Technology Science - Roller coasters: the drive to scream

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As the summer winds down, Canadians in some parts of the country are preparing for a last hurrah: a thrilling roller coaster ride at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto or the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, both of which open this weekend.

But what is it about hurtling down a rickety track at speeds upwards of 100 km/h that is so appealing to some and so absolutely terrifying to others?

For Korey Kiepert, roller coaster engineer and co-founder of Ohio-based coaster designer Gravity Group, the thrill of the ride is what has kept him coming back for more since he was a child.

"A roller coaster gives someone a way that they can go down a big drop, speed through a forest at a high speed and still have the confidence that they'll be OK on the other side," he said. "You can have what would seem like a monotonous job, and you can go let loose on a roller coaster and have a complete change of pace with your friends and family."

As for the people who would much rather stay planted on terra firma, Kiepert is admittedly baffled by their lack of enthusiasm.

"I don't know any of those people," he said.

'When people are terrified of a roller coaster, it's because they're confusing the look of danger with actual danger.'â€Â" Michael Otto, psychology professor

According to Michael Otto, a psychology professor at Boston University, a fear of roller coasters comes from some people's inability to think logically about the ride and its elements.

"It has to do with how well you're able to enjoy fear," he said. "When people are terrified of a roller coaster, it's because they're confusing the look of danger with actual danger, and they can't tolerate the feelings of the thrill.

"A lot of people like thrills, but everyone has a different threshold relating to how much they like to be scared as part of that thrill, and there's a group that just doesn't like those feelings of being scared."

Otto helped to conduct a study for Universal Studios in Florida aimed at helping people overcome their fear of roller coasters. He said the thrill enjoyed by so many people who ride coasters can be compared to the excitement some feel while watching a football game.

"As you watch, people are getting a vicarious thrill without being on the field; they feel a sense of victory or defeat â€Â" all by proxy," he said. "A roller coaster is another proxy, this time using the look and feel of danger while at the same time protecting yourself from real danger."

Those with a roller coaster phobia, he said, understand there is no real danger but dislike not being in control of the situation.

"They don't want to be stuck feeling scared longer than they want to; that's what keeps people off," said Otto.

Confronting the coaster

Kevin Meyer, a psychology professor at Mount Union University in Alliance, Ohio, polled students in one of his classes and found out that 30 per cent of them had some kind of roller coaster phobia, ranging from mild to severe. His answer? Bring them to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, known for its record-setting 17 roller coasters, strap them in and watch the fear fly away.

"We had a 100 per cent success rate," he said. "All 12 of the students who had some sort of roller coaster phobia were able to conquer it at the park."

A self-professed roller coaster enthusiast, Meyer said the results did not shock him.

"It's almost like a high-speed antidepressant," he said. "I've never gotten off a roller coaster in a bad mood."

He pointed out that the common element in his students' respective fears was some sort of "traumatic" event in their past that just turned them off roller coasters for good.

"Something happened when they were young to make them scared, or they may have seen something on the news," Meyer said.

"So, we do a lot of research on ride-related anxiety, and then the students get to see the therapy in action."

A controlled adventure

Otto says the thrill of the unknown is the reason why carnival patrons in North America have been intrigued by roller coasters for over a century.

Thrill-seekers have been riding the Cyclone at Coney Island, N.Y. since the 1920s. Thrill-seekers have been riding the Cyclone at Coney Island, N.Y. since the 1920s. Chip East/Reuters

"For half a minute or so, you get to experience sights and sounds that are out of the ordinary," he said. "That seems to refresh some people and leave them invigorated â€Â" if you're able to spin it the right way for your brain."

For Kiepert, it's that surprise of every ride that kept his interest as a child and continues to drive his work in the field to this day.

"When you sit down on a roller coaster you have a sense that you are about to embark on an adventure, and you aren't quite sure where it will take you, but you know it's going to be fun," he said.

Regardless of whether or not it's the leaps and dips of a roller coaster that draw you to this year's fairs, it's being there that counts, says Kiepert.

"I think that just about every person probably has some fond memory of an amusement park, whether or not they enjoy the thrill of a roller coaster," he said.

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