Movie World in Australia is set to unveil this year a large, bright-pink rollercoaster they are promoting as "the greatest attraction the Southern Hemisphere has ever seen". Fan sites are abuzz with speculation as to the kinds of launches, twists and soaring hills it will deliver, and the park is almost certainly anticipating their own thrilling bump in revenue, which a new rollercoaster always brings.
But do we ever actually stop and think about what our obsession with these iconic rides actually means?
When I first announced to a (now-ex) friend that I was starting a Research Masters project about why rollercoasters actually exist, the ex-friend declared "Well, that's everything wrong about universities nowadays right there". However, this was the same person who would moan that it was Monday, encourage the more rapid approach of Fridays, and count down on social media the days till his next holiday. In other words, he was obsessed with his leisure time...and simultaneously dead against the idea of thinking about something that had become an icon of leisure.
Rollercoasters are somehow both plainly visible and invisible - they are the tentpoles, or "signature attractions" of the multibillion-dollar theme park industry and nobody needs to explain what a "rollercoaster stock market" or someone's unfortunate "rollercoaster cancer journey" means. However, nobody really thinks about why they happily drive long distances from major cities, drop small fortunes to enter theme parks, and then stew for up to three hours for a ninety second ride to nowhere.
The reason for this odd behaviour is deceptively simple - we are all obsessed with our leisure time, and have all become lazy, lazy consumers living in a lazy consumerist society.
Set your pitchforks down and consider this: we binge-watch Netflix and consider it a boastworthy achievement on social media (and howl like stuck pigs if Game of Thrones is not released rapidly enough). We shop for sport. We spend fortunes on watches, bracelets and gizmos that exist to tell us when it's time to stand up. And we don't think twice about paying to simulate manual labour by going to the gym. Stop kidding yourself - you're paying to recreate a world of exercise that no longer exists.
The world has changed enormously since the Industrial Revolution and we haven't - we're still the same twitchy cavemen we've always been, but we're living in a now-safe world. We're not at immediate risk every day like we had been previously (our forefathers hardly needed the additional stimulation that rollercoasters and thrill rides provide), but we are still hardwired to stay "primed".
These machines may be one way of maintaining a "hands-on" form of release (and examples like the 420ft high, 0-190 km/hr-in-four-seconds Top Thrill Dragster coaster at Cedar Point in Ohio do indeed encourage release—in the form of shrieking and bodily fluids). Sociologist Dr Margee Kerr from the University of Pittsburgh reflects in the documentary that resulted from my rollercoaster Masters, Signature Attraction:
The challenges we face today are just not quite as risky, and they’re not as immediate. The challenges we have today are so long term, and for a majority of human history it’s been very present oriented—just how can I make it through this day.
Most of the Western world also has limited amounts of paid leisure time. This means our leisure experiences must be compressed, so the particular success of commercialised leisure spaces like Disneyland, where you can flit between hyperreal, compact "worlds" all in a single day comes as no surprise. This lack of leisure time also means we are no longer able to devote finances and training to genuinely risky pursuits such as mountain climbing.
However, we can easily head down to a theme park and scare ourselves senseless on rides that offer extreme and unusual sensations unavailable to us (safely, anyway) in our daily lives. The cruel irony - which theme park operators understand perfectly - is that the biology of the thrill, or the "peak experience" we obtain from the scary coaster or drop ride and the ascent of Everest is virtually identical. We are simply unable (either physically or financially) to manually undertake the sorts of activities that generate comparable thrills to today's high-tech rollercoasters, and thus we use them as a proxy. Why try harder? Professor Dana Anderson from Indiana University agrees in Signature Attraction:
These days we are very much expecting that the “next thing” is provided to us and the most we can do is earn enough to own it. We are no longer primarily responsible for manufacturing the things that make our lives meaningful.
We also live in a relatively placid time in history, which is inexplicably promoted in the media as being the most dangerous era ever. It's clear what happens to us and our fearful propensities when society presents us with fewer actual things to fear - the objects for these fears must be manufactured, and duly commodified.
Couple this with the fact that rollercoasters, extreme thrill rides, and the parks and studios that create and promote them form an Amusement-Industrial Complex - in which you are driven to consume these thrills because that is what is promoted to you as a thrill; if you want a thrill, you obtain it by going to a theme park—via advertising and media awareness alone, they drown out other forms of potentially "thrilling" leisure.
Coasters promote their namesake films (Terminator: Salvation, Green Lantern and Batman: The Dark Knight are three such rollercoasters that function essentially as ridden advertisements), films promote theme park rides (Disney's Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean began life as rides, then became films that somehow functioned as both commercial entities unto themselves and advertisements for the rides they sprang from) and video games promote their parent films and rides (Green Lantern, Harry Potter, Superman). Green Lantern began as a feature film, then it was a rollercoaster, then in a circular marketing triumph, Sony promoted the film as a rollercoaster: the Blu-Ray edition of the film was sold as "an action-packed roller coaster ride that's guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish."
In this new Amusement-Industrial Complex, where does the ride end and the film begin? And does it even matter, as long as you're consuming?
Let's not forget our active role in promoting this system. Due to the fact these extraordinarily-safe machines are promoted as daring thrills, once we have staggered woozily off them, we rush to the gift shop for our confirmatory pictures and t-shirts, and share them instantly on social media, proclaiming that we survived their dangerous challenge and should you wish to prove your bravery, you'd better come purchase your thrill too.
Modern society teaches us what to fear through an ever-widening array of media outlets, and the only option available to us to do anything practical with that fear is to reach for our wallets -to blast terrorists in a video game, to triumph vicariously over a monster by sticking out a scary movie, or to delude ourselves that we actually put our very existence at risk by braving the tallest, baddest coaster in the park.
As I've written with Professor Dana Anderson in our upcoming book chapter Screaming on a ride to nowhere: What rollercoasters teach us about being human, we've made rollercoasters a virtue out of necessity: they have taught us that, beyond fear, we need the thrill of things to conquer - and perhaps we've learned the value of conquering less.