A History of Ghost Trains

DSC03021I’ve been thinking about ghost train fairground rides…maybe because of halloween.

The ghost train was an elaboration of the affinity between steam locomotives and the spirit world. Indeed and to ordinary people, steam locomotion appeared to be based entirely on the magical power of vapour… The firebox, and the howling steam whistle, simply made the connection between the mechanical and the supernatural more explicit…and terrifying.

The doppler effects associated with fast-moving sources of radiation, for example, would have given the train steam whistle a naturally spooky wailing sound.

Of course, the ghost train didn’t arrive out of nowhere…except for effect.

The first entertainments associated with the world of ghosts appeared at the end of the 18C. The entertainments of phantasmagoria evolved out of a combination of theatrical and magic show. Light projections were used, in combination with contextualising effects, to create an enhanced experience of confusion, surprise, anxiety, and excitement.

The film theorist, peter Wollen, has described the Freudian association between speed, movement, anxiety, and desire, in relation to the moving images of cinema entertainment and as theorised by Michael Ballint. In the context of the fun fair ride, this theorisation is augmented by reference to Mikhail Bahktin’s concept of carnivalesque…and Edward Said’s notion of Orientalist exoticism. That’s quite a combination!

Paul Philidor, in France, and EG Robertson Robert, from Belgium, were the early pioneers of this muti-media presentations.

It’s no surprise that these kinds of entertainment should emerge as part of the Romantic reaction to the secularism of republican politics, and to the rationalism of Enlightenment thought.

Throughout the 18C, and since, the worlds of thought and feeling have been ranged against each other. The Romantics, after the philosopher Rousseau, believed in the primacy of feeling…and rejected the intellectual elaboration of machine systems as inhuman and alienating (how right they were).

Reason and romance exist in counterpoint to each other…so, it is not surprising that the romantic sensibility should be elaborated, throughout the 19C, as a reaction to the increasingly brutal normative formation through the systems and structures of industrial democracy.

Lynda Nead (2007) has described the evolution of imersive cultural entertainments as characteristic of the modern world. And, as a new kind of technologically facilitated cognitive experience…an experince so powerfully felt, that it remained with the viewer.

The Romantic fascination with heightened emotion and visceral feelings expressed itself through a number of channels that overturned the polite aesthetics of art…the phantasmagoria, the gothic, the wax-work, and the morgue, all contributed to the the 19C spectacular.

At the same time, the acceleration of the machine-ensemble associated with the late 19C metroplolis fed an appetite for speed and excitement.

These two strands of development combined in the elaboration of increasingly exhilerating mechanical fairground entertainments. I’ve already written about the history of seaside big dipper rides. The ghost train provides for a different kind of excitement. That is the opposite of the traditional fairground joy ride…gallopers and so on.

In its first iteration, the ghost train entertainments were static dark rides…the complexity and cost of the background machinery of train track, along with the employment of various actors and operators, meant that the first rides were semi-permanent. Indeed, the first ghost train ride in Britain was designed by the modernist architect, Joseph Emberton, in 1930, for Blackpool. As an aside, I’ll mention that Blackpool also had an hydraulically controlled Captive Flying Machine ride, designed by Sir Hiram Maxim, of the eponymous machine gun! All pretty high-tech stuff.

Many fairground rides are based on a circular rotation…this is mechnaically efficient and provides for a simple on and off movement of passengers. It was natural, in the circumstances, for the more complex and track based rides to have the same kind of layout and logic.

The development of mechanical rides for travelling fairs required complex dismountable engineering and was only really possible after the development of powered road transport. Typically, the ghost train had a highly decorated proscinium front and afforded an entertainment based around a darkened labyrinth of hair-raising spectale and sudden cloying tactility (Braithwaite 1968.160). The unpredictable track layout of the ride used sudden changes in direction and elavation to disorientate…and confuse.

The style of decoration associated with ghost train rides is a form of late-romantic and expressionistic painting. That’s a bit like the set designs in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). An irregular space that is in emotional contrast to the reguarity of the Cartesian geometry of space and time.

968full-the-cabinet-of-dr.-caligari-screenshotdr-caligari-poster-1919-granger 097Did you know that the CSM Museum collection includes a number of rare German film posters from the period immediately after WW1…


Braithwaite D (1968) Fairground Architecture London, Evelyn

Crary J (1999) Suspension of Perception Cambridge, MITP

Nead L (2007) The Haunted Gallery London, YUP

Rennie P (2007) Oh Dreamland Big Dipper Arty No23, London




This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *