True Crime Tuesdays: Class Action Park
Helen Archer | On 25, Oct 2022
Around 10 minutes into this documentary, which details the goings-on at a now-infamous New Jersey adventure park, an anecdote is told that sums up the wildness of it all. The safety testing of a waterslide called Cannonball Loop – a slide that defied the laws of physics, and needs to be seen to be believed – resulted in test dummies emerging decapitated and limbless. Undeterred, park owner Gene Mulvihill offered actual, live teenagers $100 a head to take on the chute. Protective lining was installed after multiple injuries, and yet kids were still surfacing with strange lacerations on their bodies. These were soon discovered to be caused by the dislodged teeth of previous testers, which had stuck inside the lining of the slide.
Action Park – or, as one contributor calls it, “traction park” – opened in 1978, the brainchild of former Wall Street broker, Mulvihill. “Uncle Gene”, as park attendees and employees called him, apparently wanted to open a place where kids could be free and rules were non-existent. His vision, as described here, was “somewhere between Ayn Rand and Lord of the Flies”. Directors Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges – who has previously made a short film on the park – make the chaos clear from the outset, as well as the strange, proud nostalgia. Synth background music and cartoon reconstructions of waterslide inventors, mixed with some VHS promotional films and talking heads, all give it an intrinsically 1980s feel, harking back to the time of The Goonies and Stand by Me, when kids could go out on their bikes in the morning and not come home until dinner, with their parents none the wiser about what they’d been up to all day.
While some of the park’s flaws were more of an irritant than a danger – the hot, rough asphalt used for paving, or the bee nest found in one ride – others were, clearly, more serious. Staffed (in the loosest possible term of the word) by other teenagers, the park featured not only death-trap waterslides, but also death-trap kayaking, death-trap wave pools, death-trap alpine rides (think Cool Runnings without the protective gear), death-trap Colorado rapids and death-trap speedboats. Grand Prix cars were handily situated right next to the beer tent, all the better for some drunk driving, which occasionally veered onto the highway that intersected the park.
Safety checks seemed non-existent. Someone was fatally electrocuted by a faulty underwater fan after falling out of a kayak straight into some ungrounded electricity. Lifeguard stations (dubbed by the staff the “death chair”) over the wave pool (or the “grave pool”) sat empty and the water was too murky to see anyone below the surface, where two people died. Wristbands were hastily scrawled with the letter CFS (“can’t f*cking swim”) when kids admitted they lacked the requirement but were taking part anyway. Meanwhile, on the “observation deck” overlooking a diving spot, crowds of people chanted “PUSSY, PUSSY” at the few sensible kids whose fear got the better of them, or those who landed wrong and ended up with injuries. Meanwhile, “Uncle Gene” pretended to kill someone with a cattle prod in order to deter people from not buying lift passes.
The absolute glee at which all this is relayed to the viewer is undoubtedly entertaining, but it is at odds with the more serious aspects of the documentary. Despite the title of the film, the directors don’t dig into the lawsuits – partly, one assumes, because they were suppressed before they even started. The pesky legal requirement regarding insurance was overcome through a shell insurance company overseas and Mulvihill refused to settle any claims, forcing people to take him to court – a long, expensive process beyond the means of most New Jersey natives. He benefited from Ronald Reagan’s disdain for regulation and red tape, and Donald Trump was, it is claimed, close to investing at one point. Action Park was Sussex country’s largest employer, making money hand over fist. Town officials were said to be on Gene’s payroll – it is claimed he bought homes for some.
This information is all breathlessly told to us and gives the viewer some sense of place and time and the absolute lawlessness of it all. But where the film really falls short is in portraying the human cost. The tonal shift in the last 20 minutes – as the mother and brother of George Larsson Jr, a 19-year-old who died in 1980 after being thrown off the Alpine slide, are interviewed – is jarring, as is the decision to finish the film with a shot of the bereaved family at George’s gravestone while interviewees make jokes about how iconic the park was. It’s a strange juxtaposition of profound grief and wacky races. But perhaps that’s the point – Class Action Park is a wild ride, with a bumpy end.