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A funhouse or fun house is an amusement facility found on amusement park and funfair midways in which patrons encounter and actively interact with various devices designed to surprise, challenge, and amuse the visitor. Unlike thrill rides, funhouses are participatory attractions, where visitors enter and move around under their own power. Incorporating aspects of a playful obstacle course, funhouses seek to distort conventional perceptions and startle people with unstable and unpredictable physical circumstances within an atmosphere of wacky whimsicality.
Appearing originally in the early 1900s at Coney Island, the funhouse is so called because in its initial form it was just that: a house or larger building containing a number of amusement devices. At first these were mainly mechanical devices. Some could be described as enlarged, motorized versions of what might be found on a children's playground. The most common were:
- A slide, usually much taller and steeper than one would find on a playground. Some were as much as two stories high. Slides of comparable size can be seen today on carnival midways as separate attractions. Most were made of polished hardwood, and riders would sit on burlap mats to protect themselves from friction burns and to ensure that rubber-soled shoes didn't slow the slider down.
- A large spinning disk. While the disk was stationary patrons would get on and sit in the center, then the operator would start the disk spinning, and people would be thrown off by centrifugal force, ending up against a padded wall. A variation was a disk with a raised center, shaped much like a Bundt cake mold; as the device sped up, people would slide downhill as well as outward.
- A horizontal revolving cylinder or "barrel" called "barrel of love" or "barrel of fun" to try to walk through without falling down.
- Sections of floor that undulated up and down, tipped from side to side or moved forward and back, either motorized or activated by the person's weight. Stairs that moved up and down, tipped from side to side, or slid side-to-side alternating directions between steps. The industry refers to these and similar devices as floor tricks.
- Compressed air jets shooting air up from the floor, originally designed to blow up women's skirts, but effective at startling almost anyone and making them jump and scream.
- An array of distorting mirrors.
- A very large ball pit
Notwithstanding the images in movies and comic books, fun houses did not drop patrons through trapdoors, which would be far too dangerous. One type of floor trick plays on this image: it consists of a section of floor that suddenly drops just a few inches, making victims think they are falling into a trapdoor.
Some fun houses would bring new arrivals through a short series of dark corridors or a mirror maze or a door maze (many identical doors forming squares, only one of which would open outward in each square), often leading onto a small stage where they had to negotiate a series of rocking floors, airjets and other obstacles while people already inside the funhouse could watch and laugh at them. A few places even provided bench seats for the watchers. Once patrons were inside they could stay as long as they wanted, moving from one attraction to another, repeating each one as many times as they chose.
This type of fun house resembled a miniature version of Steeplechase Park at Coney Island, whose 'Pavilion of Fun' — a building resembling a huge airplane hangar — included, in addition to rides, a gigantic slide, a spinning disk probably 50 feet (15 m) across, and a lighted stage called the "Insanitarium" where patrons emerging from the Steeplechase ride were harassed by a clown carrying an electric wand, while women in skirts were at the mercy of air-jet bursts. Through the first half of the 20th century most amusement parks had this type of fun house, but its free-form design was its undoing. It was labor-intensive, needing an attendant at almost every device, and when people spent two hours in the fun house they weren’t out on the midway buying tickets to other rides and attractions. Traditional fun houses gave way to walk-throughs, where patrons followed a set path all the way through and emerged back on the midway a few minutes later. These preserved some of the traditional fun house features, including various kinds of moving floors, sometimes a revolving barrel and a small slide. They added such things as crooked rooms, where a combination of tilt and optical illusion made it hard to know which way was up, and dark corridors with various popup and jumpout surprises, optical illusions and sound effects.
Although some walkthroughs were given unique names, like Aladdin’s Castle (Riverview Park in Chicago), Magic Carpet (Crystal Beach, Ontario) or Riverboat (Palisades Park, New Jersey), many were still labelled Fun House, and regardless of the official name the public generally referred to them that way.
Many traditional fun houses were removed after parks created walk-throughs. Some became dilapidated and were torn down. A few burned down; they were nearly all wood-frame buildings with extensive electrical wiring. Those that remained were all at traditional local amusement parks and died when those parks closed due to competition from new theme parks. No theme park ever created a traditional free-form stay-all-day fun house, but theme parks sometimes developed the walk-through attraction to new, high-tech heights. A few traditional fun houses are still operating in Europe and Australia.
Related, but with somewhat different history, are walk-through haunted houses and mirror mazes, although the latter are sometimes labelled fun houses.
In popular culture
John Barth's experimental short story collection Lost in the Funhouse, and the short story of same title.
Robert Heinlein has Lazurus Long and his mother Maureen Long visit a funhouse with his younger self in the novel Time Enough for Love.
Hollywood sometimes built elaborate funhouse sets with devices never seen in a real funhouse, as in the 1937 Fred Astaire musical, A Damsel in Distress, and the 1939 Joe E. Brown film, Beware Spooks!. Other funhouses depicted onscreen include:
- The silent films It (1927), The Crowd (1928), and Speedy (1928), in which scenes in traditional fun houses can be seen.
- In the film Pinocchio (1940), Pinocchio and Lampwick visit a funhouse in Pleasure Island.
- I Love a Soldier (1944), has a brief scene shot in the funhouse at Playland-at-the-Beach in San Francisco.
- In the film noir classic Lady from Shanghai (1947), Orson Welles' famous final shootout takes place in a funhouse hall of mirrors, as O'Hara learns the truth in a place that trades on deception.
- The Judy Canova film Carolina Cannonball (1955), concludes with an elaborate chase scene filmed at a large funhouse in Venice, California.
- A funhouse is used by the villain Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), wherein a series of animatronics, obstacles and illuminated mannequins are used to distract and frighten the victim before the victim is shot by Scaramanga.
- In Grease (1978), the end number, "You're the One That I Want", takes place in a real carnival funhouse built by the Hollingsworth company of Florida. The performers actually move through the funhouse backwards, entering at what should be the exit and emerging at the entrance.
- The 1981 horror film The Funhouse is about four teenagers who encounter a serial killer while spending the night in a traveling carnival's "funhouse." The attraction shown in the movie is actually a dark ride.
- The horror film Us (2019 film), directed by Jordan Peele, has a funhouse at a carnival in Santa Cruz, where a young Adelaide runs into her tethered counterpart, Red.
- Funhouse is a 2008 album and song by American singer P!nk.
- Fun House is the second studio album by American rock band The Stooges.
- Funhouse is an alternative rock band from Parkersburg, West Virginia.
- HBO's hit cable TV series The Sopranos, made numerous references to funhouses and funhouse rides. For example, the episode, "Funhouse", prominently features Palace Amusements' now-empty indoor arcade, wide-eyed clown mural called "Tillie", boardwalk, tower viewer, and Atlantic Ocean view in Tony Soprano's fever-induced dream. Moreover, in another scene in that episode, Tony's mother calls his home for help about stolen airline tickets. Carmela Soprano answers the telephone and remarks as she hands it to Tony: "Here, the fun never stops".
- The children's game show Fun House used a carnival funhouse filled with strange obstacles in its grand prize round. The two members on each day's winning team took turns running through the house to collect tags representing cash and prizes.
- In Phineas and Ferb, in the episode "Misperceived Metronome", Phineas and Ferb redesigned the interior of their house and turned it into a funhouse. In this episode, there is also a song titled "Livin' in a Funhouse".
- In MacGyver, in the episode "Brainwashed" (S4E16), Jack Dalton is mentally reprogrammed in a defunct funhouse to be used as a device for assassination.
- In Scream, in the episode, "Village of the Damned", the killer uses the location of the Lakewood Carnival to lure a group of students in an attempt to kill them.
- A funhouse based on the fictional television series Address Unknown which imitates a mental institute is prominently featured in the noir thriller Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne.
- In the game Bully, a funhouse features in the mission Funhouse Fun, where Jimmy Hopkins has to rescue the nerds from the jocks inside.
- Pac-Man World contains four funhouse/carnival-themed levels named Clowning Around, Barrel Blast, Spin Dizzy, and Clown Prix.
Carnival fun houses
Traveling carnivals have long included small walk-through fun houses in addition to their thrill rides. The typical carnival fun house is built entirely in a semi-trailer, usually about 40 feet (12 m) long by 8 feet (2.4 m) wide, allowing limited space for elaborate scenes or effects. Common features are dark corridors, light-up skulls, gravity-powered tipping floors, and airjets at the exit. A few include motorized devices like moving floors and stairways or downscaled revolving barrels. A few attractions traveling on two or more trailers are more elaborate.
Beginning in the late 1980s a few American operators acquired European-built attractions that unfold into multi-storied walkthroughs with dozens of tricks. Such funhouses are ubiquitous in Europe, but the falling value of the U.S. dollar and the high cost of fuel to transport multiple trailers over the long distances carnivals travel in the United States has made them expensive to buy and operate, so they are seen only at the largest American fairs.
- Kyriazi, G.: The Great American Amusement Parks, page 89. Castle Books, 1978
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