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We have nothing to fear but fear itself — and rollercoasters

“They say the real fear with these rides comes from the feeling of having no control.”

This insightful evaluation of the psychology behind roller coaster phobia comes from the blandly nice boyfriend of “Final Destination 3” protagonist Wendy Christensen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) shortly before he is horrifically killed by a malfunctioning cart system on the ride in question. Like every other main character in the franchise, Wendy experiences a haunting premonition of a fatal accident, which motivates the control freak to evacuate everyone around her from the doomed roller coaster. She manages to rescue everyone but her boyfriend and her best friend, both of whom careen to their untimely demise while Wendy watches helplessly below. It is an unexpectedly striking scene in an assembly-line horror film, an oddity in its disquieting depiction of just how terrifying it can be to realize that you truly have no control.

I actually came to this same conclusion alongside Wendy. As an eleven-year-old plugged into the Internet, I stumbled across the “Final Destination” franchise and was so morbidly fascinated by the premise that I decided to watch it for myself. At that point in my life, my media diet was still heavily restricted to age-appropriate fare: the closest I came to horror was SyFy channel marathons of “The Twilight Zone.” The notion of diving headfirst into such a gory, thrilling film as my first exposure to the genre was enchanting enough that I recorded a showing of the third movie on the family cable box, then watched it at two in the morning so I could erase it before anyone could find out. Needless to say, I was horrified — not by the graphic content, but by the realization that mine and everyone else’s fates were entirely out of my hands.

As an anxious child, this did not sit well with me. I was entirely convinced of my ability to prevent disaster and ensure fortune by staying attuned to my environment and catching onto the universe’s plans before they could be enacted. If I always made sure to look at the clock when the last number was even and recited the exact same prayer before bed every night and touched my stuffed animals in the correct order, I could ward off evil in all of its forms. Unfortunately for my young nerves, the entire “Final Destination” franchise hinges on the premise that no matter how closely you examine the world for signs, no matter how many premonitions you experience, no matter how tightly you hold onto your loved one, you and everyone you know will eventually die. The end we meet may not be so terrifically elaborate or gory, but it will inevitably come. 

Confronting this reality as a young girl was initially paralyzing, especially given my insistence that rituals and lucky numbers could protect the people in my life from harm. However, as I began to watch more horror movies, I slowly relaxed into my panic and found that as troubling as it could be, horror was the perfect escape from the ubiquity of death. In the self-contained universe of a “Final Destination” or “Saw” or “Nightmare on Elm Street” entry, I could encounter death in all of its conceivable manifestations and tease out the machinations of the cinematic universe while not understanding those of my own.

Horror has made this process and the resulting acceptance of death a little more bearable despite the harshness of its real-life applications. When my best friend Gwen died suddenly during our final semester of high school, under circumstances so eerily similar to the aforementioned “Final Destination 3” scene that I considered the film cursed and wouldn’t watch it for years, I felt again immobilized by my lack of control. I was so certain that there was something I could have done to save her, that if I had read the hands of the clock more closely or interpreted my dreams more rigorously, I would have seen this coming and rescued her. Her death was so utterly senseless and cruel, a decision handed down from forces beyond my knowledge and command. 

It was my return to the horror genre that allowed me to fully comprehend the arbitrary nature of death and how my preoccupation with control would ultimately do nothing but make me miserable considering where we would all end up. First finding myself in the wailing, grieving characters of Ari Aster’s films, I sank down into the comforting nonsense of surrealism and the jolting ennui of extremism. I watched all of Alan Resnick’s work, which forces the viewer to accept that there is no certainty and that living in constant fear of death is perhaps worse than death itself; these lessons of no reality but the one we create imparted by his “alantutorial” series were especially helpful when the pandemic struck and threatened to revert me back to my clock-watching ways. New wave and new extremity films — along with their less-enlightened American torture porn counterparts — reaffirmed that pain is universal, that nothing we do can buy us more time.

Where these nihilistic messages should have soured my compassion for humanity and general appreciation of life, I instead take solace in them. The entire conceit of horror is exploiting our greatest fears, exposing us to unsafety and expecting us to relinquish our power for ninety minutes. In the universe of the film, we live out the worst things that can ever happen to us, only for the credits to return us to a reality where the best things can happen to us as well. We can control our feelings, our love, our willingness to open ourselves to all the beauty and joy in the world. The real fear of the roller coaster may come from the feeling of no control, but the real thrill comes from the feeling of not needing to control anything at all.

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