An ode to haunted house rides

We make our way across the feria. Pushing through the pools of people collecting at the edges of the fairground attractions, I feel excited and impatient for what’s to come. Everything is loud and lovely. A cacophony of sound and smells descend, and this usually designated carpark is transformed into an illuminous mass I suspect you may be able to see from space. Raffle tickets crinkle under foot as the tombola blares out his wares and treasures and urges you to step right up.

I love the feria. I have been coming here since I was a child. It is at once nostalgic and familiar. Nothing really changes here, save the stuffed toy prizes from the latest film release or trend hanging above the games. This feria is the same feria I have moved through for as long as I have called Spain home. As someone who oscillates and evolves almost constantly, this consistency is sacred.

But I’m not only here for the cheap sangria or stomach churning rides that instil fear not for their nature, but for the fact they are assembled and reassembled every couple of weeks. No. I’m here for the haunted house. For its corniness and cheap scares and rickety railway. It’s incongruous. Almost offensive to the senses and it makes no apologies. I’ve always had a small, strange soft spot for fairground haunted houses and horror rides. It began, as most loves do, in childhood. I can’t trace the exact moment, but I’ve always been fascinated by death and the decaying. The finite and the doomed. It crops up in my writing over and over.

We’re getting close now and I am already captivated by the ghoulish faces guarding the entrance. There’s something in the art work — because it is art work. Diligently created, both surreal and uncanny while undeniably cheap. But there’s love here. Someone put their heart into the paint. You can see it. Feel it. You just need to look close enough.

As we queue up, I can also spy the strange and overly sexualised portraits that litter its walls and the ripped-off, spray painted monsters that snarl over corpses. Glowing eyes and bad animatronics. A hand clasping a knife that threatens the crowd over and over. Another hand reaching out from a grave. A scantily clad vampire leering in the moonlight. There is a piece here I could write about the entanglement of death and sensuality that plays out on these makeshift canvases, but there are enough tangents in this essay and I’m pretty sure Sontag has it covered, so I’ll try and stay on track.

Roll up, roll up for the creep show

I suppose these rides remind me of the rare materiality you seem to only find in old 80s horror films, where limited resources and tight budgets intermingled to create solutions that appear both insane and ingenious. And I guess for neurotics like myself, full of hope and agony in often equalling measures, such intentional anxiety is a blessing.

Horror movies provide the same relief as rollercoaster rides or meditation does. It is controlled fear. Fear turned into something enjoyable. My mind set on something that for once won’t permit my attention to move from it. Where my anxiety usually keeps me up at night, leaves me ruminating and worrying and obsessing over minutia and the mundane, these rides and films represent something different. Something I’ve chosen. And that choice is a powerful thing.

But back to the story. Or rather, the stories we create around stories. It’s hard to imagine now in a season of CGI, but once upon a time everything was made by hand. This arts and crafts approach in the 80s lent itself to folklore, interest and intrigue, and made scenes seem rich and organic. I think of the real rumoured skeletons found floating in the swimming pool alongside Diane Freeling in Poltergeist, or the exorcism they did on set.

Consider the Omen. A film that racked up so many deaths and disasters even the sceptics among us would second guess ourselves. Planes were struck by lightning or crashed out the sky. Animals attacked their trainers on set. The director’s son killed himself. Hotels were bombed. The film’s special effects sculptress, Liz Moore and her husband, the director of special effects John Richardson, were driving in Holland when they got into a head on collision. Moore was decapitated in a manner mirroring a similar death in the film. Richardson also swears he saw a sign on the side of the road listing the town of Ommen, which was supposedly some 66.6 kilometres away from the crash.

The Exorcist had a similar atmosphere around its release and its crew suffered everything from bad luck to outright murder. The Blair Witch made a website so real its content was taken as truth. Rosemary’s Baby, too, was supposedly cursed. But I’d say that was more owing to its paedophilic director than the actual devil. Call it good marketing or madness, but these events happened. And they added layers and complexity to the film’s fabric. It made it seem almost real. But then again, we humans have a habit of spotting patterns where there are none just to keep our anxious brains from screaming.

You are now entering the Twilight Zone

To enjoy horror films and rides you need to suspend your disbelief. You need to take a leap into the unknown; ignoring the parts of the ride where the decoration is deteriorating or overlook the plot holes that simply don’t make sense. You need to believe. Even just for a while. And within that liminality, that potential and imaginative space where anything is possible and monsters are indeed real, a genuine fear slips in.

Because what if this time it is true? What if this time the jump scare isn’t just the rotting robotic carcass of some animatronic maniac, but is actually a real killer lurking in the shadows? What if a threat slips into this cartoonish place while you’ve let your guard down? After all, what better place to hide than among fake killers. From 1981’s Funhouse to 2018’s Hell Fest, horror film directors have long understood this transience and set their plots in this subversive space. They tempt and lure us into believing in magic. A skeleton drops into your path from above. You say: ‘I know it’s not real, but what if it is?’ A creeping doubt slips into your gut as the cart jolts around a corner.

I think of old Elmer McCurdy. Elmer McCurdy swinging from the rafters. If there was ever a cause for a truly haunted haunted house ride, it would be McCurdy’s. A corpse turned prop that secretly hung for some 65 years in ‘Laff in the Dark’, a ride in Long Beach, California’s Pike Amusement Park. A discovery so shocking it spawned an urban legend and even compelled the investigators behind my guiltiest pleasure, Ghost Adventures, to try and make contact.

But how did he end up here? Well, we first meet him in 1911 when Elmer McCurdy was an outlaw. Albeit, not a very successful one. For two quarts of whiskey and a princely sum of $46, he held up and robbed a train nearing Okesa, Oklahoma (his intended train was carrying $400,000, but lets not dwell on this fatal mistake). McCurdy made his escape, stealing away his spoils to a barnyard somewhere in the north. But his abscondence wouldn’t last long. Soon enough the police had found him, and in the midst of a bloody gun battle, he met his maker in the hay.

But that’s not the end of his story. His roving self made a similarly restless corpse. McCurdy’s remains were collected and taken to Pawhuska to be claimed. But no one came for him. Eventually, the undertaker decided to try and make some money off this emaciated corpse and began charging visitors to view it in exchange for placing a nickel in his mouth. Fast forward five years and so appears a carnival worker claiming to be an angry family member. The undertaker releases the corpse for proper burial but within a matter of weeks, McCurdy was being displayed as a morbid amusement.

Decades pass. McCurdy’s body travelled across wax museums, haunted houses and carnivals in America until his name was all but lost and his corpse presumed fake. That is, until 1976, when the TV show the Six Million Dollar Man came to film a scene on the ride. While preparing the set, a crew member reached out for a mannequin he saw hanging in the back of the shot. When we he touched it, the arm snapped off, revealing snarling, twisted bone and sinew. This was no prop. This was a dead man.

So keep your hands in the cart, kids. And be thankful for that final drop that births you back into the world. Because you never know just how close you came to real danger.

Writer, artist and occasional poet. Lover of philosophy, folklore, history + curiosities. UX writer by day. Writing a book about death by night.

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