Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Review: Every Guest is a Hero

I was sent a review copy this week of a new book by Adam Berger, Every Guest is a Hero. This is the kind of theme park book that provides analysis rather than tips, and so may not be on every tourist's radar. But it will be an important work for academics to consider in perpetuity. And it stands a pretty good chance of getting the casual reader to (re)consider just what it is that theme park attractions do. This book, you see, has a central thesis.

Without going into too much detail, Berger applies the principles of mythology (specifically Joseph Campbell, and psychologist Carl Jung before him) to the theme park realm. Campbell popularized ideas like the monomyth (basically: all stories are really just ONE story told with different variations) and the Hero's Journey (ever notice that almost all Hollywood action movies have a similar plot? With common elements like the Call to Adventure, Advice from a Mentor, Supreme Ordeal, Resurrection, etc). Campbell also claimed that most stories have characters that adhere to certain set "types" called archetypes--shapeshifter, trickster, hero, mentor, etc.

The ensuing theory that wraps up archetypes and the Hero's Journey has been well applied to literature (it is one common explanation of folklore around the world) and to films (George Lucas is on record as saying that Star Wars was explicitly and consciously patterned after the Hero's Journey). But I'm not aware of anyone applying the theory to theme parks until now. Berger's book takes the concepts of myth and myth analysis and uses them to examine what's going on during Disney's rides.

I found the argument convincing when considered in the largest possible sense. Why are theme park attractions (well crafted ones, anyway) so beloved? Once answer is that we as visitors assume the mantle of Hero during the attraction and live through many (sometimes even all) the elements of a traditional Hero's Journey. It works, in short, because it's a familiar formula. That familiarity is a plus, not a negative.

While the macro argument was pretty solid, at times the theory didn't seem to apply as well in a micro sense. To quote one example, the explanations for how we enter a "Special World" in the Hero's Journey obviously apply to Disney parks - Walt even said as much about wanting the public to feel like Disneyland is a world unto itself - but it just seems a bit of a stretch to claim that the studio arch deep inside Hollywood Studios is a Special World inside a Special World. It's a theory that fits the facts, but there isn't any compelling reason for one special world to be nested within another, and as such the explanation comes across as just a little bit too convenient. It bears noting that the theme parks and the attractions within were not master-planned to the tiniest detail upon initial construction, so normally one would expect a slightly muddied thematic consistency when viewing rides built across several decades, yet that isn't a focus here. The attention stays on explaining how almost every turn, surprise, and encounter in the attractions can be mapped onto elements of the Hero's Journey.

These moments of "convenient explanations" happen from time to time in this book, though perhaps it's something an academic would note more than a casual reader. There are also plenty of moments the book provides context and background that feel extremely correct: the emphasis on threshold crossing in attractions (think Pirates) and the deep cultural ties to labyrinths that date back to the Greeks. Still, I tend to think Berger was right in his foreword that the "macro reading" will be the one readers remember. They will come away with a sense that the parks and individual attractions are constructed intentionally to mimic the shape, tone, and arc of narratives we know and love. Whether these narratives ALWAYS hew to the monomyth and Hero's Journey is largely a question of how captivated you are by Joseph Campbell - he was great to listen to for anyone interested in fairy tales, folklore, and myth - but either way, Berger's central thesis of applying the hero logic to Disney theme park attractions provides a wonderful starting point for analysis. Sometimes the application of Campbell seems ideal and in retrospect obvious, but other times it's a bit more of a stretch. But it's always interesting and will certainly provide fodder for further discussion.

The book is available on Amazon ($15 list price, often discounted) and Kindle ($10). The print version is 8.5 x 5.5 inches, and has 258 pages.

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.