Derren Brown’s Ghost Train has the longest list of safety warnings of any ride in Thorpe Park. Gothic script forbodes dire things to come: “Dark scenes of twisted perception...not suitable for guests with any psychological or neurological disorders.”
“That’s a long list,” I say, squinting at the sign in the Sun.
The Thorpe Park attendant laughs at my bemusement. “It has to be, because it’s not like any of the regular ride. It’s new.”
She’s right, in one sense. Virtual reality is a new medium, a novelty to most people; just beginning to make its way into zones of mass consumption and entertainment. But this isn’t the first time Derren Brown’s Ghost Train – or, to give it its full name, Derren Brown's Ghost Train: Rise of the Demon – has been shown to the public. It was revealed last year to great excitement. Such was the level of anticipation that fans looking for details hacked Thorpe Park’s social media. When the ride eventually opened, though, customers discovered a problem. It just wasn’t scary enough.
“We did it at eight out of 10, rather than pushing it to 10 out of 10,” Jordan from the Thorpe Park media team tells me when we meet in the car park, largely empty for a Thursday afternoon. “And then the feedback was, ‘We thought it was going to be scarier,’ so we were like, ‘Right, well, then!’” You turned it up to eleven? I say. Jordan nods. “Literally.”
That’s what I’m here to see: the scariest virtual realityride "ever", which one its creator promises will “scare the shit out of guests”. I’m also here to see what Brown has done with this new art form – to see what a master magician makes with a medium that contains modern computing’s most powerful illusions. It turns out he makes something brilliantly old-fashioned. And in this, there is a clue to VR’s best use, its long sought-after “killer app.”
The Ghost Train takes 60 people at a time. After a brief moment of queuing, we squeeze into a wood-panelled room, done up in the style of an 1870s American train carriage. Students mutter sarcastically, showing off to their friends. Then, we begin, with a talk from Derren himself, or rather his hologram, projected on a screen.
A VR still from the first part of the Ghost Train, where the action is seen as if through night vision goggles. | Thorpe Park
“You are going to find yourself in a unique experience,” he intones, before finishing with a piece of advice: “If you do find yourself slipping down a rabbit hole, if it all gets too much, close your eyes, it’ll be easy.”
Warning over, we are ready for the ride begin – and suddenly, it does, with attendants dressed in engine-stoker uniforms hurrying us through a corridor onto an old-fashioned train, strung up by chains across a bed of dark grey gravel. Onto the train, we rush – and once we get there it turns out to be a London tube carriage, complete with geometric-patterned seats and uniform-clad guards. Why this design is not exactly clear (maybe it was all they had?), but the modern setting is far creepier than creaky Victoriania.
An HTC Vive headset is on each seat, plugged with a thick black power cable into the carriage. We put it on – or at least I do; Jordan, who has come with me, opts to watch people’s reactions – and through the headset, I see an empty tube carriage, lit in the ghostly green glow of nightvision goggles. Brown has recreated the seats we are sitting on in virtual reality but all of a sudden I am alone in a city where, I'm informed, poison gas is turning the inhabitants into monsters. That is why we need the headsets: they are “protective eye masks” to ward off gas.
The decision to echo the real world is a good one. Most VR at present isn’t engaging, and a principal reason is because its creators set it apart from the physical world. To them, it is software on a screen – whereas to users it is an experience in its own right. The sweaty, heavy headset; the uncomfortable sense of isolation, each of these form an essential part of what VR is. Rather than ignoring them, Brown accounts for their presence. His illusions show the touch of the performer.
The plot proceeds apace, drawing the audience into its ruined world with a combination of animated VR and live-action effects. (When actors brushed my leg I must have jumped a foot into the air.) Then the train lurches to a halt and we are told to take the headsets off, so we can be rushed around more corridors and steam-filled industrial caverns. At this stage I’m engaged, but not exactly scared – the best, from this point of view, is yet to come.
When Thorpe Park tested the original Ghost Train, they found the beginning worked well, but the second half – a video-game style collapsing city – faded limply. So they made a new one, using Nokia’s 360-degree OZO camera to film actors being devoured by animated monsters.
360-degree footage of the Ghost Train's tube carriage | Thorpe Park
The effect is truly terrifying, and once again it’s because of the elision between the physical realm and the virtual one. Perhaps one day VR will encompass body and mind together. Until then, it requires a performance. It may be a digital marvel, but in its current state VR works best as a kind of immersive theatre. Its immediate future will be in funfairs, not smartphones. It is the oldest new technology around.
After the ride is over, I reel sweatily outside, into the fresh air, where a laughing Jordan tells me how I looked: “I could see you mouth swear words to yourself!” Was it scariest ride ever? Perhaps not. But then again it's hard to say for sure. When the going got tough, I took Derren’s advice and closed my eyes.