I still can't figure it out. Inside the warehouse, I press against the railing, squinting through the darkness to get a better look at the Ghost Train. A Victorian carriage hangs from the ceiling, suspended by iron chains. Step inside, however, and it's a modern London Tube car, caught up in an outbreak that threatens to turn everyone into monsters. You put on a VR headset, contextualised as a life-saving gas mask, and prepare for the worst as the train disembarks.
After a brief, creepy stint in VR, you're asked to exit the train on what appears to be a modern subway station. The original warehouse, the chains -- it's all gone. I've heard rumors about the train and how it's able to "move" through space, but even with this information I can't see how it all works. I press harder against the barrier, bamboozled.
I'm lining up for 'Rise of the Demon,' a revamped version of the Ghost Train that opened last summer. It's based at Thorpe Park, a haven for British thrill-seekers, and was designed under the guidance of Derren Brown, a showman and master of psychological manipulation. All told, it's one of the most ambitious VR projects I've ever seen, blending the HTC Vive with immersive theatre and intricate ride engineering.
The original Ghost Train had some problems, however. It offered two separate VR experiences, the second of which was a fun but corny CG-fest that felt out of place with the rest of the ride. With so many different parts, both mechanical and human, it also had a tendency to break down. The headsets would die, or not show the VR sections properly, and audio problems would drain the warehouse of its intended atmosphere.
Merlin Entertainment, the owner of Thorpe Park, and Figment Productions, a company specialising in audiovisual attractions, decided to to go back and refresh the ride. The result is an attraction that the team promises will be more intense and terrifying than before. "If there's anything that I learned from the experience last year, it's how, when people hear the words 'virtual reality,' they expect it to be reality," Simon Reveley, chief executive of Figment said. "They expect it to feel completely real."
Before, the second VR portion showed a group of spider-like demons shredding the train car to shreds. You could see the world outside, a ruinous city destroyed by society's greed for natural resources. It felt like the train was rocking back and forth, buffeted by your pursuers, until finally the train fell into a crack in the earth, ending the ride in a pit of lethal lava. "In the original we had a massive, whizz-bang ending with Hollywood effects going on," Reveley explains. That was by design, however: Brown had wanted something that was spooky, but still enjoyable for everyone.