Derren Brown's Ghost Train and the Importance of Audience
As with any market, the themed entertainment industry is a competitive one that is always developing, and there is always someone hard at work trying to dazzle guests with something fresh and exciting. Throughout the past decade, there have been major advancements in roller-coaster technology, allowing for previously unthinkable concepts to become that of reality. Many turn their eyes to the likes of Steel Vengeance at Cedar Point for pure thrills, whilst others gaze upon Phantasialand's Taron, which merges unpredictable forces with theming of a cinematic scale- something that had rarely been done before.
Of course, theme-parks are not just a place for quick rushes of adrenaline- many visit purely to immerse themselves in another world, and the landscape here has changed as well. Attractions such as Symbolica at De Efteling offer guests a choice in narrative as they pass through The Court of Hearts, and occasionally on-board interactive elements, allowing them to seamlessly feel as if they can impact their journey through the palace. This sense of freedom has also helped re-establish walkthroughs as well. In the past, guests were welcome to interact with the surroundings of the attraction, but by utilising live actors, parks can deliver something far more impactful. Sub-Species: The End Games at Scarefest gives guests the oppurtunity to not only freely roam the sewers at their own pace, choosing each route when given the chance, but to converse with the characters, thus deeply defining depth within the experience.
These performances within scare-attractions start to blur lines when it comes to experiences outside pre-established parks, and it is here where some could be more comfortably labelled as Fringe Theatre. It is commonplace for such experiences to offer a much more intimate and psychological layer across a lengthy 30min+ trip into the darkest depths of ones brain.
Whilst more "touristy" attractions such as The London Dungeon do technically class as "Immersive Theatre", the phrase tends to be thrown about more in relation to a piece that is richer and mature. It doesn't fit within a theme-park style environment due to it's avant-garde nature. If we take that definition into account, my first encounter with the form was Phobiarama, directed by Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven. I naively agreed to go in expecting something more akin to a scare-maze, but what was waiting was in fact something so subversive and surreal that it both shocked and inspired me. Over the course of a 45min ride in a plain white room, Phobiarama explored the bitter rhetorics of politicians and the negative perception that ethnic profiling can have on society. Although it's message was hardly subtle, it was a profound, theatrical test; truly terrifying, whilst conveying deeper meanings that worked itself into your brain.
Across the small selection of Immersive Theatre pieces I have experienced, I have always felt greatly challenged by what I have just witnessed. Upon exiting Coma, a recent production by the remarkable sound-engineers of Darkfield, a close friend of mine was passing through the area, and I physically couldn't describe to them what I'd just been through. Such attractions aren't afraid to have you questioning reality and what makes up the world, and thus, some time for contemplation afterwards is necessary. Performances such as those by Darkfield fester within, and never let you go. Whilst scare-mazes are unsettling and frightening in their own right, they cannot compare to the perilous panic of mixing such horrors with stark, pragmatic cynicism.
It is no wonder then that it is a rare phenomenon for a theme-park to undertake the challenge of designing such an experience. Immersive Theatre is already a relatively niche market, but when taken out of Arts Festivals and into a more commercial and "tacky" atmosphere, finding the groove for something so psychological and bizzare only amplifies the struggle for attention. One attraction that frequently appears on my radar is The Clinic at Walibi Holland. Whilst I have not been lucky enough to encounter it for myself, my understanding of it is that it takes you on a journey through your own life and death, questioning morality and teasing existentialism on the way. A popular review cites that The Clinic is among some of the most creative and theatrical attractions within a tradtitional setting, and I myself believe it is some achievement that Walibi Holland have managed to merge the tiny niche market with the brash and popular scare-attraction.
When analyzing such experiences, it becomes relatively clear to me that these experiences rarely interest the masses. The majority of guests visit a theme-park to escape the worries of the modern world, and to have unparalleled fun with their friends and family. Therefore, it isn't unusual that most parks wouldn't dare to open something as mature as Phobiarama or The Clinic. An attraction more akin to Immersive Theatre would likely garner little interest from the public as they tend to be slow and less exciting than a roller-coaster. It could also possibly bring negative publicity, as few parks would allow their public image to potentially be tarnished by something that is often controversial. At the time of writing, Darkfield's Flight is experiencing a limited run in Nottingham, and some locals seem to be displeased about it's incredibly dark nature.
However, despite the risks, Thorpe Park decided to give the format a shot, not as a temporary installation for their annual Fright Nights event, but as a major e-ticket ride experience. The result was Derren Brown's Ghost Train, originally opening in Summer 2016. Promising that the attraction would "completely rewrite the rules of what a theme park attraction [could] deliver", Ghost Train was easily one of the most highly anticipated attractions of the decade. Not only would Thorpe Park be getting their long-awaited dark-ride, but by inviting Derren Brown with his daring intelligence to be part of the design team, fans were eager to see what psychological tricks would await them. Marketing teased that they would be able to play a role within the world, and the experience would have them "questioning where perception ends and reality begins". It was clear that Ghost Train was something unseen within the industry at the time; a step away from camp fun to more serious, gripping entertainment.
Although the attraction had an incredible premise, after the intitial excitement of a big new ride had passed, Ghost Train seemed to polarise audiences more than any other. Whilst one could easily appreciate the scope of such a project, it seems that nowadays, most people tend to dislike the attraction. Now, there are many reasons why it could be considered a failure- you wouldn't be wrong to mention how it's yet another sinister theme in a park that already has plenty. There's plausibility in saying how the technology involved was ahead of it's time and how VR isn't suited for constant use. I agree with both of these, but I personally believe that it is the style of story-telling and the nature of the experience that hurt it the most.
To fully understand what went wrong, we must take a brief, surface-level look at what a typical run-through entails. After a short introduction from Brown himself explaining the science of fear, we ascend to a Victorian platform in order to view a train carriage that is mysteriously floating above the ground. This holds little relevance, as we enter the carriage to discover that the interior mocks a modern Metro. We take a seat, don a VR headset, and we are introduced to one of three characters who explain to us that a mysterious corporation is drilling for oil alongside the line, and that a dangerous gas is seeping into the network and causing a hideous infection among the populace. An infected individual "breaks in" to the train, meaning we have to take off our VR headset and leave the train entirely. Actors demand us to stick together as we prepare to evacuate the underground by contouring a tunnel, but after a crash, we are urged to head back onto a different train. With our bums back on seats and VR headsets covering our eyes once more, we witness some grotesque creature crawling along the carriage, before we drop into a fiery inferno down below.
Now, whilst I could easily spend the rest of the essay discussing why the story is incoherent due to the sudden and several changes in focus, I've argued that many a time, and would rather concentrate on why the political arc doesn't work.
For the sake of the piece I will try to remain impartial and keep my personal views on the subject matter out of this, but there's no doubting that the idea of having audiences questioning the moralities of fracking is certainly a daring and thought-provoking one. It's clear that Brown wanted to create a piece of Immersive Theatre that stayed with guests for as long as possible, but most people leave the attraction with a glum look on their faces. Now, why is that? One such answer lies within the audience.
Like most theme-parks, Thorpe Park focusses on entertaining the masses with rides and shows by offering attractions that are wholly enjoyable and fun. On top of this, the park caters primarily for a teenage/young adult audience. People of this age bracket go to theme-parks to mess around with their mates, above all else. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but ask yourself this- if you wanted a night of banter with "the lads", would you choose to see a serious show bursting with metaphors over a screening of some hilarious comedy movie? The same logic applies to theme-parks. Would you rather question your political beliefs, or endure a high-octane ride on a roller-coaster?
Unfortunately, I think part of the ride's downfall lies within the audience. It's a sad thing to admit on their behalf, but it feels as if Thorpe Park didn't understand what their guests wanted. We live in a time where most parks favour the use of external, Intellectual Properties for inspiration and thematization. Particularly in the past decade, Thorpe have loved to utilise IPs in investments, as seen in various Saw and Walking Dead rides and mazes, to name just a few. A new dark-ride is a rarity, too. Ghost Train was the first brand-new, major installation within a UK park in well over a decade. It should be no surprise then that to get the project off the ground, Thorpe would need to bring in some other brand or company to base it upon. With his work only getting more and more popular, Derren Brown was obviously a popular candidate for the "ride treatment". Brown certainly came up with some incredible ideas, but his style of story-telling and sometimes existential ideas aren't wholly suited for theme-parks- not yet, at least. A piece of Immersive Theatre based upon fracking would certainly work within an Arts Festival alongside Phobiarama and Flight. Perhaps Thorpe should've considered that Brown, whilst an amazing designer in his own-right, wouldn't be able to satisfy the fun-loving audiences that they aim for. Maybe Thorpe should have tested the format with a smaller budget attraction or as a temporary installation before jumping the shark and risking millions of pounds on an un-proven concept.
I think another issue with the style of story is the content itself and the amount of time the story is told in. In a theme-park environment, designers and operators must remain conscious of crowds. A popular attraction should be able to process over a thousand riders per hour if they intend on keeping queue times ample. When it comes to Immersive Theatre, this is less of a concern, seeing as they recieve relatively low footfall even on popular days, and each experience requires some length to really work. Darkfield's Seance clocked in at a length of 20mins with a theoretical throughput of 60pph, and whilst I adored the creepy and intimate feel of the finale, I felt like there wasn't enough time to really explore the world we had been immersed in. By the time the attraction had gotten under my skin, the lights came up and it was time to leave. In order for the experience to have a strong impact, attractions such as this are far better suited to slow-burning, at times almost labourious lengths. This obviously comes at the cost of capacity, but allows for a far richer journey. Whilst Phobiarama teases it's meaning before you've even entered, the audience are unaware of it's true intentions until some 25mins in.
Discounting the introduction, Ghost Train has approximately 10-15mins to set up and deliver it's punches in an attempt to keep throughput modest. Whilst clever writing and design could have meant they were able to get their anti-fracking message across with weight without risking capacity, this is far easier said than done. Both Coma and Phobiarama had significant silences to really let the words and actions sink in- the latter, in fact, having some 10mins without any speaking whatsoever. Ghost Train's first act is entirely talk, which is no crime in itself- but the style of writing leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of subtly building up a sense of mystery and sub-conciously antagonising the fracking corporation, there is a solid 2mins of messy exposition. The dialogue feels as if it was hastily written in the same vein as a student rushing their homework on the bus. Pieces such as Flight like to tease audiences with sardonic questions, whereas here, we are merely listening to a monologue with all the grace and humour of a news broadcast. It almost feels like "An Introduction to Psychological Entertainment" at times. It's as if we're handed a statement rather than a series of deep and meaningful questions.
Whilst you could argue that this is only the first third of the experience and that the psychological fears could come into play later, the story is suddenly swapped out for a more generic monster movie in the third act, meaning all philisophical and political edges are utterly superfluous. Upon exiting, no-one thinks "ok, maybe we should rethink our stance on fracking". Instead, they leave feeling lectured and bemused. This comes as a result of the audiences wishes from the attraction, the style of scripting, and ultimately, the sudden change in direction that makes the first portion pointless.
As well as being a lover of the theme-park industry, I am also overly fond of psychological entertainment. I often find myself wondering if we may see many more developments at said parks that ask questions, possibly in the style of Immersive Theatre. Perhaps I'm looking into things too deeply, but I believe we've seen the early frame-work being built within scare-mazes. Last year, the newest and most eagerly-anticipated maze at Scarefest was The Attic: Terror of the Towers. I recall my first run-through- upon entering the Nursery scene, our group was thwarted by a delicious, scripted conflict. We had a Nanny crying out that she had nothing to do with the deaths of the children in her care, whilst said children begged us to stay and keep them safe from her. I immediately stopped and questioned whether I should continue through the maze and let the children be endangered, despite the Nannys claims that she was innocent. This level of scripting was previously unseen in mazes- in my limited experience at least- but I thought it was an incredibly brave and bold choice that made it that bit more memorable. Whilst it could have just been a one-off with the actors playing around with their script, it feels as if it was an intentional choice to see how audiences would react to a story where, no matter what you believed, you could be dangerously wrong. It felt like there was no correct answer that favoured everyone morally- something which occasionally appears in Cinema and Theatre. Maybe they were testing to see if this style of psychological horror would work, with intention to develop it further into something more akin to Immersive Theatre.
Let's say, in some phantasmagorical dreamworld, Thorpe Park decided to test the waters with something like The Attic, where the design team behind Ghost Train could see if a more psychological and morally-inept piece could work. Maybe, in this world, we wouldn't have seen Ghost Train appear as they found that their guests didn't react strongly to it. Maybe we could have seen their attractions get more and more mature, culminating in Ghost Train some years later, having learnt what does and doesn't work. As I said earlier, I think Thorpe were over-excited at the prospect of working with Derren Brown and said yes to the first idea they were given.
It's such a shame as I think, with the right amount of R&D time, we could've seen something truly world-class that bridged the gap between Fringe Theatre and theme-parks. Whilst it's always great to see risk-taking within any industry, I wish that Thorpe Park took more time to consider what it was they were building, as who knows- if they did, maybe we would have the most intelligent ride that'd be infamous around the globe- for the right reasons.