Monday, September 01, 2008

Stuff: The haunted houses of Coney Island: Part 3 – Dante's Inferno

The third and final stop on our tour of haunted house rides is Dante's Inferno.

As the middle child, stuck between its raucous and Rabelaisian younger brother (the Ghost Hole) and its legendary older sister (the Spook-A-Rama), Dante's Inferno has struggled to establish an identity of its own.

Located in Astroland Park, just a shout away from the famed Cyclone rollercoaster, Dants's Inferno opened in 1964 under the name Flight to Mars. The same year NASA failed to send Mariner 3 to Mars, riders at Coney Island could take the same trip for less than a buck. Flight to Mars rolled passengers past various "space age" scenes, including human contact with a vibrant Martian civilization. America's come-from-behind dominance in the space race and the sad realization that neither the moon nor Mars contained any societies more complex than anything you might find in vast stretches of the Midwest dealt a fatal blow to the crowd-drawing powers of Flight to Mars. After six years of economically-priced, family-friendly space exploration, Flight to Mars closed its doors.

In 1970s, along with most of the rest of the city, Flight to Mars went to Hell. The dark ride was replaced with a high-concept dark ride that actually took riders on a tour of Hell and the poet Dante imagined it. This proved a bit hoity-toity for the Coney crowd and, over time, the ride's theme was downgraded to a more generic, non-unified series of scares. The modern ride was the creation of famed attraction designer Anton Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf's responsible for several classic rollercoasters, including the King Cobra at King's Dominion in Virginia and the Shockwave at Six Flags Over Texas. Fans of 1970s disaster flicks may remember the Revolution from the schlocky 1977 thriller Rollercoaster. The Revolution, playing itself in the film, was designed by Anton Schwarzkopf. The Revolution was also the coaster the Griswolds ride in National Lampoon's Vacation.

Like all Coney Island dark rides, Dante's Inferno features an outsized mascot: A yellow, winged demon character holding a ghostly puppet in his left hand (Brutus, Cassius, or Judas about to be devoured? Your guess is as good as mine.).

The exterior of Dante's Inferno resembles some ren-fair castle and is studded with several bits of animatronic tomfoolery. Sadly, none of the pieces appear to work. This a real shame as the single most awesome bit monster in all of Coney can be found on the far left of the ride's façade, often hidden behind the ticket booth. Here's a photo I took on previous trip.

This bad boy is sometimes referred to as "the werewolf." In his more functional days, his carriage-support slid in and out of the castle façade, allowing the beast to lunge at passersby. I don't include a modern photo of this wonderful beastie as time and vandals have not been kind to him. Earlier this year, teens busted off his lower jaw.

Earlier I mentioned that overall balance of scare pieces on most rides falls somewhere in between Platonic poles: jump-out and tableaux scares. Well, Dante's makes a big freakin' liar out of me. Dante's is interesting in that it contains nothing but tableaux scare pieces. Some of them are quite modern; there's a dismemberment by circular saw scene that would fit right at home in Hostel film. Others, like a gorilla beating his chest in a cage, seem quaint.

Last but not least, here's the ride through video. If you've got your ears open, you'll hear the filmmaker (or his companion) ask if the other rider has ever been on a "pretzel" dark ride. That term refers to a specific sort of dark ride design in which riders move on flat surface over very twisty tracks. The car's orientation, and therefore the riders' point of view, twists back and forth as needed by the ride designer. Since the ride is mostly conducted in the dark, riders quickly loose their sense of orientation and get the feeling that they're covering enormous amounts of ground. The Spook-A-Rama is a classic pretzel ride. Dante's Inferno and the Ghost Hole are not pretzel rides because they follow a fairly linear track and contain multiple levels. Dante's Inferno even includes a slight "coaster dip," as you'll see.

Thanks for following me on this little tour. Enjoy the ride.


Anonymous said...

So the Mrs will come along on trips to horror stuff with you, but doesn't enjoy the movies ? Interesting. Good choice ;)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

The first one my bitter half rode with me was Dante's and the interest was, I think, mostly historical. Dante's is well within the bounds of the current Coney redevelopment plan which means that, sooner or later, it will move (the structure is entirely portable) or be destroyed.

After that, I think the low-budget, almost campy, almost outsider folk art feel of the things appealed to her.

Anonymous said...

The original Flight To Mars was a double decker dark ride w/a lift hill which could be seen from the outside. The 'coaster dip' could also be seen from the outside. Either this Dante's Inferno was never a true Flight To Mars or it has been re themed so heavily that is shares little with it's ancestor.