I vividly remember my first haunted house ride – it was at the local fairgrounds, just a temporary carnival truck, more façade than ride. I must have been about seven or eight, and I insisted on bringing along a flashlight. I was quite a fearful child; in this case I hoped the flashlight would break through the darkened illusion and I might sneak a look at the ride’s inner workings. I failed miserably: As the ride spun and jolted my flashlight was always a second late. The monsters and spooks jumped out before I could anticipate them; the car hit walls of fake spiders. My light was of little use.
For most of the 20th century, dark rides – as these kinds of rides are called – offered thrills and surprises, and no small dose of fear, to riders bumping along in carts passing through animatronic scenes. But they are rapidly disappearing. In the decade of my professional life I have spent experiencing and documenting these rides around the world, I have seen many great haunted attractions and parks close. Of the thousands of rides created between 1900 and 1970, only 18 still exist.
The closure of Williams Grove, the flooding of Bushkill Park, the sale of Miracle Strip or the destruction of the Spookhouse by Hurricane Sandy have saddened the thousands of fans of these parks. But they have also laid waste to an important record of our popular culture history that should not be left in the dark.
These rides were the virtual reality experiences of their day. Far surpassing cinema, they had sound effects, atmospheric effects and 360-degree immersive space. To preserve them in a way that does these rides justice, my work, the Dark Ride Project, is capturing and archiving the experience of riding the last remaining ghost trains and haunted house rides using today’s digital virtual reality technology.
Most recently, we’ve been visiting the Spook-A-Rama ride at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park in Coney Island, New York. Built in 1955, this classic ride was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and was painstakingly restored by the family that owns the park. On Halloween, we’ll release new footage preserving the ride in VR, so it will never be under threat again.