Fantasticland – The Place Where Fun is Guaranteed
In the summer of 1971, a very real experiment took place in the basement levels of the psychology building in Stanford University. For only $15.00 a day, male students who signed up for the experiment were given a label of prisoner, or guard while the observers sat back and did what they did best: Watch.
There was an increasing level of brutality from the guards during Philip G. Zimbardo’s experiment. He made the choice to end the confinement before things got worse between a random group of men given the benefit of titles and succumbing to group mentality.
But what if the experiment couldn’t simply be stopped? What if those who had self-appointed themselves with titles, and groups, and community continued to descend into madness? We’ve seen it countless times before in literature, and media. In the 1954 novel The Lord of the Flies and more recently in the Showtime series Yellowjackets.
Humans have always had an innate fascination in tragedy when it pertains to their own nature, and one way to widen the stakes is to introduce a new area – a place that’s meant for nothing but joy, and fun and that’s exactly what Mike Bockoven accomplishes in his 2016 Novel Fantasticland.
Fantasticland is a massive amusement park in the thick of the Florida Everglades created by Johnny Fresno, a man with big dreams that was prepared to go head-to-head with the big players: Disney and Universal. Fresno wanted a park that you could see the ocean from, which was nearly unheard of, but he was unbudgeable on the vision.
After years of back and fourth with investors, Fresno got his wish and opened up Fantasticland and it’s five sections in 1970. Each section was connected with the Golden Road, and in the center of the park was its biggest identifier: A large blue fiberglass exclamation point.
Everything in the park was seamless and tailored to create a good experience for the guests and the employees, including safety protocols that are necessary to run a park of this size with this many moving parts.
Fantasticland is a novel that is built around a category 5 hurricane that ravages the coastline and triggers “Operation Rapture”, a plan to staff the park with a skeleton crew in the event of an emergency. Johnny Fresno’s right-hand-man, Ollie Tracks, had a system in place for the park. In the event of evacuation, which was eminent with the size of this storm, a good amount of people would stay behind in the park to make sure things were running smoothly.
Mike Bockoven expertly weaves first-hand accounts of Operation Rapture from start to finish through interviews with members who were trapped in the park, employees who descended into madness after being trapped in the park for a full month, awaiting rescue.
Why stay behind in an amusement park during a hurricane? One of the first interviews is given from a Mr. Paul Mueller, the head of personal in the park. Paul explained that they had concerns about the storm and how much of the park could be dismantled and carried off if things get too bad. It all boils down to money, about $580 million dollars’ worth.
These were college kids living in dorms near, or on the park grounds and they were offered the full $12.00 an hour for the time that they spent in the designated shelters that were stocked with enough food and water to last for months. 326 park employees ended up staying for Operation Rapture, and it took less than 48 hours for things to go wrong.
The lights went out and three people died within the chaos of the shelter and the dangers of the storm. One was allegedly beaten to death by manager Sam Garliek, one was trampled, and the third had a asthma attack and couldn’t get to an inhaler within the panic.
This, according to the survivors of Fantasticland, was a turning point in the mood and once the weather allowed, people entered the park and gravitated to where they worked.
After a horrifying incident with a mercy killing, lines between the groups were clearly drawn. There were the Pirates, the Deadpools, the Robots, the Fairies, the Shopgirls, the Molemen, and the Freaks.
Each group had something that they were desperate to protect, whether that be their sanity, food and water rations, or their own. But the was clear from the very start that spilling blood was not an issue. While be trapped inside of the park, there was no law, no reason for anyone to fear consequence.
The leader of the Pirates was the main point of contention in this found-footage style novel. Brock Hockney was depicted as a brutalist who would easily string up bodies along with the park signs. He was shown as someone who set off a very real cannon, someone who would guide a knife into the squelching lungs of another.
Brock Hockney was a catalyst in the park. Each interview in the novel focused on reactions from people tasked with surviving. If Brock launched an attack at a group, they fought back, they killed and maimed and coated their hands in blood.
By the end of the ordeal, more than half of the inhabitants in the park had fallen prey to death. And once they were found, still huddled in their self-proclaimed groups, they were slowly succumbing to the illness that spread while living in stagnant water for months.
The groups, while natural, were also something that escalated into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation that still puzzle’s the investigator that conducted the interviews and met with the survivors.
A Social Construct of the Hurricane:
Each twist and turn in this book seemed more outlandish than the other. It was a small pebble that quickly escalated into a boulder of overreaction and fear-driven violence. A hurricane is believable. Evacuation and even Operation Rapture is believable. And to an extent, so is the reaction to being cooped up in a fully-equipped amusement park.
Towards the end of the novel, Adam Jakes, the man responsible for the comprehensive breakdown of the events that happened in the park, interviews a Travis Barnes. Travis was a former Lieutenant in the Florida National Guard who was responsible for the release of body-cam footage that showed the condition of the park upon rescue.
Travis Barnes is a matter of fact guy who is up-front about what he see’s leading to their descent on the park. Within the last fifty pages of the book, the reader is treated to a cold bucket of water over the head in the realization that this was not an isolated instance.
The world, drowned in sewage from broken pipelines, and darkness from fallen power-lines, has been touched by a natural disaster that calls off all bets. While the incident at Fantasticland was brutal and nothing compares in scale to it’s horror, he had seen others fall to the same fate.
Fear is the bottom-line in the events that were described through interviews. It lead to violence, and murder from people who would never commit such acts if the situation was different. The book lends a look into the legal culpability of the kids that were trapped in the park, as for the man who released the footage under the National Guard.
If the walls of Fantasticland were torn down and the safety of ones respective group hadn’t come into play, the question remains. Would it have devolved into such carnage? The idea of the storm suggests that survival is craved in any situation, even an amusement park.
Social media? Yeah. Social media.
Growing up in a world where there is a tiny little box in the palm of your hand to keep your mind off things has become something that we take for granted. At the touch of your finger the news is readily available, and so is the instant gratification of likes, comments, and shares. It’s quite frankly a rush that was engraved into every single young-adult working in Fantasticland and is highlighted within it’s pages.
Once in the storm shelter, there was no contact with the outside world other than a small radio that kept an update on the storm. The power went out, and so did the Wifi, and while this stirred some panic, it wasn’t until the rain stopped slatting sideways and the winds died down that boredom set in.
For teenagers and young adults that had 24/7 access to the outside world through the internet, this was a horrifying prospect. More than anything, it left them open to suggestion. Brock Hockney, the king of the pirates himself, preyed upon this. He stated plainly to Adam Jakes that people were meandering, looking for something to do, so he gave them that thing.
Brock utilized the lack of social media, the constant distraction of doom-scrolling, to his advantage. This was part of the reason the groups formed, and more than that, it took away the idea of consequence.
No one could see what was happening in the park. No one could pin anything to a specific point in time by tracking social media posts. It was freeing, and isolating all at once and played a massive part of why the park deteriorated the way that it did.
The first time I had the pleasure of encountering this work of fiction was through an audiobook, which I do highly recommend. The novel is set up like a found-footage film dedicated to exposing the true events of what happened in an amusement park cut off from society.
However, both print and audio versions of Mike Bockoven’s work are easily digestible and captivating. While there are a few lingering questions about some of the protagonists (and antagonists) there is a clear theme to his work that lends a hand to speculation.
I do not believe that we are supposed to know everything, because Adam Jakes, simply does not know everything. It’s impossible to put yourself into the shoes of amusement park workers turned savages.
After all, none of us were there, not really.