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You know you’ve seen them at your local fairground. Photo from Zacatecas Web News
When I was six years old, I visited a fair in Cuautla, Morelos, and rode some boring flat ride. But I also remember that I did it just to get a better view of the Tunnel of Terror that was right in front of it.
A spooky mannequin welcomed guests into the queue, and people got into little cars just before they disappeared behind swinging doors. I could hear shouts and screams from inside. Then, some empty cars arrived, and more people hoped in. I wanted to go. Yet I didn’t, really. I stayed in my lame flat ride, staring at that devilish dark ride.
You can still encounter them at fairgrounds, along with other classics like the Sea Dragon, the Himalaya and the Hurricane. Dark rides, known as ghost trains or tunnels of terror in Mexico, are those crooky old rides with extravagant facades, often decorated with graffiti-esque painting, consisting of a short, dark, indoor journey through animated special effects and scenes, or stunts. As a child I was fascinated and frightened by them. They are part of the memories of many people around the world. But today, they are disappearing.
That’s why Joel Zika, an artist and academic at Deakin University in Australia, has spent the last ten years studying and documenting the history of these attractions which, actually, have been a tradition for over a century, at least in the United States.
Joel Zika documenting the haunts at Luna Park, Melbourne. All photos courtesy of Joel Zika/The Dark Ride Project except where noted.
The project is called The Dark Ride Project, and unlike a lot of irrelevant posts on your Facebook timeline, it is using 360º video for an actual interesting purpose: to record some of the few dark rides still in operation so people can experience them again, either on their phones or with a virtual reality headset. It is an effort to make an archive of these rides that will disappear soon. For Joel, they are authentic cultural treasures.
“I began to travel to find the oldest rides in America and to write about them,” he tells me via Skype, from what appears to be his bedroom. “I went to these places and started to meet the people who ran rides, or who had rebuilt or lost rides. Every year you hear about a different ride that is gone because of a flood or because they can’t afford to run it anymore. And I thought… this is really serious because there are only a few of these rides, and my research is going to be pointless if there’s no evidence of them left”.
That’s true: Joel is so into this that he’s doing a PhD on dark rides, and how they compare to other entertainment media such as film and video games. “The interesting thing is that, if your see it like a movie set, it’s like the ride determines what you see, and it moves you from something shocking and then suddenly back towards it. All that slasher film ideas like pulling the camera away…”
Haunted House at Camden Park, West Virginia.
The iconic Spook-a-rama queue at Coney Island, New York.
Since 2005, Joel has traveled to Maryland, Alabama, Delaware and West Virginia capturing some of the oldest dark rides in the world, with the help of his girlfriend and a rig with three Sony cameras he built by himself. The important thing, he says, is to capture the experience as vividly as possible: how it sounded like, how good or bad it was, how dark it was.
The first ride Joel recorded stands on his hometown, Melbourne, at a place called Luna Park (very similar to the one in New York, by the way). After several failed attempts with 180 degree video and his girlfriend’s smartphone, he decided to try wide-angle cameras. Who knows; you may have a skeleton jumping behind you, a pipe organ to the left and a train about to collide in front of you, all at the same time. Thus The Dark Ride Project began, a concept that seeks to revive old technology through new gadgetry.
Joel Zika at work in Luna Park, Melbourne, Australia.
Joel created his own 360 video system with 3 Sony cameras.
According to Joel, the project began with the question, what examples before cinema are there of storytelling and mechanics? The answer was in these fairground rides seeking to immerse the spectator through atmospheric sets: primitive 3D theaters, if you will.
Although rides like Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World or even our very own Mansión de La Llorona at the extinct Reino Aventura are also called dark rides, the ones that Joel captures are relics of another era. He explains that, back in the turn of the century, people in America had a lot of money and wanted to experience science fiction tales such as Jules Verne’s and H. G. Welles’: ideas on travel, space and technology. Some prototypical attractions were built, such as the “old mills” or tunnels of love, which consisted on a boat passing along an artificial channel.
Then World War I began, along with the Great Depression, and many amusement parks began to close down. Some of them decided to repurpose existing structures and spaces, such as electric tramlines, to create new attractions. It was the thirties, and the classic Universal monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and the Wolf Man were quite in the public mindset. Hence the first dark rides were built, offering a way to experience horror movies up close.
Old mills are the prototypical attraction that came before the dark ride. This is one of the oldest, located at Kennywood, Pittsburgh.
During 1936, the original Pretzel at Luna Park, in Melbourne, was turned into a Ghost Ride, marking a trend in the macabre and spooky.
During the fifties and sixties, you could still find greaser guys and gals making out in newly manufactured dark rides, but after the seventies, they began to decline. And frankly, no one seems interested in riding those crappy old rides anymore.
Joel is conscious about it: “Dark rides are not popular. In fact they’re gonna go. But there’s a whole industry centered on haunts and it’s booming. It’s absolutely huge. I was in Scare L.A., a convention of haunts. And it was great, I got to show people the VR headset, the rides I’ve done, and talk about it. And everybody had an experience; somewhere they knew a park that shut down or was about to. People can’t go back home, they can’t support, we’re not as local anymore. Everyone lives in the big cities”.
Dante’s Inferno, located at Miracle Strip Amusement Park, two years later after its closing in 2005. Photo: Steve Sobczul.
Bushkill Park, located near Easton, Pennsylvania, had one of the oldest funhouses in America. After its third flooding, (pictured during 2005), it closed forever.
Joel has recorded six attractions, although eight others are still on the to-do list. Most were built by the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company, a pioneer in the industry and manufacturer of more than 1,700 attractions in America. Today, there are only four operating. And one of them is especially exciting for Joel.
“There is an attraction in upstate New York, in a lake called Sylvan Beach. There’s a little park up there, well, a very small fair. I went there, and the first thing I thought is, why the hell would anyone come here? The ride is almost eighty years, and it is the last original. I can’t see they have done too much to it. It could catch fire. It’s not bad but… I would never want to ride that, no one would. It is one that I want to go soon because all the others have some infrastructure. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It is very difficult to contact these people. They don’t know facebook or email, and they never answer their office phone. I tried to talk to people in facebook about, you know, does anyone live up there? Could you say hi to them, could you ask them?”
The Laffland at Sylvan Beach, New York, is the oldest ride manufactured by Pretzel Amusement Ride Company. Photo: Wixstatic.com
However, Joel has been building up a network of contacts that have allowed him to meet people who are still in the dark ride business. Although nobody likes to ride them anymore, there are many geeks who are interested in the history behind haunted attractions, and that keeps them on the map somehow.
“For example, there’s this park called Trimper’s Rides in Ocean City, Maryland. The Trimpers are a family who has run this park forever. So there’s Stephanie and Scottie Trimper; Stephanie’s grandparents built the park and she’s still running it three generations later. The ride is right on the boardwalk, and it’s fantastic, it’s almost an icon of the old dark rides, it was designed by this guy, Bill Tracy. And Scottie’s got his little kid, who he’s showing during school holidays how to run the ride. And all the time you get a serious sense that the park might not be able to run forever. In fact, a new haunted attraction opened just around the corner. They are family businesses, and every single one of these places prides themselves on that. But I don’t know how far that gets you in America these days”.
The Trimpers’ Haunted House at Ocean City, Maryland, is still a fan favorite even after the opening of a new haunt across the street: Ocean City Screams Haunted House. Photo from Oni’s Blog
I’m curious to know what was what led Joel to be a geek, to devote himself to document these attractions and sympathize with these businesses. So I ask him if he’s either an amusement park or horror fan. “I have 36 years, so when I was 12 or 13 years, it was the era of video nasties. During the early VHS days, there was a proliferation of shocking videos: violent documentaries, slasher and gore films… I loved to go to the video store and get a lot of them. I saw Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play…”
“When I went to the university I was very interested in technology and digital media. I don’t have the patience to make movies, but I love to play around, and I do a lot of work with projectors, space and isolation. So that made me start thinking, what examples are there like a horror space? What is a horror space? Well, I guess it all started there. Oh, and I went to The London Dungeon when I was like 10 years old. It is like a wax museum with actors. You have to run through a burning tenement. That traumatized me. “
(ABOVE AND BELOW) Joel having the time of his life at the Spook-a-rama in Coney Island, New York.
Joel rides across a spinning tunnel inside Ghost Train in Luna Park, Melbourne.
I’ve always been told that this is something I’ll grow out of. But I won’t. We now know, with VR, that people still wanna play and wanna go to places, and they’re not gonna grow out of it.
To continue my millennial-style research, I look up some of the lectures and videos that Joel Zika has on the project website and on youtube. These dark rides, although crappy, are a staple in many peoples’ memories. A youtube user writes that the Trimper’s Haunted House in Ocean City is a must do each visit, and another user shouts “Look, the gum door, that’s the scariest part!” while touring the rickety Spook-a-rama at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, Coney Island. Hurricane Sandy almost wiped Spook-a-rama from the map, but many props made of papier-mâché were replaced with brand-new animatronics in 2012.
“You got enthusiasts and then you got the stories. So the story that I want to tell is about how important these rides are, and how they are linked to horror. So to tell that story in some way, VR becomes a great vessel to engage people. But the story is still the most important thing, even if you don’t like rides”.
What would you do with your content? “I’ve been recording these videos and I would love to get them out there, whether it be a documentary series or shorts, or TV series, or VR shorts. Here at the University some people have helped me a little, but it would be great to find someone who can actually distribute them. So I’m just gonna keep at it and make sure to tell the story and connect with people”.
(ABOVE AND BELOW) The Dark Ride Project made an appearance during Scare L.A. showcasing its archives the proper way: with an Oculus VR headset.
Who else have you asked for help? “I contacted the Smithsonian. They said it was a great project, but that they only worked with raw data. So I told them … this is not an artwork, it is a video archive of an experience, frame by frame… no response back. There is a prevailing feeling in museums and archives that you have to wait until something is gone before you talk about it being important. I mean, I’ve seen it a lot with computer gaming culture, where people don’t want to talk about them until they age. Neither pinball arcade machines, or old videos, anything. “
Unfortunately, the campaign that Joel began in Indiegogo for $ 20,000 did not reach its goal. He tells me that the money is to travel to the United States, Sweden and England with a camera crew and visit places that no one would go to on their own, so the project can reach a wider audience. I ask him if he had ever planned coming to Mexico.
“I’ve never been there but I want to. I’m from Australia, we have a lot of engagement with horror but unlike you do in Mexico or the States, we don’t scare each other. We don’t have that culture. But I love those celebrations around horror. That’s actually where the dark rides come from: it’s about the holidays, and the communities, and cuddling and kissing your girlfriend where there are haunts”.
I want to tell him about some of the attractions we have in Mexico, but I suddenly realize that those that come to mind have already disappeared or are only open temporarily during the Feria del Mole. I don’t know why, but I’m having a hard time picturing Joel travelling to that slum called San Pedro Atocpan, half an hour from where I live. Or maybe he would. After all, it is Joel’s determination what prompted me to contact him in the first place.
“I’ve always been told that this is something I’ll grow out of. But I won’t. We now know, with VR, that people still wanna play and wanna go to places, and they’re not gonna grow out of it. We kinda need to get serious and realize that experiences and playing around is now part of how we are going to engage with everything. That’s why you see so many haunts and so many experience designers. There’s a resurgence in horror. So it’s like a reality check”.
And it’s true. While the dark rides keep on vanishing, we better live them in virtual reality.
The Terrortorium at Oxford, Alabama, is also a family business operated by Jeremy Cruse.
Joel made a trip to Spook-a-rama in Coney Island, New York, to celebrate Halloween. This attraction once lasted ten minutes, and had some scenes with zombies, ogres, a man dying in an electric chair and stringy stuff that rubbed up against your face. Nowadays, it lasts for only 45 seconds. But it is still standing proudly, charging $7 for admission. Rise that phone, stick it to your face and enjoy one of the most iconic dark rides in the world!
- “Jeepers Creepers: Why do dark rides scare the pants off us”, by Lisa Hix
- The Dark Ride Project official website.
- The Dark Ride Project youtube channel.