Haunted House theme parks are plentiful across the UK and some of the spookiness is real, says former performer ASHLEY DARKWOOD
There can be no doubt that modern Halloween would be largely unrecognisable to the ancient Celts who observed Samhain. To quote the 1993 film Hocus Pocus, “All Hallow’s Eve has become a night of frolic, where children wear costumes and run amok!”
Even in these near 30 years since the film’s release, Halloween has evolved further and the whole month of October is a significant period for retailers, theme parks, small businesses, fun and thrill seekers of all ages.
During the Great Depression of 1929–1939, “Haunted Houses” began to pop up in the USA. As a distraction from vandalism and petty crime during these trying times, children and youngsters would visit themed houses.
These attractions would comprise easy to make FX: Damp sponges hanging in dark crawl tunnels, audible howls and cackles etc. Haunted House-type attractions are now huge business in the USA, the scare actors within often referred to as Haunters.
Spook seekers can enjoy everything from independently run small pop-up escape rooms to the multi-million dollar investment of Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. The range of attractions is phenomenal, with something to suit every age and budget.
Naturally, the UK has seen a huge rise in similar attractions. Towns up and down the country are hosting independent scare mazes and escape rooms, theme park big players like Thorpe Park and Alton Towers experience their busiest days for Fright Nights and Scare Fest respectively.
However, such attractions are something of a re-import.
Haunted Houses in England
In 1915, a Haunted House was built by fairground ride manufacturers Orton & Spooner in Liphook, Hampshire at the now Hollycombe Steam Collection.
These Showmen were probably inspired by classic horror literature, but importantly also, very early horror films such as Le Manoir du Diable (1896) and The Haunted Castle (1897) which would have etched visuals into the minds of early cinema goers. There can be no doubt that Orton & Spooner’s Haunted House would have been very basic, but, it would certainly have raised heart rates. Probably a welcome distraction from the real horrors of the First World War.
In 2018, I began working at Thorpe Park for their licensed Year of The Walking Dead series of attractions, having previously been an actor of many years at the famous Zombie Mall in Reading, Berkshire, operated by Zed Events. As well as being a cool form of employment as a fan of The Walking Dead, I was intrigued by newspaper stories from 2011.
The reports claimed that workers building the new Storm Surge (adjacent to Monk’s Walk) were being disturbed by a headless monk, tools vanishing and other paranormal phenomena, prompting park managers to move the location of Storm Surge. Insider info, this was a publicity stunt. The attraction was moved for other logistical reasons. However, those same longer standing staff would inform me that there had been paranormal occurrences reported, not made public, including the area of the park next to Monk’s Walk.
Spooky History of Fright Parks
There is significant history on the land, the park now occupies what was the south-east corner of the Thorpe estate, connected by Monks Walk to St. Mary’s Church where in 1963 a Roman urn dating from 120–150 AD was discovered in the churchyard.
In 2005 Fright Nights introduced an indoor scare maze called The Asylum. By 2013 the attraction had become somewhat controversial, attracting criticism from mental health charities. The building would go on to host a variety of attractions over the coming years, both scary and family friendly. All the attractions within would have one thing in common. The building appears to be haunted.
Actors follow what is known as a Rotation. An actor will start at a specific point in a maze and will be relieved by another actor and move to the next position, after four or so rotations the actor will be near the exit of the attraction and go on a break, the process then repeats.
The controversy of Asylum in 2013 proved that any publicity is good publicity. An actor I will call J was at the end of his rotation, delivering scares to customers in the finale of Asylum. He kept noticing that another performer would come into his room, glaring at him and shaking her head. He reasoned that he must have done something to upset her. He went on his break and found this same colleague in the green room. He approached her and asked what he had done wrong. She responded that it wasn’t her, she had been in the green room the entire time, a whole rotation ahead. J remains adamant to this day that he saw this particular performer who was also a friend. But it couldn’t have been her.
By 2015 the building had been repurposed for a much more family friendly attraction, a licensed I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here adventure maze, this would be open year round and not just for Fright Nights. Actors working in the attraction would report seeing customers entering staff only areas, only for nobody to be there when the actor went to retrieve them. 2019 saw the building used as Jungle Escape, a hybrid maze/escape room attraction. A small group of us were tasked with operating the attraction throughout the summer.
One particular day I was working with a colleague I will call T. A level headed, positive, conscientious and professional guy, exactly the kind of person you want in your green room. On this day I was the games master, overseeing the CCTV of customers completing the puzzles, T was working on reset, literally scurrying around resetting the puzzles, using an actor’s corridor so as not to be seen by our guests. An internal radio message came in from T, “Shit, we’ve got customers in the building”. I replied that we didn’t, the cameras not only covered the puzzle rooms, but all entrances, exits, corridors etc. Nobody but us was in the building. “I can see them walking up the actor’s corridor, I’ll get them.” Myself and other colleagues with me in the control room could see T racing down the corridor, towards a back of house area. Of course, nobody was there. T returned to the control room, looking quite perplexed. He had seen solid people, wearing modern clothing, heard them talking.
That summer in Jungle Escape threw up another peculiarity. I was working on what we call pre-show, gathering the customers in, delivering a script that explained the back story of the attraction and the objectives within. It was a quiet sunny afternoon, so I was hanging around out the front door, chatting with the queue host and potential customers walking by.
Every so often I would hear the voice of a young sounding girl on my radio. I assumed it to be my colleagues messing around, since the attraction was empty. “Guys, stop pissing about, guests can hear you,” I retorted. An apology was not forthcoming, instead this silly little girl’s voice continued. Like my colleague T, I am conscientious and professional, there’s time to work and time to play. This was not play time, even though our attraction was empty. Eventually, I made my way back to the control room where my colleagues were sitting. They quizzed me as to what I meant by my message. I told them the silly radio voice was unprofessional, I could have been stood with management who would have heard it.
They told me it wasn’t them. I believed them and reasoned it must have been a child nearby with a similar radio, although the range of these radios was terrible, deliberately so, these radios were specific to our attraction. Some moments later the girl’s voice came through again, this time we were all together. There were 4 of us with the same radios on the same channel, but only my radio was receiving the transmission of a little girl’s voice. We called her Suzie for some reason. I can’t discount frequency pollution, but I would have expected all of the radios in close proximity to have picked up the same voice.
Strange events going on
Performers in other areas of the park started to report their own experiences to me. Figures being seen in the finale of Derren Brown’s Ghost Train, when the customers were still on the ride. Tech engineers reported strange activity in the Saw Alive attraction, a high impact scare maze based on the Saw films, defunct by 2019. The remainder of the year seems to have passed without incident, but my interest was definitely piqued as to what was going on.
2020 would provide a logistical challenge at Fright Nights. By the Halloween season theme parks were allowed to reopen but with a much reduced capacity and a huge focus on social distancing and face coverings. Only one indoor attraction was allowed to open, Screamplexx operating inside the Angry Birds 4D theatre space, we had to utilise as much outdoor space as possible.
By now myself and other colleagues were in training, leadership and management positions for the 2020 Fright Nights season. Nonetheless, it was all hands on deck to help build and set up the outdoor attractions. Roots of Evil would occupy a usually disused bit of woodland at the rear of the park, by Monk’s Walk, as you might have guessed.
Construction of Roots went right up to the wire, much of our work dependent on daily briefings from government level down to our management level. In the early hours of one morning, 3 of the team were working on the finale of Roots of Evil. At one point their conversation came to a natural silence, they heard a deep sigh, each thinking the other had caused it.
Eventually we managed to complete the Fright Nights season, knowing that more Covid restrictions were rapidly approaching. At the end of the final night we decided to seize our opportunity, the park was empty and we were free to investigate. As you might imagine, a watched pot never boils, various bits of paranormal kit I took with me revealed nothing for much of the night.
However, we decided to investigate down a service road that separates Monk’s Walk/Roots of Evil and the rest of the park, including the building which has housed Asylum/Celeb/Jungle Escape. I set up a Rem Pod on a tree stump, we stood back and asked questions. The Rem Pod starting bleeping, seemingly to indicate the affirmative. Eventually we garnered responses that indicated the presence was a female, not who we referred to as Suzie, but connected to the Monks who would have used the walk to the church. They were sad when the park was empty, they were aware of other ghostly presences in the park.
We observed no activity or responses in the former Asylum building. We then made our way to the upstairs staff area of Screamplexx/Angry Birds. One of my colleagues was in the green room collecting paperwork a couple of nights previous, the entire building was locked on his arrival, yet he spotted a figure disappear round a corner as he approached the room. A number of us had witnessed some of the tech in the theatre operating of it’s own accord in previous weeks.
We heard a series of bangs and knocks on doors and walls, although none of it seemed like an intelligent response to questions. It would be difficult to class this as a paranormal experience, although those who knew the space well reported that they hadn’t heard these noises at any other time. This brought our investigation to a close, some very interesting experiences, but nothing we could nail to the wall.
By 2021 I was in other employment, but returned to Fright Nights part time to perform in the new Trailers scare maze. Trailers was built in the former Asylum/Celeb/Jungle building. Each room of the maze was completely distinct and different to the others, as were the actors’ makeup and costumes. It wouldn’t be long before an actor approached me. He and another actor were performing in a zone, designed as a grimy dentist surgery. A simple aggressor/victim performance that packs a punch.
During a quiet moment he witnessed his colleague leave the room, going forwards from the customers’ perspective to the next zone. He thought little of it, until this same colleague entered the room from behind him. Same person, same costume, now entering the room from a different direction. This would be logistically impossible to happen so quickly, it would take a good few minutes to move around the maze to a point where you could re-enter the dentist scene.
It seems that a lot of what was observed over the years would fall into the category of a Mimic. Mimics are a much less talked about type of apparition. I have received several reports of people witnessing loved ones in places they just couldn’t be. A husband seen in a kitchen while he was actually at work. A child heard crying in their bedroom when they were staying with a grandparent. These Mimic apparitions of the living seem common where there is associated poltergeist type activity. As if the presence seeks to imitate a physical form, or could it be a time slip? Not of centuries of decades old, but of possibly days, hours or minutes?
It is generally held that theatres are often haunted, the energy of the audience and performances giving fuel to spectral visitors and occupants. If true it would follow that the thousands of people who visit Fright Nights on a nightly basis would emit enough energy and emotion to satisfy any discarnate entities who have ties to the land of visit out of interest.
I have other encounters in similar attractions, but that’s a story for another time!
Have you seen something strange at a Haunted House Theme Park? Tell us about it in the comments section.
ASHLEY DARKWOOD says: “I am from South Buckinghamshire. Born into a Spiritualist family, some of my earliest memories are of attending the Spiritualist Church in High Wycombe. Tasked by the church to help a young boy having disturbing visions, my first paranormal investigation was at the age of 16. After spending many years working for the NHS and Social Services, I eventually became a stunt performer and actor. I have conducted thorough research of hundreds of paranormal cases and continue to investigate private cases. I have supplied paranormal research to a number of documentaries as well as appearing on TV and Radio.” You can follow Ashley Darkwood on Twitter.