River to Nowhere

Why I freak myself out watching online videos of dark water rides.

Water chute ride at Battersea Pleasure Gardens.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bennett/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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The troll is giant. His nose is an eggplant the color of pus. His voice jeers just one line: “I’m warning you for the last time.” An animatronic robot inside the Ye Olde Mill at Rye Playland in New York, the troll comes to me at my desk, a menace on my laptop, where I watch footage of dark water rides—where a boat enters a tunneled track sunk in a murky pool, encountering a View Master deck of scenes—on YouTube.

Like many people, I enjoy numbing myself out, blanking, getting spacey, letting my thoughts loll. This is why people meditate or smoke pot or fast or fuck, to dip a toe in the pool of oblivion, and I have done all those things. But when I find myself on the Internet and I need to get back to a place where I can work (which means write), I “ride” Old Mills, Tunnels of Love, River Caves.

I could claim to be an expert on dark water rides, but I am not. Really, I should admit, I’m neither a coaster enthusiast nor an ardent parks-goer. I don’t hold dear any steamy make-out sessions or cheery friend dates that sent ripples down the river of a dark water ride. In fact, I harbor absolutely no direct memories of dark water rides, other than those I’ve seen on-screen or found in the news.

Even if you haven’t ridden one, you’ve seen them: the cartoons, Daffy Duck paddling after a pink swan boat in a Tunnel of Love and wrecking Daisy’s date; the films, like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where a loose young woman boards a Tunnel of Love rowboat with two men and, under the cloak of manmade midnight, endures a fondling prelude to her murder; the Springsteen video; the horror stories, a small boy gone overboard on Ye Olde Mill at Playland and drowning in the shallow pool.

Dark water rides carry this media-constructed patina of menace and hush-hush sex, yet on YouTube they film surprisingly chaste. Visit Ye Old Mill at Playland (like 27,000-plus other viewers), and for 7 minutes 50 seconds you’ll see wood planks, many trolls, dumping buckets, trees being felled but stopping mid-TIMBER, signs cautioning “Turn back!” or “Beware!”—and water, lots of water. Water spattered with Gatsby-an green light, water raining down on the patient ship, water invisible to the eye but alive to the ear, sloshing, pouring, present even during the periods of subtly shifting blackness when the craft navigates the track and finally, a shaft of sunlight gasps into frame.

However they’re intended, I find these videos terrifying. In real life, dark water rides exist at fairs, carnivals, and amusement parks, places akin to the arcades Walter Benjamin describes in The Arcades Project, “[worlds] in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need.” (Though with their giant stuffed animals, soda troughs, and fried Oreos, maybe amusement parks provide everything customers don’t need.) In his 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” Freud wrote: “These themes [of the uncanny] are all concerned with the idea of a ‘double’ in every shape and degree.” Perhaps it’s the aggressive miniaturizing of these worlds that’s so dreadful. Ye Olde Mills are replicas inside replicas, nesting doppelgangers, each remove from the “real” getting creepier than the last.

To me, anyhow. The comments on these videos remind me that, for many, amusement parks are not sites of uncanniness. For many, dark water rides are, well, dull. I climb aboard the 100-year-old River Caves ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in England and drift through centuries on grainy vintage film. Glimpses of parents and children, a head of tense ringlet curls. How old these riders must be now, I think; do they remember this? And yet a commenter notes: “On river caves it was so long I got so bored. I never even looked at the stuff.” Another? “My friends and I got a bit bored on this, so we started splashing each other and dancing around.”

Does boredom spring from mundaneness put to some test? What makes one person’s boring another’s unnerving? Take, for instance, the grotto, a common feature of dark water rides. Even a word—grotto—invokes an otherworldly feeling in me. A “small picturesque cave, especially an artificial one,” the term first appears in the 17th century. The Italian is grotta, ferried into usage from the Greek kruptē, the word denoting “vault” that brings us “crypt.”

A fake points to its original, life to death, and the chance to enter into a sloshing haunted house, alone, is a weird foray into morbid thought. “The ‘uncanny’ … arouses dread and creeping horror,” Freud wrote. “It tends to coincide with whatever excites dread.”

The dark water ride is the Styx of spectacles, a memento mori in our midst: not intrinsically gruesome, yet suggestive of mortality in the way that all decrepit things, decaying things, manmade objects dying do. Perhaps it’s the stagnant water. The smell (I imagine) of stale carnival food and body odor. The riders, ferrying toward a trip that’s guaranteed to end. Or just the creaky ache of once-new mechanical elves mining fake mills. I tour dead malls. Break into shuttered schools. Scope out condemned churches that are being sold as re-purposable homes.

According to Freud, writing about something as ineffable as the uncanny requires submitting to it. Early in his essay, he admitted that “it is long since he has experienced or heard of anything which has given him an uncanny impression, and he will be obliged to translate himself into that state of feeling.” This is what dark water rides allow me to do. When I go “around the world” at River Caves, drifting through vintage footage of jungly verdure and hieroglyph-carved columns, stalagmites and stalactites pincushioning manmade vistas, I translate myself into that state of feeling. It is uncomfortable, eerie-ing and yet, still, I fiend for it. I sail toward it in the dark.