Posts tagged fairgrounds

Room for One More? Boarding the British Ghost Train

David L Rattigan celebrates the ultimate dark ride of his English childhood

Ghost TrainSod the Walt Disney Company and its Haunted Mansion, with its big budget and shiny new CGI technology. Give me the old-fashioned British ghost train experience, where not knowing whether the rattling, rusty screws will hold your carriage together till the end of the ride is just as frightening as the badly painted ghouls and goblins leaping out at you.

As a child who never passed up the opportunity for a cheap scare, I always made my way directly to the ghost train on entering the fair, whether it was the theme park or the travelling fairground. Roller coasters were not enough. This eighties Liverpool lad preferred the musty smells, dark turns and gaudy thrills of a ride through hell in a carriage for two.

You stepped on board and braced yourself for the jolt as the car, after a bit of a push from the ride-owner, set off along the track and bumped its way through the double doors and into the darkness. The crescendo and decrescendo of a siren gave you your first clue as to what was ahead. The cramped vehicle bucked and banged its way around the first corner, and the five-minute journey had begun.

Ghost Train, PickmereAlong the way were phantoms painted on plywood walls in tacky fluorescent colours. Jets of air and splashes of water surprised you. Skeletons dangled, mechanical hands jerked into view, and bits of fluff and string and rubber strips hung down to brush over your face as you went through. Was that part of the ride, or did someone just touch you? Or was it just imagination? You never quite knew.

The ghost train of bog-standard travelling fair had only the basics – mostly painted images, cheaply produced and easy to assemble and reassemble in each town. Often the pictures were based on well-known images from horror films, or at least those daubed on the frontage to advertise the attraction would lean heavily towards Karloffs, Chaneys and Lugosis. No big set pieces inside – except for the assistant, dressed in a sheet or skeleton costume, jumping out with a scream towards the end of the ride. In my day, he would literally manhandle the punters, but I suspect our more cautious times have put paid to the practice.

The ghost train at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, on the other hand, boasted lots of mechanical models and gimmicky thrills that required more than a bucket of neon paint. A carousel of skeletons riding bicycles was one macabre delight I’d heard of in advance of my visit. Skulls raced towards your face, rock pillars threatened to topple on you, and corpses thrust without warning out of coffins as you ride past. You were turned upside down as you passed through a tunnel and into a vortex, and there was even a roller-coaster-style dip, where you briefly sped downhill, and the momentum pushed you up the next. Every now and then, you emerged from the darkness and into the daylight to turn round before the next level or chamber – your screams and chortles became part of the publicity campaign directed at passers-by.

Fairgoers had been already been enjoying ghost trains for five decades when I was first bewitched by its creaky thrills. A British innovation, it followed the success of the stage play The Ghost Train. The writer was one Arnold Ridley, a Somerset-born character actor best-known nowadays as the elderly Private Godfrey in the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army (1968-1977). Its plot concerned passengers stranded in the waiting room of a rural railway station haunted by local legends of the deathly locomotive of the title. It ran for two years in the West End of London and was adapted at least half a dozen times, most famously in 1941, as a vehicle for cheekyLiverpool comic Arthur Askey.

Its popularity inspired fairground attraction company Orton and Spooner to create the ride of the same name, which historian David Braithwaite described thus:

At discreet intervals, dummy trains running on an energised rail, carrying no more than two passengers, penetrate the darkened booth. A labyrinth of hair-raising spectacles, optical tricks and sudden cloying tactility awaits them.

Early ghost trains were built on one level, with carriages moving from room to room. Like car parks and apartment buildings, they evolved to become multi-level, with ramps and chain-lifts taking passengers to the next floor for more scares.

In the 2000s, the ride gained a new artistic respectability with the arrival of Carnesky’s Ghost Train. To the traditional ghost train experience, theatre producer Marisa Carnesky added a narrative with a cast of eight ghosts, played by live actors. The Guardian newspaper hailed it a “marvellous mix of technical wizardry and sheer heart and soul”:

On one hand, it is merely a thoroughly enjoyable and superior fairground ride -quite the spookiest and most magical ghost train you’ll ever experience, and one that the kids will find a real thrill. On the other, it is an artful theatrical installation that combines all the fun of the fair with a serious and very adult meditation on eastern European heritage. Even in its brevity it manages to touch on the haunting pain of real experiences in which grotesque fairytale meets 19th- and 20th-century history head on.

With special effects that combined modern technology with the creaky mechanics of Victorian horror spectacle, the show-cum-ride was successful with London audiences and made its permanent home in Blackpool, where it remains eight years after its creation.

Fairgrounds by night are in themselves potent with fright. The hypnotic music, the whirring and clanking of machinery, and the flashing lights of many colours make entering the amusement park a disorienting experience for a child. The young and small can get lost among the crowds, swallowed up by heaving, bustling bodies moving in every direction, as familiar faces blur into those of strangers. Dark rides have always exploited the naturally exhilarating atmosphere of the carnival, ramping up its sensory wonders to the maximum; but no dark ride has done this for me as thrillingly as the ghost trains of my childhood.

Images: Ghost train at Winter Wonderland, Hyde Park, London (Oxyman)
Ghost train, Pickmere, 1970s (Steven Williamson)
Ghost train “Phantom Chaser,” Somerset, 2006 (Phil Williams)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Braithwaite, David, Fairground Architecture, Hugh Evelyn, 1968
Gardner, Lynn, “Carnesky’s Ghost Train,” The Guardian, August 4 2004
National Fairground Archive, “The Ghost on the Fairground,” http://www.nfa.dept.shef.ac.uk/history/miscellaneous_articles/article15.html (accessed 30/06/12)
Ride Guide, “The History of Ghost Trains” (video), 2009, http://ride-guide.co.uk/wp/the-history-of-ghost-trains (accessed 30/06/12)