Saturday, May 8, 2010

Spirited Away

The master Japanese animator Hisao Miyazaki set his amazing film Spirited Away in an abandoned amusement park.  Chihiro, the little girl who is the movie's central character, is led into the crumbling park by her parents; only she has the sensitivity to realize that the place is, well, spooky.  In fact, it's haunted.  Her parents, served food by a ghostly restaurateur, eat so gluttonously they're turned into pigs.  And then, when the little girl is alone, the ghosts really come out.

It's interesting that "amusement" parks exist in large part to frighten us.  Roller coasters, haunted houses, towers of terror, the witch's cottage -- all are designed to bring out the sharp little odds and ends of terror that lurk in our imaginations.  And design is an essential part of the experience -- with the possible exception of casinos, it's hard to think of architecture as fanciful as the magical landscape of amusement parks.  Their architecture is intended to free the spirit, to crack open the shells we build around our imaginations, to make us more vulnerable to wonder and beauty.

So they can scare us to death.

And somehow, when all the shininess has worn away and the structures have been abandoned to wind and rain and the sun's radiation for a few years, amusement parks are not diminished.  In fact -- as Miyazaki knew -- that's when their true spookiness (and beauty) become apparent.  It's like realizing you've just stepped off the edge of everything you're certain of.

And that's sort of the bargain we make when we go in: we'll leave the circle of safety, suspend disbelief, and drop the defenses around our consciousness on the condition that things don't get too terrifying.  Most of the time, the park keeps the bargain -- at least while it's new.  Later, after the veneer has been stripped away, even the least threatening things can get a little surreal.  Magic seems to have been stored up in the dark and acquired a charge of some kind during all those nights of rain and fog.  The expressions beneath the expressions begin to emerge.

One of the ways functioning amusement parks keep the intrinsic creepiness under control is through the use of light -- lots and lots of light.  Back at the end of the 1800s, a few imaginative entrepreneurs acquired some cheap, scrubby beach frontage in New York that was noted only for its rabbits (or "coneys") and built the greatest amusement park of the Gilded Age.  The centers of Coney Island were Luna Park and Dreamland, between them illuminated by something like 150,000 light bulbs.  People at the time calculated that the complex could be seen from space.  Here's part of Luna Park.

And here's Dreamland.

They burned down, which seems fitting, but what I'd give to be able to wander through them.

I think we enter a sort of amusement park every time we open a book.  We lower our defenses and make a deal with the writer that he or she can take us new places and put us through new wringers but that we'll be intact when we're done.  Once in a while the writer betrays us and takes us much, much farther than we wanted to go, and that's when you get one of three things: empty sensationalism, cheap sentiment, or art.  You go through the cardboard door of the witch's cottage and meet a real witch.  The experience changes you, just as Chihiro was changed by her sojourn in the haunted park.  Chihiro was changed for the better, but that's not a promise art always makes.  Art is more dangerous than amusement parks.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Lovely, lovely post, Tim Hallinan!
    I just had to say it.

  2. Great stuff Tim. One of my favourite places in the UK is Blackpool Pleasure Beach, a very down-at-heel amusement park. Blackpool is a seaside town that in Victorian times was the nation's favourite holiday destination, but now...actually I think I might save it for my blog later this week. Needless to say it involves chipped paint, faded glamour, what happens when the carnival moves on, all that fascinating stuff.

  3. Thanks, guys. I have to give credit for the photos to my new favorite site, which, day in and day out, put up something dazzling. There are a couple of series on abandoned theme parks in Asia, and the pictures are all knockouts.

  4. "Art is more dangerous than amusement parks", and books are more dangerous than anything else I can think of.

    Books can renew faith or undermine it. Books can open the mind or close it tight. Books can change a group into a movement or a crowd into a mob.

    Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are best sellers. What is more frightening than that?


  5. I must agree Just Beautiful.Tim.I enjoy being here with all of you"Outlaws" in a Good way..Suze,Vt.An absolute pleasure to have you with us on BN..of course as Becke said:The Thread is all of yours to post and check up on your new Fans..Best Suze.Vt..Also any News that you want us to get out there about any of you,please Post on your Thread.will Check Weekly..Suze..

  6. It takes a real eye (or maybe it's a twisted one, can't remember...) to find beauty in neglect. I love these pictures and the spookiness to which you allude.

    I'd say we choose that haunted feeling whenever we write a mystery, or at least read one. We choose to scare ourselves and others, again and again. Why? Because you can't see something dull from space!

    Southern City Mysteries

  7. Hi, again -- Sorry to have faded away like that, still writing book proposals, which I hatehatehatehate to do and which drains me of all energy. Books are definitely more dangerous (and, often, spookier) than amusement parks, although it takes a good one to be more evocative than a ruined park. Something about those pictures causes a very complicated reaction in me -- beauty, sadness, and spookiness all in one.

    Hi, Suze -- will check the B&N thread; problem is I can't use Chrome on the site, I have to boot Firefox. But will do