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The Hand-Painted Ghouls and Specters of Mid-20th-Century Carnival Ghost Trains

Hall & Fowle, Brett's "Ghost Train" (backdrop) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett’s Ghost Train (backdrop) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)

Almost all carnivals traveling the circuits in the United States and Great Britain in the 1940s and ’50s towed their own haunted railroad. These “ghost trains” represented the peak of pop-up dark rides, making use of the tight corners and enclosed spaces to spook visitors with ghoulish skeletons and moody lights. Although many of these featured hand-painted and sculptural designs, they were rarely considered art, and were often discarded.

Hall & Fowle, Brett's 'Ghost Train' (showfront) (from a design by Edwin Hall) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett’s Ghost Train (showfront) (from a design by Edwin Hall) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust) (click to enlarge)

The Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre, managed by the Fairground Heritage Trust, has a 1940s ghost train preserved as one of its vintage rides. The painted backdrops and front panels from Brett’s Ghost Train are among the nearly 200 objects from their collections digitized online at Art UK. The recently launched initiative from the former Public Catalogue Foundation with the BBC hosts images from public collections in the UK, encompassing around 3,000 museums.

As the Fairground Heritage Centre explains, Brett’s Ghost Train is “one of only a few remaining traditional Ghost Trains, which build up completely from scratch, rather than being lorry or trailer mounted.” The first ghost train is often dated to 1930, created by Joseph Emberton, and was inspired by the American “Pretzel” rides named for their twisty trains. However, the ghost trains ditched the scenic railroad and tunnel-of-love approaches and made them into morbid funhouses.

Hall & Fowle, Brett's 'Ghost Train' (showfront) (from a design by Edwin Hall) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett’s Ghost Train (showfront) (from a design by Edwin Hall) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett's 'Ghost Train' (showfront) (from a design by Edwin Hall) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett’s Ghost Train (showfront) (from a design by Edwin Hall) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)

The Brett’s Ghost Train ride itself was constructed in 1947 by the Amusement Supplies Company, and it got its elaborate painted exterior between 1948 and 1949. The firm Hall & Fowle (composed of fairground artists Billy Hall and Fred Fowle) created a dynamic scene of a skeleton-conducted train plowing through a terribly haunted station. Bats, ravens, and spiderwebs creep over all corners, while what appears to be a drunk Frankenstein’s monster slumps on a bench, and a door opens to a buffet where its distorted server carries a jug of poison. After Hall & Fowle’s uncanny additions, the ghost train was sold to Brett’s, and stayed with that carnival for years, and for five decades it hardly had any alterations.

Exterior of the Ghost Train (courtesy The Fairground Heritage Trust)
Exterior of Brett’s Ghost Train (courtesy The Fairground Heritage Trust)

Nick Laister wrote in an article for the museum that the ghost trains “were basically buildings that were built up from scratch, and required a large team of people to construct them,” which “became a major drawback and by the 1960s showmen were looking for rides that could be built up more quickly and cheaply, thus marking the end of the great travelling ghost train.” They also were never that scary, and only lasted a few minutes, the safe fun coming from the quick turns on the tracks that offered unexpected mirrors, strobe light phantoms, and eerie noises.

The Fairground Heritage Trust acquired Brett’s Ghost Train in 1994, and now it’s installed amidst the colorful spectacle of carnival art and rides in their museum, which include a 19th-century Rodeo Switchback, a 1930s Art Deco-style chariot racer, scenery from a 1970s ghost train by Fred Fowle and Roger Vinney, the traveling wagons of an illusionist and his lion tamer son, and numerous vintage game stalls. Many of these rides are available for visitors to experience, and you can check out some of the old timey terrors from Brett’s Ghost Train with this POV footage by psyclonesteve on YouTube:

Hall & Fowle, Brett's "Ghost Train" (backdrop) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett’s Ghost Train (backdrop) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett's Ghost Train (backdrop) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett’s Ghost Train (backdrop) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett's "Ghost Train" (backdrop) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett’s Ghost Train (backdrop) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett's 'Ghost Train' (showfront) (from a design by Edwin Hall) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)
Hall & Fowle, Brett’s Ghost Train (showfront) (from a design by Edwin Hall) (1948-49), oil on metal (courtesy the Fairground Heritage Trust)

View more carnival art from the Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre online at Art UK.

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