Into the Abyss: An American Ghost Story

Treatment for a themed attraction, by Jeremy Thompson

The Entrance

Spartan exterior design that matches the surrounding architecture. No major signage announcing the attraction. In the distance behind the building is a tall weathered tower. A small COURTYARD leading up to double doors. Above the doors:

ENGRAVED PLAQUE – “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster. And if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

Queue Room 1: The Screening Room

A small museum-like chamber plays footage of early vaudeville performers in an endless loop.

Queue Room 2: The Portrait Gallery

Guests continue down corridors containing a series of black-and-white photographs of people from the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first few corridors show relatively young and prosperous individuals, but as we continue the faces grow older, and the last corridor documents early American psychiatric hospitals.

Queue Room 3: The Library

This room acts as a waiting area for the theaters. It is an old library with oak shelves filled with novels by many of America’s great dead authors. It contains:

THREE DOORS – Shut, with keyhole lock. Guests will exit the room through one of these doors.

A LEVIATHAN MURAL – Along the top of one wall. The white capped waves and scales on the creature create intricate fracturing patterns of paint.

A MAN SITTING AT HIS DESK – Along the wall opposite the mural, near where the queue terminates by the three doors. The man is dressed in a worn-out brown tweed suit and hat, with bloody bandages wrapped around each wrist poking out from around his sleeves. The man has no face (it is covered with a white fabric that only he can see through), and wears a glove on one hand where each finger is partially replaced with a bronze key. He sits hunched over a book spread on his desk, gazing deeply it, nearly motionless except when he turns a page or taps his key fingers on the desk, and makes absolutely no response to any of the visitors.

A GRANDFATHER CLOCK – Behind the man and the desk.

A CLOAKED FIGURE – Guards the faceless man (and the queue), dressed in a long black cloak, he or she is much taller than anyone else in the room, and only his or her face is visible behind dark glasses. While unwaveringly stoic, this figure may on occasion assist guests or answer their questions, as he or she is responsible for letting the correct number of people through the next door.

Every four to five minutes the grandfather clock will RING, at which point the faceless man RISES from his desk, SELECTS one of the three doors, and OPENS it with his key finger; all with stiff, exaggerated movements. A blinding WHITE LIGHT comes from behind, but as the door is pushed further open the light fades, revealing another dark hallway leading into the next room.

The Theater: Pre-film

Each theater has patternless wallpaper peeling around the corners, and oriental rugs along the aisles.

SEATING – There’s a non-standardized mix of antique chairs and sofas arranged in a lounge style, allowing guests to choose a favorite seat or table with their friends.

The lights DIM and the film projector ROLLS.

NOTE: There are three possible films, one film assigned to each theater, and all less than ten minutes long. All three star the same two actors as the old man who recounts a story-within-a-story (presented cinematically, in italics) and the woman in each mini-story. Other motifs include the line “It was a dark and stormy night” at the beginning of each kid’s ghost story, and recurring fractal imagery in the old man’s stories.

Alternate Film 1: “Shadows”

A young boy reads in bed late one night. He reads aloud a typical kid’s ghost story about a boogeyman lurking beneath a bed. He looks over and sees a pair of blue wolf-like eyes watching him from his closet. He hides under the covers. He can hear something move in his room, but discovers it’s only his grandfather checking in, who decides to tell the boy a ghost story.

A woman in a psychiatric ward is given a small cupful of pills. She spits them out from under her tongue when the nurse leaves. She silently observes the comings and goings of the sterile ward throughout the day, on a couple of occasions noticing a shadow that seems slightly out of sync with its owner. Once night falls and the patients are asleep, shadow people enter across the walls of her room. At first the shadows make violent, threatening gestures towards her, but she isn’t afraid and punches the wall where one of the shadows stands. The shadows fearfully retreat from the room and the woman follows them into the common area. The woman puts a jazz song on a record player and starts an improvised, jangly line dance, which the shadow people eventually join. When the dance finishes the shadows then lead her through a secret hallway, at the end of which she peers through a window into an operating room, and she observes herself being lobotomized. She awakes in her bed in the morning, where everything is identical to the previous day. She takes her pills from the nurse, but she neither swallows nor spits them out before the film cuts to black.

The boy asks for another story, but the grandfather demurs. Instead he tells his grandson: “The next time you’re surrounded by shadows, all you have to do is imagine nothing. The person with no imagination is the bravest human being you’ll ever meet.” After the grandfather leaves, the boy notices the blue eyes watching him from the closet again. He gets out of bed and slowly approaches, then closes his eyes. A low, unearthly growl is heard.

Alternate Film 2: “Bridge”

A group of young campers sit around a campfire telling ghost stories. One boy tells a particularly corny story about attacking skeletons. A girl spots a set of wolf-like eyes watching them from the woods, and they begin to panic. However they are interrupted by a wandering old homeless man, who proceeds to tell them a story of his own.

A tired woman drives along a wooded road late at night. At one point she starts to veer into a set of oncoming headlights which she is slow to respond to; she seems possibly in a trance or momentarily considering suicide. Later, she approaches a bridge across the moonlit “Young’s River”. As she drives over it, a dense fog suddenly appears. She stops her car, which begins to freeze with fractal-like ice patterns. A shadowy face appears in the fog and breaks through the windshield glass, swallowing her. She opens her eyes, revealing that she is still driving at top speed across the clear bridge. A deer stands in the middle of the road, she swerves to avoid it and crashes over the bridge and into the river. The sounds of rushing water fades and the swirling bubbles and blood in the dark water transform into a celestial image of deep space. The woman wakes up in her own bed at 5:15am. She calms herself, then prepares for work. Later she watches the morning news which runs a story that there was a head-on collision at 5:15 that morning which resulted in one death. She ignores it and continues with her work.

The campers are confused and ask for an explanation of the story. All the old man offers is: “Sometimes being in this world already makes for a pretty good ghost story.” He turns off the flashlight and disappears into the night sky. A dozen wolf-like eyes reappear in the woods, and the campers gather closely together around the small patch of light from the fire, scared.

Alternate Film 3: “Music”

A teen couple sits in a parked car on a hill overlooking a city at night. The guy’s mind is primarily on lust, but the girl sees a pair of wolf-like eyes through the rearview mirror and worries they’re being watched. The guy decides to scare her by telling her a clichéd story about an axe-murderer who preys on young couples like them. They are interrupted by an old park ranger. He asks them a few perfunctory safety questions, and then decides to tell them a story.

In a private dressing room at a large music hall, a woman cradles herself in a fetal position beneath the makeup counter, crying softly. The door knocks and she opens it to find a tall dark figure with an obscured face offering her a contract. Without saying a word she signs. She then prepares her makeup and dress, burying her previously nerve-wracked self beneath a beautiful new persona. She goes onstage to a huge round of applause and sings a song titled “The Eye of the Beholder”. Starting halfway through the song, one by one the band members set down their instruments and then disappear into thin air, but the music can still be heard. She misses her big final note when she notices the empty stage behind her, but her voice continues ringing in the auditorium without her. The audience cheers wildly at the song’s finish, but when she looks the seats are filled with lifeless manikins. She exits the theater onto the street at night. We can hear the sounds of a city pulsing with life and fans clamoring for autographs, but the streets are empty and desolate. As she walks alone down the sidewalk, she takes out a small tape player, presses play, then sings to herself a poem about love. Her voice is tinged with a slight electronic distortion.

The guy seems unimpressed and claims his ax-murderer story was better. The ranger acknowledges that’s probably true, and before leaving he muses: “A smart fella once said ‘to be is to be seen’. Thought nothing in this universe could really be real if there weren’t living souls somewhere to realize that it was real. But it always made me wonder, if that’s true then what happens when you’re alone in the dark?” The guy and girl look at each other when he’s gone, but find it hard to maintain direct eye contact. Several of the blue wolf-like eyes appear from the woods, watching them.

The Theater: Post-film

The lights return, the previously blank wallpaper is now splattered red with blood in fractal-like patterns. An eerie piece of musique concrète begins which follows guests through to the station.

Queue Room 4: Fractal Gallery

A dark hallway that reconnects the three theaters and the loading platform. This hall is filled with macabre PAINTINGS, each based on a unique fractal pattern with the mathematical equation that produced the fractal written below. A few SIGNS explain the basics of chaos theory and fractals.

Loading Platform

The dark walls are covered with fiber-optic pinprick lights, creating an impression of either DEEP SPACE or a HUMAN BRAIN. Only the ride vehicles are illuminated. Above the tunnel where the vehicles depart is a light pattern that spells “Ex nihilo”.

VEHICLES – On-board audio system plays a synchronized soundtrack. Four abreast in one row.

Dark Ride Scene 1: Dark Passageway

Completely dark. The MUSIC begins. Most of the music is fairly minimalistic, similar to the hallway music between the theaters and loading platform, but there are occasional dramatic moments with more rhythmic instrumentation. The old man occasionally NARRATES along with the music, introducing another ghost story about a nightmare in the collective unconscious.

Dark Ride Scenes 2-4: Nightmares

Three scenes depicting a non-sequitur of surreal, dreamlike landscapes.

NOTE: Each scene will have its own author who is afforded a large degree of creative freedom, so that this sequence is unpredictably diverse, original, and personally expressive. The three rules are that each scene should be relatively abstract with an overriding mood of dread or sadness; contain a micro story arc that starts with a familiar image or idea that gives way to a shock or twist reveal at the end; and should innovatively repurpose a traditional dark ride or spook house stunt. These scenes can be replaced annually on a rotating basis, so that each single scene has a life of 3-4 years. Besides keeping the attraction fresh and innovative, this is also a chance to encourage young artists or established artists from other media to freely experiment with themed entertainment design on a small scale.

Dark Ride Scene 5: Inclined Nightmare

Similar principles as the first three nightmare scenes, but must be arranged along a straight uphill incline that vanishes into a dark tunnel at the top. The micro story arc rule is relaxed, and the scene should convey a sense of mounting anticipation leading to a climax.

As riders approach the tunnel, the narrator SPEAKS the Nietzsche quote from the entrance.

Dark Ride Scene 6: The Abyss

The track consists of a series of switchbacks that very gently slope downhill. At this point the vehicles become gravity-driven, which creates an eerie contrast to the motorized sections as if the ride is being pushed along by a phantom. It’s so dark that riders cannot see their hands in front of them at any time. Riders must rely on their other senses:

AUDITORY – The musique concrète subtly increases in intensity as the vehicle gains speed.

TOUCH – Passing by hot and cold air vents, through cascading sheets of mist, etc.

SMELL – Rotting meat, mothballs, etc.

The car comes to a halt directly in front of a pair of glowing blue eyes. This is our first glimpse of light since entering the tunnel more than a minute ago. A low GROWL and the eyes disappear.

Dark Ride Scene 7: The First Elevator and Descent

A switch track slides the car either to the right or left. After this point there will be two identical tracks running side-by-side, for capacity reasons. Passengers advance forward into the dark elevator shaft.

A ROCKING CRADLE, illuminated by a soft blue light in front of the open shaft. The elevator rises, and the disembodied voice of a CHILD and MOTHER can be heard as the cradle slips from view.

Mommy, are you there?
Hush, I’m right here, baby.
I’m scared, mommy.
Dear, there ain’t nothing to be afraid of. The dark can’t hurt you.
What’s happening? Why can’t I find you?
Baby darling, I’m so proud of you. You’re almost done. This last bit’s gonna be the hardest, but I know you can make it.
I don’t wanna go without you.
Sooner or later we all have to go. Just remember, no matter what happens I’m always going to be there for you in the end.
But what if you’re not?

The elevator stops at the upper level in complete darkness. Pause. A strobe flashes and a huge, nightmarish ANIMATRONIC CREATURE (Leviathan on the right elevator, Loup Garou on the left elevator) with blue eyes lunges directly in front of riders, accompanied by an AIR CANNON and WATER SPRAY (cold water with Leviathan, warm water with Loup Garou).

The vehicle rapidly ACCELERATES IN REVERSE out of the elevator shaft away from the monster. It rolls down a sharp DOUBLE DROP backwards, using the momentum to climb back UPHILL to the second floor. At the top is a small curve and safety block section.

Dark Ride Scene 8: The Second Elevator and Descent

Cars enter the shaft backward. The doors close and the car rises straight up the tower, at least four stories high. A fluttering MUSIC CUE creates a sense of hope or possible escape.

The car slowly TILTS forward by 45°, letting riders look straight down the open shaft below. As it tilts the MUSIC becomes dissonant, then morphs into an ominous drum roll. The vehicle PAUSES for a moment and a NOOSE drops down in front of us.

FREEFALL down the elevator shaft. WEIGHTLESSNESS. It comes to a smooth STOP at the ground level, one floor below where the vehicle entered. The car exits the shaft and MERGES with the twin track.

Dark Ride Scene 9: The Bedroom

We round a bend into a dark room. The old man from the film narrates: “Nothingness is nothing but a harmless illusion. The abyss only seems terrible if you believe there’s something at the bottom.”

MORNING LIGHT floods through the windows, and we discover we’re in a child’s bedroom filled with toys. Sitting in a disused pile in the corner are the KEY-FINGERED GLOVE, BLOODY BANDAGES, and WHITE FABRIC MASK. CHILDREN’S LAUGHTER is heard in the distance.

Unloading Platform

We disembark in a bright white room.

MANDELBROT SET – An outlined image of the fractal is located above the exit.

6 comments to Into the Abyss: An American Ghost Story

  • Dan

    Sounds great but are we able upgrade it to upgrade it to include a laser gun element in a few years?

    In all seriousness, it really does sound like a brilliant dark ride. I get the feeling a great deal of thought went into that and it really helped create a vivid picture in my head.

    If you find the time, I for one would love to read more.

  • Dan

    Screwed up my joke.

  • Thanks, and no worries about the joke, I actually missed the typo until you mentioned it afterward.

    I wanted to make something that would have many layers of thematic depth and would encourage different interpretations, but in a way that’s unique to the realm of ride attractions, without relying too much on the crutch of hyperreal storytelling that tries to make rides more like “recognized arts” like movies or literature. There’s about as much of Disney’s Haunted Mansion in here as there is of Knoebel’s Haunted Mansion (or even Conneaut Lake’s Devil’s Den), although hopefully there’s a lot that’s completely original as well.

    However as the author I don’t think it’s really my place to provide textual analysis of my own work. I will admit that the dark ride scenes 2-5 were written partially out of laziness, but I think the solution there possibly works better than if I had “tried harder” and wrote my own scenes anyway. 😉

  • Bryan Li

    Wow, this is really good. I like the looseness of the concept, and how it really lets each rider produce his or her own interpretation of the ride. I’d definitely like to read more similar to this.

  • Bryan, thank you very much! I tried to write it open to a wide degree of interpretation (I believe experiential stories like dark rides are far better suited to that sort of abstraction than many other narrative arts), but it’s not so loose that you can interpret anything you want out of it. There is somewhat of a “correct answer(s)” to what the storyline is really about, not that I’m going to spell it out here.

    I’d definitely like to write more similar to this, too.

  • Greetings!

    My name is Kevin Karstens, and I am a massive fan of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction.

    I stumbled across your treatment for a potential ghost themed dark ride ( and thought you might appreciate a project I have been working on for the past two plus years…my own haunted attraction, created in miniature (fully working) and filmed with a DV camera to create a POV feel/experience…hope you find it interesting, I have created it all w/ stuff found around my home and royalty free items online…

    Thanks for takin’ time to read this and I look forward to visiting your site/reading future posts from you…


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