Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Do We Want To Be Scared?

It’s going to be a short blog today, mostly because I’m incredibly tired, so I just want to write a little about a two-part question that has come up a lot in the past few days between me and my friends. It relates to two quite different elements of our lives, but they are linked by this same question; Why do we do this to ourselves? And why do we enjoy it?

The two experiences those questions have sprang from are theme parks and horror movies. I spent the past two days at Alton Towers, incidentally my first time at any major theme park and it was a great experience. I loved the thrills but I found myself, often just prior to a ride beginning, asking the first part of that question over and over again.

Being strapped into a machine with limited protection and then fired at high speeds around bends and upside down shouldn’t be fun, it should almost pass for a form of torture. The enjoyment stems from the adrenaline to a large extent, I understand that, but to experience that surge of adrenaline we have to first be in a situation which triggers our fight or flight instinct; we rely on the sensation of their being real danger on offer yet have paid for the opportunity to be there and voluntarily become locked into the seats. There is no one to fight and no way to flee.

Now I’m aware that the rides at Alton Towers are fastidiously tested and incredibly safe, but the whole premise relies on making you feel as unsafe as possible while remaining safe, implying we want to feel unsafe, comforted on an almost subconscious level by the knowledge that it should be a very controlled danger.

The rides that are entertaining, the ones which make people willing to queue for up to an hour, are the ones that make you forget for the duration of the ride that you are safe, the ones which erase the knowledge that you’re actually statistically incredibly safe and fill you with nerves from the moment you take a place in the queue until the carriage slows to a stop again at the end.

Take Rita where according to the park’s website you are accelerated from 0-60m/ph in just 2.2 seconds with what feels like a bare minimum of protection around you, or Oblivion where you are presented with a 150ft, almost sheer vertical drop. These are rides which are designed around creating the highest degree of terror in the paying customers and it is one of the more bizarre human traits that we as a culture have made it clear that we don’t feel we’ve had quite enough terror yet and the park which creates the next “most intense ride ever” will enjoy lots of the public’s money.

Horror films are a little different as there is no real physical danger involved beyond choking on a piece of popcorn, but we watch them desiring a lot of the same physical and emotional responses. We want to feel scared and we want the escapism and immersive beauty of film to allow us to forget that we’re in the safety and comfort of a cinema and see us experience real terror.

It may not be the same in terms of physical danger but we watch them for a similar reason to the desires that cause us to climb aboard a roller coaster; we want to experience dangerous thrills in the safest possible way.

It’s that almost contradictory combination of desires that is so fascinating, we want to feel simultaneously scared and safe, we want to fear for our lives comfortable in the knowledge that an awful lot of peoples employment rests on making sure our lives are incredibly secure and we want to buy into the idea of the danger without the reality of it getting particularly close.

If anyone who reads this understands the scientific side to the reason we seek out thrills and fear I genuinely would love to try and understand it; I assume there are endorphin-esque chemicals released into our system as the adrenaline subsides and we become aware that we’re safe again, but I know that my understanding of the complex bio-chemistry of the brain is staggeringly limited.

The question I described at the start is one that really interests me; I’m aware of the almost masochistic quality involved in actively pursuing the physical and emotional impact that they, for lack of a less dramatic word, inflict upon us, yet I watch an awful lot of horror films and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to a theme park where I was repeatedly thrown around at high speed in just a chest harness.

To extend the previous request, anyone who has an opinion on this should leave a comment on here or on facebook, because as I say I am genuinely intrigued and would love to hear some other perspectives on what it is that drives us to actively pursue feeling scared.

Today's song is one i've heard repeatedly over the past two days but remains an incredible tune.

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