The Portal Effect - The point at which you exit the real world and are immersed in a new world.

When planning my last attraction, Pest Control, I finalised what the story would be: the space has been overtaken by a sinister sort of pest, and Pest Control (a foreboding and powerful organisation) have secured the area to keep the situation under control and exterminate the pests. Guests will begin by entering the premises to find the area is under strict lockdown and be given a strong sense that they shouldn’t be there through various signage and audio announcements, they are then led through Pest Control’s 4-stage extermination process that has them running for their lives back to safety.

I was asked how I plan to blend the story into reality; why would you be going in there in the first place? What storyline dictates why you, a guest, are entering the quarantined area? And at that point I realised that there doesn’t need to be one.

I believe the purpose of an immersive attraction is to transport you not only to a new reality, but to potentially arrive there as a new person, with a new purpose, character, mission, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be explained why you are there and going through this journey. Similar to a dream or a nightmare, you just are. That’s the true escape from reality.

It’s the ‘I don’t know why I’m here but I know I have to get out’ thrill factor. I can liken this to a trap from the series of Saw films; you wake up in the trap, you don’t know why or how you got there, but you know you have to get out (not that I imagine waking up in a Saw trap to be ‘thrilling’ exactly…).

I like to think of the entrance to these attractions, or the point at which you leave the real world and are immersed in the new world, as a sort of portal. I don’t believe a story always has to take you through the portal, I believe the story can begin at the portal. If the queue line for an attraction is themed and immersive, then the portal is the entrance to said queue. If it’s once you get to the end of the queue and enter the attraction that the immersion and story starts, then that is the portal. If the entire area is themed and immersive, the entrance to that area is the portal. If the whole park is- you get the idea.

Some attractions do take an approach which causes you to enter the experience as yourself, straight from reality, with a realistic storyline of why you’re there, such as Project 42, Alton Towers’ newest scaremaze from 2018’s Scarefest event, you enter as a ‘volunteer’ to assist the Phalanx in an assignment. Others invite you in for a tour such as Altonville Mine Tours where you’re given a tour of the mines, and the now SBNO Nemesis: Sub-Terra where you’re invited in to come and see an alien egg that has been captured for exhibit, where something inevitably goes wrong.

Photography by JAndrew Photography

Even the Welcoming at Alton Towers, a seemingly random walkthrough of the Beornen’s crazy village with not much of a story or mission given to you does have a storyline in place as to why you’re in there, you’re invited in to join them in the ritual they do.

This concept can be translated into many different types of attractions too, even roller coasters. Take The Swarm for example – there’s been an alien attack and you’re caught up in it. The Smiler – a sinister organisation is luring you in.

Others allow it to be the case that you simply pass through a portal and enter a new world such as Wicker Man –

We don't know why we have been chosen to be sacrifices to the Wicker Man or why we are in that situation, we just are and we love it.

Surely that is the true escape from the day to day reality. Think about a classic ghost train – there’s no elaborate reason to explain why we’re boarding a train of horrors and going through a display of frightfully delightful animatronics and lighting, we’re most likely just there out of morbid curiosity. The attractions themselves are the story, and that begins the moment you step through that portal leaving behind all connections to the outside world.

Photography by JAndrew Photography

An interesting point made in Scare Tour UK’s review of Pasaje Del Terror is that “An often heard criticism of the Pasaje is that there is no coherency or story to the attraction – it’s just a random set of scenes and scares following one another. To be honest though – this sort of attraction doesn’t always need a full narrative to succeed and Pasaje’s eclectic scenes of graveyards, bedrooms and swampland all sit together nicely and complement the different stories played out in each room.”

With Pest Control I wanted to explore the far end of the spectrum, where not only is there not an explanation as to why you’d be entering this toxic environment, you are literally made to feel like you should NOT be entering. It’s the element of the unknown that makes you want to walk through that portal and into the trap.

In future attractions I will look to explore both sides of this effect; some will see guests suddenly be caught up in a situation and environment they want to get out of, and others will see them enter new surroundings with a specific purpose and objective that transfers straight from the real world.

What's your favourite portal?