Recollections / October 29, 2018
The itinerant fun fairs that stalked the British Isles, descending at regular intervals upon some desolate local field like shoddy Fortean dream cities, were once a major part of the informal national calendar. As a child growing up in the hinterland of the world’s most beautiful town—the gleaming futurist metropolis known as Doncaster, South Yorkshire—I was lucky enough to live near a fuck-off massive one: the St. Leger fair, held every September on the town’s racetrack. I was also lucky that, despite having benefited from the post-war opportunities Britain then offered working class families, my parents had none of the snobbish dislike of the tacky prole entertainments of their own youths that many who had managed to ascend the class system, however slightly, seemed to develop: shit food and cheap thrills were, thank God, an unironic part of my upbringing. Prime among fairground joys—which included the reek of steamed onions and hot dogs; the puttering and stench of the generators; the atmosphere saturated with sugar vapor, pheromones, and crazed hedonism; the muffled roar of Top 40 hits blasting out of wonky PAs; and the roving gangs of teenage yobboes dressed in the latest fashions—was the ghost train, which any respectable fair must possess.
Ghost trains are a form of the “dark ride” that first appeared in the 19th century, when they were often known as “scenic railways” and “tunnels of love,” taking visitors seated in small cars through an unlit space containing a series of tableaux, the lack of light and abrupt changes of direction disorienting their passengers and concealing the real size of the attraction. The first single-rail electric boxcar dark ride was patented by New Jersey’s Pretzel Amusement Ride Company in 1928 (“pretzel” for the convoluted, space-exploiting shape of the track), and it was an imported Pretzel ride that provided the chassis for the world’s first ghost train. This was in Blackpool, the Lancashire seaside town that became a holiday destination after it was connected to the rest of the country by rail in the 19th Century. During the one-week closure that local cotton mills—then the area’s primary industry—effected to allow machinery to be serviced, millworkers took to visiting Blackpool, which soon developed into a hub for forward-looking working-class tourism and entertainment. In 1879, it was the first municipality in the world to have electric street lighting, and in 1896 became home to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, whose founder, Alderman William George Bean, was inspired to add more rides and sideshows after a visit to Coney Island.
Taking its name from a successful 1923 play (written by Arnold Ridley, familiar to Brits as Private Godfrey in WWII-set sitcom Dad’s Army) that had been filmed in 1927, the Pleasure Beach’s Ghost Train opened in 1930. With carny roots sunk deep in the freak shows, waxworks, and ghost shows of the previous century’s traveling fairs, the ghost train offered visitors contact with the archetypes of terror, which loomed out of the darkness drenched in fluorescent paint. The ride was a hit, and its success inspired amusement parks and itinerant fairgrounds around the UK to create their own versions.
I never actually tried the original Ghost Train: on visits to the Pleasure Beach with my nana during the ’70s, I would be dispatched with 20 pence while she went off to play the penny falls, but infant-me was far too innately cowardly to take it on my own, despite my consuming obsession with all things horror. Nana could not be convinced to chaperone me: liking being scared was “daft,” if not actually “wet”—though a touch of native superstition may have informed her refusal.
Despite its popularity nationwide, it’s probably no coincidence that the ghost train is a product of the North of England, whose Irish diaspora-heavy population is steeped in surreal Gaelic mythology and bloody Catholic grotesqueries, and still retains a muscle memory of bloody oppression at the hands of both the British and Norman crowns. With its miniature worlds of terror, by turns laughable and terrifying, the ghost train draws heavily on this heritage, creating inside its cramped spaces entire galaxies of horror.
Ghost trains are further proof that it is the colloquial, extempore expressions of popular culture that are its truest form: the rides’ gaudy frontages, free of stultifying formal homogeneity, their random assemblages of whatever scary paraphernalia their creators could cobble together. Unlike the cultured horrors of your M.R. Jameses, their undigested vomiting up of anything that might titillate potential customers into giving up their 10 pence evokes the simultaneous fear of and attraction to madness and altered states that surely lies beneath our relationship with the supernatural. Though the rides themselves were often underwhelming (the owners’ minimal investment in the actual scares being visible even to children as credulous as me), the build-up beforehand and the ramshackle edifice that housed the ghost train had all the power of a genuine rite of passage, made even more intense by the urban legends that would proliferate whenever one made an appearance—about people dying of fright inside, or crazed murderers entering and butchering the visitors in their little cars. The idea of the ghost train—of a moderated encounter with the supernatural and the beyond—was the real Ghost Train.
Usually perched at the side of some muddy track, these strange amalgamations of peripatetic commerce, informal art installation, and cobbled-together happening dominated my mind throughout the late ’70s. The year that I both played Space Invaders and rode a ghost train for the first time provided me with an experience of almost religious intensity as, in the first case, I watched passive in the face of an alien invasion I was powerless to prevent (I’d been so hysterical to play that I hadn’t actually read the instructions before putting my money in), and, in the second case, was plunged into a world of supernatural terror along with my terrified mum, coming out of the other side and departing the car with shaky legs while other visitors pushed their way past us to board. Existing on the borderline between the ludicrous and the eerie—between cynical commerce and transcendent folk vision, engineering and mystery—and framed in the language of inexpensive proletarian amusement, the ghost train provided a metaphorical journey through death and fear and ritual rebirth.
The photos above come from Sheffield University’s incredible National Fairground and Circus Archive, founded by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, herself the descendant of the Lancashire show family; she spent her childhood working for her family’s fair. The NFCA hosts a vast array of material on traveling fairs and circuses and the lives of the showpeople who ran them. Many of the photographs were taken by Paul Angel, a fairground enthusiast and sign writer whose collection documents the ups and downs of the fairground ride in the 1970s and ’80s.
Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.