An influential but often unlabeled aspect of American culture is the dark ride, or ghost train, an amusement park ride that takes passengers on a moving tour of an indoor set (think It’s a Small World After All). 36-year-old Australian screen studies professor Joel Zika has taken on the dying entertainment genre as his pet project, capturing the world’s remaining historic ghost trains through virtual reality. Coney Island’s Spook-a-Rama, located in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, is one of his most interesting subjects.
We had a chance to talk to Zika about his Dark Ride Project and how he plans on capturing the Spook-a-Rama ride in virtual reality on his trip to Brooklyn in October, documenting the experience for posterity.
What’s the history of ghost rides?
They actually date back before film itself.
When Coney Island had the original Luna Park, there was a ride called Trip to the Moon. It was made by Frederick Thompson in 1901, in Buffalo, for the World’s Fair. You got on a boat and you “went off to the moon”. It was moving, shaking, with slide projectors and rolling imagery, a boat plane with flapping wings and cycloramas. They named the park after the ride.
If you’re a film buff, the interesting thing about that ride is that it came out nine months before the film Voyage to the Moon. Back in the day rides were really important, as important as movies.
In Melbourne, we’ve got an original Luna Park rip off here, and it looks the same as it did at the turn of the century.
Of these really old rides from the last century there’s only about 14 left, 12 in the States, from the ‘60s and earlier.
What inspired you to start The Dark Ride Project?
The technology stuff is a way to make sure there’s a record, not just of what the rides looked like outside or props but the actual experience. It’s really missing from 20th century popular culture, that we don’t record the experience.
Threats like Hurricane Sandy, that really knocked around the Spook-a-Rama, that’s the impetus to do this project, because I’m just a fan
This is something that’s not going to last forever, and it’s not ok, but it’s not the end of the world if we can get together and acknowledge it.
How do you go about creating the virtual reality footage?
The coolest thing about it is that it’s actually a century-old idea. You have to make sure you take pictures from all angles. The hard part of the job is getting the cameras to grip onto the carts and then I have three cameras that capture it at exactly the same time and it’s just a matter of blending the images from those three cameras together. You’ve got to do it in one go.
So what’s the story of the Spook-a-Rama?
It was built in 1955 by The Pretzel Amusement Ride Company, the most important company for dark rides. The Pretzel Company designed an indoor spook ride in 1927, patented it, made 1,700 of them, and distributed them internationally. The reason they’re called The Pretzel Company is because of the way the rides twist in on themselves.
The thing that’s really interesting about Spook-a-Rama is there are no walls — it’s just a bunch of props in the middle of a hole.
Have you come across any haunted houses or rides that are clearly inspired by the Spook-a-Rama?
You see some of the characters in Spook-a-Rama replicated in rides from the 1960s and 1970s in the South. And you also see, more importantly, in new rides, just how different rides from the 1950s and 1960s are. The old rides don’t have zombies. There is a bit in Spook-a-Rama, but only because they’ve had to replace stuff. Spook-a-Rama is really one of the last places you see horror.
How can people get involved and help out, besides donating to your Indiegogo?
They should get on Facebook and harass me with all their memories, because ultimately this project will lead to an archive and all of that history and shared experience is really important. More rewarding than any financial thing is to establish an audience and make sure people connect with it and make it their own.