Keep your arms and legs inside the car at all times; here be ghosts.
Recently I heard that the Muppets were joining forces with the Haunted Mansion ride for a Disney+ special and I was obscenely excited; not least because the trailer was very Pepe-heavy, and oh how I love that prawn. But this got me thinking, as much as I adore the Haunted Mansion – Its easily my favourite ghost-centric ride – Disney’s offering is but one incarnation in a long tradition of spectral fairground rides.
The first Ghost Train on record was not a glitzy Disney invention, but opened in 1930 in Blackpool, England. For the uninitiated, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is a seaside amusement park in Lancashire, packed with record-breaking roller coasters, arcades, shows and countless snack kiosks, filled with a thousand ways to rot your teeth. Opened in 1896, the park was founded by A.W.G. Bean and John Outhwaite and is still operated by the family, with Bean’s great-granddaughter currently managing the business.
While the ghost train as a fairground ride is arguably a British invention, it came about via an American import. In 1930 the ‘Ghost Train’ box car ride opened, which was a little box carriage travelling in darkness, on a single, winding rail, with scenes and dioramas to see along the way.
The box car ride itself was known widely as a ‘Pretzel Ride’ in America, with ‘pretzel’ referencing the twisting track followed by the car. Such a structure was ideal for the pleasure beach, where space was at a premium. A winding track could comfortably fit into a small space, and with a ghost theme added, the cramped environment and darkness of the building was suddenly an advantage. While the American branding of a Pretzel Ride had been in place since the 1920s, the reference didn’t translate to the UK, where pretzels weren’t a widely-known reference or foodstuff. As such, it was rebranded.
At the time of its construction ‘The Ghost Train’ was a popular thriller-comedy play by Arnold Ridley, and the name of the ride was chosen to capitalise on the play’s renown. While Ridley’s name as a playwright isn’t a household one (in his career, Ridley penned over 30 plays!), he gained immense popularity later in life for his acting talents, playing Private Godfrey in the beloved BBC series, Dad’s Army. The play centres around a group of strangers, stranded at a train station with the threatening legend of a Ghost Train close in their minds. The play enjoyed a sold-out run in its first year and established the tense trope of the ‘strangers trapped together at a train station’, which fed into later films such as The Lady Vanishes (1938) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). ‘The Ghost Train’ enjoyed several radio and tv adaptations, becoming a minor modern classic.
The ride, named ‘Ghost Train’ (no ‘the’), was initially a simple one-storey ride with strangely, no real theme beyond the name. However, it was redesigned by Joseph Emberton and rebuilt in 1936 as an Art Deco double-deck affair. It was developed further in 1957 by Jack Ratcliff when the whole structure was moved to accommodate the huge size of the Wild Mouse ride. By 1973, the Ghost Train was well and truly established as the spooky place to be, when it was remodelled with a castle design and with a looming skeleton above. Since then, the ride has maintained and developed its ghostly displays, mostly using luminescent paint, lit by blacklight, and plenty of special effects. Some of the contemporary displays directly reference horror films and classic novels, such as Dracula, rather than general spooky decoration.
[The Roof Skeleton. Photo: Phill Anderson]
Arguably, the charm with the Blackpool Ghost Train lies in its weathered and general tatty appearance. The ride begins as an open train station, decorated with fantastical creatures and jerkily travels through non-specific scenes of furnaces, glowing paintings and general spooky sounds before briefly returning to the front of the ride, where the cart begins the ascent to the second storey. Returning to darkness, you’re met with skeletons, cogs, more glowing rocks than you can shake a stick at and ominous graffiti, featuring words such as ‘Bone Grinder’. After passing a clip of The Exorcist and a knackered pink werewolf, the terrifying displays (that appear to have last been updated around 1997) and ominous creaks continue. The final stretch features dioramas of mannequins in vampiric and pseudo-Exorcist scenes, before finishing with a few glowing skeletons on bikes and a piercing siren that reminds you that no, you’re not in the bowels of hell, its Blackpool.
Many of the scenes that exist in the ride today were repurposed from the strangely titled ‘Trauma Towers’, which closed in 2008. Trauma Towers has a brief but fascinating history itself. Opened in 1980 (after a frustrating few years where the ride was present at the park, but not open to the public), it was originally named The Haunted Hotel and was framed as a ramshackle hotel where visitors would be guided between spooky rooms, The experience eventually culminated in a very disorientating Tagada flat ride (Tagadas are large dish-shaped rides where riders sit around the outer edge with no seatbelts and are spun at great speeds, which pins riders to their seats) . This later addition was achieved by merging the ‘hotel’ with the adjoining ride and rendering the two in the same blue brick finish. Upon opening, The Haunted Hotel was a curiously sedentary experience, being either pitch black or illuminated by UV/black lights during the walk-through. It featured narrow corridors with tableaus of rooms that could be viewed from behind tiny glass windows, which only aided in keeping the ride as dark and as creepy as possible.
Other recent changes to the Ghost Train have included the substitution of a druid scene for a head-spinning Exorcist replacement and the removal of an Egyptian-themed section, which was replaced with a forest scene, decorated with bodies and questionable snake-like creatures. Coherent themes, be gone!
[Terror truly awaits]
While Blackpool’s ghosts will never match up to the glamour and characterisation of Disney, there remains a certain charm in a chipped werewolf and a seat so uncomfortable, you can barely walk away from the terror you so valiantly endured.
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Sources/Further Reading/Fun Stuff:
Enormous thanks to my friend Ian for sharing his memories of the Haunted Hotel and Blackpool Pleasure Beach. His knowledge of rides and mucky postcards has been invaluable.
POV Ride along! (2021) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOpfqwbzPCE