What is a Funhouse?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

A funhouse is an amusement park and carnival staple, full of attractions meant to distort reality and occasionally scare the visitor. Unlike rides that provide train cars or other vehicles as a means of getting through the attraction, a funhouse visitor travels under their own power. Today, there are two main varieties of funhouse, building-housed versions that allow patrons to run around and stay as long as they wish, and compact carnival versions that follow a specific path.

Young boy eating an apple
Young boy eating an apple

Building-style funhouses are considerably older than the compact versions, although their exact history is unknown. Steeplechase Park in Coney Island is one of the first well-documented funhouses, and is believed to be based on a European model. It is possible that the indoor environment originally allowed for an all-weather attraction that would not depend on warm weather to attract guests to the amusement park.

Originally, the funhouse featured several common attractions, including enormous wooden slides, usually two or three stories high. Riders would sit on sacks or mats to avoid friction burns caused by the high speed slide. Another popular attraction was the record player or spinning disc ride. This ride, considered highly dangerous by modern standards, would take place in a padded room. Riders would sit on a large disk that was operated by an attendant, who would spin it faster and faster until the riders were flung off against the padded walls.

The traditional funhouse also frequently featured a variety of mechanical devices to impede movement. Floors would tilt from side to side, or suddenly drop. Ladders featured moving steps that required mastery of their rhythms to climb successfully. Many a broken arm has been attributed to the spinning barrel, a rotating cylinder that turned quickly as you walked through it.

Problems with building-style funhouses were their need of constant supervision and need for many attendants to operate the various attractions. As theme parks grew in popularity, park managers wanted to streamline the procedure and eliminate jobs in the process. The development of compact funhouses for traveling carnivals became commercially successful, as the rides were easy to set up and required only one or two attendants.

Truck-based funhouses contain many of the original attractions as the older funhouses, but are more compact and follow a clear path. Most begin with a confusing mirror maze to distort the senses. Mechanical floor-moving devices, spinning barrels, distorted mirrors and suspension bridges are all popular features. Some feature a ball pit for patrons to play in, although this can be costly, as patrons have been known to steal the balls. Carnival fun houses usually end with a twisting slide that is considerably more compact than their giant predecessors, though large slides can often be found as a separate attraction.

Funhouses are of varying difficulty to maneuver, and may present problems for young children or those with movement-related disabilities. Often, parks will feature kiddy-versions of a funhouse, but adults may wish to accompany children on these as well. The funhouse remains a classic and exciting attraction, made more enjoyable by the active participation of the visitor.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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