From ancient times, people have seen spirits at play in the flickering of light and shadow. With the advancement of technology during the European Renaissance, scholars leaned to harness these dancing apparitions through the power of projection. By the late 1700’s, enterprising entertainers were creating magic lantern spectacles, fantastic phantasmagorias that thrilled audiences with the illusion of gatherings of ghosts.
In the 1860’s, “Professor” John Henry Pepper revolutionized this technique in a London production of Charles Dickens’s The Haunted Man, working with Henry Dircks to adapt his Dircksian Phantasmagoria to the theater. Known as Pepper’s Ghost, this optical effect creates the illusion of a floating spirit by projecting the image of a hidden figure projected onto an oblique pane of glass, an effect perhaps best known to modern audiences from the ballroom scene of Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride.
Entertainers keen to tap turn-of-the-century audiences crazed for all things ghostly appropriated Pepper’s updated technique almost instantly. Already wildly popular with theaters and other entertainment venues (such as Paris’s ghost show cabarets), fairground ghost shows incorporating these spectral participants were widespread by the 1880’s. Over time, shows became rides, evolving to incorporate changing technology that allowed an audience to be propelled through an attraction. With huge, ornate facades (the most elaborate of which were designed by famed fairground artisans Orton and Spooner), by the 1930’s these rides were known as ghost trains. Merging the decade’s love for all things electric and automotive with ghost show techniques, ghost trains bore a strong resemblance to the haunted house rides of today: a set of cars riding on an electric track in a dark, enclosed space, bursting through doors to encounter optical illusions, strange odors, unknown touches, and unexpected ghosts and monsters.
A peculiar story surrounds one of these ghost rides: Hell Gate at Coney Island’s Dreamland Park, built at the turn of the century. Intended to help Dreamland compete with neighboring Luna Park, Hell Gate was designed to dazzle and amaze, a boat ride based on Dante’s Inferno taking participants through dark caverns, complete with a “whirlpool lit by flames where boats disappeared into the deepest levels of hell.” In the early hours before the park’s 1911 season opening, workers were struggling to complete repairs to Hell Gate when the light bulbs illuminating the ride began to explode. In the confusion, a can of pitch was kicked over onto live wires, starting a terrifying blaze that swept through the park. The water pumping system recently installed to fight fires failed and the unchecked conflagration decimated the park, causing millions of dollars of damage and shutting the gates of Dreamland permanently.
Ghost trains remained popular in travelling fairs through the 1950’s, when the labor required to repeatedly construct and tear down their elaborate designs was considered too time consuming and costly. Their legacy is still felt today, however, in permanent spooky attractions such as the Haunted Mansion, and in modern travelling fairs where changing technology has improve ease of transportation, to the delight of a new generation of ghost-loving thrill seekers.
If you’d like to add a little classical phantasmagoria to your haunted home attraction this Halloween, creating a Pepper’s Ghost effect is not extraordinarily complex, provided you have the right tools on hand and a little time to set up. You can find complete instructions on creating the effect here, and check out the gallery below for some hauntingly historical ghost show inspiration!
For more on classic fairground ghost rides, visit the National Fairground Archive and the Fairground Heritage Centre. Also visit Atlas Obscura for pre-Pepper phantasmagorias, and read up on the tragic and fascinating history of Coney Island at Brooklyn Atlantic.
Categories: History (Haunted and Otherwise)