The history of ghost trains in the UK can be traced back to the travelling fairground shows of the 1800s. In the days before thrilling rides, travelling fairs were primarily about shows – freak shows, waxworks and theatrical booths – and the ghost train takes its roots from this tradition. By the mid-1800s, Ghost Shows (theatrical productions, which often took place in booths on the fairground) were a major part of the travelling fairground scene.
In the UK, the modern amusement park dark ride can be traced back to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which itself had borrowed ideas from the huge exhibitions that were once held in the UK. The Pleasure Beach had installed the River Caves in 1910 and this was a rebuild of the river caves ride at London’s Earl’s Court Exhibition of 1909. This must have been a particularly awe-inspiring ride in the days when even Blackpool itself was considered to be an exotic destination by most people in Britain.
In the late 1920s, always looking to install the latest thrill from the USA, the Pleasure Beach decided to borrow one of the big hits from across the pond. The early part of the last century saw a boom in dark ride construction in the USA. These ‘pretzel rides’, as they were called, were named after the Pretzel Company that made many of these dark rides. The Pleasure Beach decided to build their own pretzel ride. As the name Pretzel was little known in the country and didn’t give much of a clue as to the ride itself, the park adopted the name ‘Ghost Train’, which was taken from a popular stage show of the time. The name stuck, and has been adopted as the generic name for this type of dark ride in amusement parks and travelling fairs across the United Kingdom, and still continues to be used to the present day.
Following the opening of Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s huge Ghost Train ride (opening year 1930), other major amusement parks installed similar rides: Dreamland (Margate), Pleasure Beach (Great Yarmouth) and Pleasureland (Southport) all had their own dark rides. Even holiday camp king Billy Butlin installed ghost trains in each of his chain of seaside amusement parks.
In 1936, Blackpool Pleasure Beach decided to install a larger ghost train and commissioned architect Joseph Emberton (the man behind the Casino building, Grand National station and Fun House, amongst other iconic Pleasure Beach structures) to design it. It had a hugely impressive frontage, opening up into what could only be described as a giant stage set, complete with roller coaster-style drop in the centre. The main ‘stage’ was flanked on either side by balconies, which served to add an extra moment of excitement for the riders and show park visitors that this ride was not only on one level, but two. The roller coaster-style drop has since been employed on many other ghost trains, including rides at Bridlington, Walton Pier, Dymchurch, Brean Leisure Park and, until recently, Morecambe and Brighton. (Morecambe’s ghost train closed at the end of the 1999 season, but part of the ride system was resurrected at Brean Leisure Park. Brighton Pier’s ghost train was destroyed by fire in early 2003). The first floor balconies are also much copied.
Ghost trains also became hugely popular in the travelling fairs in the 1940s and 1950s. These rides were basically buildings that were built up from scratch, and required a large team of people to construct them. By the 1960s and 1970s, showmen were looking for rides that could be built up more quickly, and that really marked the end of the great travelling ghost train. More recent years have seen a revival in the travelling ghost train. But the quest to make rides easier to build up and pull down has meant that most are now lorry or trailer mounted (i.e. the entire ride sits in the “back of a lorry”), so they are limited by space. The lack of a large amount of interior space has been offset somewhat by the huge foldout flash sported by many rides, which are often on several levels.
There was a Channel 4 documentary about trains (of the steam – not the ghost – variety) a few years ago, narrated by John Peel. The cameras took the viewer behind the faded façade into seemingly miles of twisting, turning track. Inside were the usual assortment of crumbling papier mache monsters and illuminated skeletons dangling from ceilings behind chicken wire. John Peel noted that the entire twisting, turning track was inside a building no bigger than the typical suburban bungalow. And he is right; most dark rides at British amusement parks (with a few notable exceptions) would fit into your typical 3-bedroom bungalow. In fact, many travelling ghost trains in this country do literally fit inside the back of a lorry, despite the fact that they have facades that suggest that you are entering a building the size of a typical Tesco supermarket.
So take our seat, keep your hands in the car at all times and – remember – you might just be scared out of your wits! c. Nick Laister