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We Talked to a Roller Coaster Developer About Engineering Fear

He's the guy who thinks of new ways to make us scream.

by Matthew Braga
Oct 30 2015, 3:00pm

Image: Jon Seidman/Flickr

You are on a roller coaster, strapped into a tiny car, sitting three people across. There is a bar across your lap. You are ascending, but not very fast. Not yet. Below you, the rattle of the anti-rollback system counts time—a steady chka-chka-chka-chk—like a metronome for the beats-per-minute of your racing heart. The whole world seems to expand around you like an orchestral swell.

You are nervous and you are terrified and you are questioning what compelled you to give yourself up to this thing—because, what if you die? Who will feed your cat?—and that is the most terrifying part. Not the loops, not the drop. But merely the fear of what's to come.

"Anticipation is sometimes more powerful than the actual experience itself," my roller coaster expert chuckles, and I know from experience he is right.

Quin Checketts, on the other end of the line, is the product development manager at thrill ride manufacturer S&S - Sansei Technologies. (A thrill ride, by the way, is a catch-all term that doesn't just include what most people think when they hear the word 'roller coaster,' but also tower drop rides, and family-friendly attractions). It's Checketts' job to know where the industry is heading. He's the guy who thinks of new ways to make us scream.

Checketts has been working with thrill rides in one way or another for two decades, and I like to think that, by now, he knows a thing or two about engineering fear. In his view, there are three things that put the 'thrill' in 'thrill coaster:' anticipation, perspective and surprise.

Anticipation is self-explanatory, and there's a reason you can see the latest, greatest rides grow large upon the horizon, still miles away from the park. "It looks magnificent and terrifying," said Rob Decker, a senior vice president at amusement park operator Cedar Fair, in an interview with Bloomberg writer Jeff Wise about the company's latest ride, the Fury 325 (the tallest giga-coaster in the world). "Your visit [is] validated before you even open the car door."

But anticipation goes the other way, too, once you're aboard the ride itself. Rather than watch the ride grow tall from a distance, your ascent is spent watching the world grow small. This is why some rides, at the apex of their climb, will pause for a moment, or delay the drop—a little more time for riders to commune with the terror that awaits.

Perspective, meanwhile, is vital, Checketts says. To help illustrate his point, he compares a comfortable airplane ride at 35,000 feet to a harrowing go-kart ride mere inches from the ground.

On an airplane, "the ground is so far away, and your accelerations were so mild getting you there, that you don't have a sense of speed or anything at that height," Checketts explains. But on a go-kart, "it feels like you're doing Mach One, because of the perspective. You have the pavement rushing by you."

Obviously, that is what engineers want their rides to feel like: that you're doing Mach One. But speed and height aside there are a few tricks they use to do this, and often in conjunction with Checketts third pillar of fear, surprise.

Take column dodging.

"You bring somebody around, and make it look like, oh, you're going to hit your head on that column," Checketts says. Engineers also design tunnels to look as small as possible—too small or narrow for a car to possibly fit through.

You think you're going to crash, but of course you never will. Yet, the illusion is enough. For a fraction of a second your brain is tricked into thinking you might actually die.

"The tunnel is fine, and even as a designer I know that it's fine," Checketts says. "But as you're coming down off this hill doing 70, 80 miles per hour toward this dark tunnel, there's something that forces you to pull your hands in a few inches and duck your head a little bit."

This fear is often enhanced by a ride's seat design, or lack thereof. Some rides, you merely sit, while others, your feet dangle perilously above the ground. Engineers have also designed configurations where everyone stands, or lies flat on their stomach like Superman flying through the air.

And if that's not terrifying enough, S&S subsidiary Arrow Dynamics has even designed a seat configuration where riders spin forwards and backwards in their seats, independent from the rest of the ride.

"There's a sense of security when you're in a bucket seat with a lap bar tight against your waist, versus if you're kind of laying forward getting a better view of the ground," Checketts says. It's the difference between sitting in an airplane, or lying outside, flat on the wing. "So seating arrangement changes are usually just to create a different sensation with a different perspective."

Speed and height help too, obviously, and inversions (loops and twists) are another element that designers use to make their rides feel more harrowing. But there's a reason why Checketts and other ride designers rely heavily on psychological tricks and seemingly modest configuration changes, rather than pure G-force, to keep us scared.

"Modern thrill rides are at the limit of these accepted force boundaries, so there's not much more to push there," Tonny Schonewille, a concept engineer at European ride maker Vekoma, told me over email. "The time for bigger, taller and faster coasters is also reaching its end for technical and financial reasons."

Checketts echoes this sentiment. "I think a lot of it has a to do with money," he told me. "With a certain amount of money you could build almost anything. But at certain points the seismic considerations, the wind considerations, start to get to where it would cost more money than is usually feasible."

What comes next may disappoint extreme thrill seekers. Both Schonewille and Checketts mentioned increasing efforts by park operators to broaden their audiences by catering to children, families, and fearful adults with future rides. But personally, I'm intrigued.

When you can only push the envelope on speed or height so far, what's left for engineers to push? The potential for ingenuity is what really makes me scared.

Correction, Nov. 27: The Fury 325 is actually the world's tallest giga-coaster, and not the world's tallest coaster, as previously stated. This article has since been updated. Motherboard regrets the error!

All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.