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Virtual Reality Is Preserving the Dying Art of Spooky Dark Rides

The Dark Ride Project takes viewers on a virtual reality tour of the last remaining historic haunted "dark rides" around the world.

As a kid, I was always scared of the spooky rides at the carnival, where anything could be lurking in the darkness. So to distract myself, I would obsess about how the rides were made. Later, this obsession would become a professional pursuit, as I started to study the history of amusement parks and the role that ghost trains and other haunted "dark rides" played in these spaces.

Back in my childhood, amusement parks were a refuge. Parks had cheap or sometimes free entry for youths to hang out all day, and spook rides—which often came out around Halloween—offered the perfect opportunity to be alone in the dark with someone else, away from parents' prying eyes.

Those days are sadly numbered. Independent amusement parks are closing down regularly, and more "dark rides"—classic rides that take riders on a guided journey filled with sound, lights, and sometimes animation—are shut down each year. Among these losses comes the shuttering of classic spook rides. This means the loss of thousands of shared memories—ones that shaped not only personal experiences, like mine, but fright culture at large.

Luna Park, an amusement park in Coney Island, has some of the last remaining examples of historic spooky dark rides.

Ironically, haunt culture is at a high point in the United States. It is estimated by the National Retail Association that Americans will spend in excess of $8 billion this year on Halloween, with 80 million people attending a haunted attraction. And yet, people's tastes have definitely changed. People want to be part of the action, chased around an amusement park or through a haunted maze. The dark rides, in turn, are dying.

For the past decade, I've been studying ghost trains and haunted house rides as part of my PhD, hoping to archive the magic that will be lost when these classic spook rides are gone for good. It became evident to me that an entire culture of popular entertainment was on the verge of extinction when, in 2007, I surveyed haunted dark rides for my master's thesis. Today, many of those same parks are closing down. There are now only 12 classic spooky rides left in the United States.

So I set off to capture the experience of classic spook rides using virtual reality. My footage, which comprises the Dark Ride Project, catalogs the last remaining classic spook rides around the world, using three special low-light cameras to deliver image content from every direction. Given their dwindling numbers, the project might be the last chance to see some of these spaces.

An archival image of the ghost ride at Luna Park, an amusement park in Coney Island

Dark rides came to prominence in the early 20th century. They were cheap to run, could be built on the run-down parts of a park, and required hardly any staff to operate, which gave amusement parks a chance to attract more people without much of a monetary investment.

The most prolific ride creator was the Pretzel Ride Company, which built in excess of 1,400 rides between 1928 and 1978. Pretzel offered a ride design with sharp turns that bent in on themselves—like a pretzel—and could turn small spaces into an immersive experience. Their patented design would become legendary in popularizing the dark ride, and could soon be seen in parks across the country.

These rides were the virtual reality experiences of their day. The visceral and immersive effects of these rides would later be replicated in cinema through the 20th century. Dark rides moved and twisted the audience's point of view and became the testing ground for experiments in 360-degree entertainment, as objects would appear from above and below the cart, and sound effects created an immersive experience.

For their lasting legacy, though, there's not much to show for it. Of the thousands of rides that the Pretzel Ride Company made throughout the 20th century, there are only four complete examples remaining today.

The Whacky Shack at Joyland, an amusement park in Wichita, Kansas, circa 1992. The Whacky Shack has since been demolished.

At Coney Island's Spook-a-Rama, the walls of the cart itself act to crop the viewing space of its rider. The result is a ride with suspenseful cuts as the cart maneuvers through a hall of props and vignettes.

The Spook-a-Rama was built in 1955 and is the last in a long line of dark ride experiences built here. The ride is run by Deno's Wonderwheel Park—the oldest amusement park in Coney Island—which was itself almost wiped away during hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The park and the Spook-a-Rama were saved—but many other rides haven't been as lucky. In the past ten years, the flooding of Bushkill Park in Pennsylvania, the sale of the Miracle Strip in Florida, or the destruction of the Spookhouse by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey have all resulted in the destruction of rides that can never be replaced. Not only have these losses saddened fans, but they have laid waste to an important record of our popular culture history.

With technology, we can preserve what little is left. Since 2015, the Dark Ride Project has captured 360-degree video footage from six amusement parks, stretching from Australia to Alabama, with the aim of capturing eight more by summer 2017. By using virtual reality, viewers can feel like they're riding inside of one of these rides, even after they're gone. The result, I hope, will be a project that memorializes what remains of the most influential period in America's horror and haunt industry—before it's too late.

You can see much of the Dark Project on its website.