February 08, 2007


The Phantasmagoria is a dark ride that has been operating in Bell's Amusement Park of Tulsa, Oklahoma for nearly 35 years. In 1971 owner Bob Bell Sr. and his son set out to create a brand new ride-through haunted house. They knew they wanted to concoct an experience that was longer, scarier and even sexier than many of the rides of the time. This goal required them to customize. The park constructed a massive two story structure, laid down their own track and built their own cars (with seat backs raised high enough to meet state requirements). Then they filled the darkness with an assortment of spooky gags that were designed by dark ride guru Bill Tracy. They also ordered one of Tracy's Whacky Shack facades and had it modified to their liking. Finally they picked the perfect name, Phantasmagoria, which suggested phantoms and gore. Bob Jr. defined the term as “the sensation of something moving rapidly towards you or away from you.” With its two stories, 27 "tricks," and seven minute duration the finished product was one of the largest and longest haunted amusements in the country.

I took the photo seen above in 2002. Here's how it looked in January of 2007...

(Images taken from KOTV.com)

From Wikipedia... "[Bell's] lease with the Tulsa County Public Facilities Authority expired on November 8, 2006. On November 9, 2006, the Tulsa County Fair Board offered no new contract for R. K. Bell Enterprises and their amusement park was given until March 8, 2007 to remove its attractions from the Tulsa State Fairgrounds."
Here's a recent news story regarding the ride.

Yeah, it stinks.

Naturally, the sight of these images has stirred thoughts and memories aplenty. As strange as it sounds the Phantasmagoria has played a significant role in my life. As you might have guessed, my preferred method of lamentation is to publicly review my history with this silly spook house. So if you would kindly indulge a nostalgic nostalgist with yet another heap of nostalgia...

My fascination with the ride budded during my first visit to Bell's as a six year old. My dad and I were venturing through the fairgrounds when I heard the rumblings of a violent thunderstorm. The sound of strong winds and a barking dog led my gaze towards the 'Magoria's spectacular glowing facade. Before that night I had only been exposed to horror-driven entertainment that had been confined to a TV set or a book (and very little of either). But here stood an unavoidable monument to terror set in the middle of a family recreation center; and it was much, much larger than my little life.

A look at the ride when it opened in 1973

I immediately instructed my dad to get us far away from the threatening building. Back in the car I thoroughly quizzed him on everything: the name, the contents, and how it was possible that so many people could subject themselves to such fearful torment. But he could only offer vague guesses on all accounts since he had never been through the ride. Months later my curiosity was inflamed again when I spotted a bumper sticker advertising the attraction...

My inevitable quest for this sticker was documented here.

On subsequent visits to the park avoidance was still my plan, but I found myself in an interesting bind. The video arcade was positioned to the immediate left of the Phantasmagoria and the giant 'Fun Slide' was directly to the right. Because of their proximity I felt a strong fluttering in my stomach when I neared either of these favorites. And the ascent to the top of the three story slide was only tolerable if I plugged my ears and squinted as my mom guided me up the metal stairs while carrying my piece of burlap (for sliding on). But at some point I began to realize just how exhilarating my phobia had become, and these other amusements started losing their luster.

(Note the giant slide to the right. Image taken from an old brochure I found elsewhere. )

Incidentally, the arcade next to the Phantasmagoria was home to a Death Race video game in which cars drove over fleeing skeletons for points. My mind will forever connected the ride and the game.

My next phase involved prolonged study of the nightmarish structure. I found myself just standing and staring for huge chunks of time. The "architecture" was full of cartoonish angles and ornate, yet random embellishments that hinted at the madness within. There were two dizzying psychedelic light displays, one of which was in the center of a huge spider web.

There were three visible inhabitants. On the roof and to the left was an animatronic dog that bobbed in and out of its perch.

(Photo by Rick Davis from LaffInTheDark.com)

(Photo courtesy of Nick Beals, taken post-micro burst '06.)

"Why is that dog doing that?" I asked.
"Because it wants to get out; and it can't." was my father's grim reply.
Oh, goodness no. What abomination has put this poor animal in such a frenzied state? My mind went on a wild and dark search for an answer.

On the opposite side of the roof there peeked a woman's bare leg...

This little hut was called The Brothel, one of Bell's original concepts. At one time the leg was rigged with animatronics that caused it to kick.

To the male passers-by this communicated a subtle yet undeniable promise that perhaps "anything goes" within the walls of this madhouse. Surprisingly, the motif had indeed been worked into the ride inside. Near the very end riders approached the nude backside of a standing beauty, but in a classic 'horror film' bait-and-switch, the figure turned around to reveal full frontal decomposition.

(Photos by Rick Davis from dafe.org)

The third visible life form was the mysterious owner of the rotating eyes that gawked through the two front windows. Were they part of the house, or did they belong to some giant, demented lord of the manner?

(Photo by Rick Davis from LaffInTheDark.com)

The lights and the mechanized animation brought a tremendous sense of life to the building. And the soundtrack of spooky FX that was constantly piped over the queuing area supplied enough dread that I didn't dare stop taking the ride seriously. (I would love to know if that recording was customized for Bell's, or if it came straight out of a K-Mart bin.)
[update: Head electrician Buddy Stefonoff confirmed that the soundtrack was originally supplied by Bill Tracy's outfit. In the 2000s a new recording was assembled which included some pieces of the original audio.]

I estimate that I was about seventeen when I casually handed over a row of tickets and boarded for the first time. In my mind I desperately tried to downplay the weight of the moment. Seven tension-filled minutes later I returned to the daylight and uttered what is probably the most oft-spoken phrase of the fairgrounds...
"You mean, that's it?"
Oh, I had my share of frights and gasps, but the elaborate exterior gave one the impression that the inside would be more akin to that of Disney's Haunted Mansion. Thus is the nature of the dark ride. You never expect them to be so, well, dark.

But I got over it. Then I grew to appreciate it. Especially when I realized that the lengthy stretches of darkness weren't just a way to minimize costs, they were the reason why the Phantasmagoria could produce more genuine fright than any Disney extravaganza. The uncertainty and anticipation mounted with every blind turn until the skeleton driving the bus blasted his horn and your heart went spastic like a bat trapped in a skull. Speaking of which, if you wish to marvel at the horrors within, this site as well as this one offer some fine virtual tours.

In 2001 I began to consider the storytelling potential of Flash animation and set out to experiment with a couple "web toons." I whipped up a character named Flip who would serve as a vessel through which I could travel to some of my favorite places and times. The Phantasmagoria during its heyday was of course, high on my list.

The toon wasn't the first time the ride had been a part of my artistic life. I had already incorporated the facade design into one of my very early Secret Fun Spot headers (circa 1999).

The project gave me a new excuse to once again pore over the the glorious facade. I set out to portray the ride as it appeared on its opening day, so I attempted to reconstruct any details that had gone missing after three decades. The most significant lost element was the exterior dip. In the 1980s it was flattened out and boarded over with the unwelcome "Scarieeeeee House" graphic (seen in the photo at the top of this post). Here's what I came up with...

At the time of the toon's creation, early visual resources were virtually non-existant. Now it's obvious that the dip should be closer to the center, and I misplaced the spider web vortex thing.

Anyway, my web toon can be seen here.

I was pretty pleased with the outcome and some friends of a friend even showed it to the Bell family, which was very cool. Then a couple years after I had forgotten all about it I was approached by the Tulsa Overground Film Festival who asked permission to exhibit both of my Flip featurettes. I happily said yes and attended the event curious to see how they would play on a big screen and in front of an audience. My Phantasmagoria toon showed on a Friday but I was there the following night so I actually missed its premiere. Halfway through Saturday evening they screened my other Flip cartoon (which involves a mail-order monster). The response from the packed auditorium was undetectable. I couldn't blame them. The tone didn't quite gel with the rest of the evening's unruly lineup, and most of the crowd was too young to relate to the story.

During the last film on the schedule my wife and I quietly packed up in hopes of avoiding the exiting masses. We'd made it to the lobby when suddenly I heard my Phantasmagoria toon playing. It was an unscheduled encore presentation! Instantly, the crowd began to murmur with recognition. When Flip began his journey through the series of doors there was a burst of applause. With the sight of each familiar gag the audience amplified until the famous bus horn sounded and the room went unhinged with excitement. No other production had come close to such a response but believe me I realize that it had nothing to do with my primitive animation or my flimsy "plot" (my other toon proved that beyond a doubt). They reacted so strongly because every butt in every seat of that theater had at one time sat through Tulsa's only dark ride. And this time they all got to go through it together. The impromptu mass celebration of the Phantasmagoria that night was easily one of my most rewarding moments as an artist.
(The animation was shown again the following year and yet again at the Tulsa Uncensored Film Festival. )

Robby Bell gives a flashlight tour inside the Phantasmagoria

During the creation of my web toon I grew aggravated with the state of neglect that the exterior had obviously fallen into. [Buddy has since explained.. "some of the rides, such as the phantasmagoria, have no factory in which parts can be ordered. Most of the fa├žade work has to be hand crafted out of wood and fiberglass, a very labor and time intensive job."]

I was certain that a simple paint job would give the ride a whole new life. Proving my theory were a couple other Tracy-created rides located in other parks. See how sharp these "sister rides" look...

Whacky Shack at Joyland in Wichita, KS
(photo came from here)

Another Whacky Shack at Waldameer Park in Erie, PA
(photo came from here)

Bell's obviously had an active maintenance department so I didn't understand why it was getting overlooked year after year. (Maybe they figured that the decay made it more creepy.) But I also feared that if they did go with a paint job they would likely update the colors and make things worse. (Now there's a novel way to waste your life.. contemplating the color pallets of dark rides. This is getting shameful.) An idea struck me! I quickly got on the phone with some friends of mine who are close to the Bells.

After weeks of confusing back-and-forth an agreement was stuck upon. I was granted permission to personally repaint the Phantasmagoria! I would do it free of charge on the conditions that...

-Bell's supplied the paint and scaffolding.
-I could use the original colors only (I even hoped to cover the "Scarieeee House" part with the old spider web design)
-I could look around inside at some point.
-I sign a waiver in case I hurt myself or died. (their idea)

I was thrilled. I was prepared to spend a couple weeks one-on-one with the ol' Phantas. I envisioned news stories and a resurgence in the ride's popularity. T-shirts! Flashlights! Reprints of that old bumper sticker!

I was given the number to the maintenance department. They were going to hook me up with some supplies and work out a schedule. But the following weeks were a montage of unreturned calls, and a lot of "The guy you need to talk to isn't here right now." The next thing I knew, Spring season had begun and my window of opportunity had shut. [I've since learned that all that maintenance heard was that someone had put in a bid to paint the facade.]

I wasn't as aggressive as I could have been because I totally understood where the maintenance crew was coming from. First of all, my little arrangement was pretty insulting to them. It seemed they weren't cutting it to the point that some punk was willing to beg the owner if he could come in and do their job for free. And I'm sure they were extremely busy in preparation for the new season. I would have just been a huge pain. By the next winter my passions had turned to other projects so I never followed up and the ride was never touched by paint again.

It's probably for the best that things didn't work out. I would likely be dead now thanks to some sabotaged scaffolding. And even if I did survive, my handiwork would now be gone. Oddly enough, a micro burst actually destroyed the front of the building months before this whole eviction thing even took place...

The Phantas wasn't the only ride that was damaged...

Amazing post micro burst photos courtesy of Buddy Stefanoff

I just don't think it was meant to be.
[Update: Actually it was. (Well not the painting part.) But thanks to the extremely kind Bell's team I finally got to have my time with the Phantas. Check out the photo tour.]

There is a ray of hope in all of this. Though the ride has been disassembled, according to the news story everything is going into storage "hopefully not forever." And there's been talk about some potential sites for a new and improved Bell's. If that were to happen and if they were to reconstruct the Phantasmagoria you can be certain that I will be there on the day it is raised again.. taunting the maintenance crew with all my heart. Thanking the maintenance workers for keeping the ride going for all these years.


Todd Franklin said...

Oh, man! We lost another one and I was hoping I would get my chance to visit this classic dark ride.

Excellent post and at least I can take a virtual ride with your amazing 'toon.

Funny thing, because I played Death Race in one of our local arcades that was across the street from The Haunted Hotel, a dark ride walk-through. I'm still searching for photos of this spooky place.

Jamey Clayberg said...

Man man man, not cool. Having a childhood only half-time in the U.S. I didn't have a lot of the old-school stuff like dark-rides around so ole' Phanty as I like to call her was a bit of borrowed youth there. RIP, little Phanty, you will be missed.

Anonymous said...

Change sucks. But out of change comes fun and interesting nostalgia, internet preservation and sharing of memories which I am a fan of.

Here's to hoping that I don't become a maniacal super villain bent on world change to promote the emergence of a nostalgia super hero ala Mr. Glass in Unbreakable.

Alice H said...

first Casa Bonita, now Bell's - there's getting to be nothing to go home to.

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure of seeing the Phantasmagoria in its original state - such great memories. Thanks for giving such a great send-off. I still can't believe I'll never go to Bell's again! Change is good, but it can really sometimes, too.

Kirk D. said...

Todd- hmmmm it would sure be cool to do a version of the cartoon and included every last scare. Or maybe an alternate ending. (maybe when I learn how to stop time)

smurfwreck- so YOU were responsible for that micro burst last summer!

herva- amen to that. Good thing we worked the ride into our shared history of fun too (during the "research" trip.)

alice- yeah, Bell's and the Casa Bonita (and Crystal's pizza) were sort of the heart of Tulsa for me when I was a kid. Like a little taste of Disneyworld in my own backyard.
I'm a bit afraid to visit Casa Viva (which replaced Bonita) and yet I'm still tempted.

travis- At least we have our sweet memories. No. Memories not good enough, must...rebuild!!!!

The CDP. said...

This story reminds me of the tale of Outlaw Elmer McCurdy.


This story is worth your time, if you're not familiar with it already.

CK420 said...

"You mean, that's it?"
exactly what I said when I first rode it back in the 80s.
Great story, thanks for the nostalgia!

Anonymous said...

Now we have Joyland's Whacky Shack to worry about. They want to rezone it residential. Another Bill Tracy dark ride in Ohio was saved from being broken up when the park closed forever last Sept. It went on auction and was bought by an enthusiast and is being relocated to Conneaut Lake Park, PA. However, a Bill Tracy like dark ride was torn down in Wildwood, NJ Jan 2007 after being abandoned since 1983, and the Haunted Hotel at closed forever Myrtle Pavilion was just torn down. Dark rides are falling victim to external forces.

Anonymous said...

Hi again, I got Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 and I built dark rides in it, and you can take a virtual ride on them. I built a two level Bill Tracy ride with an elaborate front. I love the Bill Tracy dark rides. Ocean City, MD has two of the best, walk through Pirate's Cove, and ride through Haunted House. Plus the Haunted Mansion in Rehoboth, DE the final dark ride built by Bill Tracy's company after he passed before the company closed in 1979. I'm Robert from Allentown, PA near Dorney Park, born Jan 1974.

Kirk D. said...

gentle- cool about Frontier City!

CDP- I am familiar with that one. I like to imagine that all dark rides have at least one real dead body.

Robert- Thanks for the info.
That's too bad about Joyland. I've still never ridden Whacky Shack.
Your virtual dark ride sounds great. I've always wanted to create one myself. Someday.

josh pincus is crying said...

Great story! I have a similar on my blog about my encounter with The Orient Express on the old Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City, NJ. Similar reaction on my part, too.

Kirk D. said...

Josh- ha, similar indeed. Interesting that both rides were designed by the same man too. That dragon is amazing. Thanks for sharing!