Thought I'd try something a bit different to help the winter pass a bit quicker. There's not a huge amount to speculate upon this closed season, so I thought I'd open a discussion about individual design elements that make our favourite attractions so great. It can be anything, from a quick paragraph on why you think a certain inversion makes a coaster so much fun, or a full blown essay about how it all comes together. It's a bit crazy, but I thought it'd be a fun thing for people to write and learn about if they so wish.
Project 42 and Dread
It's been clear over the past few years that Alton Towers have really perfected the scare-maze formula. Even though 2015 was an incredibly hard time for the Resort and the company in general, it didn't stop the Entertainments team from redefining what they thought was possible within their Halloween attractions, with the debut of Sub-Species: The End Games and The Haunting of Molly Crowe. These two new additions to the Scarefest lineup proved their excellence in all fronts of production, and they continued to build on their strengths with subsequent haunts such as The Welcoming: Be Chosen and The Attic: Terror of the Towers.
Despite the lacklustre reviews from the previous two seasons, Project 42 stands out to me as the culmination of all their efforts. Even though it doesn't quite match up to the intensity or have the adaptable scripting of the other mazes, it excels in phenomenal lighting and sound design. Whilst there's nothing overly complex about either, they both help build and sustain a sense of dread- right from the walk into the compound, up until the infamous finale sequence. The value of the production is so phenomenally done that, upon my first run this season, I was genuinely left speechless.
Just like any other attraction, Project 42 starts to build it's world before you've even handed over your ticket. Virtually all themed attractions imply a basic mood and driving force to the experience that follows with an ambient score, often coupled by the reactions of various guests. Some 20mins of audio was produced for the plaza and queue alone, which is comparable to a major e-ticket coaster. The rather lengthy suite utilises several different melodies and instruments across it's run-time to convey as many moods as possible, even though you're only likely to hear one or two sections. If you manage to hear multiple, it helps establish a sense of depth within the world. Some parts have an up-beat melody with beeping and light piano sounds that reinforces the urgent, medical nature of the attraction. But then the melody fades out to a more atmospheric drone, and a distorted tune, which really helps convey that something has gone horribly wrong- before the urgency and stature kicks back in with some rather bodacious horns. But it's not just instruments that tell the story- subtle usage of Morse-Code and Geiger Counters help create a rich and incredibly detailed piece of audio, rather than just "music". It's these sound effects that bring an extra dimension to the area.
But what most guests remember about their first encounter with the area is the finale audio, which leaks out of a temporary tarp structure. The audio that leaks is simple enough- it's essentialy long bassy bullets to replicate gunfire, the commands of various shouting soldiers, and the occasional loud horn to stitch it all together. What really makes it impactful, however, is the sheer volume of the piece. Upon approaching Forbidden Valley from areas such as Gloomy Wood or the Skyride station virtually opposite, you can feel the bass rumbling through the trees. It's eerily beautiful yet foreboding hearing a mysterious rumbling in the distance, and when you realise that it's coming from Project 42, the atmosphere suddenly becomes incredibly intense. It plays so loudly that it really dominates the entire area and beyond; it creates a high level of fear and anticipation purely by sound. You haven't even entered the maze yet, but the prescence of the finale audio really makes a great first impression. You know that at some point in your journey through the maze, you'll stumble into that room and discover what horrors lurk within. This really stays with you, and helps craft a memorable experience.
After a quick briefing and video explaining that you're entering a Military Medical Lab to hunt for a missing cure for a deadly disease, the maze itself begins. It starts with a long, almost un-eventful walk into the warehouse where the real terrors lie. Whilst the set isn't particularly amazing here, it's the sound design that tells the story. The piece in this section is slow, yet feels "advanced" and "medical", with electronic beeping and beat. The pacing encourages a slower guest flow as they consider the "mission" they have been given, and the music almost has a gleam of hope to stir ambition- even if there's a hint of apprehension.
Of course, this hopefulness is wiped as you enter the compound. The second section takes you through a small decontamination tent, and then through a winding path in the locker room. Upon entering the main building, the first visual that guests get is a haunting, long corridor with blue ambient lighting, flashing reds, and a very subtle "work" light that flickers above. The small space isn't overly bright nor dark, but the transition from the sunlight of the walk to the deep, dim blues is honestly breathtaking. The audio in here is what really helps build upon the hints of dread and hopelesness implied in the preshow spiel. It gives off a melancholic vibe with the large amounts of bass without a real melody as such, coupled with a light sounding echo of other electronic instruments. What really makes this area scary is the sudden and loud, almost static-sounding rumbling that shakes the floor. Every time this extended note plays, you can feel it in your bones. It's very unsettling, and when married up with the beautiful lighting, it creates phenomenal tension, despite very little happening around you.
Passing through a tight airbag, you emerge into Animal Testing. The first part takes place in almost complete darkness, but with small flickering lamps highlighting the broken cages, and an occasional bright flash to highlight the rest of the space. The main part of this scene continues with the blue hues, but they start to flicker as it becomes clear that something has gone horribly wrong, and the score matches. This scene looses some of the gripping bass of the previous, but instead employs an "airy" feel that really helps highlight dread. I often find myself comparing the audio in this scene to the overall tone of the 2002 Drama/Horror Film, 28 Days Later. The entire film has this quiet, yet very prominent sense of sadness as the cast try to survive and come to terms with this new, bleak world they live in. The audio in the Animal Testing portion of Project 42 evokes a similiar mood. As you walk through, you can tell that something has gone entirely wrong, and that there's nothing you can do to change that. There's also a sad, humbling loneliness to this scene, as you feel like you're the only humans who have a chance at rescuing the cure, and that you're the only living things around. Everything feels surprisingly dismal, and you can really tell that the Phalanx Operatives have tried everything they can to stop the virus from spreading, but that their efforts were useless. Just like the previous rooms, the audio continues to tell the entire story via a subtle subtext. Even if it lacks huge effects and "scares", it's incredibly well done, and almost scary how they found a way to sustain the mood without being "in your face" about it.
The quieter tone of the attraction changes completely in the Laboratory. Intense reds bleed as you walk in, with the occasional flash of blue to help highlight the grotesque corpse in the MRI Scanner. The immediate change to predominantly reds tells us that the tone and pace is about to change, and the music reflects that. Gone are the slow echoes and drones- we are introduced to a moderately paced, grungey piece as an announcement warns us that the quarantine has been breached. It's here where the dread turns to threat- whilst we've seen the aftermaths of accidents, we feel as if we are about to experience one first hand. The louder audio and leaking air realises your fears- you've considered the hopeless, sad aspect, and now it's time you faced the infected for yourself. The beat doesn't get stupidly fast, but it's enough to let us know that things are changing within the world, and that things are about to get pretty intense.
Entering the next room, the pace changes once again as you get the feeling that we have to abandon all hope- the cure is missing, and we have to get out. The path is interrupted by a crash of palletes, meaning you have to duck down to continue. A multitude of reds and blues seep through the gaps in the walls, and when paired with some haze, it oozes atmosphere and character. There's also a great timed effect here- a large air cannon goes off as a white strobe triggers, accompanied by some loud screaming and the sound of gunfire. You never really see what's happening, but the audio tells us all we need to know. And speaking of audio- this scene uses a more urgent variant of the tune from the Lab. The beat is far sharper, and the faster tempo really makes us feel like you need to forget the mission and escape from the compound. Screw the mission- it's now about survival.
A smaller room with a dim strobe follows, before it feels like you've taken a wrong turn. Long vines and plants creep from above as it becomes clear that the facility has been abandoned for quite some time. The sincere reds continue, but now with hints of green to emphasize the vegetation. Everything here sounds weirdly wet, which is a great contrast to the previous two scenes. We've gone from a more mellow start, to energetic guitars, then back to something whispery and unusual. It's such a stark change in environment, and some of the fear comes from a sense of confusion. It's clear that the stringent nature of the complex has been tossed aside here, and because the area is so different to the rest of the maze, you really feel unsafe. It feels like anything can happen here- and the lack of care is somewhat shocking.
The intensity and madness really starts to come into play with the next scene. Gone are the meticulously placed spotlights- instead, you proceed into a strobey room. There's so little time to look around here- behind the cages are the warped outlines of what were once humans. The flashing light doesn't give you quite enough time to process everything, and really makes you clamber around for the way out. And, of course, the music mirrors this. The score looses all melodies again to really play up the suspsense with sharp strings and a Shephard Tone- where the notes are seemingly getting higher and higher, and it feels like it will never end. This technique really gets your nerves up and makes you anxious. You get the feeling that something is coming for you, but because of the endless nature of the soundtrack and the strobes, you can't tell where and when something is going to happen, and just what is going to attack. It is here where the tension hits it's crescendo- you need to get out as quickly as possible because of a deep feeling that's built up over the entire attraction that something is coming for you, but finding an exit is seemingly impossible.
Your journey is almost over- but not before it culminates, quite literally, with a bang. At last, you stumble into the incredibly intense and ear-bleedingly loud finale that can be heard for miles around. The volume really takes you back as well- a rumbling bass matches the lighting patterns, and really establishes this finale as a total sensory overload. Powerful strobes attack you from above, from seemingly random places at unknown intervals. Instead of pointing the light at a particular object to draw attention to it- the lights flash directly at you. The motivation behind this scene isn't just "strobes because scary"- the strobes imitate a violent flurry of gunfire. And by staging the lights up high, it feels as if we are worthless scum down below. Up there are the savious, looking down at us hellions. Despite our best efforts, we have succumbed to the infection. The mission was a failure- although extreme, the only way to make sure that the infection doesn't spread is by eliminating those with the disease, and the risk of you escaping with them and spreading it further isn't worth the challenge. Nothing can be done to save us from the mutation.
And just as quickly as it began, it's all over. Despite it's short run time at an average of 6mins per run, Project 42 offers one of the most richly detailed scare experiences around. Whilst they could've kicked things off with a sharp scare and continued with predictable jumps, they opted to design something a bit slower, and this choice really helps seperate Project 42 from their other mazes. Whilst there is nothing wrong with a good old fashioned haunted house experience, it's really nice to see some experimentiation going on. At the end of the day, horror isn't just an intense reaction to a sudden surprise. It's the slow, brooding fog that infects your brain over time. It's a tension that builds and builds, and makes you shiver with anticipation, breaking you into a cold sweat. It's the unusual, horrible feeling that makes you breathless and like you need to give up.
I think the reason that Project 42 is often panned is because it opts for a slow-burning affair, and the characterization doesn't allow for any amazing improvisation. It's a staple of modern mazes that actors talk back to guests and encourage them to engage- but unfortunately, the thematization of Project 42 doesn't allow for that. It's a bit frustrating that, in a park with mazes where you're often complemented and asked questions about your beauty, all Project 42 has to offer is a more generic snarl. The lack of human scripting means it's not everyones cup of tea, and I totally respect that- but I just feel it's unfair to call it bad purely because of that. The lighting and sound design is so well thought out, and you've got to commend them for wanting something slower, and for trying someting different. After all- if all the Scarefest mazes were the same style, it'd get boring. But now, we have a little slice of everything. We have the intense, touchy madness of Sub-Species, the theatrical and story based Attic, the cheeky combination of both in Altonville Mine Tours, and of course, the slow study of dread in Project 42.
If Project 42 returns for another season, I urge you to go in not expecting scares, but with an open mind, ready to soak up the atmosphere and subtle nuances like the big nerdy sponge that you are. If you toss aside the jumps and characters, you will find a phenomenally told story through lighting and sound design that will leave you breathless.