The Tunnel of Love, Pirates of the Caribbean, carnival haunted houses--if a ride involves its passengers sitting in the dark, stuck in a small car, it can trace its history back to a type of ride called the "old mill." Old mill rides started popping up in amusement parks more than a century ago, around the year 1900. Old mills were some of the most expensive rides of the time, because they had wooden canal systems carrying water through them, so that passengers could sit in small wooden boats to be swept through the ride. Old mills were prone to leaks and breakdowns, but they cemented the idea of riding through the dark waiting to see something, be it a scary mannequin or something funny or something romantic. From the old mill, the "dark ride" was born.
Collector's Weekly has a great history of dark rides informed by George LaCross and Bill Luca, who run the site Laff in the Dark. It's a long, fascinating interview; LaCross and Luca have studied dark rides for years, producing documentaries on the history of horror rides in the United States. While most dark rides are decades old, dating back as far as the 1930s, there are still survivors out there. Many more, of course, have shut down. But it's impressive how scary or creepy the rides could be with so little technology--even today, none of them use the sophisticated computerized effects of Disney's rides, yet they still contain lots of moving "stunts," scenes or figures out in the darkness.
The real fathers of the dark ride ran the Tumbling Dam Amusement Park in New Jersey in the 1920s. Facing hard times, they wanted to install a popular old mill in their park, but couldn't afford the high cost. So they decided to build their own version, and modified a bumper car to ride along a rail. It was full of twists and turns, and stunts of some kind, and one passenger helped name it the Pretzel due to its twisty nature. The first dark ride was so successful, copycats soon popped up, even copying the Pretzel name. The creators ended up founding the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company to build rides for other parks.
Famous roller coaster designer Harry Traver decided to compete with Pretzel with his own brand of dark rides, named Laff in the Dark. He didn't stay in the business long, but Pretzel ended up naming their rides Laff in the Dark, too. In the 1960s, dark rides started developing themes. In the 1980s and 1990s, the rides started to really push the fear factor, possibly as a result of slasher flicks.
Dark ride stunts changed enormously over the years, but they were consistently clever in producing scares without elaborate setpieces. Early Pretzels had strings hanging in the air, which would brush against passengers' faces as they rode through. Papier-mâché figures came first, and were followed by magnetically triggered stunts that would play screams on 78 records, strike symbols, or produce other scares. Today most rides use pneumatics to move latex stunts around. Simpler than computerized animatronics, but still effective.
The most interesting chapter in dark ride history may be the artwork of Bill Tracy.
"Probably his most gory scene was a woman in a teddy going through a sawmill, sliced right in half."
LaCross told Collector's Weekly: "He did a wide spectrum of dark-ride stunts. There’s nothing violent about the Whacky Shack at all, totally nothing. Yet back in the ’60s, he did a lot of gory stuff, and some over-the-top politically incorrect stuff. He’d take liberty with women, featuring, say, a scantily clad woman shackled up to the wall in a torture chamber. Thanks to the air cylinders, her breasts would move in and out like she was breathing. He made a bunch of bar scenes with barmaids with those same heaving breasts, but they’re shown serving drinks, dressed like hookers from the frontier days.
Probably his most gory scene—which he debuted in 1963 right in a park in Rhode Island—was a woman in a teddy going through a sawmill, sliced right in half. For the life of me, I can’t remember one person ever complaining about that back then. When I look back on that, it’s amazing. I remember going through that, celebrating my 9th or 10th birthday. My mom was very strict, and she rode with me and my brother, but she didn’t say a thing about it."
Read the full interview at Collector's Weekly--there's a ton more to the history of dark rides, including what they're like today.