skew * ten *  september '95

The Sections Afraid of the dark?
These amusements are the stuff of nightmares
and a historian's dream

by Brandon Kwiatek

When it comes to amusement parks, the carousel's fine with its candy colors, and the roller coaster dandy in all its varieties. But give me a dusty, dingy dark ride over them any day. That's right, the lowly dark ride -- also known variously as ghost trains, spook houses, and pretzel rides. You've seen them in parks and along carnival midways, but you may have overlooked them. (Collectors, historians and ride enthusiasts have, too). They're the mansions, gold mines, and ghost ships, filled with spectres and corpses, whose twisting, turning tracks delivered you through all the clichés of Saturday afternoon creature double features. Packed with bumps in the dark, paper maché and blacklights, their frights gave you the chance to scream, laugh or snuggle closer to your beau.


And for me, they are an object of obsession -- or, at least, a subject of fascination. My first memory of life on earth is of a dark-ride relative, a fun house at Dorney Park,operating nearly in my backyard, in my home town of Allentown, Pa. For years this "Wacky Shack," with its frighteningly distorted gables and rakish windows, haunted me as an unexplained fragment, a strange and nameless otherworld that I had once visited. In 1972, fire destroyed the Wacky Shack, obscuring my infant memory, turning it into a hazy picture, which I presumed I had pulled out of a nightmare. Image of dark ride figure

Some 23 years later, in the course of my research on dark rides, I came across a photo of the Wacky Shack, a second-generation photocopy as blurred as my memory of it. It was at once a revelation and an explanation for all the energy I'd spent researching such ignoble attractions. Nothing comes from nowhere -- in my case, dark rides just came from don't-know-where. To borrow from Carl Jung, our unresolved past only returns to us again and again, until we work it out. My life appears to have been haunted by the old ramshackle shapes of the Wacky Shack, its entire course merely a roundabout means of reconciling myself to this petty yet unresolved mystery.

It now seems perfectly reasonable that I should have been indelibly impressed with the dark rides at Dorney Park. The Bucket O' Blood, a pirate ghost ship emblazoned with skulls and crossbones, and amplified by the relentless wash of the sea and creak of shivering timbers; the Gold Mine, a dark walk-through whose shadowed entrance both beckoned and disturbed me and whose Boot Hill, a gravelly mound complete with protruding horse hooves and wagon wheels, awakened my fear of being buried alive; Journey to the Center of the Earth, a tunneled boat ride into a netherworld guarded by listless yellow octopi and hairy spiders. My fear of these tawdry spectacles faded over the years, of course, replaced first by scorn, then indifference, and finally nostalgia. That I should now be so committed to documenting and understanding similar rides seems eerily inevitable.

To some extent, my continued interest in these shabby dark rides embarrasses me. After all, having a taste for dark rides is not unlike having a secret fetish for other cultural dreck, like Ed Wood movies or soft-core bondage magazines featuring Bettie Page. But we have reached that decadent point in the century when it is possible -- even fashionable -- to revel in the trash of our past. When we laugh at these dark rides as innocuous relics of paper maché and blacklight, we laugh the laugh that poet Charles Baudelaire considered utterly satanic: the last act of desperation in an age of relativity, where we can raise ourselves only by lowering others into a state of ridiculousness. But when we laugh too hard at the dark ride's grotesques, we reveal only too clearly our own discomfort with the past. In an age in which all former certainties are consumed, and all national myths deconstructed, we take strange comfort in slumming among the squalid and the commercially crass. Image of skeletons and ghosts at the Gold Rusher

But I seek to elevate the dark ride above the garbage heap of popular culture by allowing it to transcend itself. In the dark ride I see the lost stage for a medieval mystery play, where we get to be Jesus, busting into the inferno and making our way through a "Harrowing of Hell." I see the crumbling skeletons who skipped through the dance of death during the plague years. I see the fairground waxworks and torture chambers of the secularized Age of Reason, which incited our taste for goosebumps and gothic chills. The dark ride's made of the stuff of Hollywood's Golden Age of Corn: 3-D, joy buzzers, gimmicks and gizmos. And it points to Western civilization's attempts to escape reality with shocks and sensations that surpass the real thing.


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