Although magic lantern shows, projecting apparent spirits before an assembled audience, had been popular throughout the 1800’s, it wasn’t until the 1930’s 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, 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, y’see) 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 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!)
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. The ride largely took place in the dark with the occasionally punctuation of noise and lights to make the riders jump. The addition of familiar horror characters from films and popular culture came later, in the 1940’s. Such was their success, Emberton was again called upon to put Blackpool’s Ghost Train back on the map. This time, no expense was spared, a huge frontage was erected and a essentially a rollercoaster built within, across two levels. It set the standard and from this point onwards, ghost trains used ever-elaborate marketing to sell their experience, though the ride itself rarely had much to do with the visuals promised.
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 actually stifled the usefulness.
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 was colourful, lurid displays – by the 1980’s, you were as likely to see images of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video as you were Frankenstein Dracula or later, Pinhead or Freddy Krueger. Horrific automatons often gave way to actors daubed in zombie make-up to alarm the general public yet further.
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 (which was even turned into a movie!) rather missed the point – flaky paint and rubber spiders are the true spirit of the ghost train, not lasers and 3D technology.
Terror at Blackpool https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcNxav7W-m8