Episode 24: People Scream at Carnivals


“Six Flags Announces Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2021 Performance.” – Six Flags, https://investors.sixflags.com/news-and-events/press-releases/2022/02-24-2022-110026329#:~:text=ARLINGTON%2C%20Texas%20%2D%2D(BUSINESS%20WIRE,million%20for%20fourth%20quarter%202021.

Music Credits

The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.

The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.

Other music for this episode: “Nightmare on Main St.” by Sunshine Music. licensed through Shutterstock

Full Script

“Would you go to an amusement park where someone died each year?”

This is essentially the question asked by comedian Gareth Reynolds on the popular podcast, The Dollop, while listening his friend and fellow comic Dave Anthony tell him the story of Action Park. The notorious New Jersey waterpark at one point was responsible for the deaths of six park attendees over seven years. Not quite one death per year, but inarguably six-too-many deaths for seven years, or even seventeen years. Dare I say seventy years.

And we’re not speaking of situations where someone could have died anywhere and just happened to be at the park. Someone was due for a heart attack or suffered an aneurysm, something along those lines. These were incidents where someone very, very likely survives if they had never come to Action Park.

One thing Action Park officials tried to point out in their defense at the time was that its mortality rate was comparatively low. And in terms of strict numbers, their defense is…let’s say “not inaccurate,” and could be applied for any park over just about any time period. One death per one-hundred-thousand visitors would make a park considerably safer than the drive to the park, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (https://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx), which reported that in 2019  the vehicle mortality rates in the United States were approximately eleven deaths per 100,000 people, and 15 deaths per 100,00 registered drivers. And bear in mind Action Park–like any other popular amusement park–received far more than 100,000 visitors annually, so its mortality rate was much better than the baseline I just used of 1 per 100,000.

To dive a little deeper into this, in 2021 Six Flags parks nationwide recorded 28-million total visitors, which was actually down 5 million from the number of guests they received pre-pandemic, so let’s go ahead and round that figure up to thirty-million. With that number in mind, if one guest died annually at any Six-Flags theme park in the country–not one at each park, but just one at all of them combined–that would give you a point-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-three-percent chance of dying while amusing yourself at the Six Flags of your choosing. Monumentally miniscule odds of meeting your fate due to some roller coaster mishap or what have you. And yet…

If one person per year–one out of thirty-million–died in an accident at Six Flags, for three or four consecutive years, wouldn’t people start saying something is wrong with these parks? Would they ask why does this keep happening?

To put a finer point on it, going back to our arbitrary 1-in-100,000 baseline that’s eleven times better than traffic mortality rates, if that applied to the thirty-million annual Six Flags visitors, it would come out to 300 deaths in a park-caused accident per year. They’d probably have to shut down the parks, at least temporarily.

This connects to the original question: “Would you go to an amusement park where someone died each year?” For many people that answer would be a firm, “No.” And, to be fair to amusement parks, the same would apply to other things we hold to a near-impeccable safety standard. The FAA states that it handles about 1.3-million flights per month, and if there was a major, fatal plane crash in the United States for four months in a row, most of us wouldn’t be saying, “Well it’s still less than one-in-a-million,” we’d be asking what the hell is going on with airline industry? A number us would stop flying.

Back to the theme parks, per an article in Grunge, there may have been up to 51 deaths of park employees and guests in the half-century history of Disney World in Orlando as of 2018. At that time that would have averaged out to a little more than one death per year. However–and not to sound callous on the subject of someone losing their life–there are critical caveats. The article says that these deaths are the result of “incidents including workplace industrial accidents, failure of guests abiding by safety guidelines, underlying medical conditions contributing to deaths, a gruesome alligator attack that killed a young boy, and everything in between.” The way that sentence is written you’d think that a significant majority of the deaths were the result of some horrific park negligence, but that nebulous “everything in between” looms rather large. Grunge’s source for its statistics is a Quora.com discussion where one person points out early on that many of the deaths were a result of heart attacks or primarily influenced by underlying conditions, and zero were due to ride malfunctions.

This is a far cry from the deaths that occurred at a place like Action Park, where one man was electrocuted by an exposed underwater wire, another was killed when the ride he was on jumped the track, another suffered a heart attack when he landed in a body of water that may have been as cold as 50-degrees Farenheit, cold enough to induce fatal shock, per weather.gov (https://www.weather.gov/safety/coldwater#:~:text=Cold%20Water%20Immersion%20can%20trigger,water%20and%20cannot%20stay%20afloat.&text=Cold%20water%20can%20cause%20a,heart%20rate%20and%20blood%20pressure.), and there were three others who drowned in a wave pool so treacherous park employees nicknamed it the “grave pool.” Now I’m hardly  a Disney shill–“That’s exactly what a Disney shill would say!” at least one person is probably thinking–but I’ve never been to any Disney theme park and overall I’m at least wary of their impact on the movie industry, and their role in causing the dearth of moderately budgeted movies for adults that we’re facing, but based on the same source used by Grunge I’d say the majority of deaths at their parks were unfortunate coincidences. When you have a small-town’s worth of people on site, many of them older and dealing with prior health issues, it’s not too out of the ordinary if one or two people happen to be scheduled to die while they’re visiting you.

There’s a difference between a place where by and large someone might happen to die, and a place that can routinely prove the cause of someone’s death. Again, in the latter situation, many of us would opt out of going there.

Yet we don’t stay off the roads despite them being far, far more dangerous than any theme park. Roads, however, are also far less as optional and, for most of us, certainly not recreational, at least entirely. To get your license you have to take a class that in some way emphasizes safety. We have safety-related signs lined up frequently alongside the road and various penalties associated with breaking the rules of the road, ranging from fines to possible imprisonment. We want roads to be safer because they must be traveled, they have a purpose, yet deep within us we accept that driving is inherently a little dangerous. We understandably don’t accept that about amusement parks…despite a primary purpose of many amusement parks, state fairs, traveling carnivals, and their featured attractions being that they allow us to court danger–or other things we may fear–in some way.

High speeds and high altitudes. Fast and frequent falls, dizzying twists and spins, to say nothing of frightful funhouses. Not everyone goes to a theme park, fair or carnival for the thrill rides–some enjoy the food, the games, the displays and exhibitions, or performances, although even some of these let you witness scenes of peril. Especially some of the older carny attractions that are much rarer today–knife throwing, fire-eating and the like. Watching such things might not generate the same physical exhilaration as the rides that employ velocity and gravity to launch and drop you, or those that do this while attacking your equilibrium, but a death-defying performance can still summon a gasp from the audience. Sometimes more. Taking all of these things into consideration, it’s no wonder that no stock audio of a carnival is complete without people screaming.

Traveling or temporary town carnivals in particular have been sources of fear, and inspiration for frightening stories, for almost as long as they have existed. When not acting as the director of a psychiatric hospital, Dr. Caligari, namesake of one of the earliest horror films, moonlights at a local fair, showcasing a somnambulist to locals. The 1946 novel Nightmare Alley explores the inner-workings and shady side of carnival life. In 1962, the cult classic Carnival of Souls was released, a film that, it’s later revealed, could have been set anywhere, but specifically chose a carnival. In more recent times, the unfinished HBO series Carnivale and the American Horror Story season titled Freak Show dove headlong into natural and supernatural horrors suffered and created by those colloquially known as carnies.

As attracted as people have always been to the traveling carnival spectacle, they’ve also been suspicious of the people–carnies–who bring the festivities to their town. They’re easy to blame for criminal activity that takes place while they’re in town, whether they’re the likely culprits or not, precisely because they’re nomads and outsiders. Back in Season 1 of the podcast I talked both about the fear of being the outsider and the fear of outsiders, and both can apply to the people who bring the fair to your neck of the woods. Certain attractions and games at traveling carnivals are designed with a certain amount of deception in mind. From palm readers and psychics to ring toss games, even some of the somewhat harmless escapism at a carnival still, in some way, is profitable primarily because of what could be considered cheating and/or lying. And traveling carnivals have attracted active criminals looking for a way out of town or a place to hide, but have also attracted people simply trying to make it, and looking for somewhere they belong. They’ve also attracted prejudice and persecution.

From a basic, practical standpoint, though, taking a moment to consider the rides featured at carnivals, there is cause to fear putting your trust in these professionals, even though, as we have established, any kind of fatal accident on a thrill ride is a relative rarity. Think of it, for a second. Would you trust a car that was regularly disassembled and reassembled as it was taken from place to place across the country? Granted, we’ve talked about how much riskier driving can be, but at least you’d still have some level of control if you’re behind the wheel. You can pull over if things feel unsafe. You have zero control over the frequently deconstructed and reconstructed roller coasters, ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls, zippers (I hate that one), and other rides that are seemingly a moment of inattention, complacency, laziness, poor training or just bad luck away from becoming a poorly-built deathtrap. If things feel wrong or out of place once the ride starts, all you can do is scream for someone to stop the ride and help you, and hope to be heard above all the other screaming.

But I don’t want to make it sound like traveling carnivals are the only potential sources of danger and fear with respect to thrill rides. I’ve lived in San Antonio long enough to remember when its theme park wasn’t owned by Six Flags and was just called Fiesta Texas. Its centerpiece rollercoaster, a steel coaster now called the Iron Rattler, was once a wooden coaster just called The Rattler. Even well after I got over my fear of heights enough to ride roller coasters–courtesy of a trip with a church youth group to the now-no-more Astro World in Houston, where I was determined not to look too afraid in front of a girl I liked–I still never rode The Rattler. Not because it was any taller than any other coaster I’d been on, or because I had heard from people who rode it that the ride was pretty rough. No, I never rode The Rattler because the first three or four times I visited the park, I always saw someone working on it. Up there, harnessed to the wooden beams, employing a hammer or wrench and other tools to–presumably–tighten up something that had gotten loose. Secure some pieces before they could come undone. In a way, that maintenance probably should have been more reassuring. Maybe they were just doing preemptive and even superfluous work to prevent the ride from really needing the fixes it merely looked like people were working on. Maybe I should have been warier of the rides where I never saw anyone doing any work.

But no. Rightly or wrongly, I have always figured that proper park maintenance was conducted outside of operating hours. Any work done in the middle of the day, in full view of park patrons, had to be urgent, didn’t it? Well, no, it didn’t, or at least I’m not knowledgeable enough on the subject to say so one way or the other. And it could have been entirely coincidental that I saw The Rattler worked on so often, while never seeing anyone actively working on any of the other coasters. That didn’t stop me from being afraid of it. And even of its newer, much more stable and metallic descendant. I’ve never seen anyone working on the Iron Rattler in my visits to Fiesta Texas. I’m still content to never ride it. Irrational as it is, I still imagine seeing a man tightening bolts or driving nails in when I look up at the thing, and then just go on to other rides that conjure no such imagery .

On the more deliberately frightening side of things, Fiesta Texas, like many amusement parks around the country and the world, turns itself into a bit of a grand, spooky spectacle every October, in the spirit of Halloween. This keeps with the tradition born with the “dark rides” that were first set upon the world in the 19th Century. An overly literal version of a dark ride appears in fiction in the classic Asimov story Nightfall, which I referenced in episode 2 of season 1, looking at our fear of the dark. Real world dark rides aren’t just short, slow treks through complete darkness, and some aren’t even necessarily designed to be scary. The classic “Tunnel of Love” is, by definition, a dark ride. But so are the old ghost train rides that found popularity in the early 20th Century, or attractions like the Disneyland staple “The Haunted Mansion.”

Darkness itself needn’t even be a primary feature in rides built to elicit screams without the need for speed, altitude or sudden movements. For years, the signature attraction at the Universal Studios Theme Park in Florida was the Jaws ride, which didn’t drop you from x number of stories up, or send you careening down a tight tunnel with abrupt turns. It was just a slow build on a boat ride that passed briefly through the dark, all while setting you up for a big jump scare that happened in broad daylight.

The idea of a theme park or carnival attraction built to exploit your fears even while keeping you close to the ground or in a stable, slow ride, is older than anyone alive today. It’s old and universal enough to make the word “Funhouse” synonymous with fear for some people. Just to drive this particular point home, I’d like to point out that in the midst of making film’s with the blatantly horrifying titles of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Eaten Alive, and Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper made a film simply titled The Funhouse. The director’s pedigree was not the only reason nobody was going to mistake that for the title of a happy, family-friendly comedy.

Carnivals in general have long been a bit of a quick way to enhance a story’s horror. Earlier, I mentioned the cult classic horror film Carnival of Souls. It doesn’t spend quite as much time at the titular carnival as you might think. And, again, considering where its story takes us, it truly could have taken place anywhere other than a carnival. It could have easily been Cathedral of Souls or Highway of Souls. But the carnival setting is no less apt than any other place with a long history of alleged hauntings, curses, mysteries and more.

From “Christmasland” in Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, to the somewhat similar “Holiday House” in Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always. From the futuristic Westworld, to the grungy, extended home of the Firefly family in House of 1,000 Corpses. From the Twilight Zone episode “Perchance to Dream,” to the flawed but watch-worthy Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, to the climax of the 1959 film Horrors of the Black Museum. Authors, filmmakers and more have given us carnival horrors galore. And I haven’t even spent time on the old freak shows and geek shows, subjects that I’m not entirely comfortable discussing with respect to our fears given that they place actual human beings at the center of the spectacle in a way that, even if it may have been the only work available for some people in the past–and not something they are ashamed of–still can’t help but be at least somewhat exploitative, if not egregiously so. That’s a topic for another day at minimum–another podcast altogether, most likely.

What I will talk about next, instead, is the first story that comes to my mind when I think of frightening fairs, carnivals and theme parks. A story whose echoes appear in the aforementioned works of Joe Hill and Clive Barker. Its impact is even felt in a novel that doesn’t feature carnivals, Stephen King’s Needful Things. I like to go off the beaten path every so often, as you know if you are a constant listener, but sometimes you just have to go with a story that a lot of people know and love. For this episode, it is Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Light and dark, day and night. The holy versus the unholy. Bradbury’s novel is not designed to be subtle. If you know me, then you know by now that’s not a knock. To paraphrase my favorite John Carpenter quote: you only hide the devil in your work if it’s a stupid-looking devil; if you have a good-looking devil that will scare your audience, then hell yes you show it.

The devil in Something Wicked This Way Comes could not be more conspicuous. As he puts it when he introduces himself to Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, his name is Dark. Literally. Mr. Dark of Cooger & Dark’s Combined Shadow Shows and Cross-Continental Pandemonium Theater Company. He is tall, pale, and wears a suit that somehow looks like it’s littered with thorns under certain lighting. He also introduces himself as the “illustrated man,” a reference to an earlier Bradbury short story collection of the same name, in which a man’s numerous tattoos each tell a different tale, some darker than others. In Something Wicked, the illustrated man’s tattoos reflect the many lives he has claimed, and even allow him to continue exerting power of them.

Bradbury’s earliest short story collection is titled Dark Carnival. It is a consistently grimmer, more horrific collection of stories than those found in The Illustrated Man, an includes classics like “Skeleton” and “The Small Assassin,” and lesser-known gems like “The Wind,” which I covered back in episode ten. It also has the story “The Jar” which prominently features a sinister carnival attraction. It would be far from the last story to do so. By the time Bradbury wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes he was very familiar with the creepy carnival motif, and writes the short novel as though his audience ought to be familiar with his familiarity.

One of Dark’s first ominous, observed acts is operating a carousel, a classic, signature ride readily identified with amusement parks, boardwalks, fairs, and carnivals. Dark’s evil spin–pun intended–on his merry-go-round is that he has it go backwards while his partner Mr. Cooger rides. It transforms Cooger into a boy, who will go on to trick an older woman into believing she is his nephew. This is just the beginning of Dark’s many machinations. In truth, while he employs a modicum of deception, Dark isn’t exactly coy. He doesn’t believe he needs to be. If you can tempt people with desires they absolutely can’t resist, you barely have to pretend not to be evil. Often you don’t have to pretend at all. Stories that explore deals with a devil sometimes paint their devil as a deceiver, a con artist who withholds critical conditions of the deal. Or they paint their victim as someone desperate enough to rush into a bad bargain, or someone unequipped to understand the fine print or user agreement.

Often we’re actually the ones fooling ourselves into thinking any fictional devil would have to work so hard to fool us. In many stories the deal is actually pretty straight-forward: I’m going to get your soul for eternity in exchange for something temporary you feel you can’t do without. Short-term thinking and the inability to resist indulging in delights results in someone agreeing to the deal. Even when chicanery or misdirection may be involved it’s often all but blatant, or well-known, but people still engage nonetheless. We can cite many parallels to this in the real world. On a micro-level, we can even see this play out in something as simple as the carnival games I briefly mentioned earlier.

Pretty much anyone above the age of adolescence, and possibly those even younger, is aware that carnival games are–if not quite rigged–certainly made to appear far more winnable than they really are. You can find many tutorials online that explain how to win at these games, written as if carnival operators can’t look up the same information themselves and build in counters to the advice in the articles and videos. And, of course, it wouldn’t make sense from a business perspective for the games to pay out too often. The same rules apply at casinos, which, come to think of it, have a bit of a carnival atmosphere themselves. In either case you’re putting up something valuable in the hopes of getting something in return, despite the odds being heavily against you, at minimum, unfairly stacked in the house’s favor at maximum, and, sometimes, your possible winnings are not even worth all that you’ve wagered.

Mr. Dark tries to bargain with the story’s later-stage protagonist, Charles Halloway, a man who feels old at fifty-four in part because he started his family a little later in the life than is the norm. It’s easy for Mr. Dark to know what to tempt him with; something you don’t even have to be old to want more of: years. In the book and adaptation, he makes this offer in a way that encourages an urgent, hasty decision. “Act fast before the offer worsens,” he essentially says. It’s a tactic that makes it clear he believes he has all of the leverage.

In this way, and many others, Dark and his carnival are like a twisted, funhouse mirror reflection of what a proprietor and his place of amusement ought to be. Fittingly, critical parts of the story find characters facing such mirrors; how could it not? And it’s shortly after Charles Halloway sees his son’s reflection in the Mirror Maze that he coincidentally comes up with a way to turn the twisted, malformed nature of Dark’s “Pandemonium Theater Company” against itself.

As I mentioned before, no stock soundtrack to a carnival setting is complete without the screaming. But it would be incomplete without laughter as well.

We frequently seek and find joy and fun in doing things that could be considered frightening. An offshoot of amusement park funhouses are the ubiquitous haunted house attractions that pop up everywhere each Halloween; some of which have become year-round attractions. The screaming is often accompanied by a smile; shocked shrieks are often followed by seemingly uncontrollable giggling. The same applies to people on a thrill ride. If you look for pictures of people riding roller coasters, it won’t take long at all to see someone who looks like they’re screaming and smiling simultaneously.

Dark’s carnival is sustained by taking the smiling part away. Worse. As Charles tells his son late in the novel, they feed on pain and suffering, and will “take your crying…and use it for their own smile.” A common trait among certain types of supernatural villains, but especially apt for the illustrated man and his ilk. This is an underlying aspect of any Faustian bargain, which is the currency that keeps Dark’s carnival operating. Whatever you gain can’t be fully enjoyed because of the horror that hangs over your head due to what you traded away. Dark and his compatriots are so bound to making people frightened and miserable that they’re physically vulnerable to happiness. Halloway kills one of Dark’s slaves-slash-partners while taking part in what should be a routinely rigged sideshow trick. The infamous Magic Bullet Trick, which can be dangerous in a number of ways in the real world, but in Dark’s world of magic is typically safe simply because its target, a witch, would be invulnerable. In this case, however, her metaphorical silver bullet proves to be an actual bullet marked with a smile.

By the end of the book this goes to even stranger and darker places that give a more literal meaning to the phrase, “Kill ’em with kindness.” It gives us a happy ending built around forced happiness that partly involves destroying a child by giving it fatherly affection, thereby starving it of the evil it needs to survive. It’s a villainous child, though, so it’s fine. Still, you can understand why they went a different route for the adaptation; that would have been a pretty tough sell on the screen. Thematically, though, what’s on the page is much more interesting and fitting. The ultimate undoing of the Dark Carnival does not just boil down to “the power of love.” It’s countering the corruption of this particular traveling fair; embracing the amusement that Dark’s park seeks to erase.

One somewhat obvious reason why carnivals make for great horror story settings, that I’ve been holding back on stating plainly, is that they can serve a similar purpose to horror stories. They can give us an ideally safe and controlled way to explore and even manage some of our fears. As I said before I used to be terrified of heights, to the extent that it was a bit of a chore for me to just walk down half a flight of stairs. That was before an essentially a bigger fear in my teenage years urged me to power through my acrophobia enough to ride my first roller coaster. By the end of that day, I was hoarse from screaming and already thinking of when I could do it all over again. I couldn’t get enough of it. I remained selective about the rides I got on, as demonstrated by my wariness of the old, wooden version of The Rattler, and I’m still not a fan of heights, but those roller coasters at Astroworld did a lot to help me no longer feel dizzy at just the idea of getting on an escalator, for instance. Finding a way to have fun with my fear in that setting allowed me to manage it better in other environments, and more commonly encountered situations.

People scream at scary movies. Children around a campfire might scream at the punchline of a well-told story. And adults and kids alike can be heard screaming at carnivals. Not just because they’re scared, but because they’re also having the time of their lives.

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