Six Flags as a Liminal Space: Why I Ride Roller Coasters Alone

  • *A liminal space is defined as “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.” (Wikipedia, 2015)
  • My mom, a successful librarian, would balk at Wikipedia defining anything. However, she should know that the first definition for me of a liminal space — in college — was the seashore. And while she will never understand Six Flags, she knows all too well what it is like when the Gulf of Mexico laps at the white sand and the angel-wing shells appear.

Liminal Spaces are Solitary

One of my absolute favorite things to do, ever, is to go to amusement parks by myself.

I don’t just mean to be in attendance, see a show, and ride few rides. I mean: show up at opening, stay until closing, and ride every ride at least once. Even, and especially, the scary ones.

Why is this? Is it that I am a lonely person, and/or unable to convince others to join me? Is it that I have an unhealthy relationship with risk? Many people are shocked and in awe at this revelation about my Six Flags obsession. My mother thinks it’s the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard in her life. So, why do I so enjoy spending time alone in a loud, crowded, expensive, and artificial environment? I like to think that it’s because, to me at least, amusement parks are liminal spaces.

At amusement parks two different perceptions of reality exist side-by-side in a way that is so complementary and beautiful it can be called a sacred, or liminal, space. Yes, this does sound ridiculous. Maybe it is. Please, read on.

First and foremost, the rides: Predictable path=Safe scare

The #1 reason I go to any amusement park is the rides. Where else in life would you expect to be thrown up, down, and all around at ridiculous g-forces with barely-effective restraints, and that is the best-case scenario? Yes, I am extreme. But not usually physically, and not usually with anything risky.

The thing about amusement park rides is that you can literally see the path. You can either see the track the coaster will glide on (or under/around with modern coasters) or the revolution(s) the ride will take before it times out. It is designed to frighten you, for approximately three minutes. You wait, nervous and anticipatory, like before a big performance…Except this time, you don’t have to do anything except sit down and buckle up. Then, with the same mechanical jerk with which it starts, it stops, and you walk away, feeling stronger because of it.

When you are alone, several things become more striking. First, there is no one, or at least no one you expect to ever see again, in the seat next to you. So it doesn’t really matter what you say, under your breath or aloud, on the way up or the way down. Which means you can get more real with yourself. Swearing is sort of innate; also, you start to compromise with whomever or whatever you believe in. Just being down on the ground is a relief; sometimes, it’s necessary to remember that even that is a beautiful miracle.

You know, rationally, that the 2.5 crazy minutes you spend on this ride are very statistically less likely to cause you harm than the hour-long uneventful drive home, but, for just a few seconds, it feels so very dire. And then, suddenly, it feels like coasting: Wind in your face, laughing with glee.

The rides are great because they are out of my immediate control (aka I’m not driving) but they are controlled (aka they are on a fixed circuit of some sort). So I really don’t have to do anything except stare up at the sun, or the moon, or the rain clouds, and think: Throw me around, and let me experience it, without feeling that I have to react, but feeling justified that I can. Which leads me to my next point:


Out-of-Side, Out of Mind:

Being outdoors is beautiful and wonderful, especially when it’s at least partly sunny. (This is why I love camping.) Being at an amusement park from opening until closing guarantees that you will see the sun rise when you get up, rise higher as you drive there, and then reach high noon and slowly descend into summer twilight, followed by moonrise, during your stay. Like your energy levels throughout the day — and no coincidence — the temperature slowly rises, burns brightly overhead for a few hours, and then slowly lowers, bringing twilight and then darkness.

You are outside during the peak hours of sunlight (also the skin cancer watch hours…but hey, isn’t my point that good things come with a risk?). Another beautiful phenomenon about amusement parks is that they are laid out on a lot of land, usually isolated land. Close to highways, but no tall buildings. Which means, any way you look, you see the sun moving through the sky. Or, in the case of summer storms and squalls, you see the front line moving in. And when evening falls — choose your favorite ride and make sure you get in line — you see the moon rise, and brighten, and the first star come out. And you make a wish. Or a lifetime of wishes.

The Disney Effect: Main Street USA as a Small, Liminal World

I really can’t talk about amusement parks without recognizing their desired effect: transporting the “guest” into a completely fabricated, self-sufficient little world where the only “tax” you have to pay is the exorbitant price of admission for the day. I will be the first to admit that I obviously fall for the ploy, because I come back, again and again. But, just for my own self-edification, I must state that I am aware of it. That “mailbox” is really a garbage can, “general stores” are for souvenir-gouging, and “Ma’s Home Cookin’” is a synonym for “Generic Chicken Tenders: $11”. I know this. And yet, that is part of the experience. For if I drive an hour, through city traffic, and then to almost the state line, to an expansive parking lot surrounding a fake city of long queue lines and terrorizing plunges, what do I expect?

Well, quite frankly, I expect the same thing I experienced last week, or last month, or last year: Rides that are timed down to the second, including their loading times — predictability. Lines that are long and full of impatient people who are not nearly as diverse or intelligent as I’d like — humanity. Anonymity in a place where people see my face and hear my voice — Keeping it real. And, most importantly, introversion in the face of a large and exuberant crowd — What I call being an entrovert. Because people energize me, but interacting with them depletes my energy.

Not for Everyone

I realize almost no one is on this plane with me. Amusement parks are viewed as a sacrifice given for children, not a refuge for young(ish) adults. They are ultimately annoying, which, really, a lot of life is: Expensive, loud, chaotic, and full of waiting.

In the summer of 2012 I wanted to share my life-altering Six Flags experience with my husband, who hates amusement parks and roller coasters. We had just gotten off of a ride that had him speechless, and not in a good way. We were having my mother’s cure-all: A little salt and a little caffeine. The plastic rock right next to us suddenly started blaring ridiculous Mu-Zak. He looked at me, and what could I say? Yes, this is ridiculous. But it’s making me laugh. Can any more be said of life, or any part of it?

Epilogue

Just for a sociological experiment, act like an adult in your 30s while simultaneously looking like a college student. Go to one or more amusement parks alone, sans smart phone, with only a book for company. Notice the way people look at you. Then give no fucks. Please report here, because I am interested.