I've been to Thorpe Park – the UK's third biggest thrill park - several times now with my various children. This time I decided to sit it all out, and devote my remaining funds to my two young thrill-seekers, who each got a FastPass and thus threw themselves upon every vertiginous spiral they could find, several times each. Thanks to judicious monitoring of food input, there was no chundering or heave-ho-ing as a result, and they left the park six hours later distinctly weary, but with whirlpools faintly visible in their eyes.
What I like about Thorpe Park, as opposed to the perfume-scented, suburban totalitarianism of the DisneyVerse, is that it's mostly about the physical thrill. There are some desultory attempts at 'themeing', all on an American-Graffiti early-fifties shtick (god knows what that meant to the Grime-listening young masses that day). And there is, of course, the Saw ride – thrill-riding for a post Abu Ghraib world (of which more later). But generally, rides like Stealth, Nemesis: Inferno or Colossus are all about being held very tightly and securely, and then being thrown around violently at high-speed.
For someone interested in play as a phenomenon, it's this precise experience that gets you. These are children, young adults and adults reliving that experience of being thrown around by their parents – the swinging round, the sudden dropping down, yet tightly controlled by a mother's or father's arms (represented by the sheer engineered solidity of the harnesses, the unfailing safety routines of the red-shirted employees).
What's interesting is that this isn't the elemental mammalian scene of play – parents watching at a distance while the cubs test themselves out – but something much more direct in terms of power and control. The tingle here is "don't drop me daddy". And the cast-iron, road-bridge-style enormity of the Thorpe Park rides gives you security that they won't fail you, even as they're corkscrewing you at 60 mph.
This is a precisely calibrated art, as Brendan Walker from Aerial, a 'thrill engineer' who presented at the Cambridge conference (previous post) wittily demonstrated. Walker even presented a 'thrillological' equation and graph, showing how ride designers manage the sweet spot between risk and predictability.
But it's the deep passivity of the experience that I suppose was making me melancholic in the Staines sunshine, as libidinous teenagers cartwheeled about me (yes, that might also have contributed to the gloom).
It's not that vertigo and great leaps into space aren't part of the play experience. This was the insight of Roger Callois, the French Surrealist-fellow-traveller, in Man, Play and Games. His games of ilinx were
based on the pursuit of vertigo and consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.
Yet compared to the street-running/parkour boys we saw doing their stuff at the South Bank in London a few weeks ago – measuring carefully (and not without some evident fear) their jumps from roofs to the wall of a walkway, with a 30 foot drop below – the ilinx of the Thorpe Park experience is scripted, almost bovine. Even with FastPass tickets round their wrists, enabling them to get four or five shots each at the scariest rides within the course of the day, my kids ended up in a state of mild ennui. Their last-minute pining for the cheap wall-climbing feature was equivalent to that Xmas day moment when the toy's ignored, but the packaging compels.
Well, go to a climbing park then, you might say, if you don't want to be spatially chucked around by the oppressively padded fist of themepark leisure. I have watched my youngest – a natural thrill-seeker – swing about 100 feet above me in Glasgow's X-Scape leisure park: she was securely harnessed, but still able to step gingerly through thin air. It got so bad to watch I had to bury myself in half a movie while she was up there. But in terms of the government's advice that we should allow more physical risk in children's lives for their developmental benefit, I do feel like a good citizen when I see my precious youngest throw herself into tree-climbing and wall-walking – and don't over-fuss her about the inevitable injuries.
I didn't feel remotely like a good citizen when I agreed to queue up for about 90 minutes (no FastPass here yet) to get onto Thorpe Park's big summer draw – a ride based on the "Saw" series of horror movies. I'm tempramentally opposed to these movies – been hanging around with too many loving-kindness advocates these days – but was surrounded by one kid (14) who'd already seen it (it's an 18 certificate), and my daughter who is compelled, in a Grimm Fairy tales way, by anything gothic and creepy. So, we got in line, hoping that conversation and iPods would get us through the wait.
I haven't been as discomfited by a leisure experience in years. Like all theme rides built on a franchised brand, the Saw ride aimed to materialise the screen experience. So we were slowly funnelled though a maze of chain-mail fences, topped with fake-but-convincing razor wire. We shuffled along our path like sports-wear-clad concentration camp victims, heading for the vast corrugated-iron storehouse that contained the ride. As we went along, we passed by seemingly random chunks of machinery – clamps, spikes, saws - sitting in stagnant brown pools of rust. "That's the stuff the evil puppet uses to torture his victims", said the older boy, sotto voce, even though my daughter was lost to Lady Ga-Ga. "Really, you don't wanna know." The musak in our ears was fragments of panicked American voices trying to get out of traps they seemed to have invited on themselves.
And over all this, screens showed images of Billy the Clown, the mode of communication for the movie's serial killer, Jigsaw, with the invitation: "let the games begin…" I've looked up the premise of the Saw franchise, and it seems to be part of a trend of movies entitled "torture porn" (I've seen the billboards on buses, and usually avert my eyes): many critics place them within the context of domestic terrorism, Abu Ghraib, the increased sense of daily extremisms generated by our Gulf Wars. Even in the queue, I began to realise Saw had a ludic premise. Jigsaw, a figure made murderous by his own losses and ailments, seeks to subject his victims to various self-mutiliating "games", all of them tied to some lifestyle or character defect deemed by Jigsaw to be in need of remedy. (And if they don't fix it, they die).
I've mused before on how the dark-side of play – that "taking reality lightly" which allows for all kinds of possible actions, all realisations of the imagination – is startlingly visible in the Abu Ghraib photographs: the hapless Lynndie England and her cohorts, jovially making living piles out of supine and naked Iraqi prisoners. The ludic as servant to sadism was here too: as we shuffled towards the ride, Billy the Clown started to appear on a video loop, incanting his pestilential version of a play ethic (or perhaps more accurately, play homiletic).
I was about to get grimly pessimistic about the ability of hyper-capitalist life to turn anything into a commodifiable experience - self-mutiliation, character reform, even the creative potential of games and play. I stopped when I realised I was in a queue almost entirely composed of teenagers: those constantly mutating monsters who, at the very least, have an alarmed relationship with the fleshy eruptions of their own bodies. You know, this may pre-date commercial society by quite a stretch...
I also recalled that only a few days earlier, I'd been listening to an In Our Time radio documentary about the Brothers Grimm – and how their original 'family tales' contained as much decapitation, dismemberment and grisly transformation as any torture-porn movie. Bruno Bettleheim once wrote of the "uses of enchantment": the way that these often gruesome, despairing fairy-tales gave children a symbolism for grappling with their own anxieties about being in the world.
As I relentlessly and volubly deconstructed the whole experience leading up to the actual rollercoaster, for the benefit of a daughter getting visibly more freaked out, I was genuinely worried that the ride itself would be a trauma too far. Actually, for all of us, it was a moment of bathetic relief: one stagey animatronic of the nasty puppet, a few unexpected blasts of air and water (a la the old ghost train rides of my youth), and in the end an all-too-briefly-vertigious rise and fall in the comfy-tight cradle of our carts.
And what did my wards think of it? Their responses have to be recorded precisely: "Totally scary… totally brilliant!!" Compared to the routine convolutions of the other rides, they'd been energised and made positively chirpy by the Saw experience. What came to my mind was Brian Sutton-Smith's latest thinking on the meaning and function of play, in the American Journal of Play:
Play begins as a mutation of real conflicts and functions thusly forever afterwards. Play was always intended to serve a healing function whether for child or adult, making it more worthwhile to defy the depressing and dangerous aspects of life.
As we gabbled away between us, walking out of this chintzy horror-fest, it was clear that we'd experienced exactly that form of play. We'd occupied our tight cradles of thrilldom, and defied about as much symbolic "depression and danger" as you could imagine. (Though there were indeed limits to those symbols - there was specific carnage churnng away in the minds of those who'd watched the movie).
The only suitable response was to head for the ice-cream stand, and laugh about how shoogly the "scary" puppet was. And for me to quietly shake my head at this topic of mine, the sheer complexity and ubiquity of play, and how much of life it encompasses.