Pop Culture

The Roller Coaster

By Hervé St-Louis
July 31, 2014 - 01:39

Commonly people use the roller coaster as an analogy for the highs and lows of life. This analogy is incorrect. The roller coaster is not about the perturbations of life, the good or the bad. The time spent on a roller coaster is a social event and a brief moment where one gives up control while knowing when the escapade ends. A roller coaster ride is a temporary escape whose disruptions the rider has anticipated.

Many roller coaster passengers ride as part of a social activity. While a roller coaster ride is enjoyable alone, it is best when others share the experience. Riding a roller coaster is like a group initiation. More experienced riders or those who claim to dominate the group coax others to follow them on a daring adventure. Between young men, it is an opportunity for the dominant male to claim his superiority. He claims resistance to the effects of gravity and vertigo. For the groom, it is an opportunity to shower his fiancée with masculine protection. Undeniably, some of the party choose to avoid the roller coaster and rejoin the group after the ride. Age, health and all kinds of conditions are easy to call upon to avoid participating in the ritual.

But those who forgo the roller coaster can still share parts of the ritual. For example, the wait, if the ride is popular and crowded, becomes another moment for the group to socialize and share stories. The journey to the site and the wait is the first experiences of the roller coaster. The journey and the wait are the perfect moment for all social actors to express their roles in the group. Discuss anything but the dread and excitement of the upcoming ride are always present. As the line shortens, the forthcoming event becomes more serious. This is not how life presents itself as at any moment. One can pull out from the waiting line and skip the roller coaster ride.

Even when the wait and the journey are short due to a fast flowing or a null line, there are social interactions. First, where one sits and with whom matters. Even lone riders may prefer to have a car partner or someone near to relate to, before, during and after the ride. It is an experience that is best enjoyed with others.

Screaming while in the most perilous part of a roller coaster ride lacks the same vigour when unaccompanied. When shouting alone, there is no direct response and no exchange about the current state of being. That is why deciding where one sits in a roller coaster and with whom is a social activity the rider performs to please another. The rider will cajole, cheer, or seek security and affirmation in the other before, during and after the ride. Even when sharing the car with a stranger, the same sense of community grows. Similar communality develops with strangers in other thrusts. They include sharing a ride on the back of an elephant or a short ferry ride on a small boat. The ride is a shared and a social activity.

Thus the roller coaster forces humility and bashfulness all at once. This reinforces the roles we choose to play in society. Two strangers riding in the same car will quickly decide which one will be the brave one and which one will be the coward. But they will scream or comfort and mock each other as if they were lifelong friends. These roles we choose to play will be short and quick-paced.

Some rituals seem newer and solutions to security problems enforced by amusement park managers. They suggest that riders empty their pockets. Riders should also remove their shoes and glasses for fear of losing and damaging them during the ride. This ritual makes the near-sighted more vulnerable. It forces riders to trust the community for the safety of their personal goods even when inaccessible to thieves.  For the youth seeking an initiation, the roller coaster can be a mark of age. If the rider is too short, the attendees may deny him participation.

The ride starts when the rider adjusts the security belt and wonders if it is safe enough to hold her in place. The sound of the mechanism is a cue for the rider that there is a gross form of security enacted in the design of the car. It controls the most negative and unwarranted consequences of a roller coaster ride. The security device locks itself over the rider. The attendee checks each passenger's safety. The reality of the upcoming experience becomes clear.

It is fortunate that most rides start with a slow introduction before a disruption. At that moment the rider can feel the car sliding on rails. The clunking mechanisms conspire to disrupt the rider’s discomfort. Small talk is still possible. A few screams and cheers prepare the car’s crew for upcoming cruder experiences. What behaviourists should measure is the heart rate, the sweat and eye dilatation of riders. It’s about to start and many in the car regret being there. There is little escape beyond creating a crisis to stop the ride. It would be unacceptable for an adult. Thus most will accept their imminent fate and hope to survive it.

Most roller coaster riders do survive the experience. Amusement parks do not like to publicize accidents. While I cannot rely on any metrics about the rate of accidents, it is fair to argue that most people who ride roller coasters do not die. Neither do they suffer harm. Hence, humans have fabricated the fear of the ride. Understanding this is how I fought my own initial dread of roller coasters. I weighted the risks and determined that I would probably survive. If I fell from the car while in the ride, my death would be quick and I would not feel much pain.

Roller coasters allow humans to enjoy social thrills. The risk they create is minimal to that of many other activities. Riding a bicycle or driving a car is riskier. Even walking on a sidewalk has more potential for uncertainty. What the roller coaster offers is the illusion of socially shared risk. The risk is so minimal that it last but a few minutes. The journey and the wait for the ride are often longer than the ride. But these side activities are part of the moment and the souvenirs we associate with the roller coaster.

While the ride endures, all kinds of forces push the human body in every direction. They create intense physical feelings that we rarely experience in urban societies. Unlike extreme sports, riding a roller coaster requires no skill. All the rider needs is just enough height and an ability to sit and buckle up. Screaming is optional but it is why we ride. The roller coaster gives us a social and communal illusion of risk.

When the ride ends, enough small talk fodder exists for the group to commiserate on the activity. Even those who chose to observe from the ground can share with the group. Only another long journey and wait can damage the fervour of the group that wants to repeat the experience. Yet, let us not see the journey and the wait as deterrence and bad user experience moments. They are part of the roller coaster ride.

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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