The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

Derren Brown's Ghost Train interview: On virtual reality, creative freedom, and our love affair with fear

The illusionist reveals the secrets behind his latest project, collaborating with Thorpe Park to bring a new attraction which promises to revolutionise the Ghost Train

Clarisse Loughrey
Monday 09 May 2016 12:55 BST
Illusionist Derren Brown takes an exclusive behind the scenes tour of his new ‘Derren Brown’s Ghost Train’
Illusionist Derren Brown takes an exclusive behind the scenes tour of his new ‘Derren Brown’s Ghost Train’

Say farewell to rickety skeletons lurching forth from darkened spaces, for the new age of the Ghost Train is here.

Thorpe Park is readying itself to unleash its newest attraction upon the world: a technologically-enriched Ghost Train masterminded by the Master of Minds himself, Derren Brown. Here, the world-famous illusionist departs from the usual stock of stage shows and television specials for something entirely new, but just as unforgettable.

As with everything in Brown's world, the ride itself is shrouded in mystery, though it's so far been teased as a 10-15 minute apocalyptic experience combining elements of classic illusion, live actors, physical transit, virtual reality, and special effects. Furthermore, the attraction boasts twelve different journeys with two separate endings; all intended to push the limits of what's real, and what's imagined.

Our sense of concrete reality is becoming increasingly blurred with the advance of technology; our existence splintered across digital spheres, each coming closer and closer to an uncanny reality. And there's plenty of fear to be exploited here, with Brown's Ghost Train hoping to find new scares within the world of VR technology; adding entirely new layers to the traditional ride experience, without overwhelming its mainstays.

"The VR we’re using is absolutely cutting edge, and it’s quite different from the VR that people will have at home," Brown explained to the Independent. "If you just wanted to scare people, you'd probably go quite small, and claustrophobic, and dark; whereas VR does the opposite doesn't it? I mean, you could scare somebody by putting them in a cupboard and turning the light out; VR's not going to be much use for that."

"So, it's been quite interesting playing with both types of things: what's dark and claustrophobic, and what's very big as well. But it was important that it would only ever be one layer of the experience, and when it’s combined with everything else that happens... it’s very immersive, which is what I was after."

The illusionist seems keen to stress that new technologies won't automatically render the traditions of the Ghost Train obsolete. He describes a 150-year-old trick, involving a bowl and a glass, that featured in one of his old stage shows; and that still remains just as effective as the day it was first performed, because the art of illusion always keeps, "the spectator's experience centre stage."

Illusionist Derren Brown and Lauren Singleton take an exclusive behind the scenes tour of his new ‘Derren Brown’s Ghost Train’

"Whether you’re doing a magic trick, or whether you’re making a ghost train... everything I do is about that," he continues. "All you’ve got to do is just know how to get that right, and know when less is more, and know what to withhold and what to oversell, and you do that by putting the spectator’s experience centre stage. Not your technology, or your clever tricks – but the actual ongoing psychological experience."

For a first glimpse at what's in store, Thorpe Park teased its VR technology with a video of volunteers testing out the footage in an offsite location; considering how terrified they look already, it's only a wonder at how much more intense the experience can get with its other elements in place.

Indeed, Brown can now boast that the restrictions board for his ride is the longest the park has ever installed; certainly an achievement for an environment in which guests are regularly shot from 0 to 80mph on one of its coasters. Really, why are we so keen to willingly put ourselves through such intense bouts of fear? Why has this become such an obsession, and such a love affair in modern society?

Brown explains: "It's also about it being thrilling; and it's about adrenaline, as well, as much as it is about fear. When you're made to be frightened within a safe context, like watching a horror film, you have that tension/release which triggers all those happy chemicals that feel good. And that's why that is an attractive thing; and why, strangely, the first thing we do when we see a baby is put our hands over our eyes and then go, "BOO!", and shock them. I mean, it's such an odd thing, but that's one of the first things that we do."

Illusionist Derren Brown takes an exclusive behind the scenes tour of his new ‘Derren Brown’s Ghost Train’

Our odd, delightful determination to scare the living daylights out of ourselves is a bountiful provider of inspiration to the illusionist, only further fuelled by the possibilities opened up by the full support of Thorpe Park's own creative team; "The team are phenomenal. Normally, I'm the one who feels like a kid in the world of grown-ups; I'm the one who wants to do the thing that's fun and exciting, and everybody else has, you know, budgetary and production pressures - everyone's saying no."

"You feel like you're the only creative force and everyone else is just sort of business or production, or things don't quite fit hand-in-hand with having a vision and wanting to realise it. But, everybody here is brilliantly driven by the same priorities; that's amazing. I wish I was around more at this point, to be here everday. I was shovelling coal yesterday, so I've been very hands-on throughout."

"But I'm very happy to work with people who are so brilliant at what they do," he continues. "No one has experience of making this Ghost Train because it's totally new, but they have got experience in dealing with large numbers of visitors and how that works, which is not something I've had to think about before. So, yeah, that's all good. And very encouraging."

Derren Brown's Ghost Train marks a new frontier for Thorpe Park, and a new frontier for the secret terrors of our own minds. Dare you take plunge? The ride will open this month, with an official date yet to be announced. You can book tickets for Thorpe Park here.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in