Monday, October 6, 2014

Alien Encounter (or How To Make A Terrifying Theme Park Ride)

Any time I go to a carnival or amusement park, I find myself completely underwhelmed by the "haunted houses" or "tunnels of terror" or whatever they try to call them.  I've already established I'm not a big fan of things that rely on "jump" scares, and I will admit that it must be really difficult to establish an "atmosphere" of fear when you're trying to get people through a ride as fast as possible, but still, there has to be something to make them scary again.

After all, once you realize all you're seeing are triggered gears and springs launching things at you once you hit a certain part of the track, it doesn't matter if it's a zombie head or a slab of puff pastry, it's just something meant to startle you.

Pictured: how I view most "scary" rides.

However, there's two rides that did manage to develop a healthy sense of fear in me, and I'm going to look at one of them now and try to figure out if there's a way to make something else that could terrify people in a way that's fun.

Going to the Extraterrorestrial: Alien Encounter ride was a bit of a fluke.  My family was at Disney World, and I really wanted to go on this ride that I figured out was a more "grown up" ride than most of the other fare.  My sister was eager to go on Space Mountain, and since I wasn't really a big roller coaster fan at the time, my father agreed to go with her, and my mother agreed to come with me.

In hindsight, I probably should have offered to go by myself.  The scariest part of the whole thing was probably my mother after the ride was over.

For those who were never fortunate enough to try the ride, allow me to break it down.  There are essentially three "show" areas.  The first "preshow" show was a bit of a love letter to Disney parks features of the past.  While I don't remember all of them off the top of my head, I do recall the "Mission to Mars: History of Hoax" that was a tribute to a previous ride they had.

The second area involved a demonstration of the new interstellar "teleportation technology" on a small little alien creature.  It disappears from one tube and reappears in another tube...somewhat charred and disoriented.  The helpful robot (that I believe was voiced by Tim Curry) acknowledges there's a few bugs in the program, but nothing to worry about.

And then there's the main attraction.  An attempt to beam the CEO of the company developing the teleportation technology to visit us, the audience, goes horribly wrong and a strange "Alien-esque" creature gets beamed into the teleportation tube instead.

The tube breaks, the power goes out...and this is where things get intense.  A workman up above gets mauled by the creature, sending a spray of...something down on the audience.  The seats the audience sits in hold the people in place, and with the lights out (aside from some random flashes and sparks), you can't really see anything.  The chairs are also designed to enhance the terror, as they rattle to simulate the alien running by, and a "breath" of warm mist hits the back of your neck to indicate the creature is right behind you.

Now, obviously there's no real creature behind you.  In the corner of my brain, I was aware of that (since I knew how the ride actually worked (sorry, mom!)), but the atmosphere and mood that was set up played up so many fears that it was easy to forget what was actually going on and start to believe the hype of the ride.

It's probably one of my favorite rides that Disney parks had, and the fact it closed in 2003 to make room for a Stitch-themed ride breaks my heart.

So, let's take that idea, and try to think of something else.

Imagine, if you will, a "haunted ride" at a theme park or carnival where you see the standard chairs with the bar that comes down, and it rides a little rail into darkness.  Have there be hype that the ride is built in the ruins of another ride where something went horribly wrong.  A house of mirrors where someone went nuts with a knife, a maze that was the secret headquarters for a cult that broke in, or even just a fancy museum where some dark artifacts were being displayed before "accidents" started to happen and a fire broke out, killing people inside.

You climb on board, the bar comes down, and the cheesiness begins.  The doors in front of you open to let you in, and close behind you with a thud.  The standard "scary" things happen, but the ride is broken up into various "rooms," each with dividing doors.  Maybe you can have an Egyptian mummy room, or a zombie room, or a witch's hut.  However, here's the catch:  partway through the ride, it breaks down.

The ride shudders to a halt, the animatronics stop working, and the lights flicker.  A doorway off to the side with an "EXIT" sign that you didn't notice before swings open, and someone on the crackling speakers apologizes and asks that you please exit the ride so they can do some maintenance.

Each room's door, however, leads somewhere different.  One heads to an exit door that's blocked off by something too large and heavy to move, so the people have to take a flight of stairs up into a maze of mirrors.  Another leads to a hallway that looks like an old hospital, with stretchers and other things stuck in the hall requiring people to move through the rooms.  Other people find themselves wandering what looks like an old museum wing full of dusty, forgotten relics.

Have small speakers start to produce whispers.  Things fall from walls and break.  Doors in the distance open and close and "figures" can be seen moving around.  The lights keep flickering,  Old sound systems start to play broadcasts from other times.  In the distance they can hear someone calling for anyone who was on the ride.

I'm sure you could get other horror designers to help enhance the atmosphere, and you would have to continue sequestering people into rooms and having things happen to seal off the way behind them.  Doors that open for people to go through and then close to keep them from going back (and finding other people on the same "ride."  Keep one empty room between each group of people so staff can go back in and reset anything that needs to be reset.

I think you'd have one of the biggest amusement park ride hits for quite a while, especially since it's easy to not get the same ride twice, and they could renovate one section and leave the rest as they are to keep introducing new ideas.

Anyway, that's my idea.  Disney or Universal, you can have that one for free.  I have a lot more ideas you can pay for.

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