DAVIS, director of Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts (DAFE), sits in one of the
ride cars at Fright Zone, Erieview Park, Geneva-on-the-Lake.
Preserving our childish fears
Fan club restores
By CARL E. FEATHER
It was the place baby boomer youth went to get scared out of their wits, steal a
hug or leave a wad of bubble gum on the wall.
Often referred to as "darkrides," these amusement park fright houses sported
names like "Haunted Mansion," "Spookhouse" and "The Haunted House." All of them
shared common features: an enclosed building (usually dark or dimly lit), a
passenger-carrying vehicle that ran on a track or similar guide, and gags or
gimmicks that often included sound effects and flashing lights.
Many of these rides have succumbed to progress and more technologically advanced
rides. According Rick Davis, director and co-founder of Darkride and Funhouse
Enthusiasts (DAFE), less than two dozen of these traditional rides exist in the
United States. Northeast Ohio and northwest Pennsylvania are blessed with
several: "Whacky Shack" at Waldameer Park, Erie; "Devil's Den" at Conneaut Lake
Park; and "Fright Zone" at Geneva-on-the-Lake's Erieview Park.
Davis and the other 200 or so DAFE members like to spend their summer vacations
traveling to amusements parks that still have darkrides and funhouses. Randy
Skalos of Conneaut is a DAFE member who gets a nostalgia rush from the darkride.
"It's just the old feel of them," Skalos says. "Probably the biggest thing was
growing up in the '60s and '70s, those were the rides that scared you the most.
Looking back at it now, you laugh and think, 'I was scared by this?' For me,
it's just one of those childhood memories you think of very fondly."
The members of this 2-year-old group recently volunteered to clean and rebuild
many of Fright Zone's gimmicks. Davis says the club has adopted the ride as
their "pet project" and will probably return again next spring to do additional
work on the classic ride.
Fright Zone was built as "The Haunted House" in 1963 for Westview Park in West
View, Pa. Erieview Park owner Don Woodward says he purchased the ride from the
defunct park in 1978. The ride was renamed Fright Zone and installed it in
Erieview for the 1978 season.
Originally a two-story ride, Fright Zone was adapted to Erieview's one-story
building. Woodward says Fright Zone replaced a "Pretzel" ride that was installed
at the park in the mid-1950s. The ride's most frightening gimmick was a plywood
"The main reason I bought it was because the gimmicks in the old one were almost
nonexistent," he says.
Woodward was attracted to Fright Zone by its attractive decorative front and
various gimmicks built by darkride legend Bill Tracy. Woodward says the ride is
one of only three Tracy built while in a partnership with the Allen Hershel
Company, which designed the fiberglass cars and steel track. The others are in
Mexico and New York.
Tracy was an eccentric with a knack for designing gruesome, sexy scenes, like a
scantily clothed young lady riding a buzz saw blade and a mad scientist sipping
a corpse's blood through a straw.
"The guy who did these pieces was pretty detailed-oriented," Davis says of the
scantily clothed women in the torture chamber gimmick. "He made his figures
without leaving much to the imagination."
Tracy's engineering skills left something to be desired, however. Woodward says
Tracy built the animations with household-grade parts that broke down under the
strain of daily use. Many of the Fright Zone's gimmicks thus became static
displays enhanced by sound effects and lighting. The damp environment near the
lake also deteriorated the figures, many of which are constructed of nothing
more than papier-maché.
Vandals also damaged some of the scenes. Woodward says several young vandals got
out of their cars and trashed the graveyard scene a few years ago. Another
vandal stole the main attraction off a decapitation gimmick.
Today, if a rider tries to jump cart and head out the back door with an
unauthorized prize, an ear-splitting alarm sounds.
Davis says Fright Zone is particularly susceptible to vandalism because the
gimmicks are not protected by chicken wire cages, as is the case in most
darkride attractions. This visibility makes the ride especially of interest to
Davis says his club wanted to make sure the ride would be around for another
generation, and therefore offered their services. Woodward admits he was
skeptical at first.
"It was one of those cases where I didn't know what their abilities were,"
Woodward says. "Their hearts were in the right place, and we did a walk through
and I figured they really couldn't hurt it too much. It was a small leap of
The club members patched and painted many of the gimmicks. Skalos, who puts on
one of the area's premier Halloween displays, took his "web shooter" to the
darkride and refreshed the spider webs. Primarily, however, their first mission
was to scrub and dust more than 20 years of dirt and grime from the ride.
"Overall, cosmetically, it looks pretty good," Davis says.
Woodward, who hired a company to do some work to the gimmicks several years ago,
says he feels the DAFE club members outperformed the professionals.
"You guys did a superb job," Woodward told Davis.
Davis wants to tackle the animations next. He's already donated a head to the
By modern amusement park and electronic game standards, Fright Zone is extremely
tame. More frightening, realistic scenes can be found on neighborhood front
lawns at Halloween. Nevertheless, it retains a special charm. Woodward says the
ride is in the park's top five most popular attractions.
"It probably had 60,000 riders on it last year," Woodward says. "It is like the
bumper cars, there is a group of riders who ride them over and over. A lot of
them are 12 or 13-year-old boys."
Those boys could grow up to become DAFE members, who like Davis and Skalos, find
that even the scariest things of childhood are mild compared to the world of
"The scariest scene in there is when you pop into the open and you're back out
into reality," Davis says.