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Carnival of Carnage: The Most Iconic Horror-Themed Amusement Park Rides 

For ride or die horror fans only. 

a picture of a lit up amusement park at sunset from bird's eye view
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  • Photo Credit: Thomas Stadler / Unsplash

Dark rides—indoor rides that involve exposing riders to a series of tableaux, often with spooky theming—have been a quintessential part of the amusement park experience for at least a century, particularly since permanent parks began to supplant traveling carnivals in popularity. 

While many dark rides relied on their sensational facades to do most of the heavy lifting while the ride itself fell back on cheap jump scares and chintzy effects, all that began to change on August 12, 1969, when a little ride called the Haunted Mansion opened at Disneyland, wowing visitors from all over the world with its immersive atmosphere and movie-quality special effects.  

But it’s not all about haunted houses and ghost trains anymore: in the ensuing decades, amusement parks all over the world have created rides with creepy theming so meticulously macabre, so gloriously ghoulish, that they’re sure to satisfy even the most hardcore horror fan.

Here are six of the most iconic horror-themed amusement park rides.

The Haunted Mansion (Disneyland, Anaheim, CA., USA)

a photo of Disney's Haunted Mansion at night
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  • Photo Credit: Disneyland.com

The Haunted Mansion was one of the first high-profile dark rides to really deliver on its promise to expose riders to “999 happy haunts,” and created an absolute sensation in the process.

The Haunted Mansion begins with a mood-setting queue that winds through an outdoor pet cemetery, into a “stretching room” (actually an elevator) that features a morbid surprise dangling from the ceiling, and down a long, dark hallway lined with paintings that change before your very eyes and marble busts that seem to turn their heads as you pass b —and that’s all before you board the “doom buggy” that will take you on the actual ride itself. 

Full of iconic characters—the ax-wielding attic bride, the disembodied Madame Leota, the hitchhiking ghosts that try to follow you home—and a theme song so catchy it will never leave your head once you hear it, there’s a good reason why this ride has conjured up mountains of merch, multiple movie tie-ins, and a rabidly devoted fanbase.

Even after all these years, when it comes to spooky rides, this is still the one to beat. 

Saw — The Ride (Thorpe Park, Surrey, England)

an image of a group riding the Saw ride
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  • Photo Credit: Thorpepark.com

Saw—The Ride bills itself as “the world’s first horror movie-themed rollercoaster,” making it unique in that it’s no mere dark ride: Instead, it’s a hulking steel behemoth of a coaster, meant to evoke one of Jigsaw’s sadistic torture devices from the ultra-violent film franchise that has already spawned ten movies and counting, with an old-fashioned dark ride intro to help center riders in the twisted narrative. 

Following a couple of spine-chilling encounters with Billy the Puppet, riders are blasted out of the darkness and up a massive lift hill, leading to a beyond-vertical 100-foot drop that kicks off the rollercoaster portion of the ride.

Whether you’re scared of extreme violence or simply extreme velocity, Saw—The Ride is sure to test your boundaries. 

The Wicker Man Wooden Roller Coaster (Alton Towers, Staffordshire, United Kingdom)

a photo of a group riding the Wicker Man ride
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  • Photo Credit: Altontowers.com

The Wicker Man Wooden Roller Coaster  is Saw—The Ride’s folk horror cousin, with a rustic look intended to evoke Britain’s mysterious pagan roots.

While the rollercoaster isn’t explicitly based on the 1973 film The Wicker Man, the comparisons are hard to ignore, as riders actually find themselves hurtling into—and out of—an enormous burning effigy before pulling back into the station, where a disembodied voice offers gratitude for “your participation in our ritual.”

If you’ve ever felt like theme parks could use just a little more human sacrifice, this is the ride for you. 

Banshee (Kings Island, Mason, OH., USA)

a photo of a group riding the Banshee amusement park ride
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  • Photo Credit: visitkingsisland.com

Another outdoor rollercoaster that uses horror theming to create a mood is Banshee, an inverted coaster that shares its name with a female spirit from Irish folklore whose heart-rending wail foretells certain death.

Here, riders hear the banshee’s sinister shriek as they leave the station before embarking on a journey that includes a 150-foot first drop, seven inversions, and speeds of almost 70 miles per hour.

Banshee lacks a dark ride portion, but still manages to make riders feel like they’re surviving a near-death experience of their very own. 

Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride (Universal Studios Hollywood, Florida, and Singapore)

an image of fire and mummies from the revenge of the mummy universal ride
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  • Photo Credit: Universalorlando.com

Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride is a dark ride/rollercoaster hybrid that falls somewhere between the atmospheric but tame Haunted Mansion and the nerve-shredding outdoor coasters outlined above.

Taking place entirely indoors and blending dark ride story elements with more visceral thrill ride scares, Revenge of the Mummy—based on the 1999 movie version of The Mummy—sees riders pay the price for violating an ancient Egyptian curse.

Wind, projections, lights, and sound effects all combine to create a ride far scarier—and more fun—than it has any right to be. 

Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster (Warner Bros. Movie World, Gold Coast, Australia)

a photo of a group riding the scooby doo spooky coaster
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  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Facebook

Ready for a break from all those white knuckles and heart palpitations?

Then spend a little time with everyone’s favorite not-quite-courageous canine on the Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster, a ride that combines dark ride effects with a crazy mouse coaster layout for some fairly gentle, kid-friendly thrills.

With a facade that replicates the Spooky Island Castle from the 2002 film version of Scooby-Doo and a story that’s more likely to make you snicker than scream, this ride—like Scoob himself—offers the perfect level of gateway scares for little ones who are creepy-curious but not yet ready for the harder stuff.  

Featured images: Thomas Stadler / Unsplash, The Haunted Mansion / Disneyland.com, The SAW Ride / Thorpepark.com, The Wicker Man Ride / Altontowers.com, The Banshee / Visitkingsisland.com, Revenge of the Mummy Ride / Universalorlando.com, The Scooby Doo Spooky Coaster / Warner Bros. Facebook