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The Comedy of Errors

Thrill Laboratory @ Mayhem Film Festival

26 October 10 words: Alison Emm
"My primary concern is industrialising human emotions and fabricating them"
 The Breathless masks

As part of this year’s Mayhem Horror Film Festival, the ever imaginative Thrill Laboratory will be back with new ways of experimenting on Broadway’s audience. We caught up with Brendan Walker – or Dr. Brendan Dare – to find out what he has up his sleeve and to pick his brain on the science and art of being thrilled and why we all love to be scared out of our wits.

You were at Mayhem last year with the modified electric chairs that measured physical responses to fear in the audience, what have you got planned for this year’s festival?

It’s going to be a little more low-key, we’ve got some gas masks with lenses that can view 3-D films – Dare-o-vision – and they monitor respiration. I’ll have my team with me, Nurse Myers and my orderlies and we’ll select audience members.  After showing them how to wear the gas masks, I’m hoping to take the whole audience through some breathing exercises and show them how to combat panic attacks. As with last year, I’ll be there doing a live transcription of the film and we’ll have the four subjects breathing rates projected outside the cinema along with cameras showing facial expressions – which will mostly be eyeballs rolling around inside the gas masks.

So why gas masks?
It’s an interesting area because breathing and breath play is really quite powerful if you become anxious or aroused or excited or panicked you lose voluntary control and your body takes over and starts breathing for you. The feeling of being in and out of control and trying to combat that adds a real tension. It’s bizarre because an audience seems to be absolutely intrigued by seeing the un-seeable in somebody else – I find it fascinating. During the film we’ll expect that people will be breathing quite normally for a lot of the time but we’re looking for moments of panic or fear and how their breathing patterns change because up until now we haven’t studied and collected large amounts of data so it’ll be fun but will also back up a lot of stuff we’re doing with interactive rides and experiences as well. 

So the masks are being used in other projects then?
Originally it was supposed to be based at Alton Towers because it used to be a gas mask army training camp but it didn’t come through so I’m doing a horror maze in Saw Alive at Thorpe Park. I’ll be conducting experiments on people’s respiration whilst looking at how to change something that’s quite passive and common by trying to add a bit of horror and intrigue into it.

The ride I’m currently working on is called Breathless; it’s a big rope swing that’s powered by the gas masks. If you breathe in harmony with the swing then you’ll make it swing higher and higher, but when it gets too high you start panicking and this makes the swing go haywire. It’s about losing control and finding out exactly where those thresholds are. I’m trialling it in a warehouse in London at the moment, but hopefully it’ll generate interest and then maybe I’ll be able to tour it next year. I had a first go today – it was fun. I wasn’t interacting with it, it was on an automated mode, and I was thinking how nice it felt and pleasurable until the computer scientists started messing around with it and it became erratic and really quite scary.
What exactly happens to the body when we get scared?
You hyperventilate; your breathing becomes shallower and quickens. Some people think that you’re getting too much oxygen, but what happens during hyperventilation is that the blood vessels in your brain are forced to contract. It’s almost counterintuitive because you’re breathing very quickly but it’s very shallow so it starts to starve the brain, or rather puts too much carbon dioxide into the brain and that’s the dizzy, light headed sensation you feel – it’s carbon dioxide poisoning. 

Brendan Walker on his Oblivion tests at Alton Towers
Do you find some people try to resist their natural reactions when they’re under the scrutiny of your machines?
Yeah, some people try because there’s the worry of looking like a bit of a wuss or that their body will betray them. Anyone can go along and tell themselves it’s just fake blood but that defeats the object of going to see a film because you go to be absolutely immersed in the unbelievable, the fantastic. I think it’s when people let themselves go that they have a better experience. I’m hoping that we’ll find people who try to maintain their composure but once they’re into the film they’ll lose that. Most of the time breathing is a subconscious thing so it’s hard to concentrate on it for the whole film - although it may be difficult to forget about it when you can only hear the rasping of your breathe as it comes through the filter!
There’s a universal love for horror and thrillers in film - why do you think people like being scared?
I think people suffer horror to feel the rush that comes from the relief that comes after the release from fear. If you allow yourself to become immersed in the film and empathise with the characters then when they’re facing jeopardy, you will also feel jeopardy. It’s a way of safely playing with the ideas of what it would feel like to be murdered or to have your limbs cut off – not nice, I’d imagine! If the character does get decapitated and you’re empathising with them, you quickly realise that it was them and not you so it’s the relief that you get the thrill from. 

I was initially interested in thrilling people from a standing start where you’re emotionless. If I suddenly manage to increase your arousal or pleasure very quickly then you get a sense of thrill. It’s the acceleration of those two factors. But if you manage to pull someone lower, actually give them a displeasurable sensation, for example, thinking they’re going to be murdered, and then give them a relief from that, “no I’m not going to get murdered and furthermore it was a comedy moment” or it was never going to happen. It’s that trajectory from being really fearful into relief and possible beyond into pleasure itself that gives a much more marked sensation. 
Dr. Brendan Dare with Nurse Myers and his orderlies at 2009 Mayhem Film Festival
You’re the world’s only “Thrill Engineer” - do you find yourself in much demand?
I think it was The Telegraph that coined the phrase but I was looking for a way of describing what I did. There was just a real tension in the words “Thrill Engineer” and because my background and training is in engineering and I do things such as constructing emotions in a very engineering manner. 
As for demand… there are rides at Alton Towers, like 13, that I worked on a part of and I’ve also consulted on a lot of other rides, attractions and events. They come up few and far between and to be honest the last two years I’ve been doing more R&D stuff related to the University of Nottingham that has later been associated with Alton Towers and Thorpe Park, so it’s a lot more speculative design work. Whereas some people are concerned with manufacturing the rides and the physicality of it, my primary concern is industrialising human emotions and fabricating them. Actually, there’s someone who’s doing a stage show for a musician and he wanted to talk and consult with me on how he could make the stage show more thrilling. I like the different disciplines, I’m not just a rollercoaster designer; where there’s a strong human emotion, I’m interested in helping people sculpt it. 
Are you a thrill seeker then?
Yeah. I already knew that I took risks and I’m not adverse to risk but I had a genetic test last year and I’ve just got the results. I have a genetic abnormality that’s linked to thrill seeking where a person can’t process dopamine as well as other people. This means you have to go to greater extremes to get your body to release the dopamine. So yeah, I’m a risk taker. 
Brendan Walker - not scared of much
What’s been the ultimate thrill for you then?
One of the very first things I did when I started researching in this area was go on a field trip around the U.S. looking for fairly clichéd things to do – Disneyland, skydiving, visiting a bondage dungeon – all the standard holiday pursuits! I was trying to do things at varying ends of spectrums but it was skydiving that really got me. I went to a real tin pot shack in the Californian desert because I didn’t have much money and when I got there they were repairing the parachutes with sewing machines. I was jumping in tandem and my jump partner was South Korean and didn’t speak a word of English. We went up in the plane and as we jumped the first ‘chute got tangled up and I just remember the whole world spinning ‘round and ‘round and ‘round. I went from sheer panic to this sort of sense of calm. I thought, “well this is it, we are going to die.” Then the second ‘chute opened and we came down safely.

I’d actually resigned myself to the fact that we’d be dead so reaching the ground and being alive was a massive sense of elation. I think that I’ll find it hard to beat – from certain death to “I can’t believe that I’m alive!” I remember vividly that certain senses became really heightened, like, jumping out at 12,000 feet even though it’s above the Californian desert was really cold, but I remember my face warming up as we got lower and lower and closer to the desert floor. I remember the change in temperature changing quite quickly across my face and taking it all in but at the same time thinking that I was going to die. You throw all the things together: the sewing machine, the ominous video, the guy not speaking English, what was supposed to be a nice experience started turning into something out of a horror movie. 
You’ve done some TV work, is there anything you’re still trying to get involved with on the telly?
I did try and contact Yvette Fielding last year and said that doing Most Haunted would be bloody excellent. The gas masks that we’ve got at Mayhem this year are wi-fi so you could wander around a haunted house wearing these gas masks and be monitored. We were talking to Channel 4 last year about it but it got put on the backburner so it could still happen. I’m constantly developing the technologies to be more robust and at some point this experiment will make it onto TV – I’m going to make it my business that it does!
TV can now become a 360 degree experience with the online as well as the broadcast, so the ability for someone to log in and watch a protagonist or contestant and analyse their live biological data has a really strong interactive element for people at home. At the University of Nottingham it’s this that is throwing up ethical questions about live experimentation, exploiting people’s emotions on telly. I think it’s just an extension of what’s going on already though. 

Come and watch Thrill Laboratory experimenting on their guinea pigs on Friday 29 October at Broadway for the viewing of Pirhana 3-D at 11.30pm
You can watch Brendan's latest TV exploits in Titanic: The Mission on 4OD

Thrill Laboratory website
Aerial website
Mayhem Film Festival website

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