Arts Culture

Cartoonist Michael Jasorka brings the Wildwood haunted attraction Castle Dracula back from the dead

Jasorka illustrated and reimagined a found employee handbook for Castle Dracula, which offered a dungeon boat ride and a walk-through attraction with torture scenes, a mad scientist's lab and more.

Recall the scariest haunted house you’ve ever seen. The one you were too scared to go in as a kid, the one that caused you to quicken your pace when you passed. Then recall your first job as a teenager. The one where you made lifelong friends, bonded over shitty customers and broke the rules together.

Now imagine a combination of the two. Suddenly that haunted house doesn’t seem as scary (or maybe it’s scarier) once you realize it was probably run by a rag-tag group of teens who spent their summers working eight-hour shifts in the dark.

Take, for instance, Castle Dracula—a Wildwood boardwalk haunted attraction that existed from 1977 until 2002. 

“I was taken by it when I was young. I never went on it, but I was freaked by it,” says cartoonist Michael Jasorka. “It was this big luminous castle on the boardwalk.” 

Castle Dracula existed only in Jasorka’s memory until he stumbled across it while working on his 2021 comic book, The Wildwood Days of Doowop. As he searched for reference images of what the boardwalk looked like, “so the backgrounds were accurate for the time,” he “ended up on this website where they chronicle these old rides,” called Dark in the Park. While there, Jasorka says he found “the employee handbook for Castle Dracula, which was uploaded by a former cast member from 1977, the opening year, and she had kept it all these years.”

Jasorka was so taken with the employee handbook that he made it the subject of his latest book: Castle Dracula & Dungeon: Employee Handbook Illustrated, the third comic book he has made about Wildwood.

Courtesy Mike Jasorka

This year is the 20th anniversary of when two kids burned down Castle Dracula. It was never rebuilt. “A lot of people really miss this ride,” Jasorka says.

Castle Dracula featured a dungeon boat ride, which “consisted of numerous bloody and morbid scenes with occasional live actors jumping out of cubby holes to startle patrons,” according to Dark in the Park. The other component to Castle Dracula was a walk-through attraction, where visitors wandered the maze-like structure and encountered torture scenes, prison cells, a mad scientist’s lab, with constumed actors at each stop.

Like his other works, Castle Dracula is self-published. Jasorka has been self-publishing his work for over 16 years, a choice he makes because he likes having control over what his products look like and how they’re distributed. He likes being “the only source of connection to the audience.” When a customer orders a copy of his books from his website, Bombshell Comics, Jasorka packs up the order himself.

Jasorka’s interest in comics was sparked while he attended elementary school in Warren County, by a teacher’s aide who rewarded his high test scores by allowing him access to her 1970s collection of comic books. 

Courtesy Mike Jasorka

“She was the coolest,” Jasorka recalls. “She would dry venison in her office on chicken wire hanging from the ceiling, to paint a picture for you. She was an outdoorsy lady who was also so fun and genuine. I owe her for really getting me into comics.”

His parents grew up taking summer trips to the Jersey Shore, and they passed down the tradition. They often vacationed in Wildwood, where they stayed in motels that no longer exist.

Courtesy Mike Jasorka

“As a kid I was a visual learner, I was just all about seeing everything there. It’s so striking to see all this neon coming down Pacific Avenue.”

It’s only fitting that Jasorka grew up to make The Wildwood Days of Doowop, for which he meticulously illustrated over 160 of Wildwood’s past and present motels using old postcards and other reference photos. 

“I like comics that use a historic journalistic approach,” he says. Jasorka acknowledges that “comics can play a part in revitalizing peoples’ memories,” and that he hopes his work will also engage younger audiences so they can “understand how important all of it is in the context of American history.”

He brought that approach to Castle Dracula as well. Jasorka says he is “stoked to take this 1977 employee handbook and re-envision it for a comic experience.” He says he did his best to “stay true to the elements of the rides, from what they did to how people would experience them.” 

In addition to the handbook itself, he found a Facebook group for fans and ex-employees of Castle Dracula, with whom he consulted about their experiences and whether or not the rules were actually enforced. He learned that “a lot of the time, they didn’t follow any of them.” He also referred to photographs and YouTube videos of the ride. “The references were strong, the world was there,” he just had to bring it to life through his illustrations.

“I think this will be the last Wildwood book for a little while,” Jasorka says, though he is quick to admit he isn’t opposed to setting future comics there, especially if someone approaches him with an interesting idea. As for what’s next, he is “already thinking [about] what else could be an illustrated employee handbook.”

Jasorka has been a California resident for 12 years, where he works as a storyboard artist, teaches comics to kids, and is a musician. But, “Being from New Jersey is special,” he says, and he maintains a strong New Jersey connection by coming to visit his family for a month every year. During that time, he doesn’t draw as much. He views the trip as a time out of sorts, an opportunity to recharge.

Courtesy Mike Jasorka

This year, his trip coincides with Castle Dracula’s release, so to celebrate, Jasorka is holding a release party and signing on the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 13 at the George F. Boyer Museum in Wildwood. Former owner/operator of Castle Dracula, John Nickles, will be in attendance. They plan to display ephemera, celebrate the book and the ride, and take a group photo at the former site. The pair will sign copies of the book, which will be available for sale for $20, discounted to $15 to anyone who attends the event dressed as a cast member. 

Jasorka may never have experienced Castle Dracula in person, but you’d never know it from reading his meticulously researched and illustrated book. With Castle Dracula, Jasorka manages to be faithful to his source material while also transforming it. Whether you ever experienced Castle Dracula or not, by the time you finish the book, you will feel like you have.

You can attend the Castle Dracula release party on Saturday, Aug. 13 from 12-3 p.m. at the George F. Boyer Museum in Wildwood. Information about the event here.