I recently tried to account the history of automated funhouse rides at amusement parks, and was disappointed at the lack of information that comes up when you punch “funhouse� into Google (the Stooges album hogs all the links). I soon realized that this is because the official name of this type of ride is a “dark ride.� A dark ride is any amusement park attraction that plops riders into a mechanical car, which follows a single track through a dark, often serpentine, indoor space - surprising them along the way with eerie tableaus, pop-out surprises, jolts and scares. The original versions of dark rides were very low-tech affairs, and about a hundred or so of these functioning relics still exist in the U.S. But the dark ride is a classic (as well as a cultural reference point) that has expanded into countless variations. In part because the attraction pinpoints a complex, collective psychological allure that remains enticing and curiosity-piquing even for new generations today.

The origin of dark rides spawned off an even earlier version of the attraction called “old mill� rides (invented by George W. Schofield in 1902). Old mills were based on bodies of water (often man made), where riders would get in two or four-seater boats and float or paddle through a long dark tunnel or structure that had spookish scenery built into it. Old mills quickly developed a “tunnel of love� reputation for the hormonally curious (young and old). This lead to the addition of a soon-to-be mainstay characteristic to the attraction: automated noise-makers built within the structures (crashing symbols, cowbells on strings, air whistles). These were meant to surprise riders and comically break up any heavy petting that might be going on, as well as be audible from the outside (the allure being that if noises were needed to prevent such carnal behavior inside - then it must be going on). Hence old mill rides, obviously, became quite popular during Victorian times.

The first automated “dark ride� was invented by a man named William Cassidy, in 1928. Cassidy had taken over the Tumbling Dam Amusement Park in Bridgeton, NJ with a partner, and was re-vamping some of the attractions on a tight budget. The popularity of old mill rides pressed him to install one at the park, but they just didn’t have the resources. Tinkering with an old Dodgem ride car and a single electric track, Cassidy came up with a way to create the feel of an old mill ride, on land and indoors. Riders in mechanical cars could glide and rumble on a winding track inside the darkness of a large, reticulated structure, slamming open hidden doors, and triggering automatic props and noisy hoo-has. The lack of a straight water-way meant that the path could take full advantage of the spacial dimensions of a large indoor space. Plus the whole thing was mechanized, acting like a kind of conveyor belt, so the ride could be operated rather easily. The chaste-making noise alarms in the old mill rides gave way to noise-makers in the dark just for the fun of it (often as simple as a metal bar crashing into a cymbal when the car bumped against it, or a wire that would tilt a wooden box full of ball bearings). Kooky gadgetry was added, like automated devil masks that would pop-from behind walls, or puppet alligators bobbing out of holes (often being triggered by the car running over pipes on the track’s floor, which would also cause the car to jerk). Sometimes something as simple as strands of string hanging from the ceiling that would brush against rider’s faces in the dark was all that was needed. People loved it all. Riders gleefully paid to surrender their wills to a single, exit-less track, that swallowed them into a dark void where automatic jolts, scares and mise-en-scènes that reflected the forbidden or carnal side of mankind awaited their laughing, screaming fear (or mocking judgment). The allure of old mills, tunnels of love and dark rides was always a symbolic, safe and controlled visit to the scary, primitive side of human behavior (a psychology exploited to multi-layered perfection during the amusement park sequence at the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). The rides were indeed a marvel of the new machine age - giant therapy machines really; Freud-bots.

The first official name of the attraction was a “pretzel ride� because of the ride’s twisting path (the name ‘firefly’ was a second-runner because of the way the car would spark sometimes along the electric track). The first cars in these rides also had a large, weighted metal pretzel designs on the front, which were actually there to keep the car from tipping forward on the track. Because the cars ran on electricity and the features inside were triggered by the car, this meant that William Cassidy and partners could create transportable versions of his pretzel ride and sell them to amusement parks around the country (their price: $1,200). Sales were brisk. Even though Cassidy had the idea patented, copycats obviously sprang up as the attraction became a standard at any amusement park. Dark rides appeared up all over the country with names like Laff-In-the-Dark, Spook-A-Rama, The Devil Chaser, Paris After Dark and Jungle Land.

As time went on, new features changed the shape and feel of the ride. A second story was added (with the car being pulled up the initial incline by a chain) which lead to some rides using gravity along the gradual decline instead of an electric track. The introduction of rotating cars made many of the car-triggered automated stunts impractical (since the riders might be facing the wrong direction) and constantly-lit scenarios that were always viewable began to be featured more and more. And as technology improved, so did the rides. Automated low tech scenarios were soon replaced with recording devices, elaborate lighting and effects (not to mention cool blasts of air-conditioning) and even film and video projection - with the tradition of leaving the rider blind in the dark between each “unexpected� event along the attraction more or less remaining a mainstay.

“For me, the best part was to see the look on people’s faces when they’d come out, to see how much they’d enjoyed themselves, how much fun they’d had. That’s what it was all about…� inventor William Cassidy told Laff In The Dark.

Speaking of, the completely terrific site Laff In The Dark site has everything you could ever want to know about the history and existence of dark rides. There is also the Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts Organization (or, D.A.F.E.) - both sites have handy up-to-the-minute guides of what’s still out there. As well, there are other places on the web chock full of thrills and chills.