Did I have any idea what awaited me? Maybe a little, not much. Children like to be scared — but not too scared. Did Cleo understand that the ride might have been disturbing for a little girl and her younger brother? There was less talk, in those days, about what was or wasn’t “appropriate” for children, less worry that they would be permanently damaged by a frightening story or film or, in this case, an amusement-park ride. I assume that Cleo thought what I thought: that it looked like fun.
It was the Spook-a-Rama, one of the “dark rides” then popular at Coney Island and other amusement parks. The small cars moved haltingly, stopping and starting, along tracks that ran through dimly lit tunnels, accompanied by appropriate soundtracks — groans, screams — and punctuated by the appearance of mechanized ax murderers, devils and corpses leaping out of the shadows.
Within moments I understood that I had been tricked by the laughing clown. The tunnel was dark, a skeleton sprang from the wall, then a masked figure jumped out, wielding an ax. I heard a shriek; something lunged at us. I closed my eyes and buried my head in Cleo’s lap. I started to scream and didn’t stop.
I’ve read that, in those days, the ride lasted 10 minutes, which seemed like 10 hours. Ten years. I shrieked the entire time, hoping only to drown out the recorded screams, mumbles, groans and clanking chains, willing the ride to end.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept visualizing the ghosts and goblins and crazed killers I had seen in the Spook-a-Rama. I imagined even worse things, horrors I hadn’t seen: the creatures that must have been menacing us while my eyes were closed.
I hardly slept for the next three nights. I kept waking in tears, from nightmares that took me back to the Spook-a-Rama. It seemed important to keep it secret. If I told anyone, it would mean that it had been real.
Finally, my mother managed to get the story out of me. She comforted me, she told me the things I’d seen weren’t real, it was only a ride, I was safe, in my own house, my own bed. She told me whatever grown-ups tell a child to calm her down: whatever works. And it did work. I relaxed, I slept. I don’t recall my parents criticizing Cleo for taking two young children on the Spook-a-Rama. Those were, as I’ve said, different times.
My brother says he has a memory of our little car crashing through the doors at the entrance to the ride. But that’s all he recalls. He thinks he’s blocked out the rest.
Looking back, I realize: That was the first time I understood — in a way that was at once inchoate and perfectly clear — that there were things from which the grown-ups couldn’t protect me. Or, perhaps more accurately: There were things they didn’t know enough to protect me from.
Fast-forward more than half a century. In 2015, the Brooklyn Museum mounted an exhibition of art inspired by, and relating to, Coney Island. Included among the photos was Diane Arbus’s 1961 “The House of Horrors, Coney Island, N.Y.,” a dark interior shot of the Spook-a-Rama.
For me, the photo was a look at my childhood nightmare, my private trauma captured and returned to me in a form that proved that I hadn’t imagined it, nor had it been a dream. What made it all the more striking and complicated is that the photo — shiny metal tracks snaking through the deserted tunnel past a skeleton, a toothy gorilla, a painted owl, a devil, a figure dressed in a straw hat and (improbably!) a bikini, brandishing a scythe — is extraordinarily beautiful. Like all of Arbus’s work, it suggests that we can see into another world, another life, another psyche, if we only look hard enough — or let her do the looking for us.
Arbus fans can well imagine that she would have been drawn to Coney Island. Her subjects there, in addition to the Spook-a-Rama, included an arguing couple, their disagreement so theatrical that you can practically hear the woman berating her grimly closemouthed male companion. Simultaneously funny and grotesque, “Wax Museum Strangler, Coney Island, N.Y.,” features a wax museum tableau of a killer choking his hapless female victim. In a letter to her daughter Doon, quoted in “Diane Arbus Revelations,” a collection of Arbus’s photos and written texts — she wrote, “I spent hours in the waxworks watching little kids and pregnant women staring bug-eyed at the ghouls and murderers, and next week I will be able to visit the lit up interior of one of those spook rides which I have wanted to see all my life.”
I became obsessed with Diane Arbus’s photo of the Spook-a-Rama. I finally managed to buy a print, which now hangs in my bedroom. Often I stand for a long time, watching the changing afternoon light pick out details: the gleam of the serpentine rails that grow brighter and dimmer depending on the hour of day. Sometimes the “horrifying” figures look cheesy, comic, absurdly over the top. And sometimes they look as frightening as they did when I was a child, or perhaps I am only recalling how frightened I was then.
Works of art (a painting or photo, a novel or poem or play, a symphony or song) can serve as bridges to the past, connecting us to a distant time. And for me, Arbus’s “House of Horrors, Coney Island, N.Y.” seems like a private bridge that no one else can cross in precisely the same way. Looking at the photo, I can’t help thinking that my trip through the Spook-a-Rama had something to do with my (much) later decision to become a writer. Perhaps, for me, the Spook-a-Rama was the equivalent of Proust’s madeleine. Perhaps I have always wanted to recapture that moment lost in time, not so much the terror as the thrill, the exhilaration of having left the familiar, known world for … a more imaginative, weirder and ultimately more interesting place.
Not long ago, I stood with my granddaughters — ages 10 and 6 — in my bedroom, in front of “The House of Horrors, Coney Island, N.Y.” I told them about the photo and about my connection to it. I watched them trying to see as far as they could, deep into the photograph, farther into the fun house than Arbus takes us. They both said that the picture was funny. I think they sensed what a powerful image it is. But having grown up with 3-D films, both of them passionate fans of the truly scary screen version of Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline,” they found it hard to believe that these crudely painted figures could have terrified their grandmother, at any age, for one second.
As we talked about the photo, I felt a rush of gratitude: to Cleo, for having taken me to Coney Island; to my mother, for having comforted and cured an insomniac daughter; and to Diane Arbus, for having alchemized a funky dark ride into a work of art. Most of all, I felt thankful for the turns my life has taken, steering me in a direction and to a destination where I could treasure the way in which art can focus on a place, an experience, a moment, and preserve it so that (again like Proust’s madeleine) it transcends the effects of time, and remains alive and available to us, and to those who will come after.