Monday, April 16, 2018

A Tale of Two Towers: In The Twilight Zone

          If you believe the hype, Tokyo DisneySea is the best thing since sliced bread, or at the very least since Walt first dedicated the original Disneyland in Anaheim. Chock full of densely detailed environments and original attractions, it is often lauded as the quintessential modern take on the theme park genre. So much of the praise for the park goes to its willingness to take risks and try out new concepts, but I think there is another element at work here that is often overlooked: DisneySea's penchant for taking things that worked well and making them even better. Tokyo's reworked 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction is a prime example of this approach, taking a beloved (now extinct) ride and altering ride systems and show scenes to create an experience that may even outclass the original. A strange creature, this sub ride. 

          Yet it is not the only one, for the Tokyo Tower of Terror is an even stranger creature. While not a unique attraction thanks to its Twilight Zone predecessors, it nevertheless feels like a true original. It lives and breathes in ways that shouldn't be possible for simple stone and mortar. Each segment of the attraction flows seamlessly into the next in ways that the original Twilight Zone Tower cannot. I've thought long and hard, and now finally come to the conclusion that it is Tokyo's Tower of Terror - not the Twilight Zone original - that is the definitive version of the ride. 

          What sets the Tokyo Tower apart from its Twilight Zone-flavored cousins is more than just a matter of different theming. No, what sets this attraction apart are its powerful dual senses of story and ambiance, interwoven so closely that a confluence occurs, transforming the two into one and the same...

          But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning. In fact, let's turn it into a tour. Yes...a tour through a haunted hotel sounds like a fabulous idea. After all, what's the worst that could happen?

“A warm welcome back to those of you who made it and a friendly word of warning; something you won’t find in any guidebook. The next time you check into a deserted hotel on the dark side of Hollywood, make sure you know just what kind of vacancy you’re filling. Or you may find yourself a permanent resident of… The Twilight Zone”                                                                                        - Tower of Terror Ending Narration 
           Our story begins in the Twilight Zone, for the Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios was the first of its kind, and it is from this attraction that all others are derived. We could get into the intricacies of ride mechanics and such, but we aren't going to do that, suffice to say there are two main experiential mechanics at play as we go through the hotel: a walking tour of the grounds (AKA the queue), and the experience on board the ride vehicle. Everything else we're going to look at today revolves around the guest point of view - what we see, experience, and feel. With that in mind, consider if you will - the Tower plot:

Down at the end of Sunset Boulevard, there's a sinister building that looms over all the others. Screams echo down the walkway, and we wander towards it to try to get a better understanding of this mysterious titan. Upon our initial investigation, we come across the gates of the Hollywood Tower Hotel, and are invited in by strangely old-fashioned bellhops. We are now urban explorers, venturing through the grounds and gardens of the old hotel, inevitably finding ourselves drawn into the lobby. Things seem...odd here to say the least. Board games have been left unfinished, luggage is strewn about, and mail remains in its slots well past its delivery dates. Everything is covered in cobwebs. Another bellhop shows us to the library, where we peruse some odd literature and artifacts before lightning strikes, turning on the old TV. We watch, and discover by entering the hotel we've entered into the Twilight Zone, following in the footsteps of guests who disappeared in a freak elevator accident years ago. After exiting through the far door and finding ourselves in the boiler room, we find the maintenance elevators and board. After a series of strange occurrences and sights, we arrive at the top floor...only, the elevator begins to move forward. We see the sights of the Twilight Zone before entering into a new elevator shaft and falling, careening out of control. Finally, our elevator stops and brings us to our exit, releasing us from the Twilight Zone and our strange encounter.

          There's a few important items of note here. First, there's no parallel (or observable) story happening alongside our own, as there so often is in theme park attractions. Second, the plot we partake in is quite simple: we enter a spooky looking building, discover we're in the Twilight Zone, get on an elevator because we're told we should, and it goes crazy. Then we leave, thoroughly spooked. Voilà. A story in five acts. Only... it comes up a bit short, don't you think? The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is a masterclass attraction, and this is all it has for plot? It seems like it should have a little more meat on its bones. 

(Quick aside - the justification for boarding the ride is most peculiar. While most preshows assume riders are about to embark on the ride experience, most of these are - unlike Tower - not based in horror. Of course we'll board because we're going to have fun, but Tower goes further and suggests we board the elevators because we must. We are fated to do so, because we're part of this lost episode. Yet were this not a theme park attraction, we would logically want to leave after seeing the preshow, and theoretically could. Great mood-setting, weird setup.)

          Perhaps we'll find our answer in the backstory of the ride. The poor folks trapped on that first elevator in 1939 are basically there to show what's going to happen to us in a few short minutes - minus the whole getting zapped with lightning bit (although turning into electricity does happen in the DCA and WDSP versions). These characters aren't really given any defining characteristics other than their stock character costumes (the bellhop, the child, the diva, etc.) Sure, we care that they disappeared, but there's nothing we could really have done for them. That's all in the past. By the time we board our elevators, they aren't really on our minds until they briefly pop up again during our ride. 

          In essence, the 1939 characters perform two main functions. They add to the ambiance by populating the hotel with denizens of the time period, and also spark our curiosity enough for us to continue exploring the hotel. These characters are effective in serving as that McGuffin, but there's little else to them besides. 

The forms of these characters are left somewhat fuzzy.
          Okay, time for a final gambit: the source material. Being an anthology show, The Twilight Zone lacks a central thematic core, though there are a handful of episodes that share certain motifs. Were it a real Twilight Zone episode, the Tower of Terror would certainly fit in the group of episodes that fall under the "horror umbrella". The Tower references many of them, including the doll from "Talking Tina", the devilish coin machine from "Nick of Time", and even the cries of the missing daughter from "Little Girl Lost". Of course, the Tower features Twilight Zone Easter eggs from a number of more lighthearted episodes as well, such as the Rod Serling envelope from "A World of His Own". While these props generally add to the mood of the hotel, any ideas attached to them are muddled at best - more "spot the reference" than directing some sort of hidden plot. And sure, the horror references are generally the most prominent, but we don't need to see them to understand the tone of the ride. Our search for narrative here proves fruitless. 

          The key to Tower's success, then, lies not with its story, but with its ambiance. This is no secret to the Tower-initiated, or even someone who's seen a picture like that above - but this approach does have some consequences. First, the ride doesn't give you a totally convoluted and crazy plot because it doesn't have to. It knows that you want to go on a thrilling drop ride, and you know it can deliver that experience - courtesy of the screams you hear every few minutes. About those screams though...are they from the drop or from the terror of something else? That's what the ride wants you thinking about. 

          Most theme park attractions fall into one of two categories: plot-driven and experiential. At one end, plot-driven attractions are explicitly trying to tell you a story. Dark rides such as Pinocchio's Daring Journey or Journey Into Imagination are just a few examples. At the other, experiential attractions are focused on the experience you're about to have. These rides don't have to have a story at all; any old carnival roller coaster is technically an experiential attraction. Most Disney attractions fall somewhere in-between the two extremes, but as a thrill ride, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror skews heavily towards the experiential end of the spectrum. 

          It makes sense, then, that Tower leans into its defining experience. Dropping hundreds of feet in an elevator is scary, so why not make the experience leading up to the drop spooky in its own right? But Tower goes further than that. By establishing a creepy setting that carries throughout the ride - as well as leaving tantalizing links to the larger Twilight Zone universe - the Tower creates a lingering feeling of incorporeality and strangeness, as if you really were entering another realm of existence. Normally going from a hotel library into a creepy boiler room doesn't make much sense, but in the Twilight Zone it does, so we just go with it. Other factors - the faded glory of the lobby, the hauntingly beautiful music, the creepy bellhops - all of it adds up to a strange yet vaguely familiar experience that creeps us out. In doing so, the environment builds the tension for us with each passing minute. 

          This mood and tone are well-realized in the Twilight Zone Tower. They at times manage to capture the spirit of the original TV series well, and many like myself even consider the ambiance to be the best part of the attraction. The indelible mood is brilliant and wonderful and serves the Tower and its elevator drops well. 

But there's still something missing. 

And I don't mean whatever this is.

          Yes, aside from this near perfect ambiance, the Tower is still missing something. For a attraction as grand and as popular as it is, it should be able to say something about the world. It should have some theme that is brought to the forefront by its experience or ambiance or even story. Take an attraction of similar spirit - The Haunted Mansion. Its lesson is clear - while death can be scary, its not so bad when you learn to accept and laugh with it. Try as I might, however, I can't find any sort of similar point made by the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. We don't know enough about the characters to say they met a well-deserved fate, and what we experience in the elevator ultimately doesn't have any ill effects, apart from Rod Serling lecturing us that we should think twice when checking out abandoned hotels. Is the lesson that bad things happen for no reason? That we should be wary of elevators? Is our literal fall into darkness also a symbolic fall into darkness for humanity? It's guesswork, really, because the Tower doesn't bring any lesson in particular into focus. What's worse, because of the Twilight Zone ambiance, any lesson we might take from the attraction is divorced from reality because the attraction itself works so hard to distance us from reality. Even if the lesson was "bad things happen for no reason", due to the ambiance the lesson is now changed to "bad things happen for no reason in the Twilight Zone".

          There is one obvious solution to the question of Tower's thesis, though it isn't necessarily sure to be popular with guests: Tower of Terror is a morality play on obsession - our obsession, to be precise. We hear the siren song of Hollywood's past in the form of this once lavish hotel and are lured to our doom. This seems like a strange theme to champion in a park dedicated to Hollywood, and is a little mean-spirited for Disney in general. That our motivating force in our Tower explorations is our own curiosity certainly fits this notion. However, all of this does ignore the fact that the Tower itself seems alive at times and practically invites us in, making it a rigged game to begin with. The theme of obsession is potentially a good one, but in this instance it seems at odds with the audience. Our choice of underlying themes, then, seems to be between one that attacks the audience or no theme at all. For a classic E-ticket attraction, this is problematic.

          None of this stops Tower from being a wonderful attraction overall, but I do feel that it holds it back from being art on the caliber of Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion. Those rides have deeper themes that carry through well-actualized stories with powerful ambiance. You can have just one or the other, but you need both to make experiences that really matter. In theme parks, story gives us a way to understand our experience and solidifies the theming into a cohesive message. When it's not being used as some Michael Eisner buzzword, story matters a great deal. It allows us to learn, to and comprehend and grow, even if we don't necessarily realize it at the time. We will always remember our drops down the elevator shaft from Tower, but without a compelling story or theme behind it, does that drop really matter?

          As an experiential attraction, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror fittingly stands above the rest. As a story? It lacks strong characters and a compelling plot. Tower makes us feel things, but fails to crystallize these feelings into something truly meaningful. It is, in effect, a great mood piece and nothing more. 

But is that all Tower can be - or could it soar to terrifying new heights?

Next Time: Part II, in which we'll explore both a hotel and a Hightower!

Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror Resources

Did you know that the Tower of Terror originally started as a dark ride hosted by Mel Brooks? That and much more about the Tower's background can be found at the following links. 

Tower of Terror Archives (Part I of III)

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