Report: The Curse at Alton Manor – The Haunted House strikes back, again!

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Exterior of The Curse at Alton Manor (© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)

Rejuvenating a haunted house is something that many amusement parks and theme parks have done, but hardly any of them take the job as seriously as Alton Towers, the UK’s largest theme park. The park’s Haunted House originally opened in 1992 and then received its first major refurbishment in 2003, coming up with changed scenes and an interactive system. The re-incarnated ride was called Duel, including the catchphrase ‘The Haunted House Strikes Back’. Duel, in turn, closed for a major retheme in September 2022, and re-opened this weekend as The Curse at Alton Manor. On this opening day, we’ll find out what the Haunted House has in store in its third incarnation, striking back again.

Alton Towers re-opened their beloved dark ride on Saturday 18 March, the very first day of their 2023 season. The turnout for The Curse at Alton Manor was quite significant, with the entrance and surrounding area bustling with guest activity, smoke effects and roaming actors interacting with the prospective riders. The building exterior looks familiar, with subtle changes to certain landmarks in the vicinity. However, before boarding the long queue, which seems to have had a promising refurbishment, let us first dive a bit into the history of the ride.

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Queue entrance of The Curse at Alton Manor (© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)

Developing the Haunted House

When the Haunted House opened in 1992, Alton Towers was at the brink of developing into a true theme park. The park already included a fair number of rides, including roller coasters and a dark ride, but after it was bought by Tussauds Group in 1990, new developments were created in another vein. One of the first new rides introduced by Tussauds was the Haunted House, and the main designer of the new ride was John Wardley.

In his own autobiography, Wardley fondly recalls the development of The Haunted House. The ride was built at a former maintenance area, which was already screened off from the public’s view by trees, meaning that the site was the perfect place to hide a large dark ride building. It was soon determined that the ride would have a spooky theme, as that was very popular among the public. Nevertheless, the ride should be a fun, family-friendly ride, without any elements of gore and horror. “The acid test […] was that no children should come out crying, and nobody would have nightmares as a result of visiting the Haunted House,” as Wardley writes in his book.

Visuals for The Haunted House (© Alton Towers, via Towersstreet)

In order to create the spooky-yet-humorous atmosphere of the ride, Wardley turned to Keith Sparks to produce the ride’s sets. The two had already worked together on Professor Burp’s Bubble Works, the almost legendary dark ride at Chessington World of Adventures, known for its sense of humour. The Haunted House that they designed was huge: at the moment of opening, it was among the largest dark rides in Europe and it became the largest ride that Sparks’ company ever built. The show building would measure 50 by 50 metres, with the entire ride costing £4 million.

Early drawing for the Haunted House (© Alton Towers, via Towersstreet)

To transport people through the attraction, Wardley wanted a ride system which existed nowhere else in the world. Having worked on ghost trains for smaller amusement parks in the U.K. before, he knew that the true magic of such a ride is the intimacy, the sense that you experience all the scares and adventures on your own. However, for Alton Towers he needed a ride with a much higher capacity.

This was not a new concept in isolation. Spooky high-capacity rides had already been created, quite often in the shape of endless-chain ride systems, such as Disney’s Haunted Mansion. However, these systems, in which you could often see other cars both ahead and behind during the ride, lacked the sense of intimacy Wardley wanted for Alton Towers’ Haunted House.

“I came up with the idea of individual 6-seater cars which progressed slowly non-stop through the station bumper-to-bumper, but as they entered the ride proper they would peel off from the cars behind, speed up considerably, and whizz through the ride and encounter the horrors within,” as Wardley recalls his vision for combining the advantages of both ride systems in his autobiography. 

“It was dead easy to come up with the idea, but another thing to bring this to reality,” he continues. Alton Towers eventually commissioned Mack Rides to deliver the ride system. “Each of the 34 cars had its own on-board computer […], and these computers communicated with the main master computer in the control room, monitoring the position and speed of every car around the circuit. If one car slowed down for any reason, the following car would sense this and position itself accordingly. It was a very sophisticated piece of technology.”

Promotional tv-interview with John Wardley about the Haunted House

The first rides through the Haunted House

Even though the ride system was a major element in the design for the Haunted House, Wardley and Sparks realised that the ride experience should already start long before guests would board their vehicles. The ride became part of a new themed area, called Gloomy Wood. Apart from the ride itself, the area consisted of a souvenir shop (originally called ‘Something Sinister’) and a food kiosk (named ‘Wicked Things’). The three buildings were all designed in a somewhat sinister Gothic-Victorian style, which was even made slightly more ominous by the grave in front of the ride’s entrance.

After entering the building, guests found themselves in a dimly lit drawing room, where the eyes of the portraits on the walls seemed to follow them as they walked through. “We devised some very neat illusions that the riders would experience in the vestibule of the ride,” Wardley describes in his book. “Including the ghost of a small child walking around inside a miniature doll’s house, and a talking face (actually Spark’s own) in the flames of the fire […]. The whole of this walkthrough pre-show was tilted […], so the visitors had a strange disorientating off-balance sensation even before they boarded the ride.” The face represented Sir Henry Alton, while the ghost child was Emily Alton, presumably his daughter.

Promotion video on the 1992 expansion of Alton Towers, including extensive video shots of the scale model of The Haunted House

Once riders boarded their vehicle, they would take a five-minute journey through the haunted house. The use of separate vehicles rather than an endless chain enabled the use of sudden ghost appearances, such as a large ghost appearing above riders in the Grand Hall. Keith Spark’s humour was present in the caricatural style of the ghosts, and in special elements such as a ghost offering a cup of tea to the riders. For a more detailed look at the ride experience, watch the video below or check out the page (including map of the ride lay-out) on TowersStreet.

The Haunted House officially opened on 31 March 1992, in the presence of TV celebrities Philip Schofield and Michaela Strachan. The first rides did not go without problems: just an hour before the ceremony, the vehicles developed a fault, making them stop along the way. Every now and then, the cars needed to be reset manually by pressing a button at the back of the vehicle. Wardley rapidly requested for 34 staff members, dressed them up as undertakers and put one in the back seat of each of the vehicles, ordered to push the button any time the car stopped. That way, all visitors of the opening ceremony rode through the Haunted House in the sinister presence of an undertaker.

Onride video of the Haunted House in the 1990’s

The Haunted House strikes back

Despite the opening day problems, the Haunted House operated without major issues throughout the following years. The ride rapidly became one of the most beloved rides of the park, even though some of the theming elements kept causing technical problems. Some of the animatronics were replaced in the early years, but the most profound change was the replacement of the ‘ghost corridor’ after the first season; it was turned into the skeleton corridor, needing less complex technology.

After ten years of operation, Alton Towers decided that the Haunted House required a major refurbishment for the 2003 season. The original ride closed by the end of 2002 and re-opened the next year by the name Duel: The Haunted House strikes back. The ride used the same car and track system and basic scenes but included a new background story. The most noticeable change for riders was the introduction of laser guns, turning the haunted house into an interactive dark ride.

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Exterior of Duel (© Harry Rawding via Dark Ride Database)

The storyline of Duel revolved around Dr Roodyn, who studied reanimation of the dead, but suddenly disappeared. According to a news report, playing in the pre-show walkthrough, zombies have since invaded Roodyn’s house. The mission of the riders is to face all zombies and other creatures inside and blast the laser targets to get the highest score.

The new storyline included quite some changes to the ride, apart from the addition of many laser targets. The portraits that used to follow visitors with their eyes were replaced by videos explaining the ride’s story and instructing riders. In the ride itself, zombies were added to inhabit the giant’s lair (the giant had long gone) and several other parts of the ride. Moreover, the last scene, which used to depict a swamp, was completely changed to look like Dr Roodyn’s secret lab which was infested by the undead. The addition of the zombies meant a major change in tone and style of the ride, moving away from the caricatural ghosts that were originally installed by Sparks and Wardley.

Property repossessed

After twenty seasons of operation, it was time for Duel to be rethemed again. Starting from August 2022, Alton Towers hinted at the closure of the dark ride. A sign was added to the queue line saying “06 + 09 = The Duel is over – This is my house”. It turned out that the sign hinted towards the closing date of the ride, as it shut its doors on 6 September, and we now know that it was Emily Alton herself that was laying claim on the house.

Starting that day, the ride was surrounded by large fences, decorated with cryptic posters giving hints about the new ride. The posters read “Property Repossessed – Strictly no unwanted visitors due to unnatural displays in the area”, of which the words “Possessed – I want to play” were highlighted. The signs also included a phone number; whoever dialled the number would hear an automatic announcement that the building is repossessed and deemed too dangerous. With ominous music in the background, the transmission gets interrupted, right before it is disconnected.

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Duel surrounded by fences hinting to the new ride (© Dark Ride Database, 28 October 2022)
Curse of Alton Manor
Detailed look at the cryptic posters (© Dark Ride Database, 28 October 2022)

From the start of 2023, Alton Towers slowly revealed more details on the retheme, starting with the name of the ride: The Curse at Alton Manor. The development team looked carefully at the original design for the Haunted House and found inspiration for the backstory of this retheme. The story revolves around Emily Alton, who was originally found in the queue line as the ghost girl walking around a doll’s house. It is now revealed that her parents, Victorian high society figures, hardly paid attention to their daughter. When the parents mysteriously disappeared, Emily was left alone, looking for the one thing her parents denied to her – play.

The park has taken the doll’s house as a major symbol in marketing for the new ride. To reveal the ride’s storyline, a few people were invited into a full-scale doll house, functioning as a scare house. Moreover, creepy dolls can be found on most of the announcement pictures. It seems that Emily Alton has quite a revenge ready for everyone who dares to enter Alton Manor…

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Visual for The Curse at Alton Manor (© Alton Towers / Merlin Entertainments)
Backstory of Emily Alton (© Alton Towers)

The Curse at Alton Manor

Now let’s get back to the present: we are here at Alton Towers on the official opening day of The Curse at Alton Manor, and cannot wait to see what Emily Alton has in store for us. The ride was misfortune to be unable to open at the same time as the rest of the park, soon gaining a queue in excess of two hours throughout the morning that stretched far into the adjacent themed land. Once in operation however, the high capacity attraction soon brought the line down to a manageable size for the remainder of the day, fitting guests entirely within the updated woodland queueline.

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Tomb of Emily Alton (© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)

Before entering the queue, some changes to objects around the Alton Manor can be seen. The coffin that once held a laser-shooting zombie from Duel is now labelled as the resting place of Emily Alton. In addition, what served as the roof over this coffin has been reused as a new entrance banner for the ride. The new queueline contains a number of gravestones that reference many rides from Alton Towers past, a few plaques that provide our first hints towards the backstory of the re-themed attraction and a lone, sinister figure in the distance. After winding through the forest, the queue brings guests back across the courtyard to the foot of the steps up to Alton Manor itself.

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Decorations in the outdoor queueline, introducing the storyline of The Curse at Alton Manor (© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)
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The doomed party marks an important date in the ride’s story (© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)
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(© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)
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(© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)

Despite, or maybe thanks to, the spooky atmosphere, it seems as if Alton Manor is for sale. Signs behind the windows invite guests in for an open house, happening today. Upon entering the first room there is a table displaying plans of the property, an estimated price and a small collection of estate agent brochures. The only thing left from the familiar theming from Duel is the wallpaper, all other elements are newly brought in to tell the story of The Curse at Alton Manor.

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Alton Manor for sale (© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)

Rounding the corner, some more detailed words about Emily are framed on the wall just before entering the main section of the indoor queue line. The original tilted pathway found in this room had been modified in recent years, for accessibility reasons, though it still seems to have a subtle disorienting effect now. A doll’s house takes centre stage on the left, containing the original ghostly silhouette of Emily Alton from previous incarnations, along with additional visuals depicting the night on which her parents denied Emily access to the new year’s party at the manor.

Other play things are scattered across the floor away from the house, and the old rocking horse continues to rock away in the far corner. A third, modern style projection also plays on occasion, with a more animated version of the cursed Emily screaming, surrounded by a purple light. At this point, the room turns darker and the walls are lit by UV to reveal endless sinister messages scrawled across them. Perhaps it is time to move on.

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Queue line theming (© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)
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(© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)

The station is found just beyond this room. Here we notice that the 5-seater interactive vehicles have been overhauled, by removing the guns and reinstating the 6th seating position on each car. The cars are first dispatched into a room signifying the date – 31st December 1892, the night of the new year’s party. It’s clear from beyond this point that the visuals of certain scenes have been retained from previous versions, with minor changes made to suit the new theme.

Moving between scenes, the ride contains notably longer sections of pitch-darkness which, combined with the new soundtrack serve to give the attraction a more intimidating atmosphere. The spinning tunnel, which was plagued with reliability issues over the years, is back in full operation and extremely effective.

One of the brand new scenes is also particularly striking, with riders suddenly finding themselves in a room facing Emily. As she speaks the line “it’s time to play”, a sinister silhouette on the wall behind her grows exponentially, as the vehicle speeds towards and then quickly away from the scene. Other spoken lines include the classic “are you scared of spiders?”, from the previous ride, though this time also from Emily herself. After the vehicle passes a couple of jump scare doll effects, the old, giant spider still looms overhead as prompted.

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Interior of The Curse at Alton Manor (© Alton Towers)
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(© Alton Towers)

A notable new effect is found as the vehicle passes down a long corridor of mirrors. While the first few mirrors contain mere reflections the latter half are in fact windows, revealed to be synced with what appears to be a ‘dummy car’ transporting a spooky doll alongside riders making it appear as though it is riding along with the guests – to great effect.

The Sinister Garden outdoor crypt area remains in a similar visual configuration, yet certain figures have been updated or replaced here. This includes the stone reaper statue, which is now a cage containing a swinging Emily doll and a mirror effect that causes her to entirely vanish upon passing it.

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(© Alton Towers)

As the pace quickens into the final scenes, reworks of effects such as figures appearing out of waste barrels display disfigured heads. A zombified version of the rubber duck from the old Flume ride also resides here, the presence of which has already garnered a positive reaction from fans. The intensity of the ride picks up in these last moments, as Emily can be heard screaming “you’re mine!!”

The final scare comprises an impressively large face, arm and hand of the cursed Emily, distorted and lit up in an intimidating fashion, appearing over the heads of riders and seemingly ripping the entire roof and sidewall off of the dolls house in which the ride is set. 

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Large face of Emily (© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)

As though to harken back to the events of that original opening day in 1992, our ride vehicle stopped unexpectedly in this scene during our inaugural lap. A staff member was soon dispatched towards us, in character, spookily implying how we had ‘broken the ride’ and had to push the very same button on the back of the vehicle in order to move us onwards towards the offload platform.

Striking back again

It seems as though a brand new life has been breathed into the walls of the Alton Manor. The retheme of this ride has provided a fresh experience that differs significantly from previous incarnations in both atmosphere and storytelling. The Curse at Alton Manor is certainly the most scary version yet, with the loss of the original caricature style spooks and also now the interactive-focused zombie shootout moments.

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Interior of The Curse at Alton Manor (© Alton Towers)

The return to a purely narrative-driven dark ride allows the scenes to put emphasis on a visual set-up and pay-off with certain scares, while the pacing of the original ride system and darkened spaces between rooms allow time for pause and suspense, particularly when compared with more traditional ghost train type attractions. Whilst achieving all this, the attraction continues to pay homage to those that came before, with both easter egg details and the retention of notable characters and moments.

The result is a compelling and impressive dark ride that fits well into the lineup at Alton Towers. The level of detail certainly rewards repeat rides and the spooky atmosphere created should keep any fan of this type of attraction coming back for more. All in all, The Curse at Alton Manor should bring new longevity to a classic ride for many more years to come.

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(© Dark Ride Database, 18 March 2023)

© Dark Ride Database
Visit by Steven
Article by Steven and Luc

References / Further reading

John Wardley (2013) Creating my own Nemesis.

Michael P. Eley (2012) Smoke & Mirrors: The Haunted House of Alton Towers