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“Like pinball and computer games, it’s hard to get people to take ghost trains seriously, but they aren’t just important, they are disappearing,” Joel Zika, creator of the Dark Ride Project, told Hyperallergic.
Through his initiative, the Melbourne-based Zika is traveling the world to record surviving ghost trains, also called dark rides or haunted house rides, as these midcentury thrills vanish from amusement parks. Using a custom low-light virtual reality (VR) camera and motion graphics, Zika and his team, including videographer Alex Murray and Kate Moon, are amassing a 360-degree visual archive of this phantasmagoric history. Dark Ride Project: Historic Haunts in VR is currently raising funds on Indiegogo to support the completion of this resource, particularly filming rides in the United States, and make the archive available to the public.
“Dark rides […] were the VR experiences of their day, they used ad hoc technology to produce unique and intimate experiences,” Zika explained. He’s been researching dark rides for a decade, and is currently completing a PhD alongside his work as a lecturer in screen studies at Deakin University in Melbourne. It was in that Australian city where he recorded his first dark ride: the 1930s Ghost Train at Luna Park.
According to Zika, at one point there were over 1,700 dark rides around the world, with only 18 of those original rides known to survive. As previously covered on Hyperallergic, much of the hand-painted scenery of the 1940s and ’50s “ghost trains” was scrapped when parks closed or flashier rides took their place, and their physical preservation is rare, although institutions like the Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre in England still protect full rides like Brett’s Ghost Train.
Dark rides emerged on a large scale in the 1930s through their production by the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company, and started disappearing in the 1970s, as the process of constructing a whole building was cumbersome, and the terror of riding a tiny train by plastic skeletons and flashing lights lost some of its edge. However, these were the precursors to the horror media that emerged later in the 20th century.
“Before horror films, dark rides were a unique place to explore what lay beyond the safe suburban boundaries,” Zika said. “All of the tropes of ’80s horror were first experimented with in the dark ride, whether it was exploring an abandoned house or riding down an old mine shaft.” He added that there’s also an overlooked connection to the mechanics of cinema. Rides like the surviving Spook-A-Rama at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park in New York’s Coney Island have “no walls but the cart has high sides that crop the image and maneuver you through the scenes like a camera on a movie set.”
The Dark Ride Project’s plans for 2017 include documenting historic haunts in Georgia, Utah, Pennsylvania, and New York. You can see a preview of their work in the video below:
Dark Ride Project: Historic Haunts in VR is raising funds on Indiegogo through September 30.