In February 2018, I experienced what many would consider to be a dream job- decorating a ghost train! Specifically, this was the refurbishment of a 30 year-old ride at Barry's Amusements park in Northern Ireland. It took a great amount of work from Dorset-based company Dead Walk Designs to transform it from charmingly shoddy to show-stopping...
As you can see, the ride had next to no theming at all, with black brick hallways and aged animatronics behind metal grates. Of course, this did provide a great amount of old-school amusement and nostalgia to the crowds of Northern Ireland, but there was a lot of room for development!
An early map by Dead Walk Designs, suggesting new themed areas for the ride
A good place to start is by taking a look at the ride's layout. The new concept was to transform the empty hallways into elaborately themed areas. This would include a winding Haunted Mansion hallway to begin with, followed by a UV-lit Graveyard and Forest, where guests would eventually find themselves lost down a totally black-and-white Mad Professor's Dungeon, like something from a 1930s horror film. It sounds simple enough, but there was much work to do!
To begin with, the outside was decorated in a simple way, featuring a retro mural and a sign adorned with cartoon ghosts. With the mural being so eye-catching and well known by fans old and new, it seemed a shame to lose it, so the plan was to build a brand new façade that still incorporated it:
A concept design for the new exterior, by Wayne Barker
The concept design was referenced for this 3D design, where the old mural is kept and framed by a series of windows.
Brian Kirk, who is a local carpenter, joined the team to contribute his abilities in building the rickety house exterior. With lots of experience, Brian was able to do this with great skill and added some of his own details, including boards that appear to hang off of the walls.
One of my jobs, alongside team mate Natalie, was to colour the boards and make them look dirty. We did this using paint diluted with lots of water, which soaked between the wood grains for a natural effect. After this, the soon-to-be stone columns were wrapped in wire mesh to allow cement to hold onto them. Once the cement had been layered up, Shaun and Rachel (who own Dead Walk Designs) carved in some spooky skeletal details.
A huge part of a ghost train's appeal is the characters, as they give the experience its life and give guests some of the best memories! Unfortunately, the old characters on this ride were getting very worn and would benefit from some attention. Our team planned to give them brand new identities to fit the newly themed areas.
The most unexpected character was probably the orange builder with an axe, who artist Laura Jane Jones repainted to become an ode to Uncle Fester. Repainting faces was a good way of changing the characters that visitors might recognise, perhaps even from childhood, without having to remove them.
As a company, Dead Walk Designs started out by selling sinister masks and props, so Shaun adapted a latex hat and mask he'd made to sell for creating a Forest witch. The witch would be placed over the mechanism that used to belong to Big Foot, making her jump up from behind a cauldron; building a new figure over existing mechanisms was a method used in most cases, when simply repainting a character's face wasn't enough. The witch's layers were put together over a mannequin, which was quite a sight…
Meanwhile, Rachel sculpted an entirely new head for a vampire character who would sit up in his coffin, replacing a creature that used to jump out of a green wheelie bin. She did this with clay at first, then took a plaster mold of the sculpt and poured latex into this mold to make a 'skin'. This skin was then filled with foam before the entire head was painted with latex acrylic. After that, the head was attached to the mechanism and the body was dressed. Mural artist Peter Sheridan gave the coffin its finishing touches.
On the original ride, animatronics were accompanied by blaring sirens and sci-fi noises whenever they were triggered. For the refurbishment, 1eight Creative Audio was hired to make a whole soundtrack with ambient sound effects, noises tailored to individual characters, and a music loop that plays throughout, changing its style based on the setting.
Props had been sourced from emporiums, markets and charity shops to make the new sets as convincing as possible. Once the Haunted Mansion had been wallpapered, run down, and Laura had painted the UV window effects, the props could be placed in their respective scenes.
We used objects that best suited the scenes and helped give hints of a story. If you look closely, you can see books about games and school on the doll's bedroom shelf, for example. Tying the scenes together with appropriate props helps to strengthen their stories and hopefully it's fun for visitors to spot the little details!
Laura, Joe and Shaun painted the Graveyard and Forest with UV paint so it would glow eerily as visitors passed through. Natalie and I spray painted thousands of artificial leaves with UV tones to include in this scene, and Natalie also made a fibreglass cauldron to go with the witch.
Shaun taught some of us how to make gravestones out of cement, starting with a wire mesh shape, layering wet cement on top and then carving into them before they completely dried. It was a good opportunity for some gravely amusing inscriptions.
A design for changing portraits at Disneyland's Haunted Mansion
I was excited to take on the task of painting the Mansion's portraits and naturally referenced Disney's Marc Davis for some inspiration. Dead Walk Designs and I both have our own copies of The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic (Surrell), a book that includes much of Davis' artwork for Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride.
My sketches of portrait ideas
Creating the portraits gave me an excellent opportunity to bring out some storytelling in areas of the Mansion. One such area featured the skeleton of a decaying bride, where I thought it'd be interesting to catch a glimpse of her former, living self. Unfortunately, something ominous lurks behind her in the portrait…
Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion features the crypt of a sea captain, covered in limpets, with water leaking from its cracks and bubbles floating from its inside. I love the idea of giving an object a visceral dimension of character like this, and this idea informed my portrait of a deep sea diver- I wanted it to look like it could be from the sea itself. Shaun showed me how to make seaweed out of latex, which I stapled into the frame to give the impression that the strands are hanging off it.
Because the ride is so dark, I had to make sure there was a strong contrast in the paintings so they could be seen clearly. This is why I painted pure white in characters' eyes and stark white lighting on their faces, set against dark backgrounds and shadows.
So that a part of us could stay when the project was over, I included a painting of the group, where each of us is trying to kill someone else. It was painted with red and black features, the colours of the Dead Walk Designs logo:
The positioning of these portraits was another way of helping tell a story, but this time it was the visitor's story that I wanted to influence. Those who venture onto the ghost train might notice that the first portraits in the Mansion are spooky, but not actually supernatural (yet). We see some ominous faces and a boy pointing in the direction that the visitors are travelling in, followed by a painting with eye holes cut out of it. Things get creepy when we encounter the first few animatronic characters and from this point, when there's no turning back, the portraits get more and more unusual.
The silhouette of a monster girl and the drawing of a sad boy are hung at the doll's bedroom, to introduce the child-like theme.
Visitors travel towards the left, seeing the monster girl last!
During the previous October, I'd had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Burke, who had been in charge of creating Disneyland Paris' Phantom Manor. He spoke of the flickering lights down the Manor's darkened hallways and the atmosphere this can create. So, I was delighted by the flickering LED bulbs that Dead Walk Designs brought in- they provide a dramatic illumination of the long hallways and the paintings, with shadows dancing about the sinister faces.
Joseph Coleman is a well-known and skilful sign writer from Weymouth, where Dead Walk Designs is based. His work decorates many windows, walls, and signs about the town and beyond, so it was fascinating to see him in practise. Joe and Natalie became quite skilled at using the wood grain tool, which is run along wet paint to create the natural wood grain look on the doors.
Joe would draw out what he planned to write in chalk or on paper before painting the letters out by hand.
Laura Jane Jones, who is also a talented sign writer and mural artist, painted the spooky fairground behind Joe's entrance sign:
Laura and Joe use special brushes and enamel paint when creating signs. They will often have a mahl stick with them too, which they use to lean their arm on as they paint, allowing for a steady hand.
Laura painted outside scenes with UV paint, illuminating when lightning flashes.
Among other pieces, Laura also repainted the tokens machine.
The final image that visitors see before they leave the ghost train is an impressive, almost three-dimensional vortex, which Laura created with more luminous paints.
Laura and Joe's profession, which is such a refined specialism, was one of the many unique contributions that our diverse team could offer. I was always impressed by the knowledge and efficiency of my team mates and it's wonderful to see what the ghost train has become.
Most importantly, I hope that fans of the old ride are happy to see what has become of it, that they're pleased to see the nods to what it used to be, and that they enjoy all of the new features! At the same time, it's exciting to think that a new generation of Barry's visitors will form their own nostalgic memories for years to come when they take their own cart into those gloomy hallways.