Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Countdown to Halloween: Alton Towers Adverts Give You Nigtmares

Alton Towers has been creeping me since before I ever went there.

Going by when attractions opened and closed (thanks to hand sites like Alton TowersAlmanac) I’ve deduced that I first went to Alton Towers in 1994, the year Nemesis and Toyland Tours opened, I remember Nemesis being the big new thing that year and I know I never rode anything but Toyland Tours at that location (there have been a few rides there), that was over 20 years ago – I feel sick. For the imaginary Americans – Alton Towers is as close to Disneyland as us Britons have ever got, it’s our number 1 theme park, as well as our largest, but more importantly to that comparison it has the best theming of any park on these septic isles. Fans could argue this began with Tower Street, their equivalent to Main Street USA, but I personally place the start of ‘Alton Awesome Theming’ with Forbidden Valley, when Thunder Valley was redeveloped into the crash site for the creature Nemesis, subsequent development has made X-Sector, Katanga Canyon, Ug Land Dark Forest, Mutiny Bay, Gloomy Wood and Forbidden Valley an immersive experience that’s almost, well, Disneylike. The only place I can think of that has as good theming is the area for The Swarm at Thorpe Park, which is owned by the same company (Merlin Entertainments, who have made it their mission to own all your childhood it seems1). 

The focus on theming has come with a cost, the loss of that wonderful inexplicableness that comes from a location developing organically over years – like dinosaurs around a log flume2, and the removal of fan favourites like The Corkscrew, Thunder Looper, The Beast and Doom & Sons but while that’s sad it’s no more relevant than anything else I’ve typed so far really because this post is absolutely nothing to do with the park itself and is actually about… their TV advertising. When I was thinking of creepy things to write about for Halloween Countdown the very first thing that came to mind was ‘that fucking Halloween Alton Towers advert’ but having done research (typing ‘1990s Alton Towers Adverts’ into YouTube) I found out that it wasn’t even a Halloween advert! That little story is emblematic of their advertising – scaring children. All of Alton Towers’ adverts are creepy – especially the one with Barney in it – and what was worst was because ‘theme parks are for kids’ they got away with advertising these primarily during children’s programming, specifically CiTV3 which was one of the most popular for kids in the 1990s (alongside CBBC) so a lot of kids got traumatised, including me as that was my programming block of choice as a nipper. They must be the only people around who decided the best way to get kids to turn up was by putting them off, and you know what? It worked!

A lot of this article is written from this brilliant chronological compilation of Alton Towers’ adverts from 1994 to 2005, which proves my point nicely by showing you how little breaks from the creepy they’ve taken over the years. Watch along, I haven’t put the times in but it should be pretty obvious what I’m talking/screaming about, so are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin:

Nemesis – 1994
This is the earliest Alton Towers ad I can find online, I can’t say for certain this is where the theme of being really creepy to bring in punters started but it does fit in with the park’s history of receiving a American park style makeover after being bought by The Tussauds Group in 1990 – with Nemesis and Forbidden Valley being their first major renovation4. But it certainly contains everything we’ll be seeing – scary lighting, Cabinet of Dr Caligari angles, CGI morphing things in unnatural ways, a gleeful narrator and Hall of the Mountain King. Hall of the Mountain King above all other elements is why Alton Towers ads can never be anything but unnerving – because Hall of the Mountain King is never anything but unnerving, and that’s Alton Tower’s fucking theme tune. In fact in the UK it is now inseparable from the park, ‘Alton Towers’ is the first thing anyone born after 1985 will think of when hearing it, they blast it out from the entrance gates and they use it on every advert.  the only thing about this advert that’s missing in some of the later ones is that it’s for something that is indeed meant to be scary (this will be true for HEX and Th13teen too), in this case Nemesis is meant to be a roller coaster built in the (not quite dead) carcass of a crashed eldritch abomination, so at least it’s got an excuse.

Alton Towers – 1994/95
 This is the fucking one, this was on literally almost every other ad-break on CiTV and I am using ‘literally’ in the correct sense, in that it was in fact on around every other ad-break as Alton Towers bought a lot of ad-time on CiTV. It is just a cavalcade of disturbing images – set to Hall of the Mountain King – on at 4 in the afternoon between kids cartoons - there is no reason for it to be creepy. Let’s see we’ve got:  humanoid animals dancing in an ethereal environment by a child dressed all in white; giant swans becoming boats amidst the fog of a lake; two different haunted looking houses in the fog; a rollercoaster booming around an oppressive stormy sky; electrified rollercoaster; ghosts running out of an open grave; a magic mansion; a wooden bridge building itself just in time to allow a runaway train to get across a high gorge and giant teddy bears – all to Hall of the Mountain King! How could anyone in their PR department watch this and thing ‘this is great, this is enchanting, kids will love it, let’s run it before that fun kids sitcom with parrot” and not “kids will never sleep again”. In defence of this advert, it’s made up of mostly footage from other adverts and two of those were advertising scary attractions and some of the creepy images when seen in context aren’t disturbing but on the other hand that meant that there was a whole advert of ghosts running around shown during tea time, to Hall of the Mountain King.

Alton Towers – 1996
I’m skipping the needlessly psychedelic Alton Towers Hotel advert even though I remember it just as well as this one because; well this one is full of things popping out of the wall into the darkness of a child’s bedroom and it disturbed me then and now. So we swirl around into this kids’ dark room and his framed map from Alton Towers begins to open portals into his room, the first thing that comes out is a shadowy figure dancing, the kid looks into a mirror and sees those human sized animals dancing in their ethereal dimension again (it was Beatrix Potter on ice), a flood comes and is only stopped by the kid closing the door, a mother and child materialise in an overhead ride and then the kid and his sister walk through the wall into Alton towers as a random ghostly woman walks out. It’s all a dream though. This is all supposed to be exciting and enticing, look at all this great stuff jumping out at you, you want to ride it, but what makes it so damn freaky is setting it in a dark kids bedroom and giving it such a dreamlike quality, oh and setting it to Hall of the Mountain King, it becomes a nightmare, a nightmare with random ghost women. Also someone needed to tell them that those Beatrix Potter costumes were terrifying on their own let along in the endless smoky void they insisted on having them skate around in on telly.

Oblivion – 1998
We enter the X-treme Era now but of course Alton Towers Marketing’s idea of extreme is ‘incredibly creepy deodorant advert’ and now they were marketing their park to teenagers they put these bloody things on twice as much. I remember this advert so well; it used to be on Saturday night TV a lot I think. This is, I reckon, what a lot of people think of when they think of Alton Towers adverts (normally because I’ve asked them to because why else would you think of Alton towers adverts?): weird colour filters, lot of close shots at odd angels, lots of dramatic shadows, scary faces, whispered or hush tones, initial confusion about what the fuck was going on, tenseness and Hall of the Mountain King, though this uses the techno version they’d break out every so often (they used it for Buzzsaw too) which I really like. Now again I suppose you could argue that the creepiness is somewhat justified because X-Sector (where Oblivion is, which was created to tie into the ride) is a futuristic, Orwellian, government testing centre focussing on psychosis but  I’ve been on Oblivion a lot, I went on it the year it opened about five days after it did, it is in fact one of favourite ‘coasters and just to clarify – there is nothing creepy about Oblivion at all, it’s land is creepy (if you’re paying attention, otherwise it just looks like their Tomorrowland – it’s even in the same location from the entrance actually) and it’s scary in terms of thrilling– it’s an almost vertical drop – but it’s not a horror.

HEX – 2000
Hey I know a way we can appeal to kids – Symphonic Metal videos. Now this IS for a scary ride and for my money one of the best rides anywhere in the world, HEX is as good as anything America can offer (except the Haunted Mansion), in fact it’s so good it defies genres being part walk through, part dark ride and part Pirate Ship pendulum ride but it is creepy, based around the real local legend of the Chained Oak Tree. That said though this is really unnerving – very similar to Oblivion but this time going for gothic horror rather than tense deodorant commercial, with a whispering woman’s voice, a ghostly witch, a tomb, and vague allusions to a legend and to ‘the other side’ in fact if you missed the woman saying the word ‘ride’, and you might because she’s whispering, you would have no idea what this was for, it could be for an album (and I‘d buy that album, I have whole fortnights where all I listen to is Symphonic or Gothic Metal) and all the time spinning (because that’s what the last part of the ride does) making everything more disorientating and haunting. Still if it makes you feel any better I don’t remember this being on during kids TV (which of course I was still watching at age 13, duh Pok√©mon was on) but more in the evening.

Air – 2002
I think they were going for ‘mysterious’ with the ‘assume the position’ teasers for Air but perhaps then they shouldn’t have let the woman who did the HEX ad use the exact same delivery as when they were going for ‘gothic horror’ because when these came on I would look ‘round at the TV (having just missed them) and think ‘what was that!?!’ the same way I’d react if I just saw a human shadow move across an empty room, proof that even when they’re trying to be funny Alton Towers are creepy.  The actual main ad actually plays off of Alton Towers standard creepy ad style and is surprisingly whimsical and soothing, which fits the theme nicely as Air is supposed to be an oasis in the Forbidden Valley that simulates the feeling of flying, probably helps that there’s hardly any Hall of the Mountain King and when it does turn up it’s overpowered by horrible dance beats. Oh and I didn’t go on this the year it opened, that year I went with the school for one of the most emotionally turbulent outings ever (I was something of an obsessive over-the-top dick) and skipped Air during all the drama, apparently I was right to, it broke down with a chunk of my school year on it. 

Rita – Queen of Speed – 2005
After a bunch of only mildly disturbing adverts we’re back on form with a man stranded in the arctic thinking about how happy he was on the least satisfying rides I’ve ever been on. What the fuck Alton Towers? Firstly what the fuck for making Rita, which a 2 second long ride – me and dad have confirmed that the ride is over before you have time to finish the word ‘fuck’ – and what the fuck for such a macabre bloody advert for something themed around racing cars, what does racing cards have to do with dying in the snow?

The video doesn’t include two of Alton Towers’ creepiest ads, but being an amazing human being, I have:

Th13teen – 2010
This one was so freaky that they had to produce a pre-and-post watershed version of it, which amazingly is the first time I think they’d had to do that. The pre-watershed version simply replaces the shots of the Th13teen girl with shots of the ride in action but screaming faces and creepy woods are still disturbing and it still includes a creepy girl’s voice whispering lines from Teddy Bears Picnic. The full ad features the Th13teen girl in all her undead glory as she’s gradually taken by the vines of the haunted Dark Woods, they actually had a woman play the Th13teen Girl and ‘haunt’ the queuing area until some drunk pricks set on her, this is why we can’t have scary things. With or without twitchy jailbait the add is still scarier than most horror films get but at least that’s fitting because Dark Woods and Th13teen are creepier than most modern horror films with a far better atmosphere – and I like modern horror films5

The Smiler – 2013
And this one actually got them in bother, the smiling wide eyed computer enhanced eyeballs of the riders, inviting their new rider to ‘join them’ in a horribly unnatural voice and that new rider’s facial transformation into another smiling Judge Doom-esque man-thing, with a nice selection of horrible close ups, weird angles and Hall of the Mountain King, got a lot of complaints, it was in the news and everything, the papers and the telly, lord knows what they were covering up that week but it proves that The Smiler has been a pain in the arse since it began. The Smiler can fuck off – and looks like it might – it’s the only ride at Alton Towers active from 1994 onwards I’ve never rode – because it’s never fucking working, first year it opened I went, it broke and broke the entire of X-Sector with it, Oblivion included, I didn’t’ get to ride Oblivion because of this fucking thing; and it’s dangerous and it’s done terrible damage to Alton Towers public image and the public image of British theme parks in general, people were going ‘ooh be careful’ about me going to Legoland because of this bloody ride, kill it Alton Towers, knock it down and build something that will work, won’t cripple guest and wont’ ruin your bottom line – I mean I know the Black Hole could be unreliable but it never amputated anybody and it never broke an entire land. What, advert, oh yeah, this advert is one of the least offensive on this list, the whole ride is themed around that Orwellian Department of Joy testing concept, I think emotions this time, but I can’t tell you if the queue area is themed to be creepy because I’ve never ridden it because it never fucking works.   

Fucking Smiler, gives me the ‘ump, I’m gonna go watch a ride-through of the Haunted Mansion, thanks for reading about the advertisements of a British theme park, sleep well.  

1 Though it was The Tussauds Group who started the Americanification of the park and thus the real focus on theming and immersion.
2 Why were dinosaurs around the Log Flume? Because they had them left over after building the Black Hole rollercoaster and needed somewhere to put them – no, really, like a lot of parks in the UK Alton Towers used to have stone dinosaurs, in this case in their Fantasy Land (now X-Sector) but had to move them when they built The Black Hole where they were standing at the time (where The Smiler now stands, though hopefully not for long), so they just stuck ‘em ‘round the Log Flume.  
3 The children’s programming block on ITV, the first channel in the UK to show adverts – before everything went digital we only had a maximum of 5 ‘terrestrial’ channels (channels that you got due to buying the compulsory TV licence) – BBC1, BBC2 plus three channels that used adverts – ITV, Channel 4 and Five (creative naming never being a strong suit of British Telly, we were too busy making awesome shows) with Five not coming around until the 1990s. If we wanted any more channels we had to pay extra to an additional provider for Sky or Cable (or Digital).
4 They had added Gloomy Wood and The Haunted House prior

5 Th13teen took a bit of a critical kicking when it opened because it wasn’t as ‘sheer thrills’ as the previous big new ‘coasters Alton Towers had built, and it replaced the beloved Corkscrew, the first roller coaster Alton Towers ever had (and a damn fine little ride), and presumably because its’ a bugger to type over and over but I absolutely love everything about Th13teen and its new area, even if I do miss the Corkscrew and Ug Land.

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