It all began with a dark ride. To be specific, that would be the Laff In The Dark at Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park in New Orleans Louisiana, in the very late 1950's. I was about four and a half years old, and when I asked, my parents told me there would be lights inside. They didn't lie - I just didn't know a lot about theatrical lighting at the time. As we say nowadays, I took the ride.
The Laff was one of many rides bearing that name and offering the classic format for that era, periods of total darkness punctuated with moments of comic terror accompanied by loud, rude noies. A few examples: An opening coffin reveals Dracula, who springs up with a chilling AH-HAH! A huge cop with oustretched arm yells out a booming STOP! A wall of barrels falls with a BANG! For much of the ride I hid my eyes, but I got the general idea. The one question that nagged me from my haunted experience was this : Why would anyone want to be scared, and so much so that people would build rides to accomodate that desire?
My career in haunting began at age 10, and quickly grew to be an attempt to learn an answer to that question by experimental observation. I never understood how to enjoy being scared until I became an adult, but by adolescence, I began to understand at least part of the WHY. Dark ride cars hold two people comfortably, and any teenager understands the implications of that arrangement. Dating behavior was likely one of the key factors in the minds of the rides' designers, too. Other than the roller coaster, the dark ride still reigns as the supreme dating experience (if you doubt me, try it!)
But as the years passed I realized something far more important: If you're isolated in the dark, you're helpless. You are at the mercy of the agency responsible for the darkness, and you can either close your eyes, or face it head-on. Yes, the dark ride is a simple test of bravery, but it is also a crude metaphor for the existential angle of human experience: You never know when something nasty is going to jump you, and the ride's creator offers you no hint beyond a knowing grin.
During my teens, I was involved as one of the instigators for three church-based Halloween haunts. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and as church haunts have now gone the way of the dinosaur, I feel lucky to have been involved. Within those ecclesiastical walls we did a crude version of virtually everything that is being done in today's home and commercial haunts, including working guillotines, jumping anamatronic corpses, and misty graveyards (we're talking 1965-67 here.)
I moved off to college (T.C.U. in Fort Worth, Texas) in 1972, and the hauntings continued. The first was executed at a school for disadvantaged children. The kids had the time of their lives escaping our ghostly environs, set up in only four hectic hours. The second experience was at a Disciples of Christ church, a haunting that netted me a wonderful girlfriend. She walked up to me and kissed me - completely out of context - as I was making an inspection tour just before we opened the haunt. When I asked her why she did it, she explained that she was impressed, that I seemed to know what I was doing. Naturally, I didn't argue with her!
My post-graduate haunting baggage landed in a friend's front yard, where for two consecutive Halloweens we created a traffic jam in his tiny bedroom community. (Although small and low-budget, these were two of the most fondly remembered haunts of my career. We had lighting, makeup, true binaural sound, and a falling body with a remote trigger, back in 1976-77.)
I married my first real love in December of 1978, and brought my haunted luggage back home to New Orleans (actually Metairie, a suburb thereof.) One night in late september 1979, upon driving my wife to see the house where I had once lived, we passed a neighborhood florist's greenhouse. Everything was normal... "but wait, what's that? I see a blacklight fixture!" I stopped my car, pulled into the parking lot, and walked inside the greenhouse.
"Anybody home? I have some blacklights and other stuff that you can probably use..."
I signed up with the Metairie Jaycees so fast my head spun after they found out I had equipment that I was willing to contribute to the effort. Yes, it was a haunt - what else could it be? This was the era when you could still use black plastic for walls and have the fire marshall in costume as one of your actors at the same time.
My fondest memory is the graveyard scene from my first Jaycee haunt. It consisted of a series of skeleton-headed ghosts, moving up and down, to and fro, all driven by a rotisserie motor with a crank secured to the shaft. It was well received, and I couldn't help but observe that the most effective results may be had from the simplest apparatus.
I worked with the Jaycees for four years, and then drifted away. But in 1980-1, the FCG was born, and it stopped traffic in the hall of my last Jaycee haunt. From that experience, I should have been aware of its value, but I let it sit unused for over a decade.
Enter the Haloween-L mailing list, in about 1997. I put up the Phantasmechanics site after sharing the FCG principle with the list (yes, the FCG is in the public domain. Have you priced a patent application?) Since then, hundreds of FCG's have been built by home and pro haunters, which brings us back to the present day.
The Phantasmechanics.com site is a way to share with other haunters what I have learned in my career in haunting. The greatest lesson I have learned is this: If you share something, it will come back to you a thousand-fold. And if you build a haunt that shows a love for its partrons, you will be rewarded beyond measure. Go to it - and love it!
I will gladly answer e-mail (see below), or the phone at 817-361-0024.
Enjoy browsing our site, and feel free to e-mail me with your comments or requests for help!
Doug Ferguson - [email protected]