Buster Keaton's Ghost

A camping trip within haunting distance of a famous Hollywood cemetery gives parents the willies

26 Jan 2020 | 12:18

It was the summer of 1996. We were living in Los Angeles and our sons, David and Ray, were 8 and 6, too young for sleepaway camp, but the perfect age for day camp. Of course, the only word they heard during conversations about all this was the word “camp.” Which is why they were somewhat disappointed to discover on the first day that the Y day camp we signed them up for was held at their elementary school in Sherman Oaks.

They spent that summer in the same classrooms and on the same blacktop playground that they spent the rest of the year, and one of their daily activities was picking up litter on the campus.

On the other hand, they didn’t have to do homework or take tests.

It was a good camp, though, with plenty of new things for them to try, arts and crafts, team sports, trips to the great Los Angeles Zoo and more. During a trip to the Sherman Oaks Castle, a chaotic, kid-packed, candy-fueled emporium with miniature golf, batting cages and arcade games, they jumped into a photo booth together and took what remains to this day their mother’s favorite picture of them as little boys. Their happy, smiling faces reveal only joy and excitement.

The grand finale, the highlight of the summer, was to be an overnight camping trip. The boys came home with a list of things to pack. They were going to sleep in tents, at a campsite in the sprawling wilderness of LA’s Griffith Park, the 4,200-acre location for countless movies and TV shows, and home to an impressive array of wildlife, including coyotes, rattlesnakes and mountain lions.

We lived in Toluca Lake, just a few minutes drive from the northwest corner of the park, where the boys would be spending the night. Late that afternoon, my wife Susan and I decided to swing by and see how they were getting along. I brought a sleeping bag, in case I decided to say with them.

Nine years into our LA life, we had probably been to Griffith Park a hundred times or more. But as we followed the directions the boys had brought home, I realized that the campsite was in a spot we’d never visited.

We were intrigued. And then, when the directions led us through the grand entrance to Forest Lawn Memorial Park, the final resting place of Bette Davis, Buster Keaton, Liberace and countless other stars and celebrities, we were mystified. There must be some mistake, we thought, and double-checked the directions.

But there was no mistake. We wound our way through the manicured burial ground, past hundreds of headstones, as the sun continued its slow descent and the shadows grew longer. What the hell? Were they actually camping in a cemetery? Whose crazy idea was this?

At the top of a long slope the headstones finally ended and we crossed into the park, the narrow road now flanked by tangled brush and trees. A minute or so later we came into a large clearing. The school bus the kids had come in was parked among a half dozen cars. Some of the campers, including David, were splashing around in an above-ground pool.

As you might expect of a six-year-old, Ray, who was not swimming, spotted us immediately. He started to cry a bit when his mother hugged him. He wanted to go home.

We let David swim as I explained to one of the counselors that Ray was going home with his mother, but I would be staying. I was told that Ray could leave, of course, but I could not stay. I don’t remember the reason, I guess it made sense. And if it wasn’t for the damn cemetery we might have left David there. He was having fun and, as we later learned, the boys hadn’t even noticed the cemetery.

But Susan and I were both freaked out by the proximity of Forest Lawn to the makeshift campsite. So we pulled the plug on the cemetery sleepover and took David and Ray to their favorite restaurant for dinner, and then home to sleep in their own beds.

We had seen “Poltergeist” too many times to leave our sons at the mercy of hundreds of ghosts, even if there were a few Oscar winners among their ranks. And what about all the Oscar losers? Who knows what kind of hijinks they might get up to in the night?