Why Dark Rides Scare the Pants Off Us

Dark rides were extremely popular at amusement parks in the mid-20th century. They grew out of the "old mill" rides that were developed at the turn of the century, in which boats cruised by historical scenes (think "It's a Small World"). In the 1920s, Leon Cassidy and Marvin Rempfer made these rides more exciting and cheaper to build by putting people in cars that moved through a building (they called it the Pretzel). The visible scenes became scary vignettes that popped up in the dark when we least expected them, and expanded to include jokes along the way and themes such as Westerns and movie monsters. Collectors Weekly talked to George LaCross, who produced two documentaries on these rides and maintains the site Laff in the Dark.

Collectors Weekly: I read one of the earliest Pretzel stunts was just thread that hit your face.

LaCross: That was really innovative. It seems so simple, but Bill Cassidy—the second owner of Pretzel, the son of Leon—told us before he passed away that that was one of the gimmicks that he was most proud of. It was just a spool of thread. It would hang from a rafter in the ceiling, and it would rub up against people’s faces and creep them out. It’s supposed to be cobwebs, I guess, but it wasn’t an actual web. It was just a string, but you couldn’t see it. You weren’t expecting it. That got a real rise out people back then. It seems to me that just about every dark ride I rode in the 1960s had that. If it didn’t come factory-installed, I’m sure the park owners themselves would tack it up.

Dark rides changed quite a bit over the years, and there are still plenty of amusement parks that have them. Some are high-tech, while others look just as they did 50 years ago. Read about the history of these rides and relive that time you took your high school sweetheart on one, at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: Laff in the Dark)

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