Playing off the titillating terror of being buried alive--a theme exploited also by Edgar Allen Poe among many others--Coney Island's Luna Park premiered a new attraction in 1907 which allowed the visitor to experience their own premature burial and added a trip through Hades and Paradise to boot.
From a contemporary New York Times report on April 21, 1907:
NEW WONDERS THIS SEASON AT CONEY ISLAND - Beatific Heavenly Visions and Gruesome Scenes in Hell to be Luna Park's Latest Novelty ...Excerpted fom the April 21, 1907 issue of The New York Times; You can read the entire article here.
"The real big feature of the revised Luna Park," Mr. Thompson explained, "is going to be what I have named Night and Morning: or, A Journey Through Heaven and Hell." The idea in itself if, of course, not new, but the manner in which it has been worked up in entirely original and is expected to make it a 'thriller.' It shows you the complete journey to Hades and Paradise, and is full of surprises....
"The first room into which the people enter is like a big coffin with a glass top and the lid off. You look up through the roof and see the graveyard flowers and the weeping willows and other such atmospheric things. When everything is ready the coffin is lowered into the ground. It shivers and shakes, and when it tips up on end you hear a voice above give a warning to be careful. Then the lid is closed and you hear the thud of the dirt.
"The man who is conducting the party now announces that they must have a spirit to guide them. A subject is put into a small coffin and in an instant he is transformed into a skeleton. Then a real skeleton appears and delivers a solemn lecture in which he tells the people that they must 'leave all hope on the outside'--a gentle perversion of the old 'abandon hope all ye who enter here.' ...
Now there is a great clanking of chains and the side of the coffin comes out and visitors pass down into the mysterious caverns. First they see a twentieth century idea of Hell, with monopolists frying in pans and janitors fastened to hot radiators.... After the modern Hell the people come to the Chamber of Skeletons. Though these skeletons haven't a stitch of clothes on them, they smoke cigarettes most unconcernedly all the time just like live men.... Next you come to the panorama of Hell, where you see a vision of all the condemned spirits being washed down by the River of Death. Now comes the big change and you find yourself in a large ordinary room, with cathedral-like windows through which you can look outside and see the graveyard which looms up with a weird effect. Like great mist you can see the spirits rising from the graves and ascending to Heaven...
The great transformation now takes place. The whole grave yard floats off into space with the single exception of an immense cross, where the form of a young girl is seen clinging to the Rock of Ages. Fountains foam with all their prismatic colors, and the air is filled with troops of circling angels. The room itself vanishes and you find yourself in a bower of flowers under a blue sky. At the climax and angel comes down with a halo which she places on the head of the girl who is still clinging to the cross Then all that vanishes and you are within four blank walls once more."
For more on the amazing and bizarre attractions of turn of the century Coney Island, check out my new project The Great Coney Island Spectacularium.
Image: Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial, 1854. Also the name of an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Image found via a blog called Rouge's Foam.