Posts tagged Memoir

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)

The Charm of Evil

“And it was at that age that poetry arrived in search of me”
—Pablo Neruda

I was seven when horror came in search of me. I’d seen it from afar: garish comic-strip representations of Dracula on Valentine picture postcards, glimpses of men standing around in misty graveyards in late-night films I wasn’t allowed to watch. But when I was seven, my father gave me a book, the Ladybird Horror Classic abridgment of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I devoured its words and handsome illustrations eagerly, and from that moment forward, horror had me firmly in its clutch. Those pocket-sized hardbacks of FrankensteinDracula and The Mummy were my initiation into the realms of the genre.

Not long afterwards, I spotted a film of the same name while scouring the TV Times. I’d read a horror book and now had one foot in a dimension hitherto open only to older children and grown-ups, but would my dad let me watch a horror movie? To my astonishment and delight, he did. That the film was over 40 years old, in black and white, and mild by eighties’ standards did not bother this horror-hungry young mind: The characters I had seen only in ink on a page were alive on the screen in my own living room.

It might sound impressive if I said it were Stevenson’s exposé of the duality in man and the darkness in all of us that resonated with me, but in truth the film’s allure was as plain as this: images of horror. It was Spencer Tracy’s eyes darting left and right as he rose from a park bench bent on a spree of terror; it was the chilling nonchalance of Tracy’s Hyde as he played the piano and spat grape seeds on the floor while Ingrid Bergman’s Ivy cowered behind him; it was the uncontrolled glee on Hyde’s face as he battered his victim to death with his cane; it was his shadowy figure disappearing into the London fog, his cloak flapping behind him.

This introduction to horror was the beginning of an obsession. I scoured the TV guides weekly to discover what new horror films awaited me, and I made a ritual of waking in the early hours, before school, to watch a video recording of the previous night’s ghoulish offering. My dedication soon paid off in the most sacred experience of them all: my first Hammer film.

It was roughly 1986, and the film was Dracula, back in the day when the title card actually read “Dracula,” in that beautifully ornate typeface, instead of the US title “Horror of Dracula.” I can visualize how its listing appeared in the pages of the Radio Times – I even remember there was a science documentary on the same night, and a photograph of outer space dominated the page. Seemingly minor details linger in the mind after such hallowed occasions as a Hammer devotee’s first Hammer horror. But the major details linger even stronger: Seeing for the first time Dracula’s disintegration as Van Helsing forces him into the sunlight; I experienced it several times over, thanks to the wonders of rewind.

The following year was the 30th anniversary of Hammer’s first Gothic horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein, and the BBC commemorated it with a documentary, Hammer: The Studio That Dripped Blood, and a season of Hammer weekend double-bills. Dracula, Prince of Darkness was paired with The Evil of FrankensteinThe Nanny with Rasputin, the Mad Monk. If Dracula was my conversion to Hammer, by this time I was a committed disciple. As I grew older, I would familiarize myself with the entire canon of Hammer horror films, acquainting myself intimately with Dracula, Frankenstein, zombies, werewolves, mummies and all manner of reptilian monster. Later, I read David Pirie’s seminal A Heritage of Horror and approached the films on another, more adult, level.

That’s not to say I wasn’t for turning. There was a period in my late teens when, as an evangelical in the religious sense, I became convinced I could not reconcile my love of Hammer films with my Christian faith. Full of zeal for Christ, I scrubbed my Hammer titles and vowed not to return to them – but I did. The lure of Hammer was too strong. When I had eventually left behind my naïve fundamentalist enthusiasm, Hammer was there waiting for me. Horror found me again

An obsession with horror, like any obsession, especially those that seized us while we were young, takes on evangelical overtones for those it holds. It becomes the source of visions, by day and by night (I have visited Bray Studios, the home of Hammer Films from 1951 to 1966, at least a dozen times in my dreams). It becomes the chief element of rituals, like my dawn ritual of watching Hammer, wearing the ceremonial robe of my bed sheet or duvet. Other followers become brothers and sisters, fellow devotees who understand the magic lost on outsiders.

As I think about my devotion, I realize it brings a kind of comfort to me. My preferred manner of settling down to a Hammer horror is still laying down, shrouded in blankets. To revisit a cherished Hammer movie is to cosy up with something familiar, something safe that belongs to a tradition I have valued since childhood.

 

The director Terence Fisher, the Hammer pioneer who made DraculaThe Curse of Frankenstein and well over a dozen other films for the company, envisaged evil not as ugly and repulsive, but as attractive. Biographer Winston Wheeler-Dixon termed this theme “the charm of evil.” It was this charm, working its powers through Dracula’s hypnotic glare and Baron Frankenstein’s cold and reckless pursuit of power over life and death, that seduced me almost three decades ago – and of which I remain its willing captive.