The Haunted Swing: something wicked this way rotates...

28 October 2015


With Halloween only days away it’s once again time to dust off the face paints, shine-up the vampire fangs and artistically destroy a pumpkin. To get into the “horror” of things, I began delving through some of our resources to find something suitably ghoulish from the vestiges of history. My search lead me unexpectedly to a photogravure of an amusement ride called ‘The Haunted Swing’ from a souvenir album for San Francisco’s California Midwinter International Exposition in 1894.


Image @ Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Invented by Amariah Lake in the early 1890’s, the Haunted Swing became a popular attraction and appeared as part of the Midwinter fair’s ‘Midway Plaisance’ amusement area. Admittedly, this photograph portrays a fairly innocuous scene devoid of any of the typical horror clichés such as solitary rocking chairs, sallow-looking children or tormented wraiths. However, this clever contraption was concerned with procuring a different type of fright.

Located in the middle of a traditional sitting room interior, the swing was suspended from a bar across the ceiling and could accommodate approximately 15 people. When the ride began, the swing appeared to move back and forth at an increasing pace until it seemed to complete a full rotation and its participants were imbued with the sensation of hanging upside down whilst inexplicably defying the rules of gravity. In reality it was the walls of the make-shift room which rotated (bolted-down furniture and all) whilst the swing itself hardly moved. But the illusion was so cleverly coordinated that participants would emerge confused, dizzy, faint, and often nauseous.


An external view of ‘The Haunted Swing’ building situated on the fair’s ‘Midway Plaisance’. Image @ Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The Haunted Swing may seem tame in comparison to the blood splattered, special effect-laden, Hollywood horrors to which we have all become accustomed. But during the 1890’s when logic and progress reigned, this ride exposed a vulnerable disconnect between the mind’s ability to reason and the body’s ability to perceive. It highlighted the frightening fact that the body and the mind are vulnerable to manipulation and cannot always be trusted, a fear popularised in classic Gothic horrors of this period such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And, as is demonstrated by the prevalence of modern-day incarnations of Lake’s Haunted Swing in fairgrounds across the world, this fear is as perpetual as the rotations of the ride itself.

These photogravures are taken from the World’s Fairs: A Global History of Expositions resource which will be published in spring 2016. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.

About the Author

Amy Hubbard

Amy Hubbard

Since joining Adam Matthew’s editorial team in January 2015 I’ve had the privilege to work on some fantastic resources including ‘World’s Fairs: A Global History of Exhibitions’, 'Race Relations in America‘ and 'Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda’. My academic background is in literature and film and my main academic interests lie in visual culture, in particular anything to do with David Bowie.