Tuesday 16 April 2019

A Tribute to... The Haunting at Drayton Manor, Staffordshire

Drayton Manor is very much a ‘local park’ - the sort of theme park you need to grow up with, if you did then then you’d have the same positive outlook towards it that I have for places like Pleasurewood Hills or The Milky Way or even Gnome World, if you didn’t you might be seriously underwhelmed. Drayton Manor doesn’t have the money, scope or theming of the big boys, it’s not a patch on Alton Towers or Thorpe Park and looks adorably pathetic compared to Disney and Universal’s offerings, it’s the sort of park that Chessington, Thorpe Park and Alton Towers grew out of being before I grew out of short trousers – this however doesn’t mean that it sucks. It’s ever improving and ever expanding Thomas Land (based on Thomas the Tank Engine) is a delight, it’s three main coasters (Shockwave, G-Force and Accelerator) are all just dandy and it has dinosaurs, nothing that has dinosaurs can suck entirely, it also had Hex before Alton Towers even knew what the word ‘hex’ meant, meet The Haunting.

If you haven’t been on Hex: The Secret of the Towers at Alton Towers (well, it’s technically IN Alton Towers) then your life isn’t complete, it’s a schooling in theming, a superb use of its location (inside the towers at Alton Towers) and a great example of doing a lot with very little – it’s basically a walkthrough and a big rotating drum. It’s rightfully praised and a rare case of an Alton Towers ride being held in the same regard as their Secret Weapons without actually being a Secret Weapon. If anything could have any affect my view on Hex at all – and it would be a small affect, granted - it’d be knowing that the shitty little park down the road had already done it first and done it nearly as good. Oh wait, that actually happened. Both Hex and The Haunting are ‘Madhouse’ rides by Vekoma, a deceptively simple device with a rotating gondola attached to a rotating drum – two things that have been in funfair rides since the year dot but put ‘em together and you get a fantastic and seemingly completely befuddling experience where it seems like you’re rotating upside down in a large room. Hex is undoubtedly the best known over here, while in America I’d guess it would be the Houdini rides at the Six Flags parks (though Clark’s Trading Post had one first) and in Europe it’d be Villa Volta in the always great Efteling park. But there’s a lot more to these rides than just a tamer, indoor Rameses Revenge as the following handy-dandy walkthrough of The Haunting will show you.

The Haunting was opened in 1996, like a lot of Drayton Manor rides it suffers from being an exceptionally well themed ride, just plonked into the most basic of theme park – paving stones and shrubbery – it sits just above some Main Street USA facades used for gift shops and sweet shops and just below a Wild West saloon and a huge barn themed to Oktoberfest, the facades for two more decent rides that deserve way more attention than they’ll ever get stuck at the end of a part of the park that looks like it was designed to house your average outdoor shopping mall. Hopefully further developments up this end of the park will bring more guests to ride ‘em. However, in order to reach the Haunting’s ride building you need to first move through a barren, miserable courtyard

And then into the overgrown, ruined front garden of the Drayton Green vicarage. An act that works to mentally take you out of the park and into the experience, think the caves in Dinseyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, only quicker and less worshipped.  

Everything about this area is beautiful, the theming is total, having taken you ‘out’ of the park through the courtyard and submerged you totally into his garden you feel like you’re not longer at Drayton Manor, but have stepped backstage into the yard of one of the old buildings the park is built around (like Alton Towers, Drayton Manor is situated on the land of a titular ruin), what little of the theme park that is noticeable (and it’s very little) feels very far away as you’re waiting (and waiting, and waiting) at the bottom of the winding path down to the front doors of this old vicarage – and how daring is that? Setting it in a vicarage, I mean it’s fitting, this is England, we have more buggering in our places of worship than our houses of correction but to see a theme park, especially one that leans towards a younger audience, acknowledge that old chestnut is quite the thing. And it also helps make everything your experiencing that much more ‘believable’ – of course something horrible happened in a vicarage we think. The show building is completely obscured by the façade, in fact the only chink in the amour of this lovely queuing area is the slamming cellar door, or the fact that there isn’t one anymore – it disappeared midway through our visit to the park (10/4/19), either the rickety old thing finally broke and was removed by an employee or it was nicked by a guest, neither is less likely. But happily, it has left a nice rusty frame that doesn’t look out of place at all. 

Here is my first of two criticism for the ride though, there REALLY needs to be a person here, signs do tell you, in a roundabout way, not to worry because the ride time is long (they approximate 15 minutes on a busy day) but they need am employee to reassure guests that yes, it is open and you will be going in soon, we saw several groups stand around for a minute, look confused, decide it was closed and traipse off to ride Drunken Barrels or Apocalypse again. But we’re not going in through the front door, in a lovely chance of pace for haunted houses, when our lab coated Drayton Manor employee eventually turns up they’re taking us into the ride through a large truck at the side of the house for our pre-show.

The conceit for the ride is that a paranormal research firm has been called in to investigate strange goings on in the old vicarage on their land: R.I.P.A. (Research Into Paranormal Activity) lead by the good natured Dr. Ghostman and us kind visitors are volunteering to go into the old mansion and see what’s going on in there.
Mr Weasley Dr Ghostman.
At least, that’s what you’d experience now, originally the ride was slightly darker with the government body the Institute for Metaphysical Research headed by the Lord Volemort-esque Dr X, who had been called in by the Staffordshire Police to investigate strange goings on in the vicarage only to lose the team the sent in, now it’s up to us brave visitors to go and find out what happened. Personally I prefer the current version, if only because the old version very clearly stated that the team had been called in ‘yesterday’ while the current version presents this as an ongoing operation, which for me doesn’t break my willing suspension of disbelief on repeat ride-throughs, the Institute can’t have been called in ‘yesterday’ if I rode the attraction yesterday can it? but Ghostman’s R.I.P.A. have been there for an unspecified time and will be there for an unspecified time studying the house, so I can drop in anytime. Ghostman, who’s schtick is to radio into you all exciting about readings and levels and whatnot, usually comically just missing the paranormal activity or comically underselling the horrible things you’ve witnessed, also adds a touch of British humour and thus a British feel to the ride, reminiscent of old IPC/Odham’s 60s and 70’s comics like Smash!, Wham! or Monster Fun and their creepy strips like Frankie Stein or Scream Inn.

Dr X, who will later build a creature
We’re sent in through a (I believe secret) passage and Ghostman draws attention to the gag, a skeleton on rails that wails across above you - presumable because people were missing it back in the Dr X version where there was no radioing in.

We then come out into a main room, which is explicitly called the basement in the current day ride but could be any room in the house really. where we get to speak to a spectre and get the backstory for the house. The original Dr X version has us in contact with, predictably, a vicar – the Reverend Nicholas Fields – who explains that in 1902 the house became possessed by an evil spirit, the building is now a gateway to his evil kingdom (hell?) and all who come here die. Though as the right honourable reverend’s spirit gets further into his tale it becomes more and more implied that he’s as corrupted as the rest of the house, which is a nice touch.

The right honourable Reverend Nicholas Fields
Ghostman previously had you encounter a trapped, tortured but vengeful man sprit who didn’t explain much at all but the current Ghostman version takes a more interesting approach. The spirit who greets you isn’t connected to the horrible things that happened in the vicarage, but is the lady of the house from (presumably) a time before – she doesn’t even seem to know exactly what happened, just something terrible and you’ll see remnants of this horrible thing as you move through the house.

The room then shows us one of these remnants, in a shameful rip-off of Disney’s the Haunted Mansion, the ceiling (which had already had a very nice Ghost-of-Christmas-Past-like spirit projection fly across it, a remnant from the trapped spirit version it seems) becomes see-through to show the bodies of six hung men. It’s even done in the exact same way too. Back in Dr X’s days these were the unfortunate first responders from the Institute, now they’re a tantalising morsel to just what happened in this place, whatever it was, it was enough to kill a bunch of burly men and/or drive them to suicide.

The lady of the house
You’re then split into two groups who move through two nicely decorated short hallways and into the Madhouse ride proper, which is a large ornate room with stone gargoyles looming over you that I shall assume from the décor was the chapel. The room kicks into blacklight and we get more of those ‘remnants’ our lady of the house warned us about, strange markings carved into the beams of the room which is now rotating around us, or are we rotating around it? Well, the first one, but most people don’t research the workings of ride systems online and have no idea, you could say, it goes completely over their heads! Fnar fnar.  As the room goes completely over your head it reveals what was buried below your sets – six wooden coffins, which nicely tie into the six bodies we saw earlier, leaving you question if those were real bodies or not, did 6 people die? 12? More?

My other complaint comes in here, there is an exceptionally generic ghost projected onto one of the arms of the gondola which is completely unnecessary and completely uninspired and it needs to be switched off. A hand then rises, all very creepy. You have to rate your satisfaction for RIPA on the way out, which is damn strange, and then you’re back out into what I think is a primarily un-themed area behind the gift shop but works lovely with the whole ‘building out the back of the park’ aspect, seeing this backstage area just adds to the feeling that you’ve just left a place you weren’t supposed to go into on a normal visit to the park 

The current story for the ride, I find, is the better of the three I’ve encountered. Rather than giving an info dump in the pre-show then shoving you on the ride, it gives you a small task – a task that is ultimately ‘let your brain fill in the blanks for us’. It gives enough for the brain to work with and an example of what you should be looking for with it’s always my way six bodies and then lets you get on with it, and we all know that the brain will always fill in the blanks with far worse things than the design team could come up with – my brain decided that a dodgy vicar had lured six men to the vicarage, fucked them, then hung them and buried their bodies under the chapel but that’s not more right or wrong than whatever your brain would come up with. It also makes you feel a bit better about yourself, sure there’s only two or so ‘hints’ in the main ride but I’ll take any boost to my ego thank you.

The conclusion to all this is fairly obvious: The Haunting is a great ride. It lacks the wow factor of Hex but makes up for it with a much more relatable setting and story, I just find that it’s easier to get people to associate with the concept of an old house filled with ghosts than a curse that leads to a wood god. Both have achieved excellent theming – in fact you could argue that The Haunting has done more in this regard as Hex already had the Alton Towers to provide its façade and the setting for its walk-through parts, whereas Drayton Manor had to build everything from scratch. Hex is the better ride – the money, skill and scale Alton Towers allows for showing through – but the gap between them is far, far smaller than you might think given the two parks they’re in.

But we’re not done! Because I have to talk about this:

Meet Giddy Flagons, well that’s her name now anyway. Remember ages ago in this post I name dropped a ride called ‘Drunken Barrels’ and mentioned a ride themed around Oktoberfest? Those are the same things and are pictured above, alongside the 20-foot-tall strumpet that acts as the ride’s…ah, weeny:

This sort of thing is exactly why you should support local and smaller time parks - because there is very little chance that Alton Towers, Six Flags, Thorpe Park, Busch Gardens or Legoland are ever going to do something as baffling and yet ridiculously awesome as plonking down a two story blonde in short-shorts at the entrance of ride in a park aimed at younger audiences and hell will freeze over before Disney or Universal would.

Why is she here? Just…why? She’s so huge and un-PG and wonderful. Did Drayton Manor just find her going cheap? Who was selling a giant blonde? How did they find out? Was it an eBay auction? It’s wonderful, wonderful madness and the sort of thing that you can only find slightly off the beaten track when it comes to tourist attractions. Why aren’t Drayton Manor selling Giddy Flagon (and her massive jugs) in the gift shop? We would have all bought one.
AND she’s a Pokéstop:

A wonderfully, wonderfully named Pokéstop.
Even better, I think I’ve found the perfect wife for my beloved Gulliver! 

They’d be the best couple.
Ta for reading all, back to Pokémon now.

Oh and if the watermarks didn’t tip you off, the gifs are all taken from two videos from YouTube, one by EverythingWill and the other from The British Theme Park Archive.

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