Interview with the author
Ever an anorak about all things theme park-y, when I heard through the grapevine that a new book about Alton Towers was being written, I knew that I wanted to read it.
A fascinating insight into one of Alton Towers’ attractions, Smoke & Mirrors captures the journey from construction to retirement of The Haunted House. Nowadays, the haunted house has been transformed into a dark ride with a twist — board Duel and prepare to race around the track and shoot the ghoulish inhabitants with laser guns to get the most points.
Not content with letting the memory of the haunted house fade away, Michael Eley embarked on a voyage of discovery which culminated in the writing of Smoke & Mirrors: The Haunted House of Alton Towers.
I talk to Michael about haunted houses, scare mazes and the future of theme parks.
The book is of course about the history of The Haunted House at Alton Towers; what’s your history and connection to the ride?
I have been a regular visitor to Alton Towers since 1975 and have seen some amazing changes over the years. The Haunted House was quite unlike anything else that the park had ever created; it had great theatricality and really captured my interest. Since that first ride, I was hooked. Like most people I expected it to remain the same forever — it wasn’t until the Duel changeover that I became obsessed with the old attraction.
What’s your best memory of the ride as it was?
My most vivid memory of The Haunted House as it was is of the amazing internal queue area. The room had so much atmosphere, its own musty aroma and the mixture of music and sound effects as well as the singing ghostly apparitions of Emily Alton and Sir Henry Alton. It really sucked me into the whole ambience.
What made it so special?
I have been a fan of dark rides for years, but most dark rides are based upon old ghost trains or re-invented rides with little or no attention to detail. The Haunted House blew everything out of the water and was something to challenge Disney rides.
Did you have a favourite part of the ride?
The part that I miss the most is the ghost corridor now known as the skeleton corridor. It was fantastic but it was ahead of its time. I really would like to see that scene reinstated but it does need some work.
A lot of people don’t even realise that there’s any history behind Duel and the building that the ride is in. There’s one big question — do you think the changes were for better or for worse?
Unfortunately due to restricted budgets the haunted house began to fail and the Duel makeover probably saved it from being closed down altogether. Although I would prefer it to go back to a haunted house dark ride without guns, I do appreciate how it saved the ride.
What do you think is the future of haunted houses and dark rides in general?
The future of dark rides for me is uncertain as a lot of them seem to be changing and not necessarily for the better. I think that there is a big gap in the market at the moment and I can’t see UK theme parks spending vast amounts of money on introducing new dark rides.
Here’s a tricky question — what’s your favourite ride?
Primarily I like things with good theming. I think Nemesis, TH13TEEN, and The Smiler are amazing because they suck you into this unreal world and this help with the escapism.
My favourites are pretty varied. Of course The Haunted House, but I also liked Toyland Tours and The Black Hole at Alton Towers. Other than that The Roller Coaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and newer rides like Nemesis and TH13TEEN.
I would have to say my all time favourite ride is The Haunted House at Alton Towers; predictable but hey, it’s the truth.
Taking their inspiration from haunted house rides, do you enjoy the mazes at Halloween events?
My problem with the scaremazes is that they do not last long enough; I’d love to see them being run all year round. I would also like to see scaremazes being built with proper sets. With an increased budget and amazing mind-bending effects, they can run constantly.
The Sanctuary is my favourite; Alton Towers has put a lot of thought into the music and smells and the actors within the attraction really pull out the stops to give people a scare.
The foreword of your book was written by John Wardley, the award-winning ride designer of rides such as Nemesis, Air and THE SWARM; what was it like having him on board?
He’s an amazing guy who is so friendly, caring and extremely supportive. As well as helping me give the most accurate reflection of the ride, he also kindly met with me and asked me to help with the restoration of the haunted house. Him writing the foreword was like him giving his seal of approval to the book, so that’s really great too.
John has created a great legacy — he has an amazing ability to predict what people want before they want it, developing attractions that give people memorable experiences. I hope that there is someone like him in the future who has the same drive and commitment to create themed rides with huge marketability.
What was your favourite thing about writing Smoke & Mirrors?
My favourite part was definitely unearthing photos of the ride that I had never seen before. I have hundreds of photos that I could have used within the book but unfortunately I was unable to gain the appropriate copyright approval to do so and this prevented me using them.
Do you have any other books in the pipeline?
I think it would be nice to do one on Hex but someone mentioned to me to look at scare mazes so that could be a possibility too.
Do you have any top secret themepark facts for our readers?
I may have some top-secret theme park facts but if I told you I’d have to kill you…
To finish off, can you summarise Smoke & Mirrors in 5 words?
An exhilarating dark ride exploration.
Enjoy our interview with Michael? Make sure you check out his website and Facebook page and get your orders in for Smoke & Mirrors: The Haunted House of Alton Towers — it’s perfect Halloween reading!