Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Lost Glory of Ghost Trains

There are those who gawp open-mouthed at rollercoasters and those who fall to their knees at ghost trains. There is something profoundly alluring and strangely shocking about gazing upon the elaborately decorated exterior of a ghost train, an experience which promises not only the (admittedly restrained) thrill of a rollercoaster but also elements which have been specifically designed to frighten you. Not to play upon a fear of heights or the exhilaration of speed but things specifically placed to make you scared.

Ghost trains still exist, of course, but we have largely entered an age of more immersive shocks – Halloween night in which actors dressed as famous horror characters chase you around carefully mapped environments; escape rooms which demand you interact; augmented realities which use technology to fool your brain. Tradition ghost trains lowered a bar which locked you into a rickety cart and plunged you into God knows where. You weren’t a participant, you were in some senses the victim.

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Although magic lantern shows, projecting apparent spirits before an assembled audience, had been popular throughout the 1800s, it wasn’t until the 1930s that what we would now view as ‘ghost trains’ appeared at amusement parks. Static and travelling fairs had long used theatrical presentations with a supernatural theme, freak shows, illusions and grand spectacle to wow and unnerve audiences but, perhaps inevitably for British readers, it was Blackpool Pleasure Beach which brought together many of these ideas into one attraction.

Taking note of the boom in what were dubbed ‘Pretzel Rides’ in the United States, named after the Pretzel Company which made them, Blackpool Pleasure Beach ‘borrowed’ one to adapt the strategy that was already seen to attract large crowds – a small car on a single rail, meandering around a mazy, twisted (like a pretzel) environment; sometimes a gold mine, sometimes a winter wonderland. The unique selling factor was to brand these cars as trains and to garishly adorn the advertising banners outside with suggestions of the scares and thrills within.

It opened in 1930 and was designed by architect Joseph Emberton; it is notable as being the first real “Ghost Train” in the world, and the first to use the name of Ghost Train – at the time, ‘Ghost Train’ was a very successful stage-show written by Arnold Ridley (better known as Private Godfrey from World War Two-based TV comedy, ‘Dad’s Army’), and it was also necessary to present British audiences with something unrelated to pretzels, a rather unknown quantity in the country. Lacking pretty much anything spook-related, it wasn’t until 1936 that Emberton scaled up his design to become a two-storey experience with added horror. Emrbeton also designed the casino and Funhouse at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, as well as the building occupied by HMV on London’s Oxford Street. Blackpool’s ghost train has continued to be given overhauls, perhaps most notably in 1973 when the enormous iconic skeleton was installed and the castle battlements were added.

Ghost trains soon caught on – Dreamland (Margate), Pleasure Beach (Great Yarmouth) and Pleasureland (Southport) all soon had rides of a similar nature – small carriages carrying no more than two people, travelling along a pre-determined twisting route, often complete with sudden drops. Then, as now, the frights were largely based on the train crashing through gated entrances into pitch blackness, only to have lights, sounds and sudden movements jolt you from your otherwise rather gentle ride. Jump scares were the order of the day and the threat of nightmares as a result of craven images or harrowing scenes were unlikely. It was impossible to gauge whereabouts you were on the journey, the darkness shielding you from what would no doubt terrify you in terms of the minuscule scale of the ride you had shelled out for.

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The rides themselves were forgotten almost as soon as they ended, not least as they lasted barely five minutes. What drove people to them in their masses were the exteriors – temples to the skills of designers and painters who let their imaginations run riot, with little thought as to whether what went on inside had anything to do with their creations.

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The addition of familiar horror characters from films and popular culture came later, in the 1940s. When Emberton redesigned Blackpool’s Ghost Train, no expense was spared. A huge frontage was erected and essentially a rollercoaster was built within, across two levels. It set the standard and from this point onwards, ghost trains used ever-more elaborate marketing to sell their experience.

Sound was a key component of the rides, with unearthly groans, screams and moaning creating a tense atmosphere regardless of the rubber bats and plywood coffins. Improbably, Blackpool’s ghost train features an edited version of Tangerine Dream‘s ‘Impression of Sorceror’, from William Friedkin‘s excellent 1977 film, ‘Sorceror’. You suspect that the rights to the music from another of his films were a little too high.

The key to the most desirable rides in terms of the fairground owners was that they should be cheap, easy to run and, perhaps most importantly, easy to pack up when moving on to a new location – at this stage, static fairgrounds were something of a rarity. This was, to some extent, the ghost train’s undoing; the evolution of the ride stifled its usefulness.

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So huge were many of the drops and turns of the train that the height of the attraction had reached its limit, though this did at least give huge scope to colourful, vibrant displays – by the 1980s, you were as likely to see images of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video as you were Frankenstein, Dracula or later, Pinhead or Freddy Krueger. Luminescent paint, lit by black lights highlight characters people will instantly recognise from horror films, in a wide range of qualities and stages of dilapidation.  Horrific automatons often gave way to actors daubed in zombie make-up to further alarm the general public.

It is worth noting that ghost trains as a rule are rarely frightening. Indeed, they are possibly the shortest ride at the funfair, you’d be lucky to be on longer than 4 minutes on average. There is, however, an undeniable quaintness about them, exuding memories of a bygone age of barkers, pickpockets and plate-lipped ladies. The zillions pumped into the likes of The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland rather missed the point – flaky paint and rubber spiders are the true spirit of the ghost train, not lasers and 3D technology.

Daz Lawrence

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