The (Visual) Soapbox

This page written circa 26 July, 1999.

This page updated circa 1 Nov, 2003.

What Makes a Thrill?

After my recent comments upon SR being somewhat dry in the "Thrills" department, a number of you have put in your 2-cents-worth. Thankyou, that is just what is needed. At any rate, I am prompted by the most recent input to compose a small photo-gallery-cum-soapbox about what might constitute a thrilling activity.

First, let me define "thrill":
A sudden feeling of intense excitement, usually giving pleasure, causing enrapture or at least singular concentration, possibly causing trembling or quivering, often accompanied by certain cardiac and physiological abnormalities, often followed by a warm post-thrill rampdown or afterglow. (Definition of enrapture: Overwhelming emotional effect that is entrancing to the exclusion of inferior stimuli.)
So required: Sudden onset, excitement evidenced by adrenaline-style reaction, total concentration, pleasure.
Frequent indicators: Trembling, physiological disturbance, enrapture, afterglow.

Of course, danger is the classic source of thrills. Sophisticated Homo Sapiens contrives, I believe, to get thrills with a different recipe of factors. In fact, straight danger for its own sake is a pretty poor source of excitement---there has to be something you get in exchange for taking the risk. The image at left, one of my earliest after moving into Wesley College, is humorous, not tempting.

Lynne sent me this full-page advertisement from a Sydney newspaper touting the tourist-tempting opportunity to climb the girders of the Sydney Harbour Bridge:

A lovely experience, a great view, but not a huge thrill. You can easily make out the safety harnesses, amongst other factors. My experiences afforded me a marvellous comeback: I replied that the namby-pamby, safe-and-sane waltz across the prepared walkway does not compete in the thrills department with climbing the girders illegally, at night, from the road surface, with a decent wind, along a cluttered, damp catwalk, as I did in 1978, while simultaneously taking photos to prove it:

From that I got not only the thrill of a little danger in the air, but a great experience shared with colleagues, some inspiring pictures, and a tale to tell friends and descendants in years to come, i.e., now. Also, it was until recently a relatively unique event.


Danny claims to derive a thrill from the seasons, and I can understand his point, especially as the changes are far more pronounced here than they are in Sydney, which is largely evergreen, and where it does not snow nor seriously frost.

Sadly, though I love to watch the change of the seasons, say viewed from my study as shown above, and I love to lie under the tree canopy in the garden in Summer and just look up and dream, it does not do it for me in the thrills department. (But see "toys" below.)


Have you ever had one of those riotous sessions where people lost their heads and had a wild play-conflict, such as a pillow fight or a water fight? The sort of bonding session every team-builder would dearly love to be able to initiate rather than hoping for it to occur spontaneously? The sort that is portrayed as occurring in those TV programs where all the regular characters are supposed to have a brilliant group relationship? That can be a thrill; it is certainly memorable, exhilerating, rare, and the only risks are not usually physical. I searched for images to convey this, because of course you do not stop to photograph that sort of thing once it takes off. At right you see Garry... note the high wet patch on the wall. This is the cleanup in the aftermath of a huge water fight. The floor is wet. Garry is wet. The wall is wet. Nobody's spirits were wet. (Remember this Garry?)

(It was a toss-up between using that image, and one of the pictures of the hallways of 216 Pyrmont Bridge road after the Great Bean Bag Bean incident of 1980, in which there is virtually no carpet visible through the three-inch layer of plastic snow, and that was upstairs.)


Explosive pranks can do it for you. Blowing up fruit was exciting. What is a good big fruit? Well, a watermelon, of course. How big a bomb will obliterate one. This big. After the explosion pictured (captured with the sacrifice of my old flash gun, triggered by the snap of a wire wrapped around the melon), we heard a rustling in the trees overhead. This proved to be remnants of skin, leathery in texture. It was the only remnants we ever found. To give the picture scale, the melon is sitting on a park bench, it started about 300mm in diameter and about 500mm long, and at the instant of the flash it was nearly 2 metres in diameter. The night smelt strangely sweet for a while after the bang, as we enjoyed the childish laughter that accompanied the wind down.


Cars would probably be most people's first vehicle to a thrill (pun intended). They have speed, some risk, and through association with various races, some fame and glory. It starts young, too... Corey was about 10 when enjoying my X19 in this photo, and it goes on for life in even the most sedate people (such as my mother, seen here in my old S600---now there was a car).

However you do not need any special car... we carried out many a stunt. My favourite was making them fly (image of arms protruding from all windows, moving up and down as per wings). Here Andrew and Brett cavort. Really only mildly dangerous.

I want to emphasize the disconnection between danger and thrill. A motorbike is held by many to be more exciting than a car, and though I have not owned one for many years, I recall that I felt this too. It is not because they are more dangerous, or certainly not wholly. The feel of the wind, the closer control and melding of man and machine, the manoeuverability, the acceleration, these and especially the last, make the thrill.


Parties would be another classic "thrill". They are certainly portrayed with much outrageous energy in drama. Even with the right setup, and people who know how to party, few get thrilling, even the golden ones.
Or have I just not been invited to the best? (Tales of parties that rate 9+ on the Rortsworth scale, anyone? And before yous all comment, Greg, a personal Force-niner does not mean 9 on the Rortsworth, and a rage induced in your own mind does not count, you know if I am talking to you.)

I think orgies must be like water fights, only harder to kick start. I do not recall ever witnessing success, in any Roman sense of the word.


I get pretty damn close on toys. I expect this requires starting early, which I did, as you see here. It's still with me, I get off on toys and games, as if you did not all know. If you think I am having a fit, it's just my imagination firing all the nerves at once. I am prepared to accept this as a unique trait. Grief, I hope Meri and Edwin have it!!!


Speaking of orgies and the like, sex may involve a ridiculous position and a momentary yield, but it is a brave person who will make a case for it offering no thrill. You can minimise the thrill by choosing a boring partner, a regular position, a private place, and a cloak of marital monogamy (and many people do). However, these pitfalls can be avoided as there is no shortage of researchable literature and worldly lab space by means of which to go the other way.
Sadly again, I find myself trapped in an extremely heterosexual body, which makes it impossible for me to up the thrill by a number of the less mainstream, if now well known, approaches. I've tried... the photo at right is of me.


I have never gone in for things like mountain climbing, bungee jumping, and so on. Always wanted to go sky-diving, but I have never thought it appealing enough to go to the trouble (especially when sex is so convenient and portable, and toys so much easier). Gliding is cool, but same argument as sky-diving, too much effort, you have to make it your prime recreation.
Edmund Hillary, the well-known lunatic, is responsible for a great many dead bodies on mountainsides... I hope they got value in that last thrill. The photo attached is of the cliffs at Diamond Bay, very modest by comparison, and the person half way up is Garry (yes there is someone there). I was never perturbed, even at the odd clot being washed out to sea from about where I took this picture, or things like the death of a friend in a climbing accident the day Garry and I did this walk.


I have a couple more suggestions before I finish. The thrill of the chase works elsewhere. A puzzle, a challenge in detecting, can be a thrill all the way up to the denoument. The competition, the pitting of wits, the use of your faculties, these all add up. (Hence perhaps an enthusiasm for war games, eh Dave?) The "murder dinner" and similar theatrical whodunnit exercises are quite popular in the last few decades. (I subscribe to the thrill of detection, but I've been in, even written and run intrigue evenings, but they do not really do it for me.) In a way, engineering is a bit of detection, a bit of puzzle-solving, and also playing with toys... guess that's why I like it! One of the greatest compliments paid to me by a student was the line "you should be a detective". If only it paid the same!

Who remembers playing "Consulting Detective"? Was that a good game or what! Bordering on thrilling, bordering.


In order to incur no wrath from Meron, I address the subject of... breeding. There are thrilling moments, I grant you. I think actually giving birth must have an impact. My mother had moments of intense pride, of great joy, I have moments with Amelia, Meri, and Edwin when they are just great company. My kids are wonderful, but it isn't a thrill. I'll not deny the possibility of little thrills, but I am yet to be convinced that they do not rate with sky-diving: a lot of work for the moments that are at least shocking and hopefully thrilling, and it's a bugger to turn around once you jump.


PS: In 2003, Brendan Walker started some research on Thrills. Check out his site, and especially the interview summaries, here.