The Dark Theme Park

Curator's Note

In the popular imagination, the theme park has been considered primarily as a space of happiness, pleasure, enjoyment, and fun. Theme parks are designed with the guest’s entertainment in mind and with those associations of the etymology of “happy”—“luck,” “fortune,” and “turning out well.” Theme park trainers (including the author who worked for Six Flags in the 1990s) are familiar with these associations as they are instilled in the employees who focus on happiness as the raison d'être of the theme park and its guests. [1] Meanings and contexts that run counter to happiness—including those of darkness and death—are forbidden. The etymology of dark, with connotations of “obscure,” “gloomy,” “sad” (and, in Proto-Germanic ones of “hidden, concealed”), provides an opportunity to more closely analyze the theme park’s limited conceptual, cultural, and existential foundations. Curiously, the proto-theme parks of Coney Island of the early 1900s (Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland) featured attractions that offered inherently dark and disturbing contexts for guests. [2] The Boer War, the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack, the Galveston flood, the fall of Pompeii, and other attractions that even took guests on a trip into Hell were examples of an evolutionary amusement trajectory that was abandoned by contemporary theme parks. [3] With these contrasting historical contexts of the theme park in mind, one may ask: why have meanings of happiness, pleasure, enjoyment, and fun dominated the contemporary theme park form? 

Death is an existential topic and association that is rarely expressed in popular entertainment spaces, including theme parks. [4] It is so absent in the minds of guests who visit theme parks that when a ride accident involving serious injury, or even death, occurs, it is telescoped to extreme proportions. [5] The Internet abounds with journalistic stories and historical databases that detail major theme park and ride disasters. The real-life park Action Park (opened in New Jersey in 1978, closed in 1996) became famous for its eschewing of typical theme park safety provisions due to poorly trained employees and intentionally dangerous rides and attractions. At least six guests reportedly died at the park, prompting an HBO documentary about the space in 2020. The imagination of death and mayhem in the world of theme parks has been the subject of multiple novels and films, and many video games, including the popular RollerCoaster Tycoon and Theme Park versions, which focus on the goal of the player attempting to control disorder and entropy that seem to be imagined as the natural state of these spaces. [6] The subject of death, while avoided in theme parks, has been a popular one for numerous other spaces of education, entertainment, and tourism. [7] World’s exposition exhibits, museums, and sites of cultural heritage have openly focused on death, political and cultural upheaval, subcultural interests, and other dark topics in a realization that these topics do have a place in popular culture. [8] Similar experiments in theme park contexts—including the never completed Disney’s America and the contemporary BonBon-Land in Denmark—suggest that the theme park form has a limited ability to ruminate on darkness. One is reminded, then, of the question: especially given the bleak contemporary world picture in the 2020s, to what extent might the theme park begin to adopt dark topics within its spaces? 

In the era of the Anthropocene and associated political and cultural malaise (climate change, COVID-19, the renewal of white supremacy and far-right extremist politics), the dark theme park could be well-suited for providing a ground on which individuals may consider issues that are both relevant and pressing in terms of their connection to possible social, political, and environmental changes. [9] Complete reversals or erasures of the previous associations of theme parks in terms of happiness and joy could be imagined in this new era. Architectural projects of a similar sort—including Madeline Gins and Arakawa’s Reversible Destiny Lofts, in which spaces of the home are made less comforting and more difficult and challenging—illustrate the possibilities of developing new dark and nihilistic topics in the spaces of theme parks. [10] Dismaland, contemporary dark and conceptual museum spaces (including the DDR Museum in Berlin), failed imagined and defunct amusement and theme parks from the past (Disney’s America, the parks of Coney Island), and example pavilions from the world’s exposition tradition (at Expo 2015, the Swiss Pavilion and Pavilion Zero) provide an illustration of what a dark theme park might imagine in terms of the cultural, political, existential, and pedagogical reflections of a world moving further into disarray [11]. A final question about the dark theme park remains: will people want to visit such spaces—if they come to exist—and will their participation in them result in any impacts on our out-of-control, and less than happy, world? 


[1] Scott A. Lukas, “How the Theme Park Gets Its Power: Lived Theming, Social Control, and the Themed Worker Self.” In The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self,  Scott A. Lukas, ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2007).

[2] Scott A. Lukas, Theme Park (London: Reaktion, 2008).

[3] Scott A. Lukas, “Should Architecture Be Entertaining?” OAA Perspectives: The Journal of the Ontario Association of Architects 24, no. 3 (Fall 2016). Scott A. Lukas, "Controversial Topics: Pushing the Limits in Themed and Immersive Spaces (Masterclass)." Attractions Management 20 (Quarter 4, 2015).

[4] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973). 

[5] Scott A. Lukas, “The Theme Park and the Figure of Death.” InterCulture 2 (May 2005). 

[6] Scott A. Lukas, Theme Park (London: Reaktion, 2008), pp. 212-245. 

[7] John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, Dark Tourism (London: Continuum, 2000).  

[8] Scott A. Lukas, “Dark Theming Reconsidered.” In A Reader in Themed and Immersive Spaces, Scott A. Lukas, ed. (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University/ETC, 2016).

[9] Scott A. Lukas, “Heritage as Remaking: Locating Heritage in the Contemporary World.” In The Oxford Handbook of Public Heritage Theory and Practice, Neil Asher Silberman and Angela M. Labrador, eds. (London: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[10] Scott A. Lukas, “A Consumer Public Sphere: Considering Activist and Environmental Narratives in the Contexts of Themed and Consumer Spaces.” In Environmental Philosophy, Politics, and Policy, John A. Duerk, ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2021).

[11] Scott A. Lukas, “On Architecture, Entertainment, and Discomfort.” The Right Angel Journal (Summer 2020). 

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