American Dark ride

A documentary about the forgotten history of the classic American spook ride. Charting its rise from small town invention to global horror phenomenon. The film follows the last remaining examples of this kooky fairground favourite and the families who’ve dedicated their lives to keeping it alive through the generations.

Synopsis

In 1929 the US stock market crashed, usherin in the great depression, America’s once booming amusement parks were in trouble. With the boom of the twenties sharply halting, these iconic entertainment spaces quickly became rundown, spooky locations. That same year a New Jersey inventor created a new type of amusement ride, one that was cheaper to run, easy to build and took advantage of the dark mood that had gripped America.

Leon Cassidy built a ride out of old tram tracks and motors that audiences could experience in any existing space. It was a new type of thrill where teenagers could escape the world for just a few short minutes but it changed American culture forever.

Cassidy sold thousands of dark rides around the world featuring descents into hell, haunted mansions and witch’s lairs, the rides brought the first experience of horror culture to the masses. Rides were strange and handmade but they brought people together, created memories and inspired artists, moviemakers and entertainers. Before the dark ride, the characters and dress-ups of Halloween hadn’t been a part of American culture but now frights were all the rage. After the war, a new generation of kids enjoyed dark rides at famous sites like Coney Island and Santa Cruz. The influence of fairground tricks could be seen in popular drive in teen movies. Dark rides were exported around the world, from The UK to Denmark, Australia to Singapore.

Towards the end of the 20st century the traditional amusement park struggled to compete  with theme parks, computer games and movies. Old time spooky experiences were replaced by adult horror films and Halloween attractions. Amusement parks fell victim to real estate buyouts and natural disasters, few mourning the disappearance of these iconic spaces.

The Ghost House in NJ was obliterated by hurricane Sandy while the owners of NYC’s Spookarama watched as their beloved ride almost washed away. Across the country owners sold land to developers eager build over these idilic locations. In 1964, Fred Trump bought the famous Steeplechase Park to build condos, after he was denied rezoning permits he bulldozed the site to the ground.

All across the country dark rides have closed or are barely hanging on, but those who do care will go to some amazing lengths to keep this unique example of American culture alive.

Jeremy Cruz of Alabama remembers his first dark ride, he rode it every vacation, when it closed down during the financial crisis he bought and rebuilt it in his shed! Bushkill park has flooded 5 times in a century, but their community fights on, rebuilding the park and adopting a new dark ride to inhabit it. From England to Australia, Denmark to Mexico, we see examples of people restoring, rebuilding and remaking dark rides to share with a whole new generation. New technologies can’t bring back these classic experiences, but we see how traditional experiences have influenced creators at Disney and Universal to design more exhilarating, scarier rides today. 

Existing content

This three-act documentary draws on years of field recordings I have undertaken as part of my research into the history of the dark ride. I have shot countless interviews with owners, fans and experts, gathered footage from parks, diagrams, historic photos etc.

A final feature length film would feature celebrities from the world of haunt culture talking about their earliest experiences with dark rides. Cultural icons such as Stephen King, Rob Zombie, Slash and Tim Burton have all used the iconography of Dark Rides in their work and have participated in similar sized documentary works.

Explanatory video about the project 2017
Short video of the project at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, 2017
Interview with Barbara Ackerly, grand daughter of the inventor of the Dark Ride

Virtual Reality

In addition to traditional HD and 4k capture I have also shot each existing dark ride in high quality VR on the rides themselves. This allows for the inclusion of beautiful panoramic image content or other immersive outcomes.

Draft VR piece from Waldameer Park, PA

Audience

My research has thousands of fans from haunted attraction culture and theme park obsessives. These industries generate billions of dollars in revenue each year with 1 in 3 American’s going to a theme park or haunted attraction. This work aims to explain the historic legacy of these popular formats and evoc a nostalgic and patriotic link to this bygone era.

DRAFT COMPOSITE – Scaled down panoramic footage from Knoebels Amusement Park 2018
Zoom meeting with Randy Curry, operations manager at Funland Amusements, Rehoboth MD

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