As a Belgian rollercoaster-addicted kid – I even had a coaster scrapbook – Alton Towers was always high on my to-do list. Oblivion’s drop into darkness, the sharp twists and turns of Nemesis, I couldn’t stop dreaming about them – but the channel and quite a few miles of English highway that separated me from the park were a barrier impossible to overcome for a twelve-year-old. In 2013 my childhood dream finally came true, as we made an epic two-day visit, incidentally coinciding with Alton’s Scarefest. What’s more, this culmination of everything I adored as a kid was able to spark my more recent passion for horror entertainment. Quite poetic, no?
By now, two years later, the trip is a hazy collection of moments, quite possibly viewed through pink-coloured glasses, and as a review it won’t serve much of a purpose. I do however feel a need to write some of it down, maybe just to thank Alton Towers for being somewhat of a recurring factor in stuff that I love. So, where to begin? We booked flights, cabs and a place to stay, I studied the park map until I knew it by heart, I checked the queue times multiple times a day to see which rides would be the most crowded, and I talked extensively with a friend who had already been there. Enormous buildup of anticipation. The evening of departure eventually arrived, a flight to Manchester airport, a cab driver with an incomprehensible accent, a late arrival in our bed and breakfast, an even later curry dish. And finally, the 2nd of November, after the obligatory morning tea, I finally set foot in Alton Towers.
I won’t be talking much about the coasters or the rides here, kind of exceeds the scope of what I’m going for, but I had the best time, Oblivion always was a childhood favourite, and while short, damn, what a thrill. Nemesis still is the best inverted coaster I have ever done to date (front seat, holy hell). Rita truly is the queen of speed as she was able to knock the air out of my lungs every time. And damn, was I glad I wasn’t spoiled about what went on during Th13teen. Also, a huge honourable mention to Nemesis Sub-Terra, I think that was the most scared I have ever been in an attraction, proper Halloween attractions included. Maybe the fact I wasn’t expecting anything was a big factor, but, wow. Well played. Seriously awesome, I emerged breathless. Another thing I won’t go into detail about is our walkthroughs through The Carnival of Screams and Terror of the Towers. Not that they’re not worth it – Terror of the Towers in particular was amazing and incredibly tense. Actors terrorized us from everywhere, and the moment you reach the stairway down is one of the most ominous moments I have encountered in mazes, it really gets the point across you really, really don’t want to go down there. Rightfully so, in the end, the strobe-lit maze is completely insane. I had no idea how many actors were coming after us, all my senses seemed to fail me as we were attacked from all angles, they seemed to be everywhere at the same time. A real shame we weren’t able to do the extreme version of this one, due to an early return flight on our second day… In Carnival of Screams, we had a bit of bad luck – after queuing in the freezing rain for a very long time the maze felt underpopulated, with even long awaited Dot the clown being absent. The general atmosphere in the maze was really cool though, it’s a real pity we happened to wander through during what seemed like a general smoke break. Too bad. Now, what I really want to tell you about, is our run through The Sanctuary.
In the beginning of our first day, we had gone to the informations desk and booked ourselves two tickets for the extreme version of The Sanctuary. I had done just one proper horror attraction before, and I had no idea whatsoever what the “extreme” label actually would put us through. My girlfriend was a complete newbie to scare entertainment and was obviously pretty apprehensive – especially after the trainee kid at the desk had to call over his supervisor, who played the part and supplied us with a couple of waivers to sign. “So, you are sure you want to do this?” A good way to ramp up the tension from the very beginning of the day. As the clock ticked towards park closure, we made our way to the maze. It was dark and freezing cold, and arriving at the site maybe twenty people were waiting, for both The Santuary and Terror of the Towers extreme tours. With all the people visiting the park during Scarefest, I had expected a whole lot more, and to see just this handful of people taking on the challenge unnerved me even more. Soon after, we were ushered inside, a group of ten people, perhaps. Welcome to the Sanctuary.
After a rules check and a first meeting with some of the patients (one of the guests in our group was already freaking out – he must have had a great time inside the haunt), we found ourselves in the admissions office, and were introduced to Doctor Kelman. A touch megalomaniacal perhaps, within minutes we were all clapping our hands and chanting his name. Doctor Kelman! In the kitchen! Doctor Kelman! In the kitchen! With no idea what would eventually happen in said kitchen, one by one people were taken out of the room. I saw one of the patients put my girlfriend in a wheelchair and push her out the door. After one last look at me, she was gone. Eventually, with just me and one other guy remaining, I was taken by the hand by some off-looking fellow, he escorted me out, giggling and rattling on excitedly, and after a little while I was left alone, deserted in a hallway. All that followed next is one big crazy blur. I walked through the corridors all by myself, sometimes without anything happening, but often I caught glimpses of the patients. At one point I found the others, lying in four-poster beds, surrounded by vaguely translucent curtains. I was assigned a bed of my own, and was told to go to sleep. A daunting task, as maniacally smiling patient girls in nightgowns were doing their very best to ensure that sleep was the very last thing I’d do. Eventually I was escorted out again – a medical checkup followed, and at some other point I passed through a hallucinogenic hallway, where I was bombarded with mind altering imagery. An apple pie appeared on screen, and immediately the corridor smelled of freshly baked and caramelized apple desserts. On screen, the pie turned bad, and immediately the smell transformed into a sickly fragrance. In the meantime, colours shifted crazily all around, while another patient girl was staring menacingly at me, not blinking even once. Eventually, I was pushed down a creepy stairwell, and it was pretty obvious that things would get worse before they’d get better. I crossed a number of hallways, creepy cells all around me, until someone captured me and forced me to lie down, with my head in a toilet. When I was allowed to carry on, I had to proceed on all fours, crawling through the facility until I was handed over to another inmate. “You’ll do nicely, you’re all mine pretty boy, ALL MINE!” he yelled, keeping me locked in a chokehold as he licked my ear. I emerged onto a strobe filled labyrinth, crazed patients appeared from everywhere, and I broke out into a run, unsure of where to go. I noticed a shadow – someone was following me, I picked up the pace, but so much too late. I was tackled, hit the floor, and someone started tickling me while laughing hysterically. I managed to get up and sprinted along. The exit, just around the corner, and seconds later I emerged into the cold November air. What the hell.
Six or so other guests were standing outside already, and it took another five minutes for my girlfriend to run out, as the very last one she had received some special treatment from everyone inside, who had gleefully ganged up on her until she had been able to crawl to safety. If all of the above sounded rather chaotic, that’s a good thing, because in that case it’s a perfect representation of how it all came across at the time. Even then, just moments after, everything that had happened was a bit hazy already, and walking through the completely deserted Alton Towers park we compared experiences, piecing together everything that had gone on inside. One particular thing we could easily agree on, how cool was that??
…And that’s how I turned into a haunt fanatic. It’s immensely hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been through one of these attractions why I love this stuff so much. Most likely, a large majority of people might not enjoy it at all. In the maze itself, I never felt actually scared, but it’s a really immersive, theatrical experience, and all the interaction with the actors, the crazy stuff they do, the crazy stuff you get to do, it’s just something you can’t find anywhere else – and it only improves the more you play along. Arguably even better is the feeling after a haunt, as you try your best to remember all of the things that had happened, as you discuss with other people who went through, and compare walkthroughs, and it all instantly turns into this epic recollection of so many moments. It’s the genuine what-the-actual-fuck feeling you get afterwards that I love the most, I guess.
The strangest thing happened when I got home, after Alton had posted a video of the different scare actors singing along to Katy Perry’s Roar. As I watched the video a huge wave of nostalgia and melancholy washed over me. Seeing all the different actors who had tormented me in the various haunts, it almost felt like seeing old friends again. I don’t know, some low level of Stockholm syndrome? All I do know is that these actors were responsible for some truly incredible moments I’ll never forget. Even today, I watch that video every now and again, I’m not usually one for sentimentality, but they got to me in a weird way. So, thank you Alton Towers, and all the actors involved in The Sanctuary and the other mazes. I won’t be able to visit each and every year, but rest assured that I’ll drop by again. Here’s to hopefully many, many more.