Roller coasters have inspired exhilaration and total fear in theme park-goers for about two centuries.
But why do we continue to subject ourselves to the white-knuckle torture that accompanies travelling at breakneck speeds around a metal track suspended more than a hundred metres into the air?
One man, researcher and filmmaker Malcolm Burt from the Queensland University of Technology, travelled around the world as part of a four-year documentary making project speaking to the people who build, manage, and ride roller coasters to find out.
He says that the whole concept of a roller coaster, in itself, is “madness.”
“You go to line up for a roller coaster. To get to one, they’re located in theme parks a long way out of major cities. It’s expensive. It’s normal to wait two hours for a sixty second ride to nowhere,” Burt told The Huffington Post Australia.
“You can actually see what the roller coaster does before you get on, it’s not even a surprise. And yet you’re still waiting two hours to do it. It’s madness, it’s totally crazy.”
In the face of such madness, it’s peculiar that people continue to flock to theme parks. The demand is quite clearly there -- 300 roller coasters were built around the world between 2011 and 2013, and 2014 was the fifth consecutive year of theme park attendance growth globally.
Burt argues that we have a psychological and physiological need for the thrill that roller coasters, and other similar rides, provide.
“The world’s changed enormously since the industrial revolution. We’re a lazy consumerist society. I’m including myself in that,” he told HuffPost Australia.
He says that though we live a much more sedentary lifestyle than fifty or a hundred years ago, humans are still hardwired to seek thrill. Some researchers say there could be a neurological need for the biochemical state that we enjoy when intensely physically excited.
“What happens when you climb Everest or come to the peak of some gigantic, hard-earned adventure is you have a peak experience, a psychological term,” Burt told HuffPost Australia.
“You’re in the zone, it’s nirvana. When you get off an extreme thrill ride like a coaster, what’s happening to your body is biologically comparable to Everest.”
And while you might think that the moment of peak terror for a rider comes right about when you’re tipping towards the hundred-metre-freefall that pushes your heart into your mouth, Burt says the true moment of absolute fear comes while you're waiting in line.
“All your stats are off the charts in the queue. When you’re in the queue you’re subjected to the theatrics of the ride. You’ve been thinking about it. You can hear it.”
And while the ride itself is still terrifying, your anxiety does go down as you switch from a “fight or flight” state in the line, to simply “fighting” the coaster.
“When you get on the ride, you realise all you can do is hold on and pee your pants. You’re immobile. You change states to fighting the ride, your levels go down as the ride goes on,” he said.
Of course, it could all be much simpler than adrenaline, terror, and a fight-or-flight response.
When Burt interviewed coaster enthusiasts, he said the uniform response for why they loved the rides so much was simply because it’s fun.
Thinking there had to be more than that, he spoke to a psychologist about how some of the most passionate riders worldwide could put things down to simple fun.
“The psychologist told me, ‘It’s like sex, if you think about it too much everything stops happening. Don’t overanalyse the joy.’”
And in case you’re wondering which roller coasters one of Australia’s premiere coaster academics rates most highly, his favourite overseas ride is the 130 metre high Top Thrill Dragster, which goes from zero to 190 kilometres an hour in four seconds and can be seen in all its gut-wrenching glory below.
“It’s all over in a flash, a one trick pony, but what a trick and what a pony,” Burt said.
Here in Australia, he says his favourite is the Superman Escape at Movieworld on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Not quite as exhilarating as some of the rides you can find overseas, yet still “wonderful.”
Burt's documentary, Signature Attraction, can be viewed on YouTube and he will soon undertake a PhD into the future of theme parks globally.