Haunted Amusement Parks

All amusement parks are haunted. I mean, seriously, is there any other kind? Maybe the big theme parks like Disney World or Knott’s Berry Farm pretend not to be, but certainly there aren’t any in any Scooby Doo episode that I’ve ever seen. But Knott’s Berry Farm does become Knott’s Scary Farm every Halloween and even the Magic Kingdom undergoes a Jack Skellington-sponsored temporary makeover.

It’s July. Why do we care about haunted amusement parks? Shouldn’t we think about this kind of stuff in October when the nights come sooner and the wind whispers through the changing leaves? Right now, from Playland in Rye to Kennywood in Pittsburgh, every regional, half-forgotten, whole-heartedly loved park is running at capacity with only hints to the secrets and mysteries hidden beneath the midway.

I just finished reading Joyland, a new novel by Stephen King. It’s a coming of age story set in the 1973 fictional world of Joyland, an old-school park on the beach in North Carolina. There are broken hearts, murder, and the ghost of a long-dead girl in the park’s only dark ride, the Horror House. It is a sentimental, scary, and fast-ride of a book.

Mo-Mo The Monster

Mo-Mo The Monster

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

Whether or not you believe in the supernatural, every park has its own ghosts. For some it might just be the nostalgia of the rides that you loved that are no more. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? Six Flags Over Georgia’s Mo-Mo The Monster?The Alfred Hitchcock Show at Universal Studios Florida? Okay, maybe the Hitchcock show wasn’t much, but you get the point. For others, it’s the memories of old boyfriends or the lost days of childhood. The stolen kisses behind the shooting gallery or the queasy feeling of one bite too many of cotton candy.

For me, the most haunted park of all isn’t even there anymore. All that’s left of Opryland USA, other than memories of thousands of weary park goers, is a parking lot. Sure the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and the Roy Acuff Theater are still there, but the corkscrew tracks of the Wabash Cannonball and the white-water rapids of Grizzly River Rampage are gone.

I worked a summer at Opryland when I was eighteen. It was the easiest seasonal job for a college student to get. Even so, I doubt there were many summer jobs where the kids worked harder. We sweat it out in the summer heat. We herded patrons to safety when the lightning warnings went off. (Note: The last place you want to be in a thunderstorm is floating through a water ride.)

oprylandWe waved at the Opryland Railroad every time it passed. The waving was a job requirement. Even in the behind-the-scenes areas where only employees were allowed. If you could see that train and the people on the train could see you, you damn well better wave. People got fired for not waving at the train. Every Red Tag would tell you so. (The full time employees had red nametags. Us regulars had black ones.) More often than not, the day-to-day grind of the park meant I couldn’t work up a smile, but I waved. Every time. I waved.

That summer I learned every word to God Bless The USA, the final number at the Country Music USA show. I saw Cynthia Rhodes make a triumphant return to an Opryland stage after having a fictional abortion in Dirty Dancing and a real-life wedding to Richard Marx. I sold t-shirts next to the Little Deuce Coupe and took tickets at the Grand Ole Opry.

I think about Opryland every time I visit a theme park or a fair. I know how long those hours are and how hard it is to be polite to the twentieth person who asks for directions to the bathroom when you’re supposed to be on your break. I thought about it all as I read Joyland. Stephen King can tell a story for sure, but the magic is in the connection he makes with the reader. This reader, at least. The Dickensian ghosts of summer past. Of my summers’ past. As the owner of Joyland puts it in his speech on the first day of the season: “This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don’t already know that will come to know it. Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun.”

Roller coaster rides last less than five minutes. You spend more time drying out from a water ride than you actually spend riding it. Even a slow turning Ferris wheel eventually stops to let you off and make room for the next person in line. The memories of those days take up space in the dusty attic of your mind long after summer fades into fall. Those ghosts, Casper-friendly or Freddy Krueger-frightening, are the crazy alchemy of the carnival. It’s “carny from carny” as King would say in Joyland.

Like I said, every amusement park is haunted.

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