The eerie sound of a pipe organ fills the air on Ocean City's boardwalk as families, couples and solitary fans enter the seaside ride filled with severed heads, torture chambers and other ghoulish delights.
Trimper's Haunted House is a vacation staple that has stood in the same location since 1964. But this boardwalk icon is far more than a nostalgic reminder of summers past. The house is an important part of the legacy of Bill Tracy, master of dark rides, those amusement park staples that ferry patrons through interiors where lighting, sound and creative displays are designed to amuse — or terrify.
Tracy made his career terrifying customers. He started with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in the early 1950s and gained notoriety after designing floats for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In the '60s and '70s, Tracy started creating attractions far outside the parameters of traditional amusement park ride displays. His displays, or "stunts," were more graphic than previous rides. There was no restraint when it came to the use of gore. Think women being sawed in half. Old Mother Hubbard eating her poor dog. The facade of Trimper's Haunted House is a classic Tracy design, featuring uneven roof peaks, crooked windows and a giant bat.
There are 82 projects credited to Tracy, and eight of them are still in use, including the Haunted House and Pirate's Cove in Ocean City.
In 2008, Brandon Seidl and Wayne Bahur launched a Bill Tracy website (billtracy.net) outlining Tracy's biography and career in the dark ride industry.
"He was kind of a mysterious guy," said Seidl. "[The information] wasn't easy to find."
Seidl also maintains a website about the Ocean City Haunted House (ochh.net), which he calls a "masterpiece."
The Haunted House received a much-needed face-lift last winter and now includes stunts from "Phantasmagoria" — a Tracy dark ride built in 1973 at Bell's Amusement Park in Tulsa, Okla. — and a brand-new batch of fresh scares. Notable stunts from "Phantasmagoria" include the giant "Buzzard," the "Green Lady" and the "Skull Waterfall."
Various modern stunts were purchased from Scarefactory, a leading manufacturer of haunted attractions, and include an "Angel of Death Zombiette," a "Grave Crawler Zombie" and a collection of severed heads.
According to Seidl, everything inside the Haunted House is 100 percent functional for the first time since the ride was built.
With the addition of modern stunts, the integrity of the Haunted House as a true Tracy dark ride may be questionable, but Seidl doesn't seem to think that Tracy would mind the updates.
"I think Tracy would appreciate it, and I say that because for his time, he was one of the greatest innovators in the amusement industry," said Seidl. "His mind was right up there with Walt Disney's for that time period."
When the ride was built, it was only a one-story attraction. According to Seidl, the second story was added in 1988 after Granville Trimper purchased the remnants of another Tracy attraction called Ghost Ship from the now-defunct Ocean Playland Amusement Park on 65th Street.
Clifford Hudson managed the ride beginning in 1977 and witnessed these drastic changes firsthand. His son Scott took over management in 1999 and calls the ride "his pride and joy." He operates the ticket booth, solves mechanical problems and generally does whatever needs doing.
For today's dark ride enthusiasts, the Haunted House has not lost its appeal, and the ride remains a popular boardwalk amusement. And so Tracy's legacy lives on each time the black, swinging doors send another coffin-shaped cart into the Haunted House.
Ocean City's Haunted House
Location: South end of the boardwalk, next to Jessica's Fudge House (Look for the giant bat)
Phone: 410-289-8617 (Trimper's rides)
Cost: $4 per person
Note: The ride usually runs on weekends only during October and November; call to check for hours and availability.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun