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Coney Island’s Rides Have Delighted (and Frightened) Us for Decades

In May 1914, Coney Island played host to an unlikely party of VIPs led by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, Lady Doyle. A New York Times reporter trailed the group all day, hoping for a quote from the famed creator of Sherlock Holmes. “First he shot the chutes, then he took the seemingly perilous Whip ride, and finally he went into the ridiculous Crazy Village,” wrote the dutiful journalist. “And he enjoyed it all — particularly the Whip, which he pronounced thrilling.”

It was past midnight when Mr. Doyle left. He was dazed, to put it mildly. The man who’d invented the most brilliant, analytical detective in the history of popular culture had been overwhelmed by the park. One of the few things he managed to say was, “Coney Island doesn’t give one time to think.”

With any luck, it never will.

ImageExcitement and intimacy, round and around. July 23, 1949.CreditGeorge Alexanderson/The New York Times

A day at Coney Island, or at any amusement park, is an emphatically visceral experience — either you leave your inhibitions behind or have them ripped away as the Cyclone takes its first plunge or the Zenobio spins you head over heels. With seaside season here again, we’ve searched the Times’s archives for images from seasons past and found decades’ worth of ecstasy, fear, shock and the dozen other things that flit across people’s faces when they realize that their bodies are no longer under their control.

ImageOn Coney Island’s opening day for the season, enjoying the Polar Express. April 7, 1974.CreditBarton Silverman/The New York TimesImageThe Musik Express, thrilling visitors. July 4, 1975.CreditChester Higgins, Jr./The New York TimesImageThe Cyclone can be a varied emotional experience. April 5, 1971.CreditBarton Silverman/The New York Times

Looking over the photos that accompany this article, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” homed in on one of a man and two children in V-neck sweaters. The three of them are packed into a roller coaster car, their hair flowing backward, upward and outward in the wind. One child looks peaceful, almost beatific. The other screams mightily. And the man? He looks delighted, maybe partly because there’s nothing quite like watching a kid’s rite of passage. At the bottom of the frame, you can see that the man has put a reassuring hand on the howling child’s arm. “When I look at this picture, I see three completely different facial movements,” says Prof. Barrett. “That’s beautiful. It demonstrates the variability of people’s experience and expressions in exactly the same situation.”

ImageAs the original wire service caption for this photo put it, “You can’t be a sourpuss if you want to play on the human pool table.” Circa 1944.CreditInternational News Photos/Getty Images

We famously live in an age of selfie sticks and puppy filters. As Professor Barrett points out, we’ve taken to simulating big, iconic emotions for photographs. OMG, I love my cat! OMG, I hate my hair! Genuine, unpremeditated moments are becoming rare. We don’t merely pose for pictures now, we put on a show.

The people in these images from Coney Island are less guarded. Still, it’s only fair to point out that they, too, know they have an audience. Even if they’re not aware of the photographer, they’re certainly aware of each other. In a photo shoot from 1964, city inspector Bill Olsen rides the Flyer looking comically glum in his suit and baggy pants, as if to telegraph his seriousness and his dedication to his job. In a shot from 1975, a Cyclone rider throws up his arms, maybe because he knows that his picture is being taken. Professor Barrett also pointed out research by Ellen Fridland, a lecturer of philosophy at King’s College in London, which shows that people in movie theaters, for instance, exaggerate and synchronize their reactions because they’re part of an audience. People on amusement park rides may do it too, even if it’s unintentional.

ImageBill Olsen, city inspector, enjoying a ride on the Flyer. April 28, 1964.CreditMeyer Liebowitz/The New York TimesImageHow many different emotions are evident in this picture of Cyclone riders? July 4, 1975.CreditChester Higgins, Jr./The New York TimesImageNorman Mailer, the literary lion in summer, rides the Cyclone during his run for mayor of New York. June 8, 1969.CreditMichael Evans/The New York Times

The most endearing subjects in these photos tend to be the ones completely lost in the moment and oblivious to everyone else. Consider the image of Norman Mailer riding the Cyclone as he campaigns for New York City mayor in 1969. Now ignore Mailer (he didn’t win) and consider the man in the front seat of the car behind him. He’s wearing a tie and frowning miserably, his arms seemingly crossed over his stomach as if he’s afraid of throwing up. “He’s really not happy,” observed Professor Barrett. The man’s response may be the most authentic one in the photograph because posing is the furthest thing from his mind. He’s dancing like no one is watching.

ImageSwing time at Coney Island. June 20, 1976.CreditBarton Silverman/The New York Times

Even the terrified-looking people in these pictures, of course, are most likely having fun, just as people screaming and writhing during a horror movie are having fun. Rather than distress, it’s “eustress,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “a positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being” — a cathartic and enlivening experience. It’s why we get on these maniacal rides in the first place. After Mr. Doyle’s visit to Coney Island, The Times reported, “He was either laughing outright or smiling broadly from the time he started until finished his tour.” Even if he didn’t say much, it was written all over his face.

ImageAre we having fun yet? Aug. 2, 1976.CreditBarton Silverman/The New York TimesRead More

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