The grainy photo footage of the Alton Towers Smiler accident, released this week, put pictures of the smash in our minds forever as truly terrifying (and confirmed our instinctual fear of rollarcoaster rides. It’s ok, you know, to question the sanity of taking a ride with 14 inversions). “Human error” was blamed for the serious injuries of five riders; two women lost a leg. Judge Michael Chambers QC ruled a huge fine for a “”catastrophic failure” by the company (Merlin Entertainments) involving basic health and safety measures”. Chief executive, Nick Varney said: “We have learned every lesson from what happened last year and made a number of technical and procedural improvements to make sure that an accident like this cannot happen again.” But visitor numbers to all it’s attractions (which also include Thorpe Park and Chessington Z00) remain down since the crash. The response? No Merlin wizardry to make their name proud, rather “measures to cut costs”, perhaps, not so consoling.
Bur our passion for theme parks has fueled, and continues to, a billion pound business worldwide. Civilizing society once liked it’s parks and public spaces with a VIP statue, but so dull, so worthy, the working people wanted entertainment too. The Middle Ages had it’s medieval fairs – with freak shows, acrobatics, conjuring and juggling. From 1661 the Vauxhall Gardens in London heralded a new era of fun; tightrope walkers, hot air balloon ascents, concerts and fireworks, all drew huge crowds (entrance was free). Then Victorian inventions (steam, electricity, transport) bought us mechanization – the carousel and then the funfair . And soon the first entertainment parks – Blackpool Pleasure Beach (1860s), and Coney Island (1870s) in the US – were born. The rest is history.
Thrills and spills, we can’t help loving them – both as participants and vicariously, as observers of thriller films. The psychology of why we love being scared, has oft been examined and explained as; a need for an extraordinary experience beyond the mundane, to a way to face up and vanquish feelings of fear, a personality trait, a rite-of-passage for teens (to show bravado, maturity, rebuking authority) and because ultimately being scared (and recovering) is just so damned life-affirming; “… refreshing, enchanting, empowering, exciting, or profound.” (Why we love theme parks)
Our screen interpretations tap into this thrillseeking-ness by taking us, the viewer, on a ride to hell and back. From “conventional” stories about theme park rides that go wrong; Rollercoaster (1977) to Final Destination 3 (2006)
to the more esoteric; comedy horror Zombieland (2009), weird fantasy Escape from Tomorrow (2013) and the futuristic adult-themed park, Westworld (2013 TV series with Anthony Hopkins, a glossy remake of 1973 Yul Bryner film). Here theme parks provide the scenery (rather than the story) for scaring the bejesus out of you.(Films about amusement parks)
If you have a kid, you will have watched a Disney film and probably been pestered to visit a Disney park (Paris or Florida.) Now you probably fall into one of two camps – hate Disney with an unreasonable vengeance (“a rip-off factory of manufactured fun”) or you love it (Walt got it! We need more fun, fun, fun – bring on the smiles). Either way Disney hasn’t lasted this long without spotting a marketing trick – turning rides into movies (Pirates of the Caribbean) and turning movies into their latest attractions (Star Wars) (http://www.fandango.com/). Then there are books and novels about Disney too – from adult interpretations of the stories and parks to children’s cook books and collections based on their favourite characters. Clever, clever.
Perhaps because theme parks and funfairs represent strong childhood memories, novelists who write about them tend to tell stories that are nostalgic or bewitching. From Swamplandia! an otherworldly imagining of a family run alligator park in Florida to horror (with heart) Stephen King’s Joyland and The 5 people you meet in heaven
Other writers use theme parks for the setting of futuristic expositions; Utopia by Lincoln Child, an adult theme park run by robots whilst Down and out in the magic kingdom by Cory Doctorow considers Disney of the future.
The future must concern all theme park directors – it’s likely they’re competing with the electronic device de jour to come up with the ever more alluring, the ever more thrilling, the ever more dangerous (like the Superman comic character, Nick 0-teen, they need to make their wares boundary-busting appealing…)
In the UK it seems we’re not so awed by the idea of new theme parks. In 2015 the artist Banksy gave his take on idea of a happy park, creating Dismaland in Weston-super-Mare. Reportedly the dystopian attraction bought 150,000 paying visitors and £20m to the seaside town. (There’s nothing fun in theme parks, The Telegraph) – peanuts in comparison to the big guys.
This anti-take on theme parks idea is highly unlikely to transfer stateside – way too ironic. But there’s a US company looking to make an impact on us; Extreme Kidnapping.
For about a $1000 you can star in your own (faked) abduction. “This service caters to the extreme sports adventurer who is bored with what’s currently available; this takes it to a whole other level,” says entrepreneur Adam Thick. “If you don’t feel like you’re really being kidnapped and your life is in danger, then we’re not doing our job.” The company made a stir a few years ago and is in the news again – reportedly it’s being sold to a TV production house.
Beware the fear you wish for…
Theme parks continue to be culturally significant Stateside – you could say they are in the the American DNA – a selection of audio programmes to listen to;
This American Life (producer of Serial) stories of and from theme parks across the US.
CoasterRadio.com – The podcast dedicated to roller coasters, theme parks and thrill rides -claims to be the original theme park podcast.
The Park Fanatic Podcast – Gabe and Garett, take you on a magical journey across the amusement park world every other week.
Extended Queue – a theme park podcast.
Disney Parks Podcast – Exciting Disney news and information from the Disney Parks around the globe (including in-depth interviews with your favorite Disney celebrities!)