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The Ferris Wheel as Emotional Roller Coaster?

Revolving at the Edge of Play

Though it had been fifty years, almost to the very day, that I last waited for a turn on a Ferris wheel, the experience called up a vivid memory that launched a thought about the nature of play.

Let’s begin at the beginning, because the beginning, if cunningly imagined, contains the end and all the points in between. So, players get ready, get set, and as they prepare to play, they are already at play, sampling its rewards in advance. It seems a paradox, but play always begins in a positive emotion, anticipation, a looking forward to a pleasurable state of mind and body that is already itself a pleasurable state. And that recent afternoon, waiting in line with a niece who came along for the ride as minder and witness, expectation registered all around us in little kids’ gleeful smiles. They expected a gentle delight. The squeaks and squeals from riders on the rotating machine above deepened the vibe.

So, surrounded by exuberant good feelings, why was I detecting a trickle of fear-sweat gathering between my shoulder blades?

In fact, I’m not easily spooked by amusement rides; over the years I’ve ridden roller coasters that corkscrew along their tracks. I’ve shot up on that hydraulic launcher that drops riders just as precipitously. I’ve plunged through a darkened ride gotten up as the interior of an asteroid. I’ve ridden a coaster set on the shore of Lake Erie that reached so high at its summit that it seemed as if Portugal was just visible in the distance. Soaring chairlifts bother me not at all. This doesn’t make me a daredevil by any stretch, it’s just that I don’t mind heights and I do like the rush.

Further, it’s hard to class the Ferris wheel as anything close to a thrill ride. In fact, the amusement began as a variety of sightseeing. In 1893, Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition featured the popular machine that George Washington Gale Ferris, an engineer and bridge-builder, designed as an attraction for the fair’s midway. Ferris’s wheel, which rotated cars up to 264 feet, afforded passengers an expansive view of the city and of the southern end of Lake Michigan. This summer’s Ferris wheel, a near kiddy-ride, barely one eighth the height of the original, the one that had me breaking out into a cold sweat, was surely the tamest G-rated amusement that this traveling carnival offered.

So the question, again, why should I fear riding a Ferris wheel?

Photo courtesy Leah Christine Kellenberger
Source: Photo courtesy Leah Christine Kellenberger

The answer harks back to the sultry summers when Philadelphia and its suburbs and the boroughs of New York would empty as families headed “down the shore” to beach towns. Most New Jersey seaside villages hosted amusement parks perched on piers that jutted into the Atlantic. Teens would head to the Casino Pier to ride the Scrambler, famous for its g-forces, or the Swiss Bob, which was rumored to reach eighty miles per hour. (A disk jockey jabbering in German-sounding gibberish would spin Top 40 tunes for many hundreds dancing on the boardwalk.) Couples would cuddle on the slow-moving Ferris Wheel, the occasion of my previous ride, in 1968.

It should be said that the Ferris wheel, typically, is really two connected wheels with rotating cars or capsules hung between. On that day, on this ride, the two wheels began to oscillate. The machine settled on an unfortunate harmonic, grinding and groaning as the superstructure started to decouple. Rivets began to pop. Bolts failed and pinged away sounding like rifle reports. And the long fluorescent tubes above began to shatter and rain down. (I remember the heavy metal taste of the phosphorescent powder best, but I can’t forget the teen screams.) The unloading process, one car at a time, took about an hour.

I told the story as a sort of adventure narrative at a party playing it for laughs. But a psychotherapist friend listening said without hesitating, “you’re post-traumatic.” Nah, I said, combat veterans can suffer from post-traumatic effects, or survivors of naval disasters or terrorist attacks. You know, heroes. PTSD from a Ferris wheel incident? Doesn’t that denigrate the concept itself?

On this fiftieth anniversary I decided to put her theory to the test, not to “face my fear” or to “get back on the horse that threw me” in a therapeutic way. (After all, I could live the rest of my life comfortably avoiding Ferris wheels.) But this summer I queued up for a ride on the thing itself to reflect on the nature of play by searching for its opposite.

So then finally, back to the queue to ride the ride. The little riders to-be revved up for a pleasurable experience. They looked forward to the increased gravity on the way up, the sense of freedom and perspective at the apogee, the giddy stomach-floating levity on the way down. The pleasurable swoop at the bottom as the round begins again. This playful cycle isn’t intended to be scary, as real fear chases play away. But as embodied fun and the promise of a small thrill, the revolutions tickled delightfully at the distant edge of fright. As for me, instead, sitting in the car, I found myself looking up at the descendants of George Ferris’s structural members, the trusses that held the ride together, the bolts that suddenly seemed ephemeral, at the bit of stray duct tape wound on the strut. (“Jeepers,” I didn’t say jeepers, “is this thing held together with duct tape!?)

So while the little riders were feeling curious, ready, and exhilarated, the emotional precursors of play that are in fact play itself, I was feeling the opposite, not dread, exactly, but enough resurrected unease to insure that this anniversary ride wasn’t, and could not become, a playful interlude.

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