“Darkness and Dawn” – a vintage “Hell House”

It’s October and officially the time for Haunted House attractions and their evangelical knock-offs known as Hell Houses. A Hell House takes the thrills and chills of a traditional haunted house but dresses them up with a heavily moralistic and pietistic spin. A common feature, I gather, is a lurid depiction of Hell and all the tortures awaiting immoral, impious folks. This phenomenon is nothing new, heck some of the best medieval plays are thinly veiled cautionary tales. But I was charmed to find a post about a midway attraction from the early decades of the 20th C named “Darkness and Dawn” that featured a peek into Hell, presumably for pure amusement not instruction.

The first reference I found came from the blog Anonymous Works that featured a ticket for this attraction plus a snippet of information. They noted the attraction was located in Coney Island, that is burned down in 1903 and was later re-built in Luna Park. The style of the attraction was a cyclorama, a circular panorama intended to give a sense of all encompassing vista.

The blog Gaping Media Hole had several postcards from the attraction’s appearance in different locations, including the promotional card shown above and the shot of the midway that shows the front of the attraction. The locations noted are Revere Beach and Venice Beach.

The best description about the attraction came at a site devoted to the Pan-American Exhibition of 1901 held in Buffalo, NY. If I read the information correctly, “Darkness and Dawn” grossed the highest amount of any of the Midway attractions, scoring 17th overall behind restaurants and concession stands. The attraction started with a “Cabaret du Mort” where patrons drank from skulls and sat at coffin-shaped tables. Likely these beverages were alcoholic since at this time, amusement parks were aimed at young couples and were not particularly family friendly. I found little description of the Hell portion other than the note that while the creator of the attraction was puzzling out a way to get patrons over a lake of fire he came up with the idea for another attraction, “Visit to the Moon.”

These were the details I was able to piece together with a few minutes of research. I’m sharing them here mostly to remind myself to look into it further when I get a chance. Suffice to say, our interest in fear as thrill is sometimes served with a candy coating of instruction, and sometimes that candy coating is quite thin.

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