Roller Coasters: When Science Takes You for a Ride

The roller coasters of the 1940s would seem tame to the seasoned thrill-ride passenger of today. But to the authors who wrote the 1945 Post article “Ride ‘Em And Weep,” [PDF] they were marvels of modern science. Engineers had devised rides that would spin, shake, bounce, and drop cars filled with screaming passengers, only to deliver them safely back to earth. They could explain the ‘How,’ but who could explain the ‘Why’? Why did people pay for the privilege of being terrified? Perplexed, the authors consulted a psychiatrist:

The human animal is a perverse creature. Dr. Louis Berg, a psychiatrist who has studied this aspect of personality, points out that we seek not only security but also insecurity.

“From childhood on,” Doctor Berg says, “the human being likes to flirt with danger. Every child likes to be thrown into the air. It will scream in terror, and yet ask you to throw it up again. The child likes to skirt the edge of danger. It is a kind of secure insecurity. And an amusement park ride must always be dangerous and yet safe. This tendency goes so deep that I would call it a “prepotent reflex,” an instinct to seek mild suffering. More people are masochistic than sadistic, really.

“For the adult to go on a roller coaster is for him to experience a pattern of emotions which brings him back to the ‘secure insecurity’ of childhood, and this is one of the sources of the perverse pleasure attached to riding on a roller coaster.”

The greater the perceived risk, then, the greater the pleasure (if you enjoy that sort of thing).

This question of the danger of rides baffles most of the men in the industry. Some of them say that an accident actually booms business. Now and then, a drunk or a youthful bravo stands up in the car as the coaster takes the dip, and is flung out to his death. In some parks, there will be a long line of customers at the ticket office the next day. In other places, business will drop off for weeks afterward until the accident is forgotten.

Amusement parks knew how extremely safe their rides were, but they could never reveal this to customers. Rather, they engineered the ride to increase the perception of danger.

What seems to make the roller coaster the most zestfully dangerous of all rides is that it involves a speedy rising and falling motion, and also that the car is, so to speak, not under any control, but is proceeding by gravitational pull.

The nauseating experience of pleasant agony is the combination of drops and turns, of banks and dips, the contrasts between slow and fast, and the general illusion of danger which the designer creates.

“I been building these twisters about forty, forty-one years, I guess,” [Jim] McKee said. McKee, now the chief engineer in charge of torment, mayhem and hysteria at Palisades Amusement Park, in New Jersey, studied engineering at Carnegie Tech.

“The main idea of the thing,” he explained, his blue eyes twinkling genially, “is you got to scare the people mentally because actually there is nothing to be afraid of in the ride. The whole thing is in the mind. You take the roller coaster. The average twister don’t do no more than thirty, forty miles an hour. Our Bobsled ride, here at Palisades, she’s fast — she does about sixty an hour, just about the fastest coaster in the business. Our Skyrocket does about fifty. Well, sir, you know the average person will think nothing of doing seventy, eighty in a car.

“Or take, on the other hand, a pilot on a pursuit plane that does three hundred miles an hour. He will take a ride on the Skyrocket and she’ll scare the pants off him. It’s all in the illusion. It’s in the mind of the rider. A feller in a plane; he’s up in the sky all by himself, riding with the clouds, and it don’t seem so terrible fast. But we put him in a roller coaster, and we get the cars jangling and screeching, and those wooden posts go by like crazy, and of course the wind is slapping him in the face, and, by gosh, he thinks he is going like a bat out of hell. It’s all in the mind, mister,” concluded McKee.

Engineering has improved greatly since 1945, though. Today, there’s less need for illusion because passengers are moving faster, going farther, riding higher and falling quicker than ever before. The fastest roller coaster moves at more than 125 miles per hour; you don’t need to appeal to riders’ imagined fears when you move that fast. You can find roller coasters that rise 456 feet in the air, or travel over 8,000 feet. And the most challenging rides don’t simply descend at forty-five or sixty degrees, but at 90 degrees. Straight down.

I just understand the appeal. I think there’s something wrong with my “prepotent reflex.”

Read “Ride ‘Em And Weep,” [PDF].