ã 2001 Sean Gillen. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
This work was completed in part-fulfilment of an MA Tourism and Leisure. Lancaster University, UK 2000—1, and is reproduced here strictly for scholarly purposes.
3. The emotional roller
coasters of Blackpool Pleasure Beach:
A woman has died and three others have been injured
in a roller coaster crash at Lightwater Valley theme park near Ripon in
North Yorkshire …The accident happened when two cars shunted into each
other injuring four people (two in each car).
(Joyland Books, 2001: on line) ( see references)
Blackpool Pleasure Beach is the most popular
attraction in the UK and entertains over 7.6 million visitors annually.
The most popular ride is the Big One, the tallest and fastest
roller coaster in the world.
(Blackpool Pleasure Beach, 2001: on line)
People say they don’t want to be scared, but they
do. If they didn’t want
to be scared they wouldn’t go on, like, big roller coasters and stuff
(Visitor to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, 13/7/01)
At the outset of this thesis, the apparent interest in the ‘distasteful’ and ‘macabre’ in contemporary tourism was introduced as an important part of the genre of ‘fatal attractions’. In raising the issue however, Rojek leaves the area of theme parks rather detached from his original theme of fatality, relying more on the analytical themes of velocity and the compression of time and space in their attraction. Whilst fast movement of the body, and the eclectic fantasies of rides that condense world history into dream-like attractions are of interest, what is missing is an appraisal of the theme park as an attraction that presents a similar ghoulish fascination with death and violence as is found in black spots and some heritage sights. Moreover, the emotional aspect of such attractions remains largely untouched. Hence, in consideration of issues raised so far, this chapter aims to bring together the social, sensory and emotional dimensions that converge in Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, Blackpool Pleasure Beach 
The opening statements of this chapter highlight the paradoxes that emerge from this phenomenon; between an apparent desire for fearful excitement, the willingness for commercial sights to provide for it, and the real and imagined dangers that are produced. Examination of these paradoxes might illuminate the relationship between the provision and consumption of this kind of experience, and therefore the role of such sites in society. It is suggested here, emotionality is central to this, and the theme of fatality is both explicit and implicit in its evocation.
A significant expression of the interest in fear and fatality is that
presented by the prevalence
of ‘white knuckle’ rides which, Rojek shows, have been popular in
Britain since the nineteenth century (Rojek 1993).
Since the last quarter of that century, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
itself has incorporated many such attractions, guided by William
Bean’s principle of ‘making adults feel like children again’
(Bennett 1996 :55). What
history shows most vividly is the continuity of interest in sensory and
emotional stimulation, as demonstrated by comparisons between the
postcards promoting the ‘Virginia Reel’ and ‘The Whip’, from
1922 and 1914 respectively, (figures 1 and 2, overleaf) with the current
flyer for the ‘Pasaje del Terror’ (figure 3, see page 42).
The postcards comically portray fear induced by velocity
(expressed in exaggerated facial expression), and the bodily pleasures
of a ‘whipping’ motion. By
the end of the twentieth century, the promotion of fear itself as a
reason for taking part has become explicit.
In fact, the Pasaje del Terror uses actors to ‘make you live
through a nightmare’, as its promotional flyer illustrates, with
‘shaking energy’ they
‘…appear out of nowhere [to] leave you breathless
and trembling until you find the exit.
To reach the end or not to reach the end that is the question…
“we dare you”’
What seems to have changed over the course of a century, is not the actual enjoyment of emotion itself, but the level and type of stimulation that is required to elicit it and the tone of the subsequent promotional materials. In a society largely motivated by consumption and its perceived benefits, it seems evident that a process of desensitisation has occurred, resulting in an intensifying desire for the horrific and emotive. At least two components of this change can be postulated. Firstly, the over-availability of these themes through contemporary ‘tele-visual culture’ (Rojek 1997:70). Not only might this progressively increase our tolerance of horror and extreme emotional and sensory stimulation, attractions themselves need to become ever more extreme to attract visitors. Secondly, the intervening century has borne witness to some of the most brutal acts that humankind has ever inflicted upon itself, in two world wars and countless other conflicts, which have themselves been the object of tele-visual culture. The dropping of two atomic bombs for instance, frequently revisited through the media, has had “massive consequences [for] the collective consciousness of all subsequent generations worldwide” (Lennon and Foley
1: ‘Virginia Reel’ promotional postcard (1922)
from Bennett (1996:24)
2000: 102). When considered alongside the apparent ongoing socially induced restraint on emotional behaviour, the current macabre emotional landscape of much of contemporary tourism is hardly surprising.
Although not all-encompassing, the discourse of fear and violent death permeates much of the Pleasure Beach, and is exemplified by one of its major attractions, ‘Valhalla’, an indoor ‘dark ride’ themed on the triumphant death and afterlife of Viking warriors (figure 6, overleaf). Placards outside the building carry the evocative marker:
‘Valhalla was the hall of the Norse god Odin. According to Viking myth it had to be enormous to hold all the dead warriors who entered it…’
In an attempt to create an absorbing narrative and suspend the disbelief of the rider, the markers go on to elaborate on the brutality and violence inflicted by the Vikings, augmented by the fact that ‘a mere twenty miles away’ a massive hoard of Viking gold was once discovered. The horrors of history are therefore neither fictitious nor distant. Once enrolled as deceased Vikings and protected by their transparent disposable waterproof armour, the riders are literally exposed to the fire, storms and darkness suggested by the myth, before arriving back to reality in the final part of the journey, the Valhalla gift shop, where the ‘adventurers’ may purchase bloodied swords, Viking helmets, skulls and personalised certificates of achievement. In its theme then, Valhalla commodifies the basic elements of an ancient culture, but binds it to the lowest common denominator of all people, that of an intrinsic concern with mortality.
these themes are attempts to raise anticipation by linking the ensuing
experience of the attraction to its potential physical and emotional
effect. The Pasaje del
Terror makes use of a large screen playing footage of apparently
genuinely terrified visitors, one of whom exclaims ‘you
have to be a certified lunatic to go in there’.
Valhalla subtly adds to its narrative by displaying ‘rules for
riders’, in the form of a disclaimer that warns those with physical
limitations or nervous disorders not to ride.
Hence, the very act of discouragement simultaneously draws
attention to the undertones of fatality and danger, whilst acting as a
challenging ploy that plays on the avoidance of potentially shameful
refusal to take part.
The explicit use of this kind of discourse is noticeably associated with rides and attractions that are largely concealed from direct vision, hence they are vital distancing devices that compensate for the lack of tension-building anticipation that can be generated through the act of actually seeing the experience to come. Conversely, the language surrounding major open-air rides often refers to the kind of bodily or emotional experience to come, the benefits that can be gained, or are presented as analogous to some other dangerous or stimulating event, for example the ‘Revolution’, ‘Avalanche’, or the Big One that suggests riders ‘live life to the max’ (Southport’s ‘Traumatiser’ is perhaps the best example). However, it is the act of being able to see, hear and feel these attractions that most effectively reduces the emotional and physical distance from perceived danger. The noise of the ride, its proximity, the sounds of other riders and their sheer scale presenting a tangible connection to the prospective experience.
Vision, fear and emotional distancing
The application of velocity to the body, as Rojek (1993) observes, and the combination of sensory stimulation, storytelling and imagination described by Naversen (2001) are evidently successful, in many cases, of eliciting or drawing out very real emotional responses. Moreover, when visitors are questioned, it is invariably a general ‘feeling’ that describes the experience of an attraction, rather than any specific aspect of it:
‘That was very, very scary. You should have seen the state of me’
‘I enjoyed it and I’m glad I went in but I never
ever knew how frightened someone could be’
Hence, it seems that individuals are initially more conscious of a general and pervasive feeling of fear rather than any specific element of the attraction itself. It is often only through further probing that specific fears emerge, such as the capacity for mechanical failure of a ride, of its height and speed and the potential for injury that this offers. Alongside this is the commonly expressed fear of the unexpected; the tension caused by the inability to predict and prepare for an unknown outcome of an imminent event, either by accident or that incorporated into the design of the attraction. As one visitor commented, ‘the best bit was the surprise…something you’re not expecting’.
techniques used to invoke emotional responses involve balancing the
concealment of what is to come, against providing enough information (as
a foretaste) to arouse an affective response, creating optimal distance
by balancing feeling and cognition (as alluded to by Scheff (1977), and
Duncker (1941), and discussed in chapter one).
As has been seen the discourse of fear and fatality often
initiate such distancing. Concealed
attractions in particular have the benefit of a controlled and contained
environment, allowing almost total sensory manipulation with the control
of sight being most significant. Simply by removing light, the tourist
is made vulnerable to the unexpected, and responses to other senses are
heightened through sound and motion effects.
Moreover, darkness itself links with a common childhood fear, one
that immediately inflicts solitude and a sense of foreboding and
insecurity. Both Valhalla and the Pasaje del Terror play on such
vulnerabilities, either by elemental effects of fire, water and
temperature change, or through the use of concealed actors to invoke
fear, as these comments indicate:
The techniques used to invoke emotional responses involve balancing the concealment of what is to come, against providing enough information (as a foretaste) to arouse an affective response, creating optimal distance by balancing feeling and cognition (as alluded to by Scheff (1977), and Duncker (1941), and discussed in chapter one). As has been seen the discourse of fear and fatality often initiate such distancing. Concealed attractions in particular have the benefit of a controlled and contained environment, allowing almost total sensory manipulation with the control of sight being most significant. Simply by removing light, the tourist is made vulnerable to the unexpected, and responses to other senses are heightened through sound and motion effects. Moreover, darkness itself links with a common childhood fear, one that immediately inflicts solitude and a sense of foreboding and insecurity. Both Valhalla and the Pasaje del Terror play on such vulnerabilities, either by elemental effects of fire, water and temperature change, or through the use of concealed actors to invoke fear, as these comments indicate:
Female one: …it’s
quite frightening, you don’t know what to expect
Female one: all the way through there’s these real
Female two: …but
they’re dressed in blood and cloaks. And they’re
coming at you! …and they’re trying to grab you
and you’ve just got to get away.
Its really freezing as well
Female one: …even though you know its not real, in
my mind I’m saying to myself ‘come on, don’t be stupid, they
can’t do anything to you!’ But
at the same time someone touches you and you go ‘oh my God!’
You’re really worried!
regards the Pasaje del Terror]
Thus, the removal of light also reduces the capacity for rational response, despite attempts to regain it. In concealing the backstage, the apparent ‘reality’ of the situation is enhanced. Additionally, darkness induces the use of the ‘sixth sense’ of imagination to provoke an emotional response, its success relying on the attraction’s ability to “to play upon peoples’ pre-conceived notions, their likes, their dislikes, their good memories and phobias” (Naversen 2001; on line). The suspension of disbelief is evidently an element of the effectiveness of the experience, but this suspension is balanced against a reflexivity that controls the degree of emotional response, as demonstrated by the self chastisement of ‘come on, don’t be stupid’, and the realisation of the constructed nature of the attraction in noticing how ‘clever’ it is, as one respondent observed. This is not to say that the visual impact of outdoor rides is any less effective in eliciting fear or trepidation, only that they must actively play on this visibility to produce an equally emotional response. Hence, the simple act of being able to see what is to come is intrinsic to the attraction’s effectiveness, especially through the utilisation of scale, height and velocity.
Visibility of the ride and riders also plays an important part in the vicarious enjoyment of emotional experience, offering the essentially social opportunity to share in or enhance the ride. A brief interchange between a watching family group and a rider on the ‘Ice Blast’ demonstrates the point. Waiting to be launched sixty-odd metres into the air, the rider engages the family with her proclamation that she ‘can’t do this’. The observing group enthusiastically shout instructions on how to optimise the experience, such as ‘relax’, ‘hold on’ and ‘you can do it!’, before summarising her predicament quietly to themselves: ‘poor girl!’. Further examples include the grandmother attempting to find the best position from which to view the child’s ride, ‘so I can see his face’, and the displays of almost concerned encouragement from waiting acquaintances at the base of the Big One. It is the visibility of the attractions, in these cases, that allows onlookers to engage in a playful act of ‘schadenfreude’ where the personal connection to the rider offers a shared experience not available with ‘dark rides’.
Whilst direct contact through vision allows a vicarious experience for onlookers, the perception of the visual is even more important for the riders, especially when combined with other sensory input. The acknowledgement of the ensuing experience through its proximity, the uncertainty induced by the seeing of the track ahead, and the screams of other riders acting as a marker for the experience itself. The queuing system has the potential to intensify some of these effects, building tension and anxiety, allowing the rider to observe himself or herself move ever closer to the moment of actually taking part. As one visitor remarked, ‘the worst bit was at the beginning…getting in the car when you know you can’t go back!’. Queuing offers the potential to not only see the experience to come, but hear and feel it at close hand. As another [Chinese] respondent describes, whilst waiting to ride the Big One:
It was quite scareful watching it [overhead].
It goes up very slowly, I was quite scared, he had to calm me
Once on the ride however, for many the emotional subsumes the sensory as the trauma of the here and now encourages ‘feeling’ to eclipse ‘thinking’. Hence, the playful ruse of the attendants ‘checking for cracks in case you fall out’ understandably raised fear and trepidation amongst one group of respondents. Perhaps the most effective and stimulating aspect of the whole Pleasure Beach is that offered by the actual ascent of the Big One, rising to 235 feet, taking up forty-five seconds of a 140 second ride. It is here that the kind of tension produced by musical cueing in films is built (see Scheff 1989:137), and as such explains why for many, this is the climax of their visit. It also explains the common use of emotive language in accounts of the event;
[quote reproduced verbatim]
For some, the terror that this ascent has the potential to induce is only surpassed by the effect of the remaining ninety seconds. Although by no means representative, a section of my own introspective account illustrates the point:
[See appendix one for full account]
As this account goes on to elaborate, apart from very real fear, the ride invoked feelings of embarrassment emanating from a conscious comparison of my own response to that of the relaxed and jovial demeanor of the young women seated behind. The fear and embarrassment produced, in this case at least, seemed to emanate from a sense of relinquished control, responsibility for my immediate destiny, and my very existence given over to faceless structural engineers, and the conscious recognition of not exhibiting the ‘manly’ characteristics that society expects. In one way then, the attraction had achieved its aim of making an adult ‘feel like a child again’, the resulting fears being based on an incomplete understanding of the immediate environment, and a subsequent irrational (or hyper-rational) response. In the terminology of Elias and Dunning, this perverse leisure activity had elicited a ‘temperate de-control’ of emotions, allowing a degree of ‘socially permitted regression’ to child like irrationality (1986:115-116). Moreover, it had torn me away from the socialised gender role, which for Goffman at least, is the deepest sense of ‘what one is’, “the most basic characterisation of the individual” (1977:222). It is vital to realise then, that the personal, social and situational conspire to produce an individually significant moment, one that might only really reveal its minutiae through conscious reflection.
Self-image, status and emotional performance
Major rides do, however, provide the facility to reflect on the previous experience through the ritual of attending the post-ride photo point. The bank of screens displays snapshots of all riders taken at the same point in the ride, when the expression of emotion is perhaps expected to be most intense. Often, the photographs themselves reveal attempts at distancing the self from the emotional trauma ahead; closing the eyes or covering the face thereby removing the visual element of the stimulus and its concomitant psychological impact. Locating their image becomes a brief object of collective fun and shame as the riders come face to face with a public, and often surprising, visual expression of the emotion evoked by the ride, as these overheard remarks portray:
‘Just look at my face!’
‘…I was screaming my head off!’
‘I look like an animal’
Viewing or even purchasing the photograph might therefore prompt reconsideration of the cause of the captured expression, as well as invoking an element of embarrassment. However, this kind of photography has become so common that experienced riders have learned to exploit it as a method of role distancing, to draw on Goffman’s (1961) terminology (see chapter one). Whilst my own image from a previous ride (figure 7, overleaf), and that of many others, displays an instinctive, fearful reaction, for some it is the opportunity resist expectations by nonchalantly and overtly distancing themselves from the event. Waving to the camera, defiant one-finger salutes, a pensive pose with the head supported by the hand or even a faked ‘head back and sleeping’ posture were observed in a short space of time. Such behaviour can be considered as a performance, aimed at playing down the effect of the ride that might otherwise project an image that conflicts with ones generally accepted or desired role.
Figure 7: Automated photograph taken on the ‘Big One’, Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
With regard to the Big One in particular, its alleged superlative status as the ‘tallest and fastest’ may actually offer the riders the opportunity to enhance their ‘image’. In offering the greatest challenge it also implies a responsibility to ride it, which in turn can bestow status upon those that are willing to gamble with their character. One group of visitors claimed to have come just for the Big One because of its reputation as ‘the biggest in Europe’. Likewise, another group remarked on its synonymy with the town: ‘you come to Blackpool, you have to go on’. A third group of two females expressed feelings of pride and accomplishment when questioned about their post-ride feelings. When asked how they felt, the response was expressed in a charming vernacular:
‘ard. Yeh, because you
think you’re hard. Its
really good though!’
Moreover, interviews also revealed a strong male tendency to dismiss elements of the ride as ‘nothing’ of consequence. Whilst invariably opposed to that of female companions, such assertions were usually contradicted within the same interview, indicating a concern with self-image and status in relation to fear. This itself seems to justify the primacy that Scheff (1990) gives to pride and shame as intrinsic mediating elements in maintaining ‘social bonds’ and regulating behaviour.
Additionally, It is often the actual presence of others that “serves to keep at least part of the individuals attention in the present, focussed on the others” (Scheff 1979:136), which can result in what Scheff calls ‘emotional contagion’, itself a common distancing device that can be observed in many forms of mass entertainment. The effect of others can therefore be one of enhancing the emotional experience through the sharing of a particular moment, whilst also providing a connection with the ‘reality’ of a situation, helping to ensure the evocation of positive emotion through the observation and participation in their own distress. The visitors interviewed at the Pleasure Beach give some indication towards this, with remarks including ‘I wouldn’t go on on my own’ or ‘if I came by myself I wouldn’t do it, but having someone beside you it is better’. Similarly, questioned about his reaction to ‘Valhalla’, one visitor commented ‘I did scream. Not because I was scared but because everyone else is screaming’. Hence, the generation of ‘collective effervescence’ (see Elias and Dunning 1986: 3, 222; Lupton 1998:18) might also be seen as an outcome of emotionally charged attractions, in part explaining their existence and popularity, in a Durkheimian framework, as a generator of temporary social solidarity.
Fear and bodily pleasures
The analysis so far has not addressed the more hedonistic function provided by thrill rides (or more accurately, the hedonistic function that is taken from them); that of the pleasurable feeling associated with bodily stimulation, often being associated with fear. Whilst the desire to be frightened is expressed in all interviews, the significance of bodily sensations linked with the pleasure of having overcome fear is equally prominent, as these responses indicate:
‘It’s the adrenaline rush when you’ve done it,
you come off it and you’re like “yeh, I did it, you know?’
‘It’s a thrill isn’t it, yes.
It’s the adrenaline, it gives you a rush’.
‘Its when you get to the top…that gets your heart
‘It gives you a natural high doesn’t it’
‘Its really weird.
You have this big smile and think “oh my God!”…After you
get up [to the top] there’s just like a few seconds…it’s really
quiet, you can see for miles, its really relaxing’
‘You’re kind of floating at the top, its
Hence, through the reflexive consciousness of the sensory stimulation, visitors often accept the initial fear as a precursor of bodily relief to come, the emotion providing the hedonistic pleasure of anticipation, which is eventually followed by the hormistic pleasure of relief, success and achievement. The significance of this relief is also transposed onto a wider, social scale, as a relief from everyday tensions and monotony. One respondent observed, ‘its just something you need every now and then instead of sitting behind a desk all day’, whereas for her partner, the motivation was ‘simply because it is there’. Whether this reflects an actual variance in needs and motivations, or varying levels of introspective reflexivity between genders or social roles is open to question. Evidently though, exposure to this kind of ‘action place’ does reveal differences in its meaning, its function and its consequences for individuals, differences that underline Goffman’s assertions that “there is some ambivalence about safe and momentless living”, and that the performance of roles and perception of character is an important part of this ambivalence. (1967:260). Thus, the state of being afraid, its bodily sensation and subsequent effects of relaxation, status building, pride and social bonding seems to perform a socio-psychological role for some people, either consciously or subconsciously.
In reflecting on the social significance of a sight like Blackpool Pleasure Beach then, the notion of ‘escape’ is of some use. A tourist space of this genre does in some way provide a distraction from the everyday by providing a contrasting emotional experience, often based on the manipulation of the sensory (particularly through the control of vision), resulting in anticipation, excitement and pleasant physical outcomes. The central paradox is perhaps that it achieves this largely by encouraging the explicit or subliminal consideration of a human being’s deepest fear, that of death and serious bodily harm. Nonetheless, the ultimate triumph through confronting these fears in a playful, mimetic touristic setting such as Blackpool Pleasure Beach might indeed provide some escape, not just from everyday monotony, but from an underlying human concern with one’s own mortality. Ultimately though, in confronting such fears, putting body and character at apparent risk, there is pleasure to be gained, in the embodied enjoyment of physiological responses, and its subsequent satisfaction.
The discourse of fatality, (as in ‘black spots’) that surround the rides and attractions have the capacity to provoke intense emotions that bring people closer to the core of their existences. Interestingly, the relationship between this discourse and the tourist experience is perhaps not far removed from that between the early visitor to the Lake District and their book of poetry; the former attempts to build fear, whilst the latter played an important part in reducing it. What this reveals is an enduring desire confront fear in ever more elaborate ways. Hence, what the Pleasure Beach provides for one tourist, a safari or climbing holiday in Tibet might provide for another.
What is perhaps most interesting is the way that fear, fatality and bodily pleasure ‘for its own sake’ have been established as part of the leisure and tourism experience, where the currency has become that of emotion. The provision of affective attractions in itself, however, does not provide fear and the like. Emotions cannot exist outside the person, but are socially, experientially or psychological responses to the environment, and media that induce them. In that sense, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is merely a response to its human environment, a mechanism to address the needs and desires of people. What is really being consumed then, is not the attraction itself, but its ability to mobilise the emotional part of the Self, a Self that brings individual and collective circumstances to bear on the outcome of the experience, even if the attraction’s best attempts may sometimes fall on hard ground.
 This field research was
carried out between the 13th and 15th of July
2001, in the course of which six interviews were carried out.
Each interview was carried out on an informal basis, in
keeping with the setting and context, hence no personal data was
actively sought. Nonetheless,
interviewees were selected to represent as wide a range of social
groups as was practical, as the interview transcripts demonstrate
(see appendix 1)