Theme Park Mystery: Variations on a Theme - Manual
Theme parks and fairgrounds have long provided supernatural backdrops
for novelists and film makers. One of the key elements in Steven
King's The Dead Zone is a wheel of fortune, randomly spinning, serving
as a metaphor for fate's unseen twists. In Big, Tom Hanks asks an
eerie carnival wishing machine for the chance to become young again,
and is granted his desires only to find things don't turn out the way
e wanted. In Something Wicked This Way Comes. Dark's Pandemonium
Carnival visits a small midwestern town and tempts its patrons into
So what is it about fairgrounds that prove so attractrive to masters
of mystery and suspense? They're links with the past, with folk-lore,
ritualised and ceremonialised, part of the seasons. And, as with many
long established rituals, they've gained an air of paranormal
experience over the years, associated with changing beliefs and
attitudes in society. Their history encompasses a history of
prediction and desire, fantasy and escapism, inexorably intertwined.
Fairgrounds aren't a recent phenomenom. They can be traced back to
Roman times (the Latin word for holiday is 'feria'), but their
ultimate origin lies with pagan festivals, when people simply let
their hair down. Medieval British fairs sprang from regular 'wakes'
days when, around the hub of a market, patrons came along to be
entertained by sideshows. As these wakes became more popular, many
were legalised by the granting of a charter or a statute - records can
be found dating back to Norman times. Mostly, however, custom and
usage decided the fate of the fete.
Gatherings on this scale acted as an echo of the yearly routine of a
community. Around Martinmas Day (11 November) Hiring and Mop fairs
were a regular occurance, offering the equivalent of local job
centres: wealthy land-owners looking for servants or workers would
come along and choose hired hands from rows of eligable unemployed.
As the process became more sophisticated, prospective employees wore
markings of their trade: milkers carried pails, cleaners sported mops,
carters fastened a piece of whipcord to their hats. These gatherings
even had their judical system: the 'piepowder court' was a court of
justice which dealt with disputes between buyers and sellers. Goods
which could be bought and sold included horses, livestock and,
sometimes, human beings (the Mayor of Casterbridge sold his wife at a
fair). Contemporary trade fairs and exhibitions are a link with this
commercial past. Often coincidental with chuch festivals, the
periodic market-places came to be associated with side-shows,
amusements and 'merry-making'. Several of them became extremely
popular in their own centuries: Donnybrook Fair (held every August
from the time of King John until 1855, south-east of Dublin) was noted
for its 'bacchanalian routs and light-hearted rioting', its name
passing onto proverb and euphanism.
If they weren't keen on exchanging livestock, many English towns held
a Goose faire, around the time of Michaelmas, when geese were
plentiful. The Nottingham one is generally regarded as the most
important, but others include the Tavistock Goosey Fair, which is
still held to this day. It even had its own song, written in hybrid
Cornish tongue: 'Us druv across ole Dartymoor/Th' Goozey Vair to zee.'
Like all fairs, its origins have been corrupted and superceded by
popular culture: nowadays geese are seldom sold, though goose lunches
Proper, countryside travelling fairs didn't come into existence until
the roads they travelled were good enough to support heavy loads - the
Roads acts of 1730 and 1780 saw to that. Better highways meant
greater loads, greater loads meant more elaborate rides, larger and
more spectacular sideshows, and bigger menageries of animals. By the
beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the travelling fair was the most
popular form of festival entertainment.
First the sideshows got bigger, then came the rides. By the 1800s
these were impressive, hand-driven works of engineering; but in the
latter half of that century steam revolutionised the tradition rides
and provided the power for the roundabouts and big wheels. The
travelling fair has coexisted with the town fair by making two
compromises: it has presented entertainment which people in places
without fairs wouldn't normally see without making an effort; and it
has avoided fruitless journeys to towns where there was already an
established permanent local fair (like Blackpool).
Theme parks and fairs have never lost the intertwining relationship
between tradition and modernity: every year in Mitcham, an ageing four
foot long key is produced to open the festival, a ceremony dating back
centuries. They are seasonal events, steeped in folk history,
repeating the same rituals year after year, with only the details
changing. In Stratford they used to roast oxen; now they provide hot
potatoes, candy floss, hot dogs and toffee apples.
THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE
Alternatively known as the Eli or Ferris Wheel, the big wheel is among
the oldest fairground rides. One of the largest in this country was
built at Earls Court in 1894 for the Exhibition. It had no less than
forty huge, sealed cars and could carry two hundred people; it was
driven by two 50hp motors and measured 280 feet across. A similar one
was built in the Prater at Vienna, called the Riesanrad - it still
With the coming of the traction engine electricity allowed the showman
to light up his ride: wheel owners proceeded to plaster them all over
the naptha flares and arc light, creating huge colourful beacons which
attracted crowds. For this reason, most big wheels were placed at the
edge of the fairground. Despite being impressive, they have one
fundamental snag: the chairs have to be loaded singly, so they take
less profit per hour than, say, dodgems or waltzers.
Big wheels are a vertical version of the roundabout, crude manually
operated examples of which have been around since the Middle Ages.
One of the earliest mechanical ones appeared in 1880 using stationary
horses ('galloping' ones didn't appear for another twenty years).
This horizontal spinning ride has more names than any other format:
the horse-carrying type alone has been variously christened Gallopers,
Merry-Go-Round, Flying Horses, Joy Ride, Hobby Horse, Carry-Us-All,
Whirligig and even Steam Riding Galleries. Early varients to the
mainstream include such things as the Sea-on-Land ride (featuring
sailboats), flying pigs, scenic railways and the Waltzer and Octopus.
The Dodgems or Bumper Cars ride was introduced in the 1920s, and is
one of the few early attractions still to retain its popularity.
Electricity for the cars is collected from the overhead wire mesh,
causing sparks and random electrical fields. Tracks were much larger,
but were frowned upon for the simple reason that the cars attained a
much higher speeds, so more damage was caused to them. When
televisions first came into general use, Dodgem owners had to fit
suppressors to the cars, since the electricity interfered with tv
reception! The Dodgem track was patented in 1921, but it had a
precedent in the Brooklands Speedway, an oval course around which
petrol-driven cars raced. Petrol was less efficient than electricity,
however, and the concept of an internal combustion engine powering a
car was relegate to Go-Kart courses.
Alternatively known as the Lighthouse Slip, or simply The Slip, the
helter skelter has the advantage of having no mechanical components.
The coming of steam allowed its huge bulk to be transported more
effectively; and again, like the Big Wheel, it acted as a beacon at
the edge of the fairground, a statement of the festival's existence.
Even so, helter skelters are failing in popularity: they're difficult
to build, subject to damage in strong winds and limited in their adult
entertainment value. There aren't many in permanent fairs around the
country. Other rides and shows have lost favour in a similar way,
because people demand more thrills from theme parks than they ever did
from simple fairs: they prefer roller coasters, log flumes, waltzers,
big dippers, jets and loopers. Travelling theatres have suffered a
similar fate: the early Twentieth Century saw television, permanent
theatres have suffered and picture palaces kill off the migrant actor.
Only special effects such as the 3D cinema at Alton Towers serve as a
reminder of a previous art form.
WELCOME TO THE FANTASY ZONE
Dwarfs, like those pictured at the Oxford St Giles fair, are one
aspect of the wakes which have almost entirely died out: the freak
show. One of the oldest and greatest festival gatherings was
Bartholomew Fair, opened annually from 1133 to 1752 at Smithfield,
then Islington from 1840 until 1855. It dealt mainly in cloth and
livestock, but also hosted a variety of sideshows. It was long held
to be the centre of London Life, but most significantly from the
viewpoint of fairground history, it contained a rich panoply of freak
shows. A poem of 1683 revealed its chief entertainments: 'the Woman
of Babylon, the Devil and the Pope; the World's Creation; the Tall
Dutchwoman, the bears that dance like any ladies.' Adverts
proclaimed: 'see the Wilde Beast or horned horse; see the baby
tigers.' Some animals displayed were in fact stuffed, disguised by
dim lighting: without great access to zoos or the media, many people
couldn't tell the difference. Human beings, on the other hand, were
all too often the genuine article. One of the saddest cases was that
of Mary Ann Bevan, who developed an incurable facial disease and won a
local competition for finding the World's Ugliest Woman, with a prize
of £100. She was then paraded as a freak around the country for the
rest of her life, dying at the age of 45.
Dwarfs, bearded ladies, genetic deficiencies such as Siamese twins and
a menagerie of animals are all part of a fairground backdrop which no
longer exists. Almost until the middle of this century, side
attractions included boxing children, beast shows & lions were
popular, rubber men, tattooed ladies, very thin or very fat people -
even a famous pelican called Billy which earned a nationwide
reputation for simply being a pelican. Bull and bear baiting had long
since died out, and as sensibilities became more delicate, displays of
genuine genetic misfortune, such as the Elephant Man, were considered
too gross to be shown. Boxing and wrestling are still part of the
established scene, though the legends are part of the past. In the
Durham Miners Gala of 1919, a certain Billy Wood is reputed to have
fought eighteen opponents in one day, stopping fifteen of them inside
the distance. There's still the opportunity to fight or wrestle with
champions or pit your skills against a strongman at many contempory
A MERE BAGATELLE
Arcades of slot machines were very late on the scene, not appearing
until the 1920s. Local bye-laws often forbade 'games of chance', and
the police were very active in stopping them. Early versions which
successfully slipped the legal net included the bagatelle, football
games and What The Butler Saw. However, the most excruciating was
undoubtedly a variation of a machine called Test Your Grips: you
clasped a handle which gave you an electric shock with one hand; with
the other you turned a dial to increase the power of the shock!
Arcades are now much more sophisticated: oldies such as Crompton's
Cake Walk still exist, but you'll usually find state-of-the-art
computer games side by side with one-armed bandits.
The Death Wall marked the beginning of true excitement at fairgrounds.
People watched from above as a motorcycle rider in a half-globe
whizzed round and round, centrifugal force pushing him onto the
vertical walls. The Americans developed this in the 1920s by using
midget cars and sidecars, which often contained a lion to add to the
thrill factor. Then there was the Globe of Death: a completely sealed
version of the Wall. There is now only one Wall of Death in this
country, but the spectacle occasionally recurs in films such as the
recent Eat The Peach.
The chase for thrills was on, reaching a climax with the development
of Big Dippers and other roller coasters: groups of carriages were
winched up a slope and left, literally, to fall along the track, kept
moving by gravitational forces. Track brakes stopped the ride after
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
The traditional site for permanent fairgrounds is at popular seaside
resorts, such as Great Yarmouth and Blackpool. These allow much more
scope for the development and generation of new rides and attractions
- they can be much larger, for a start. They first surfaced when
riding masters from the North of England got together in the 1920s to
form the Palm Beach Amusement Company, which created the Figure of
Eight, a smaller version of the Big Dipper. These up and down railway
tracks are usually the most prominent feature of any fairground and
have now mutated into several forms: variations at Blackpool alone
include the River Caves, Gold Mine, an inevitable miniature railway,
the Grand National, Little Dipper, Space Invaders and the Revolution -
a 180 degree loop-the-loop roller coaster.
Theme parks are an inevitable development of advanced fairground
technology: Disneyland was opened on 18 July, 1955, and set off an
irreverible trend towards mass culture experiences. They don't simply
contain rides, but whole sets of images and ideas: sideshows have been
resurrected from the gaudiness of modern fairgrounds to become focal
points. There are now a growing number of theme parks worldwide:
Disneyland, Disney World, Disney World at Paris, De Efteling,
Fantasialand, Alton Towers. All of them, however, retain the same,
unique elements which inspired original fairgrounds: the exchange of
money, escapism and entertainment.
Fortune tellers have been part of the fairground scene from earliest
times. Nowadays they operate out of caravans, but they originally
foretold the future from inside small tents, armed with a crystal
ball, a cup of tea or eye sensitive to the mysteries of the palm. In
a big fair such as the one in Hull, There could be as many as one
hundred clairvoyants at a time.
Nowadays, the secret of prediction have been mostly assigned to one
race of people in particular: gypsies. Of Indian origin, these
ancient nomadiac people migrated first to Persia then to Europe,
reaching Germany and France in the Fifteenth Century. They were
assumed by the Europeans to have come from Egypt, and so were called
Egyptians. This name was, over time, shortened to Gypcians and
finally corrupted to the modern day form.
Three main methods of fortune telling survive in contemporary
fairgrounds: palmistry, scrying (crystal balls) and the reading of tea
leaves. For as long as people want to know how things are going to
shape up, they'll still be around.
CROSS MY PALM WITH SILVER
Palmistry (or chiromancy) is the art of reading the palm of the hand
and deducing character, temperament and fortune from the conjunction
and angle of natural lines. It is an age-old skill, practised by the
Ancient Greeks and Chaldean astrologers, and of all the divination
arts, it has most credibility still associated with it - some doctors
use its methods to assist in the diagnosis of illness, and Jung
commented that its technique were 'of essentail importance for
Modern palmists recognize four basic hand shapes, according to the
length of the fingers and the shape of the palm. Examining the hand
may reveal flabbiness (indicative of a low metabolic rate, laziness or
lack of energy), smoothness (gullibility), a ruddy skin (an extrovert
or aggressive nature) or dryness (kidney trouble).
The basis of palmistry is body language - a warm handshake indicates a
forthcoming character, for example - reinforced by examination of the
palm itself. This structure is then subdivided into the study of the
nails, finger length and shape, finger and palm pads, and the familiar
palm lines: heart, head and life. Practicians of chiromacy stress
that a short life line doesn't necessarily mean a short life!
A SCRY IN THE DARK
Crystal gazing (a.k.a scrying or crystallomancy) doesn't always
involve crystal balls, but can also include clear water, polished
black stone or quartz, a mirror, or even a sword blade. The critical
element is a stimulating surface which helps focus the mind's eye.
Nor is it so much a question of the diviner seeing images in the
crystal, but more of a case of their interpreting the fine flaws
already present within it. It is largely discredited technique, due
to its inconsistant prediction record.
Crystals have secondary properties when used as a generic term
encompassing a whole sphere of precious stones. These stones are
claimed to have various properties ranging from the healing of
sickness (agates are energising stones and aquamarines good for the
eyesight) to the unveiling of deceit (iron pyrite).
Tasseography, or the art of prediction via the study of tea leaves,
came into fashion when tea and coffee drinking became virtually
universal in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The method is
simple - the querant drinks the tea from a plain cup, holding it in
the left hand and swirling the liquid three times clockwise. The cup
is then inverted into the saucer and the liquid allowed to drain away
on a count of seven. The remaining leaves are then interpreted.
It's the interpretation which requires the skill. Generally, dots
signify financial affairs, wavy lines show disturbed conditions and
straight lines signify a direct course. An alternative modern method
is to allow the questioner to interpret the images themselves, like a
psychologist will give a patient a Rorschach pattern to interpret.
Some of the common shapes include a book (if open, good news), axe
(trouble), boot (protection from pain) and volcano (emotions out of
control). This trio is just part of a vast, ancient, interlaced
structure of prediction methods.
THE A-Z OF DIVINATION
Prediction using a cock. A circle of alphabet letters is drawn, and a
grain of corn placed on each letter. A cock is then placed in the
centre, and the prediction is determined by the letters it chooses.
This forerunner of modern astromony recognises the influence of the
stars on human affairs, and is mentioned in the Bible (Dan., ii, 2).
A person's future is determined by planetary alignment at birth.
Properly, the function of an augur, a Roman religious official. An
augur's duty was to pronounce, by the observation of auspices (mainly
birds and animals) whether the Gods favoured or disfavoured a course
Divination by the axe. It was practised by the ancient Greeks,
usually to reveal criminals: an agate or piece of jet was placed on a
red-hot axe, which indicated the guilty person by its motion.
Mainly a method used by the Babylonians and Scythians, belomancy
involved attaching labels to a given number of arrows. Archers then
let them fly, and the advice given on the arrow which flew the
furthest was accepted.
Divination using the Bible. A sort of SORTES (see below).
The querant asks a question which has several answers. The possible
replies are written on leaves, some of which are blown away by the
wind - the remainder determines the reply. An alternative method
involves interpreting the sound made by various kinds of plants when
burned or crushed in the hand.
An alternative name for Palmistry.
The generic term for crystal gazing: prediction gained from the
observation of transparant bodies, such as a crystal globe, polished
quartz or precious stones.
Divination by interpretation of the behaviour of certain objects when
placed upon a sacrificial fire. Eggs, flour, incense and a
shoulderblade were the most common objects used.
The interpretation of conjunctive points on the earth, or the patterns
made by throwing earth into the air and allowing it to fall on a flat
The querant walks around in a circle until they fall down from
dizziness: the direction of the fall is seen as significant.
Originally, a Roman official of Etruscan origins who interpreted the
will of the gods by inspecting the entrails of animals offered in
One of the most ancient forms of divination, it's also mentioned in
the Bible (Ezek., xxi, 21-26). It involved the inspection of the
liver from a sacrificed animal, and rested on the belief that the
liver was the seat of vitality in the soul.
Knowledge of the future gained by casting or drawing from a set of
objects - a very ancient art, often found in the practise of
witchcraft. Lots were used in ancient Israel to decide the division
of property or appointment to office. Mentioned in the Bible: 'The
lot is cast into the lap; but the whole dispersing thereof is of the
Lord' (Josh., xviii, 6).
Found in I Sam., xxviii, 12-20, this form relied on the calling up of
the dead. Also a generic term for the art of magic, alternatively
named The Black Art, and used in witchcraft.
A general term for phenomena or unusual events which are taken as a
sign of the future. Examples may include adverse weather conditions
before a battle, or a king falling ill before his marriage.
Divination by the interpretation of dreams, found in Gen.,xxxvii, 10.
A potential forerunner of freudian psychology.
Stemmed from the late Eighteenth Century belief that every mental
faculty was localised on the surface of the head. Thus, by inspecting
bumps on the skull, a subject's personality could be gauged and
predictions about the future established.
Divination by fire or from shapes observed in fires.
Prediction by means of a rod or wand, or by dowsing. Often used in
terms of the search for water by means of a divining rod.
A letter or character from the earliest alphabet of the Gothic tribes
of northern Europe. Runes were chiefly employed for use in secrecy.
charms and divination: in fact, the etymology of the word (OE run)
SIEVE AND SHEARS:
An ancient form mentioned by Theocritus. The point of the shears was
stuck in the wooden rim of the sieve, and two people supported it
upright by the tips of their fingers. Then a verse of the Bible was
read aloud, and St Peter and St Paul were asked to determine a guilty
person from three possibles. When a criminal was named, the sieve
suddenly turned around. It was used more frivolously to decide future
Literally, the left-hand side (from Latin). Birds and animals
appearing on a person's left side were considered unlucky in Roman
Prediction based on taking selected passages from books:
Virgil's/Aeneid was the most popular work. A book is opened at random
and a finger placed on any passage: the sentence revealed gives clues
about the future.
This pack of cards, originally Italian, was first used in the
Fourteenth Century, and is still regularly employed in fortune
telling. The original pack contained 78 playing cards, but the modern
pack contains 54.
The reading of tea leaves as an indicator of the future.
Idols and images belonging to ancient Hebrews and worshipped by them
as household gods: used for soothsaying and divination. Mentioned in
URIM AND THUMMIN:
Sacred lots, used for ascertaining the will of God by ancient Hebrews.
They fell out of use as more spiritual concepts of the divine being
became popular, and aren't mentioned after the time of David.
Divination was one of witchcraft's fundamental aspects, and belief in
it was prevalent until the Eighteenth Century and later.
Involves the use of twigs and rods to follow earthly current.
Typed by SIDEWINDER/LSD.