth County was now a shopping center. A Starbucks was plopped down on top of my house and my whole neighborhood became Blockbusters and Taco Bells and grocery stores. But I expected this. Out with the old, in with materialism.
I was delighted to see that time hadn’t touched old Dippy’s one bit. It hadn’t touched Dippy either. He was still living in the Cold War, listening to Elvis and practicing the twist. Dippy remembered me and gave me a free meal and played my wife and I’s song on the jukebox (“Denise” by Randy and the Rainbows- my wife’s name was Denise if you couldn’t guess), remembering that she and I had met in the restaurant. He had the same toothy old smile and sharp, jagged nose and glowing eyes.
The burger was as incredible as my two decade-long memory had anticipated. The ratio of sauce-to-toppings, the tenderness of the meat, the lush moisture on the lettuce, the sly sting of the mustard. I ordered another.
“This one’s on the house, too.”
“No, no no… I can’t do that!”
He wouldn’t let me pay, but we ended up settling on a 50% discount. I accepted, but I wasn’t happy.
The day that I happened to come through Mansworth was October 30th. The feeling of Halloween I had come to know just wasn’t there.
When I was a kid, Halloween floated through the town like an eerie autumn breeze, the excitement accelerating until the tremendous crescendo of latex masks, gooey treats, and crisp leaves crunching under your feet. I have to admit, the partial purpose of the trip was to rekindle my old Halloween spirit; regain a little bit of my youth. I would visit my grandparent’s house to get in the mood for Christmas, but I guess I thought that Mansworth would do the same for All Hallow’s Eve. The consumerism just wasn’t doing it.
The computer stores put their orange and black phone covers on display in the front and the Starbucks showcased their pumpkin-spice latte, but I guess it just paled in comparison to the string-hung bats, rows of jack-o-lanterns, hay-rides, and cardboard monsters of my youth.
“You want to get scared?” said Dippy. “The old Mansworth bridge is still standing… in the exact same shape as when you left. Some say it’s still got lingerin’ spooks ravagin’ about. It’s walkin’ distance.”
“I don’t necessarily want to get scared, I said. “I just want to feel young again. I want to feel the charm of Halloween that I used to feel.”
But that wasn’t the only thing shooing me away from the bridge. The one time I had ever gone there had left me partially traumatized and in need of new underwear.
It was 1957. I was 10. I had ventured down there- snuck out of bed- with my pals Chet and Stevie. When you’re in fourth grade, you think that everything you do is cool. It was the time where I started cursing and talking about girls and listening to Gene Vincent. As we walked to the bridge, we passed around a cigarette. I hated the taste, but I remembered how damned awesome James Dean looked when he smoked. And, again, it was all about looking cool.
The bridge itself wasn’t anything special. It was designed for walking, so it was pretty narrow. The two-and-a-half-foot tall walls were made of cobblestone, and planks made up the floor. It stretched about 150-200 yards and stood about 100 feet above a running creek.
The stories I heard had maybe glorified it, but it was pretty damn scary. For starters, it lay in the midst of a dense forest, with creeping Spanish moss hanging over it like skeletons on a noose. The trees surrounded it in such a way that the moonlight couldn’t hit it in the least. It was like a ghostly hand outstretched in pure darkness. We had all heard kids in the schoolyard talk about how they had seen frightening things upon visiting it. Stories that shook me to my very core and sparked my bizarre childhood fascination with being scared. In many ways, I think that everyone- for whatever reason- likes being scared a little bit.
Billy Washington said that a thick fog had covered the bridge, and when he and his brother had crossed through the fog and over to the other side, they were both cut up all over their arms and legs. Toby Willums said that they had heard heavy breathing coming from the other side and heard footsteps approaching behind them on the way back. Even my teacher, Ms. Clarke, said that she wouldn’t dream of going near that bridge after she had heard screams coming from below one night.
The worst of all was Tommy Hardaway’s story. He had a reputation of spinning wild yarns just to get laughs out of his classmates, so I’m not exactly sure how true his story was. But he claims that he was about halfway across the bridge when a deranged maniac emerged, sprinting at him and his friends from the fog, laughing maniacally. Tommy swore he had a hook for a hand and blood all over his face. They rushed into the woods, and the maniac wouldn’t step off the bridge onto the land, so they made a clean getaway.
“They say that it’s the ghost of Brad Stapleman, a guy from the pioneer days who fell off his horse and off the bridge, into the creek, breaking his neck and dying instantly. And he haunts that bridge to this day, murdering all of those who dare to step onto the bridge- his bridge. If you go there and you see him, get off the bridge. Get off the bridge, and he won’t be able to follow you.”
Tommy’s words – “his bridge” – stuck in my mind while we stood by the cobblestone arch.
“Well,” said Chet, “No sense standing around here. Let’s go.”
I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stop them. But I didn’t. So we went.
As we walked, a fog rolled in. It was hard to see how much farther we had left, but it couldn’t have been much.
Then it happened. A bubbling, crazed, sick laughter bawled through the night. It drilled into my eardrums and burrowed through my skull and began shredding my mind to bits. And it was getting louder. The sound of leather slaps against the wooded floor vibrated the ground beneath us.
“We have to get out of here.” I said, my voice cracking and dying off. But Chet and Stevie were already hauling ass out of there. I began to run when a sweaty, warm palm wrapped around my shoulder like a spider pouncing on its victim. I didn’t say a word- I just closed my eyes and booked shit. And so did the footsteps behind me. I emerged from the fog and saw Chet and Stevie awaiting at the other side of the bridge, cheering me on. Well, it wasn’t so much cheering. It was more like:
“He’s right behind you! He’s RIGHT BEHIND YOU!”
But that was all the motivation I needed. I leapt off the boards and onto the leaf-covered ground ahead of the bridge with a crunch and then whirled around behind me. The footsteps were gone, and so was the fog. Stevie and Chet helped me to my feet and then we scrambled home.
I didn’t sleep for three weeks. My mother would come in to kiss me at night and I would scream violently at the sound of the door creaking open. I thought it was the ghost of Brad Stapleman. I was simply distressed and upset and a little shocked. But we were heroes to the guys at school. And at the time, that was all that mattered.
Stevie- I haven’t kept in touch with so much. Last I heard he owned a Chick-Fil-A in Colorado and was getting divorced. Chet owns a law-firm and is happily married with two daughters.
I guess the aforementioned primal addiction to fear I mentioned earlier is what brought me back to the bridge on that October 30th in 1989. Maybe ol’ Dippy had slipped something into my milkshake, because I was feeling a little too confident.
It was exactly the same. Dark and foreboding, rickety, creaking in the void of silence occasionally interrupted by the sound of a quail or a crow. My heart was going. A jack-o-lantern sat on the ground before the cobblestone walls rose up. It still flickered and was drooping slightly. I couldn’t help but remember the words of Tommy Hardaway – “his bridge.” Tommy is currently an accomplished Broadway actor.
I couldn’t turn back. Who knew when I was going to come back to Mansworth. Or I suppose I should say, who knows? I haven’t been back since- here’s why:
I started crossing. The fog rolled in. But I kept walking. Just walking. I’m not sure what I was thinking, or if I was at all. And suddenly, I was on the other side. I looked around, and down, to make sure I wasn’t touching wood anymore. I was on ground. Leaves around me. Trees and Spanish moss lay ahead, and ahead of that, who knows? But I didn’t care, because, I had made it across the haunted Mansworth bridge. Had I broken the curse? Would I be the hero of the schoolyard?
What followed was the snap of both my confidence and a branch to my right. And to my horror, running towards me, was a demented, maniacal, blood-covered figure, not hook-handed but wielding a pretty large knife, cackling into the night. So, I followed in the footsteps of my 10-year-old self, literally, and booked shit. Down the bridge, wheezing heavily, diseased chortles of a psychopath in hot pursuit. Rummaging through the fog, I saw the ground again.
I leapt off the boards and onto the leaf-covered ground ahead of the bridge with a crunch and then whirled around behind me. The footsteps and laughter hadn’t stopped. In fact, they kept getting louder. I clambered to my feet and, without catching my breath, shot down through the woods.
And the laughter didn’t stop. He was still in hot pursuit behind me. I didn’t want to glance back for fear of hitting a jagged branch but also for fear of seeing the apparition that had terrified my dreams for years.
I’m not sure what happened next. I’m not sure how close I was to Dippy’s Diner. I’m not sure when it happened, but I just blacked out. And when I woke up, I was laying down on one of the booths in the restaurant. I rose but was met with a sharp pain in my skull. I looked around. Dippy was sitting across the table from me. No one else was there.
“Hey, hey, hey there, shh…take it easy, take it easy. You’re alright, okay?”
I meant to ask what happened but I just coughed and it hurt my head. I looked outside and saw the blue-and-red-symphony-of-lights of police cars and ambulances bouncing off the night.
“Hey, take it easy there, sport, come on. You’re alright. The police are gonna come in here in just a second and ask you a couple of questions.”
This time I actually said it: “What the hell happened?”
The police asked me a couple of questions. Basic stuff: What was I doing, where was I, who am I, etc. From what they told me, I gathered that some lunatic from the Hallmark hospital for the criminally insane had escaped a couple weeks prior to my visit. He was the one I met on the bridge. That would explain why the land just off the bridge didn’t stop him. He was covered in the blood of two teenagers and a farmer he had killed.
The guy was put back in the hospital for the criminally insane. Because it seemed to be working so well before the escape. He (his name is Robert Boles) is still there to this day.
The event did send me back a little bit. Sure, it was pretty damn terrifying and I had to go through years of counseling and sleeping pills and smoking again and things of that nature, but it did send me back to my childhood. It made me wonder, though, if it was some escaped killer chased me last time, then who- or what- was it the first time?
Dippy is still alive. Dippy’s Diner is still around, and if you go down there, you can catch one of his masterpiece burgers and award-winning shakes. Take a break from the pumpkin spice lattes. Tell him I sent you.
The Ghost of Brad Stapleman is still at the bridge to this day. He is going through his third divorce and has three kids- two daughters and a son. He is currently unemployed.
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