Horror in Popular Culture and Fairground Art
by Ian Trowell, National Fairground Archive
Horror-themed fairground art emerges from two broad fairground traditions - firstly the oddity side show which had been with the fairground since its earliest manifestations, and secondly from the distinctive 'Ghost Train' ride which was introduced at the start of the 1930s as a specific 'themed package'. However, the important role that horror began to play in popular culture, as the barriers and boundaries of taste and censorship were pushed, creates an interesting dynamic. For this purpose it is analysed here in a dedicated article.
Ghost Shows and Illusioneering
Professor John Henry Pepper conjured up his famous Ghost in 1862 for an audience at the Royal Polytechnic (Regent Street, London) - then described as the "greatest scientific exploratorium of the Victorian Era". The presentation drew upon the methods of the magic lantern phantasmagoria (literally - a gathering of ghosts) popular from the 1790s. These magic lantern shows had become widespread on the fairgrounds as showmen displayed their adaptability and ingenuity at exploring the fertile ground between entertainment and education, and their methods in utilising the latest reaches of science and technology. Fairground showmen were then quick to pick up on the Pepper's Ghost illusion, and the fairground Ghost Show emerged around 1873, with Randall Williams exhibiting at the Agricultural Hall. By the late 1880s the Ghost Show was a popular theme on the fairground, and flourished for over 20 years. Huge, ornate shows were built by George Orton (Burton-Upon-Trent), with predominantly carved decorative fronts.
These shows were the precursors to the Bioscope Show, and were quickly surpassed at the turn of the century as the moving image hit the fairground, however a relationship between the dark and its value a fairground attraction had been established. The Ghost Show exploited that aged tradition that we are fearful of the dark, and open up our imaginations to ten times the terror when the lights go out.
Exterior of Ghost / Illusion Show.
Interior view with the projected Ghost.
The advent of the Ghost Train
The 'Ghost Train' was invented as in America by Cassidy at the end of the 1920s. As with many fairground engineers it was about advancing the technology of possible movement, and it was essentially a twisting and jerking track ride in the dark. Cassidy was not alluding directly to our inability to refrain from fear in the dark, and instead thought that being twisted and turned in the dark would add a dimension to the experience based loosely on our fear of the dark. It was named the Pretzel Ride because a disembarking passenger remarked they were thrown about like a Pretzel.
Blackpool Pleasure Beach, famous for its first-mover reputation, took the ride on and immediately renamed it Ghost Train, basing it on the popular play, and by virtue building on the minimal horror elements that Cassidy and the Americans had fitted the ride with. An important development was the addition of a balcony which instigated the symbiosis of fear and hysteria between the rider and those in the queue or those watching and thinking about riding. Once again the dread and anticipation of being teased and tortured in the dark had returned to the fairground. However, the Ghost Train began production (and decoration) as purely a simulative ride in the spirit of the original play (and its multiple adaptations). The theme for the Ghost Train was always of a haunted train, with artwork focussing mainly on classic railway architecture (bridge girders, walled tunnels, platforms) and a spirit running amok on the engine. For over 40 years the Ghost Train did not interact with the twists and turns of horror in popular culture.
Brett's Ghost Train with standard scene.
Brighter colours but same concept.
Oddity and Freak Shows - early forms
Oddities and freaks as exhibition elements draws on a rich tradition beyond fairgrounds into early Victorian fixed (but temporary) venues with interchanging attractions. The decline of fairground cinema was as rapid as its rise, and the gap in the market was filled by the 'Novelty Show'. The constant renewal of exhibit in the static exhibition followed suit on the fairground side-show, not least in part due to the somewhat disingenuous nature of the shows. The showman was adept at trading on anticipation and intrigue, playing up the imagination of the onlooker to the point of burning curiosity or plain and simple inquisitive fear. Not everything was seen as billed, but the fun was in taking part, and shuffling around a darkened interior catching glimpses of things purporting to be much worse (or sometimes more genuine). Such shows consisted of mutated animals and those at both extremes of the scale (miniature ponies and giant rats) both living and preserved (taxidermy or formaldehyde), human curiosities and clever illusions. A clever showman would be able to scare the viewing punters to run screaming from the booth, so further invoking those considering to view to make a decision.
Chimpanzees and Giant Rats.
Hammer Horror and the new popular culture
Horror took a grip in popular culture in the 1950s. The genre has roots as far back as early cinema and saw an upsurge in the 1930s with the first Dracula and Mummy films. Throughout the 1950s the genre spliced into sub-genres and a torrent of films about aliens, psychotic stalkers and beasts invaded the cinema and television screens. Within this grouping the British based Hammer House of Horror produced a huge array of 'classic' films and sequel trails involving Dracula (9 films), Frankenstein (7 films), and werewolf characters - these mythical figures becoming engrained within popular culture. Though the Ghost Train rides were slow to respond to this - trading singularly on the simulative nature of the ride - the sideshow hijacked this cultural phenomena to constantly rebrand their appearance (and not necessarily their actual interior act).
As the rebranding of the show changed (almost yearly) the artwork took on a crudeness that reflected a more amateur approach to the work. What was Frankenstein's Mistress one year re-appeared 12 months later as Dracula's Daughter, and so on. The emphasis was on a mixture of shock slogans and stock images featuring crimson blood, plunging cleavage and voracious rats and bats framed within spiders webs and coffins. The frontage of the shows resembled the slipcases for the slurry of low-budget 1970s and 1980s video horror films, and often echoed the somewhat disingenuous nature of that packaging. The new genre of the (straight to) video nasty was mirrored in a more playful manner on the fairground sideshow.
A very early reference to Frankenstein, before the Hammer reinvention.
Torture, bats and pale-skinned maidens.
Hammer style from 1973.
The Funhouse - essentially a walk-round dark space - offered itself as a scare in 1971.
Variant Ghost Trains
As stated, the Ghost Train remained a predominantly simulative ride and had narrow theming to reflect this. The passenger was taken for a ride on a train that was haunted in the sense of the narrative of the Ghost Train play. The actual haunting, effected by the interior fittings of the ride, was vast and varied, and often quite crude. Full sensory assault was developed with whistles, hooters, blowers, cobwebs and dangling hair, alongside visual delights such as opening coffins, torture racks, and hanging corpses. The classic allure of the Ghost Train was to try and endure the experience with your eyes open and relate back to your friends what you saw. That most people kept their eyes tightly shut, catching glimpses and letting their imaginations do the rest of the work, meant that recollections were never consistent!
So, though the interior of the ride was responding to the Hammer Horror cultural trends, the exterior artwork remained constant. To endure the journey represented a challenge, and as such the reason for the ride (the challenge) remained fixed. However, proliferation of the ride meant that some experimentation in external presentation occurred. Themes were drawn directly from Hammer icons or from more obscure angles.
Undersea terror reflecting some of the cultural trends of the time.
The 'Bogey Run' is like a Hammer Horror greatest hits.
The impact of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' hybridity
Michael Jackson's indelible input onto the fairground came as a consequence of his groundbreaking 'Thriller' single released at the end of 1983. This work launched a new concept - that of the 'horror pin-up' or 'horror pop hybrid' - and set the ball rolling for a succession of fairground icons.
To accompany Thriller Jackson released a video that broke the mould of the pop video format that had taken root in the 1980s. The video took the format of a short (14 minute) film directed by John Landis, which included a full narrative and lengthy build-up sequences, in effect the making the music as a soundtrack to the film as much as the traditional relationship of the film (music video) supporting the single.
The video was premiered to US audiences on the MTV Channel, and in the UK (which didn't yet have MTV broadcasting) on a late night special edition of the Friday night pop music programme 'The Tube'. Nightclubs and wine bars throughout the country stopped normal service as the video was aired, such was the anticipation. The Landis directed film heavily referenced his earlier work with 'American Werewolf in London' (1981), a cult horror film updating the contemporary werewolf format. In the Thriller video we are introduced to a 'film within a film' as a 1950s Jackson attacks his date in a secluded woodland setting after the full moon turns him into a 'were-cat'. As the shockwaves take effect the camera retracts to the audience including a contemporary (and relaxed) Jackson in a movie theatre with his petrified girlfriend. As they depart the theatre - and the film called 'Thriller' - Jackson taunts his partner and takes her through a shortcut via a graveyard. From this point the music kicks in as zombies arise from graves and join a zombified Jackson in a superbly choreographed series of dance scenes.
The 1980s was a curious and changing time for fairground art. Iconographic reference points were still rooted in the 1970s (films such as 'Easy Rider' and 'Rollerball', music scenes such as Disco) whilst the generic decoration of predominant round rides such as the Waltzer were focussed mainly on Maxwell's Andrew Eastern inspired patterns and scrolls and Tate Décor's innovation with metallic finish lettering and the 'Tate-worm'. Evolving thrill rides such as the Orbiter and Sizzler Twist were decorated to reflect a modern material aesthetic, with checker plate and angular fibre glass reflecting the style that was echoed in car showrooms and wine bars throughout the decade. Airbrush art (and its inculcation with the Miami) was still a long way off.
Pop music and the fairground in the 1980s had a strange relationship. The speed of turnaround of music, bands and scenes meant that fairground art had little scope for tangible interaction with the pop scene of the time. The generic 'disco' attachment remained popular, though this was centred more on the look and vibe of the genre rather than distinct individuals and bands associated with the music, echoed later in the fascination for rave themed artwork to centre entirely on elements of the crowd. The closest representation of named 80s pop on the fairground was coming from a fledgling Paul Wright who, in 1983, had used Albert Evans' Waltzer as canvas for an incredible arrangement of 70s and 80s images - some of these can be classed as iconic whilst others were more symbolic and fleeting such as some great work showcasing the New Romantic scene. Though magnificent as an innovative Waltzer, it did not set a new trend, and 80s pop icons remained in the shadows of fairground art. New ride types emerged through the decade from the Continent - the Belgian, French and German produced Matterhorns and Super Bobs - and many of these machines had an overarching top flash that required a large-scale theming. Initial work focussed on a mixture of alpine and film references, but for 1984 a new concept arrived with the 'Thriller'.
Sobema produced a Matterhorn ride themed as Thriller in 1984 for the UK, with the centre arch featured a frieze from the graveyard scene with Jackson a central figure with an emaciated face and red patent leather jacket. Michael Jackson as pop-horror hybrid had fixed a place in popular culture and in turn set the trend for fairground art to adopt icons from horror films if not from music (pop) culture itself.
Suitably night-time themed Thriller Matterhorn.
The second Thriller Matterhorn.
The last of the line - the 80s saw the side-show in final decline, but the Thriller zombies managed a solitary appearance.
Twilight of the Idols
The imported Matterhorn and Super Bob in the mid 80s provided an opportunity for a new round of fairground art, and Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' success gave a rewarding subject matter. Interestingly the Matterhorn is not a dark ride and so a horror theme provided a diversion in existing trends. In a possibly unconnected parallel sense the previously inseparable relationship between horror films and the dark was also being teased and tested. From the boom period of the 1950s horror in all of its sub-genres existed primarily in the dark - witches, vampires, psychotic stalkers, alien invasions - and it wasn't until horror started to exhaust the reserves of its own genres that we began to see 'daylight' horror films with directors such as George Romero (his sequence of zombie films) and David Cronenberg (particularly Shivers and Rabid).
There was, however, a new simulative aspect to the horror themed Matterhorn rides: that of the 'chase'. The concept of running from an onrushing, pervasive and persistent horror element featured heavily in films such as Dawn of the Dead and the Matterhorn used horror in this new simulative sense, with an early ride simply titled 'Phantom Chase'. Elsewhere, and slightly after Jackson's Thriller, we had the Ghostbusters (1984) Matterhorn which, not strictly a horror film per se, featured chase elements throughout.
Rides then featured heavily with a montage of 'horror-icons' who populated sequel calibre films in the latter part of the 80s: Freddie Kruger / Nightmare on Elm Street (commencing 1984) and Hellraiser (1987) were both prominent choices. This was the decade of the character based films and the villain of the piece always had an array of distinct identifiers in terms of clothing, accessories or weapons: Jason Vorhees (Friday 13th) with his ski mask, Freddy Kruger (Nightmare on Elm Street) with a dishevelled striped jumper and clawed glove (very Michael Jackson-esque), or the unmistakeable Hellraiser 'Pinhead' character.
Ghostbusters shows 'the thrill of the chase'.
Hellraiser's iconic 'Pinhead' character.
Freddie Kruger and Michael Jackson shared a strange sense of allegiance when it came to imagery.
Postmodernism and beyond...
The 1990s saw the arrival of the Miami Trip and a move towards dynamic, singular artwork in an airbrushed style. The 'party-spirit' of the Miami Trip made it an unsuitable canvas for horror-themed artwork, though a couple of fun/horror rides were produced around Rocky Horror Show and a single ride themed to Wes Craven's 1989 film 'Shocker' (not a great critical or underground success). The party mood of the 1990s rave scene pushed artwork into a more joyous narrative, though the recent return to a more 1980s style fractured rock-music might possibly push out some more interesting and dark narratives…
The Matterhorn ride which carried through the new breed of figurative horror artwork in the 1980s has also gone in to decline, with most of the remaining machines drifting towards a repaint in a softer rave scene décor. So at the turn of the 20th Century it is Ghost Trains which carry the baton for fairground's interaction with the horror culture. Problematic has been what can be called a 'postmodern crisis' within horror coming about as the horror/icon hybrid exhausted its use value.
Around 1990 horror films started to ironically reference themselves with concepts such as Wes Craven's 'Scream' franchise, and then to parody themselves with films such as the 'Scary Movie' sequence of films. In response to this seeming attack on the genre a new direction was taken with an uneasy tendency to focus on torture films. Movies such as 'Hostel' and the 'Saw' franchise caused some discomfort amongst critics. Not least is the problem that these films can blur the boundaries with real life situations emerging through the various ongoing wars and ethnic cleansing regimes such as seen in the recent Balkan crisis or Gulf war, enveloping further into some of the rights and humiliation issues highlighted at the Guantanamo Bay internment camp. There is an ironic twist to this in that early Ghost Trains relied heavily on source material from medieval torture scenes and this was also a part of the 1960s and 1970s popular culture with spoof horror such as 'Carry on Screaming' or the 'Dr Phibes' films.
A final word should go to the horror master Sam Raimi who, in a speech against the worrying trend for torture films, and to promote his 'classic style' horror film 'Drag Me To Hell', spoke of trying to recreate in his film the feel of a classic fairground Ghost Train…
Airbrush artwork on a contemporary Ghost Train.
Sinister and imaginative themes.
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