The Un-Amusement Park

As often as human beings have experienced consequences of their choices that they never intended—often enough to call it a law—one would think that eventually we would try to map out those possible, unintended consequences before pursuing some perceived good. The warnings are undoubtedly available regarding people so intent on being able to do something that they never stop to ask whether they should do it. There will always be people, often dismissed as fear-mongers, who warn that some evils might proceed from a given “good.”

It is not just some particular ethical issue, such as cloning, or embryonic stem-cell research, or various kinds of artificial intelligence. Sometimes it is a general attitude toward life that results in a whole cluster of actions, leading to their own clusters of consequences. So it is with all of the various technologies that allow people to live longer now than they have in many previous generations. One could easily discover various essays, papers, and books on the issues involved, but we press ahead anyway, assuming that longer life in itself is an unmitigated good.

And even if we recognize that there are problems associated with longer life, we seem to presuppose that those problems will be solved easily with better or future medical technology, that it is not the assumptions about life themselves which are the problem. (Perhaps those technologies will come, albeit not without their own unintended consequences.) When we live longer because of medication, technology, material comfort, etc., and we encounter pain and suffering that in a previous age would have been shortened by death, what choices will we want to have about how long our lives continue? Would assisted suicide even be an issue if our technologies did not allow us to survive things we might otherwise not have survived? Whatever the answers, we should at least consider seriously the questions.

Another question, and a more immediately pressing and pragmatic one, is what should be done for those who are experiencing the effects of age in the deterioration of their bodies and minds—that is, what should be done for most of us, eventually. In what ways are they being neglected or exploited? What will we as a society do, if anything, besides simply build more and more nursing homes and assisted living facilities? Those are some of the questions running through George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park, newly restored and available on the horror streaming service Shudder.

Originally commissioned and produced to be released in 1973 as a sort of Public Service Announcement by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania (according to the end credits), it has only now become available for viewing. According to Romero’s widow, the Lutheran Service Society did “use it initially, but I suspect that they thought it was a little edgier than they would have liked.” Watching it now, it seems like the beginning and ending were Romero’s nod to the PSA part, and then he made essentially a short psychological horror film in the middle (the entire film is only 53 minutes).

The scene following the introduction is fundamental in establishing the horror of the entire plot: a man (Lincoln Maazel) who believes himself to be self-reliant, self-sufficient, and healthy encounters a heavily breathing, injured man who does not want to go outside his white, sterile room because “there’s nothing out there.” The first man obviously thinks the second man has lost his grip on reality, because there are clearly “things” “out there.” It is on the second man’s lack of recognition that the plot hinges, because he refuses to accept the reality that he himself will experience. That’s the first question, and one of the bases for empathy: do we recognize ourselves in those who are suffering?

From there, we see the first man meet a series of situations in which he slowly begins to lose his self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Many of the challenges he faces are based around how much money one has, which hasn’t ceased to be a problem in the last 40-plus years. The “rides” on which one is able to embark depend on one’s financial status, and little has changed there. The easiest evidence is how much even the most mediocre (or worse) assisted living facilities cost.

The most intriguing element to me (for obvious reasons) is how Romero treats the scenes where two priests or pastors appear, in clerical collars, carrying a large book. Maazel’s character sees them in at least two scenes, one where he is just exiting a roller coaster, and one in which they are closing up their “church” in a park gazebo. In the latter, Maazel is looking for shelter and rest, and the two clergymen simply ignore him. In the former, they seem to be busying themselves around a casket. In between, they talk happily (creepily?) with children and younger people. The two implications are that, first, the clergy really only care about younger people—as do most of the people in the film; and, second, that the clergy only really deal with the elderly after they have died.

This provides an interesting commentary on modern American religion and churches (not only Christian; the gazebo church has both a Star of David as well as a cross). While people recognize that the aging population of the United States is something with which churches are going to have to reckon, it is often those in that same demographic who are most concerned that churches bring in “young people,” or offer something for “the youth.” Many churches have followed that advice closely, tailoring their services and programs to the young and energetic, to young families, and toward building large youth programs.

Ironically, the elderly in churches are most often viewed as wanting to stand in the way of such progress. There are, no doubt, some older people who have opposed changes to “what they’ve always done,” but it is my experience that the fear of dying, in both personal and congregational senses, encourages most older people to push for exactly the sorts of changes that they believe will “bring in the youth,” even when it is the “youth” who are opposing those same changes.

Briefly and anecdotally, I attended a conference for pastors on using the liturgies and prayer offices and newer hymns in our hymnal (Lutheran Service Book), and out of the 40 or 50 pastors present, only four or five were near my age (late 30s or early 40s). During a break, one of the pastors jokingly said that he could not remember the last time he used a hymnal. For what it’s worth, I can assure you that it was not one of the younger pastors who said that, nor were the older pastors the ones trying vainly to hold on to their liturgical traditions because it’s “what we’ve always done.” In most cases, they were the ones who had jettisoned hymnals, as well as large parts of the Lutheran liturgy, from their congregations.

But The Amusement Park points out a significant gap in the thinking of most congregations (at least of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, although I would guess it would apply to the majority of Christian congregations regardless of denomination, since most are relatively small). That gap is that, judging by demographic trends, the majority of our congregations are made up primarily of the elderly, and yet we are pushed externally and internally to pursue the young and fertile. I doubt anyone would suggest that the appropriate way forward would be to wish for fewer young people and families, but we should not, because of that, neglect the people who actually make up our congregations, even if they themselves sometimes promote such neglect!

Although The Amusement Park is not a traditional horror movie—no killers (at least directly), no monsters, no gore—Romero casts it in a fearful, frantic, and disorienting light. His camera angles and cross-cutting (I am thinking especially of a scene with a carousel) doubles the confusion of Maazel’s character, and adds to our increasing dread on his behalf. All of this makes me wonder again why aging and its symptoms have not been the source for more horror movies.

On their next episode of Saints and Cinema (coming Monday), Tim and Jay discuss The Amusement Park with professor, pastor, and horror film podcaster Scott Stiegemeyer.