Magazine article The Spectator

How My Ride to Oblivion Made a God of Me

Magazine article The Spectator

How My Ride to Oblivion Made a God of Me

Article excerpt

Why do we enjoy fear? Last Saturday and for the first time in my life, I went to Alton Towers. My 16-year-old niece at boarding school had come to stay for the weekend in Derbyshire and we thought an expedition to the nearby amusement park might be fun. The truth is I had always wanted to go but had been embarrassed to set out alone and hesitant about inviting grown-up friends. Now I had an excuse.

You know when you're approaching Alton Towers because of the screaming. From miles away terrified shrieks pierce the air and mingle with the clatter and roar of machinery. As we walked from the vast car parks to the monorail the screams grew closer, my eyes widened and my pulse quickened: just behind a big clump of trees, something was scaring scores of people out of their wits. From the monorail we saw it. 'Nemesis' was flinging ski-lift-loads of pleasure-seekers through its cartwheels, corkscrews, terrifying descents and heart-stopping rushes into the air.

The Nemesis queue was nearly an hour long, so we decided to limber up on the log flume first. Borne on the current down an extended trough in a sort of canoe, you are winched up ramps, shot down chutes, hurled around bends, and splashed. Hooray - we're in danger of drowning! Oh, no -- we've got wet! It is enormous fun.

Then there was the runaway mine-train, a kind of themed roller-coaster upon which the little train you join appears to career out of control. Yipes - we're going to hit that wall. Wow - we're nearly off the rails. In the queue, people - at least half of us adults - groaned in anticipation as we heard the yells of those lucky enough to be being scared already.

One thought of Paddington: the heart-- rending scenes on television, millions of viewers flinching at the very thought, national sympathy for the bereaved as genuine as any public grief can be. Yet here, now, thousands were paying 20 a head for the thrill of frightening themselves with simulations of the real horrors at which we wince when we see the News. Why the fascination?

Truth to tell, I loved the runaway mine-- train but it wasn't quite as frightening as I had hoped. So we tried the Ripsaw. When my niece saw it she turned back, afraid it would make her sick. I hoped it would make me sick. We listened to the cries of distress with mounting excitement as we queued - and watched. In a giant bucket, about 40 people are pinned into their seats by safety-arms and belts. The bucket is slowly raised into the air, then spun round three times on its axis while you are held in place by centrifugal force. Then the bucket is lowered towards a great pond, and turns upside-down, suspending you head-over-- heels, staring down at the water. Everyone is screaming. Geysers of water spout up from the pool, splashing everyone's heads. You scream some more. At last you are spun upright again, lowered to earth, and let go. All stagger, comparing experiences of their fear, towards the booth where you can buy photographs of yourself looking petrified.

When I was a child, I had a favourite book about Pookie, the flying rabbit. There was a grotesque picture of Pookie confronting the Giant Winter from the pinnacle of an iceberg at the North Pole. Winter's nose and fingers were huge icicles. I kept the book open at this page, under my pillow, when I stayed with Nana in Oxford. In the night I would hear the steam trains, think hard about skeletons driving the locomotives until I was really frightened, then pull out the book, switch on the light, and look at the Giant Winter until I couldn't bear to look any more, and put it back under the pillow. …

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