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Preserving America's Spookiest Amusements

Meet the guy using high-tech tools to document rickety scare shacks.

A haunted attraction in Camden Park, near Huntington, West Virginia. (Courtesy Joel Zika)

Joel Zika straps his 3-D camera rig to a chair splattered with fake blood and asks if he’s breaking the rules. He’s not trespassing: He has permission to be in Coney Island before the amusement park opens to visitors on a mid-October morning. But he’s worried that he’s flouting the unspoken agreement of horror by documenting all the jump scares and secret surprises along the park’s Spook-A-Rama haunted house ride.

Spook-a-Rama is what’s known to amusement park aficionados as a “dark ride”—it jerks cars along “pretzel tracks” that wind in on themselves inside a single open room, creating the illusion of a scary journey through spooks set up around the space. The spine-prickling thing about dark rides is that you don’t see the thrills coming. Unlike a roller coaster, which advertises its tumbles and loops, in Spook-A-Rama you lurch around in pitch darkness, in a cart with sides that blind your peripheral vision. Zika says it’s an impressive feat of infrastructure, and he’s using virtual reality to duplicate the ridegoers’ experience and puzzle out how the whole thing works.

Joel Zika sends a camera through dark rides to capture the spooky trip. (Courtesy Joel Zika)

A lecturer at Deakin University in Australia, Zika leads a conservation effort he calls the Dark Ride Project. Ghost trains like Spook-A-Rama, which was built in 1955, are staring down the Reaper: Of the 1,700 that once haunted parkgoers across the world, only 18 remain, he says. Many were the victims of changing geographies or tastes; others, like Spook-A-Rama, were ravaged by time and tide. Coney Island was submerged by Hurricane Sandy. The salt water corroded the old mesh gimmicks; elements short-circuited, and mold bloomed across many of the novelties. Some were salvaged and refurbished—an old figure got a new face and is back rattling the bars. But the destruction highlighted how vulnerable these old artifacts are.

Coney Island’s Spook-A-Rama, one of the a handful of vintage dark rides still in operation. (Jessica Leigh Hester/CityLab)

While there are a handful of enthusiasts who chronicle the rides, Zika says that the amusement industry has been largely left out of historical accounts. He’s found that some museums are reluctant to take ephemera from amusement parks seriously, because it’s a relic of popular culture that sometimes reads as childlike—and he sees that mentality fastening its grip. “We’re struggling at the moment to get people to document computer games,” he says. He worries that, as old-school amusement parks continue to shutter, the window is closing to fill in the gap in the record. Once the attractions are dismantled, he adds, “it will be gone, and you won’t even be able to reference it, or look it up.”

Via crowdfunding, Zika raised $14,000 to document the spooky attractions with a 3-D camera, allowing viewers to experience vintage rides in cutting-edge VR. So far, he’s trained his lens on amusements in Melbourne, Florida, West Virginia, Alabama, Maryland, and Delaware, in addition to Coney Island. (Check out a preview of his Spook-A-Rama video, below.)

The rides, most of which date from 1900 to 1970, illustrate the history of Americans’ relationship to leisure, technology, and to places. The precursor was the “Old Mill” ride, where patrons floated through tunnels in boats. In the early 20th century, tunnel-of-love-style dark rides lolled past scenic dioramas, offering a chance for canoodling, says Lauren Rabinovitz, a professor of American studies and cinema at the University of Iowa and author of Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity. In the pre-Disney era, she adds, amusement parks were all about sneaky transgressions, and dark rides allowed frisky couples “the ultimate freedom to be alone.” By the 1920s, traditional fairgrounds saw a shrunken audience; the cinema siphoned off attendance, which was already slashed by the Depression. As parks started shutting down, they took on a dystopian air that highlighted the division between the city and its outskirts, Zika says. The modern dark ride emerged as an ad-hoc attraction that could be laid out and reshuffled piece by piece, Zika wrote in a recent piece for The Conversation.

On their own, photos and videos can’t reproduce the sensory gimmicks designed to spook riders: the gust of air slapping your face, a squirt of water, a string trailing down your shoulder or across your cheeks. But Zika hopes that capturing these rides in an immersive way—coupling the visuals with accelerometer data that gauges the cars’ twists and hiccups—will make it possible to approximate the experience with the haptic tools of VR. “It’s about trying to record the timing,” he says. “When the pops go off, when things creak over, the shakes—the imperfections. You can’t write that down.”

An abandoned ride at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach, Florida. (Courtesy Joel Zika)

Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, which includes Spook-A-Rama, is also experimenting with blending modern technology and old-school scares. The park debuted a new attraction in July, says DJ Vourderis, whose family runs the outfit. Called Dark Ride XD, it's a 3-D shooter game with haptic elements. Strobes throb as lightning splits; the chair buzzes as you careen over cliffs and grapple with zombies. At $8, it's only a buck more than the lo-fi ride across the way. Is Vourderis worried, I wondered, that the new ride will leave its elderly cousin in the dust? "They complement each other," he says. “You love your new car, but you look at a ’69 Mustang, and you’re like, ‘wow.’”

Though amusement parks are evocative, a single memory of being terrified on a sunbaked afternoon isn’t going to keep old rides chugging along, Zika says. But he hopes that there will be strength in numbers, and that his virtual reality project will keep the dark rides in real world, too. “Saying, ‘These are the ones that are left; these are the people doing something about it’—that might solidify the history.”

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.