Two weeks ago, I was at the fair, looking at rides. By looking, I mean just that. I suffer from both acute anxiety and a fear of heights, and so I wandered from ride to ride watching the portable “amusements” toss people much braver than I into the air and calculating the odds that their soon-to-be injuries would warrant a class-action lawsuit.
At one point, as I stood by a smaller version of the claw ride (this one for very brave children who have not yet learned that death is permanent) blithely ignoring the “do not lean” signs posted along its railing, a man wearing a novelty visor walked up to me, clapped a large, friendly hand on my shoulder and said “Listen, buddy, you don’t need this shit. You’re a grown man, an adult. What the hell you gonna mess around with these kid rides for? It costs just the same to go on ‘Inversion,’ and trust me, baby, that will change your entire flippin’ life.” Then, he laughed and whispered, “you know what I mean by flippin’, but there are kids around.”
It took me awhile to realize that the man was using the word “flip” to replace “fuck.” I also realized that this man, who saw swinging headfirst 80 feet above the bruised concrete as something to be endorsed and recommended, not vehemently warned against, was probably very dangerous.
The bile rose in my throat — this is the first sign that I’m going to need the emergency Xanax I keep tucked with my mints; the second is a metallic taste in my mouth that I imagine is not unlike what it must feel to tongue fight a Transformer. I shouted a half-hearted “Hey, kid, I’ll see you by the ticket stand,” in the general direction of the attraction to cover my tracks and scurried away as casually as I could. Then, to quell my embarrassment, I rode a spinning boat made for the smallest children. I’d like to show you a video, but the thrills are so minimal that even the most loving parents don’t find filming their kid’s experience on this ride worthwhile. The attendant let me on for free, saying “I just don’t think this is going to be fun for you.” But it was, and as I exited the ride, he stopped me and said “maybe you should give me those tickets, after all.”
I’m explaining all of this because I feel you needed the context. How else were you going to understand why every ride on this list is ranked number one? Without context, you’d only be able to say “this guy is stupid and wrong.” Now, you can say “this guy is stupid and wrong, but also suffers from serious psychological problems that I hope he’s getting help with.”
I can’t help it. Fair rides shake me to my very core. Maybe it’s because they’re portable; maybe it’s because they run on mini generators; maybe it’s because — as I once noticed before hurtling out of a ferris wheel compartment that had the words “chicken, bitch?” scrawled on its inside door — ride operators sometimes wear headphones and loudly sing along, indicating that they would not hear my desperate screams if something went wrong. Maybe it’s all of these things.
But I can tell you this: What follows is a definitive list of the scariest rides in fair history and no one will convince me otherwise. (Please stop trying: The Pirate Ship That Doesn’t Go Upside Down isn’t even that bad!)
1. The Zipper
Most people enjoy only one thrill at a time. Sometimes two. Any more and you’re being impolite to both your guardian angel and your inner ear. But The Zipper invites you to ignore everything you’ve ever learned about personal safety, by locking you into an unstable steel compartment and twisting you every which way. It starts out slow, but soon you’re rocking upside down helplessly.
Once, I was at a fair with a friend who quickly grew tired of my desire to look at rides rather than actually experience the terror of knowing you are mortal first-hand. Not content to just retire to the shopping pavilion or the petting zoo as I had suggested, she loudly announced that today was a day for me to learn an important life lesson and she got in line for The Zipper. She assumed I’d be forced to board out of embarrassment, and I did join her as she waited to die in the hot sun, but when it came our turn to board I said, “well, this is me,” and quickly made a beeline into the shade of a nearby carnival game at which a small child was throwing a tantrum because he had just learned that you have to win several small prizes before you could exchange them for something worthwhile but completely impractical for most suburban homes.
My friend was laughing when the ride started, but by the time it had reached its full potency — rotating high in the air while each individual car moved forward along its arm, spinning upside down with abandon — her shrieks of laughter turned into shrieks of abject terror. I was scared, too, and so I stood as close to the railing as possible yelling “You can do it! You’re not alone!” every time she passed near enough to hear. This was a valiant effort on my part as every moment brought me closer and closer to actually vomiting, but she did not see it that way and we enjoyed a short but difficult period of un-companionable silence once she’d disembarked. A frost that not even petting a sheep and eating a brick of curly fries covered in cheese (which I paid for) could thaw.
1. The Drop Tower
One thing that separates a fair drop tower from one that you’d find in a standard amusement park is that the one at the fair is lashed down by ropes and cables and always sways dangerously. Despite this, there’s always a line.
At a small fair in San Jose in 2012 — I remember because I thought it was a touch ambitious for a carnival held on a high school football field to be in the business of dropping people from the sky — a high wind made the tower sway so badly that a group of riders who expected to enjoy momentary views of their fiefdom before splatting back to earth were stuck at the top for several minutes. A little girl began to cry and my husband suggested that we move from our safe spot on the ground, which I felt was wise because “what if the ride falls?” but also cowardly because “is it not our duty to lend moral support to the terrified?”
Later, when I was recounting the story to friends, my husband told me that there was no little girl on the ride, that the sharp high-pitched keening I had heard had emanated from my own mouth. What a twist! It was like that scary story in which the call was coming from within the house all along, but also the caller was a ghost and instead of killing anyone he was just making strangers uncomfortable.
I’ve avoided even looking at the tower ever since.
1. The Cliffhanger
Sometimes called Superman (although not nearly as scary as the rollercoaster), this ride puts you flat on your stomach and then swings you around higher and higher with each passing second. It’s fun and freeing in theory, but if you’re an anxious person you’ll spend the entire journey wondering whether you’ll a) fall off because you’re not secured in place or b) actually hit the ground when the ride rushes you to meet it face-first.
At one fair, a ride attendant (16, I asked) did not lock down my restraint and then decided not to do a security check because, why bother, you’re just going 40 feet into the sky at high speeds. She started the ride and I had to spin by her three times screaming “I’m going to die!” before she stopped the ride and sauntered by to help. “Whoops,” she said, comforting me. “You have no idea how often that happens.”
1. The ferris wheel
WHO DECIDED THAT THIS RIDE WOULD BE MORE FUN IF THE CARS ROCKED VIOLENTLY WHILE THEY ROSE AND FELL INSTEAD OF MAKING THEM STATIONARY? WHY DO PEOPLE ROCK THE COMPARTMENTS ON PURPOSE EVEN THOUGH THE RIDE OPERATOR WARNS YOU NOT TO AND THERE ARE ALSO SIGNS THAT SAY THE SAME THING? WHY DO STRANGERS YOU SOMETIMES HAVE TO SIT WITH FEEL IT IS OKAY TO LAUGH AND CALL YOU NAMES WHEN YOU GENTLY SUGGEST THAT THE RIDE SHOULD BE FUN FOR EVERYONE AND THAT IT MIGHT BE EVEN MORE FUN FOR THEM IF THEY STOPPED TRYING TO “GIVE IT A REALLY GOOD SHAKE, MIKE” AND JUST LET IT FUCKING BE?
1. The Ring Of Fire
Again: Are you really going to trust a structure that is lashed down with cables and ropes to transport you upside down and back to safety? If I had to put down money on which ride would cause the biggest accident, it would be this one.
When I was at the fair two weeks ago, I ran into a woman I seen getting on this ride about an hour earlier. We were at a booth selling vibrating exercisers (not the sexy kind) and I greeted her as if we were old friends.
“You made it off alive,” I said, resisting the urge to hug her. “I thought you were a goner for sure.” She was surprised to learn that she had a fan club but also relieved because the Ring Of Fire had done her wrong and she needed to tell someone, even a weird dude on whom most people would have called security.
“It ate my motherfucking shoe,” she said, although she couldn’t exactly explain how. “Now I gotta buy new shoes. Where the hell am I going to find heels at a fair? You tell me.”
The Ring of Fire: Bad for heels; bad for you.
1. Inversion (and all its medium-thrill children)
The fact that this ride isn’t considered a war crime is a mystery. This marvel of modern engineering will lift you 80 feet in the air and then rudely toss you upside down with no regard for your internal organs, which, I assure you, are very real and susceptible to trauma.
I don’t know if it will change your flippin’ life, like the dude who wanted to induct me into the “Guys Who Ride Only Manly Rides Because That’s Another Gender Stereotype We Definitely Need” club promised, but I also think that spending five bucks to find out is too steep a price to pay to find out. Worth noting, I often blame my reluctance to strap into rides on financial limitations rather than being honest about the fact that I know who I am, and who I am is a person who can’t promise that he’ll be able to control his digestive tract while spinning upside down.
1. The Scrambler
Proving that rides don’t have to go high to make you question all of your choices, The Scrambler is something you shouldn’t ride if you’ve eaten within your current lifetime. I only rode this once, and only because a child shamed me into it. This was not my child but a very aggressive eight-year-old who saw me arguing with myself about whether to get in line (if you’d like to picture this, it looks exactly like David Hasselhoff playing both Jekyll and Hyde in the 11 o’clock number from the Frank Wildhorn musical of the same name), stared me dead in the eye, and said “you’ll never make it.” He was right.
1. The Swings That Go Really High
Like The Swings That Don’t Really Go That High, this ride, which doubles the height of usual swing rides and then gently spins you around, letting you live your early 2000s fantasy of waving from such great heights, isn’t traditionally viewed as a thrilling attraction. In fact, many people I know have extolled its virtues, citing it as an excellent way to see your entire metro area splayed out beneath you.
“It’s a little bit like you’re god,” someone once told me, which is a nice sentiment, but if I wanted to be a “little bit” like god, I’d probably choose immortality or the power to smite rather than the ability to “see a whole bunch of stuff from up high but not be able to do anything about it except wonder if I’m going to fall.” Wouldn’t you?
But I digress: The real nail-biting doesn’t come courtesy of the ride’s gentle machinations; it comes from the small but frightening possibility that the tinsel-thin cables holding the swings in place might mirthfully choose to snap while you’re enjoying the view and send you falling to the ground where you will explode like a bag of over-ripe produce purchased on clearance.
This fear is applicable to any ride that swings you via cables and chains, but while The Swings That Don’t Really Go That High allow you to lie to yourself about your possibility of surviving a drop, The Swings That Go Really High offer no such security, forcing you to be aware of all the horrible things that could happen as you turn your head shakily towards the horizon and dare yourself to open your eyes.