Crow Country and the Horror of Theme Parks

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Crow Country and the Horror of Theme Parks

In 1989 11-year-old William Pope died on the roller coaster Z-Force at Six Flags over Georgia, a theme park just outside Atlanta. Although an autopsy was inconclusive, medical experts believed the ride contributed to Pope’s death. The incident didn’t force Six Flags to immediately close Z-Force, but it didn’t last too much longer, closing a couple of seasons later in 1991. At that point it was moved to a different Six Flags park and reopened under a new name. Pope’s death was a senseless tragedy that stayed in the news for a short while and then was largely forgotten about outside of the boy’s family and Atlanta locals who remembered the coverage. It probably would’ve remained that way if it wasn’t for the internet and Wikipedia lists and YouTube videos about theme park deaths. 

I don’t know if the designers of the videogame Crow Country know about Pope’s death specifically. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do, as the survival horror game’s backstory is about a child who is severely injured at a theme park outside Atlanta in the ‘80s. Of course, the internet is full of sad stories of tragic accidents at what are supposed to be fun parks; any one of them, or even just the basic concept itself, could be the main inspiration for Crow Country. As an Atlanta local who grew up going to Six Flags over Georgia, though, and who watched the news coverage in real time when Pope died, and who actually rode Z-Force before it was removed, I made the connection instantly. It’s only one way that Atlanta’s real theme park history is as dark and tragic as the game’s. 

Crow Country is set in 1990, but it looks straight out of the late ‘90s—primarily the era of the original PlayStation. It’s another 21st century survival horror game that uses the archaic aesthetic of the genre’s first major wave to ratchet up its tension and horror. Its dread comes not just from its cryptic story, its twisted monsters, or its difficulty, but from the creepiness of its outdated, slightly off graphics; it’s the videogame equivalent of a horror movie using the anachronistic fuzziness of a VHS tape to unsettle a modern viewer.

The mystery at the heart of Crow Country is threefold: why was the park opened, why did it shut down suddenly, and what caused the accident that sent a young guest to the hospital while it was still open. I wouldn’t call the answers all that fulfilling, but it’s not always about the destination. Crow Country’s point-and-click inspired puzzle solving is engrossing and rewarding enough to make up for its narrative looseness, and its sharp writing and character building pick up the plot’s slack. 

It also captures both the imaginative power of themed attractions and the inherent chintziness of small, local, low budget parks. Crow Country, the park, is separated into a handful of areas with distinct themes; a kid-friendly fairytale area adapts folk tales and nursery rhymes, while an underwater-themed land has a submarine exhibit and a mermaid-themed boat ride (sadly it’s on the fritz). You can tell that the park didn’t take it easy, and tried to do a lot despite its small budget; you can also tell it would never compete with the Disney or Universals of the world, with most of its attractions being themed walkthroughs instead of actual rides. It doesn’t use animatronics so much as mannequins with soundtracks. Still, its horror and undersea lands skirt around the park’s limitations with a few clever ideas and design elements, and if Crow Country had actually existed near Atlanta in the late ‘80s I’m pretty sure I would’ve been charmed by it as a kid.

I Went to a Theme Park During the Pandemic

That Atlanta connection is just a footnote, perhaps a coincidence, and something that doesn’t materially impact the plot or the characters or the atmosphere of this fictional theme park. Crow Country could take place anywhere; perhaps the game’s British developers picked the American South because of its sordid mystique, that disquieting Southern Gothic aura that has intoxicated so many carpetbaggers and opportunists. If that’s the case, nothing in it can match Atlanta’s real theme park on that front. Crow Country has nothing on the Six Flags ride Monster Mansion.

Six Flags over Georgia’s best and most beloved ride is also one of the creepiest in theme parks, not because of anything that happens during it, but because of the nature of its creation. Monster Mansion, a slow boat ride that’s like a cross between Disney’s It’s a Small World and an even more playful Haunted Mansion, is steeped in wistful nostalgia for a cartoonish South; its deeply accented cartoon monsters pay homage to Gone with the Wild, Walt Kelly’s Georgia-set comic strip Pogo, Hee-Haw, and a variety of other once-believed-to-be-benign Southern stereotypes popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Constant exhortations from the friendly monsters in Monster Mansion to “stay out of the marsh,” where frightening and deadly monsters dwell, could be seen as a reflection of the kind of fear mongering that drove white flight in the ‘70s, and which reinforced a system of unofficial residential segregation that persists heavily to this day. That might be reading too much into this genuinely great, fun, cute, light-hearted ride for kids, but Monster Mansion (which was known as Monster Plantation for its first two decades) has some deeply unsavory connections in its past.

One of the ride’s primary designers was Gary Goddard, whose long, weird career includes producing Broadway plays, directing the ‘80s He-Man movie, creating cartoons like Captain Power and Skeleton Warriors, and designing and consulting on themed attractions. He’s best known today for multiple accusations of sexual assault alongside his frequent collaborator, the X-Men director Bryan Singer. In 2017, Anthony Edwards (of Top Gun and ER fame) accused Goddard of molesting him as a child and raping a childhood friend. Goddard worked on the original Monster Plantation alongside former Disney Imagineer Al Bertino (the inspiration for Big Al of the Country Bear Jamboree), and later oversaw the ride’s 21st century update into Monster Mansion. 

There’s nothing sordid about Monster Mansion itself. There are no coded references to Goddard’s alleged crimes or predatory behavior. If you didn’t know about Goddard, his history, or his relationship to Monster Mansion, you’d never be able to tell. But when you do know, it’s hard to not think about it whenever you’re riding it. It’s a weird, creepy bit of trivia more than anything else, but much like the unexpected death of a young roller coaster fan in the ‘80s, it echoed through my mind while playing Crow Country. Derelict fairs, carnivals, and amusement parks have played a role in horror fiction for decades (how many Scooby Doo episodes took place at one?), but the fake park in Crow Country can’t match Atlanta’s real theme park for actual horror.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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