I made it out alive!

Stacey Bedwell immerses herself in fear and adrenaline at Alton Towers.

In October 2019 I visited Alton Towers Scarefest for the first time. I arrived with my husband at around 10am, not sure what to expect from the day. I knew that ‘scare mazes’ were put on for the Halloween event, but didn’t really have much prior knowledge as to what a scare maze entailed. I was eager to find out.

Perhaps it was rather naïve of me to not research properly, and assume because Alton Towers is a family friendly theme park that the scare mazes would be family friendly too. Back in 2018, I wrote for The Psychologist about my experience in the UK’s only over 18 escape room, The Butcher. If you have read this, you will know that the experience terrified me far more than I expected it to. Having survived The Butcher, I went into the Scare Mazes at Alton Towers with the attitude that they can’t possibly be as frightening. I was wrong.

The first maze we decided to try out was one of the new ones for this year, The Attic. The theme of this maze is the ghost of a governess, in the attic of the towers themselves. My first impression walking towards the entrance was this was a great opportunity to get a glimpse inside the actual towers building, something you don’t normally get to see. My attention was quickly shifted towards the theme of the maze once we got inside the building. The maze follows a dark pathway around the upstairs of the towers. The set and props used have a fantastic level of detail, but unfortunately my attention didn’t allow me to look around me for any length of time, as I was concentrating on avoiding the various ghosts that seemed to appear out of nowhere throughout the whole maze. The element of surprise is definitely what makes the maze a scary experience: I lost count of the amount of times I was startled by something around a corner or in a dark hallway.

Next door to The Attic is the 'Sub-Species: End Game' maze. This one was rather intimidating right from the start, as we were asked to hand over our bags for storage before entering and were warned not to hold on to each other inside as we may be separated. This is when my heart started to race. This maze was by far the one that scared me the most. I think there are several reasons behind this, but the major contributing factor was being separated from my husband right from the start and then from the entire group once inside. Every element of the maze becomes more frightening if you feel as though you are facing them alone, without the protection of a group around you.

At one point in the maze I was pulled away from the group by a rather scary looking character, who blocked my exit from a small side room until the group had moved on. It was then up to me to find my own way, in pitch darkness, knowing that someone or something is going to jump out and grab me at any moment. Not surprisingly, I got lost and could not find my way at this point! As I told my husband when I exited the maze, I was seconds away from crouching down on the floor and screaming for help. I really was scared. It must have been clear that I was lost and distressed, because one of the characters came and guided me back towards the group. It’s good to know that the Alton Towers staff don’t just leave you to get yourself in a panic on your own. As soon as I could see daylight coming in, I knew I was near the end. At this point I ran, and it genuinely felt like I was running for my life. I guess when it comes to the fight or flight response, my default in this situation is flight.

There were two other mazes for guests over 15 to experience on the day. Throughout both I held my hands up near my face and did not look directly at any of the characters or people in the maze. I don’t think I had fully recovered from Sub-Species yet… I felt like I couldn’t handle being scared anymore at this point.

One aspect of the mazes that I noticed throughout was the smell. Each maze had a unique smell that somehow managed to add to the feeling of fear and the immersive nature of the whole experience. After coming home and doing some research, I learned that a lot of work goes into carefully constructing these scents, which include things like rotting and burning flesh, to make the mazes feel more real. As psychologists, we know that smell can have a strong impact on memory and emotion. I think the staff constructing the mazes at Alton Towers have done well to utilise as many avenues as possible to create an immersive experience with a strong psychological impact.

In addition to the main attraction of scare mazes, scare fest at Alton Towers includes opportunities to ride many of the rides in the dark. This was a fun experience with added element of surprise when you are unable to see the track in front of you. In addition, we ventured into the Alton Towers dungeon for the first time. Having previously visited the London Dungeon attraction, albeit about 15 years ago and having fainted whilst in there, I was a bit apprehensive about going in. I really enjoyed it and was relieved to see lots of opportunities to sit down and avoid passing out! Without giving too much away to prospective visitors, you pass through various rooms, meeting some scary characters on the way. Having just done the mazes, I didn’t find this nearly as terrifying, but it still made me jump. There are several points throughout the dungeon experience where visitors are picked on by the characters to take part in specific elements of the show. I think I was more scared of being chosen than I was of anything else that was happening around me!

Even in instances where my husband was not close, but strangers were, I still felt safer and less scared. As a psychologist, I find it fascinating that so many of us seek out these experiences that we know are going to induce feelings of fear – a negative emotive response that as humans we are supposed to avoid. I think experiences like the mazes at Alton Towers, and things like escape rooms, despite the negative emotive responses to stimuli they produce, also give a strong sense of achievement having completed the maze. Along with the adrenaline rush, this helps produce a memorable and enjoyable experience we want to keep coming back for. Despite being shocked by how much I was affected by the scare mazes I would go back and do it all again next year. I have adrenaline to thank for that.  

- Dr Stacey A. Bedwell, Lecturer in Psychology at Birmingham City University.

Find out more about Scarefest.

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