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HBO Max’s Class Action Park Feels Especially Relevant in the Time of COVID

 deadly wave pool at action park in new jersey

First off, if you haven’t had the chance to see Class Action Park on HBO Max, stop what you’re doing and go watch it. It’s an entertaining, heartwrenching, and thought-provoking documentary of the heyday of Action Park, the New Jersey water and adventure park that became synonymous with injury, risk, and death. And the attitude of the people that went to and ran Action Park reminds me far too much of many of the attitudes we’re now seeing in regards to COVID-19 and the continuing pandemic.

Class Action Park unfolds at first like an ’80s teen movie. A developer with dubious ties to Wall Street scams builds a water park so poorly designed and unsafe that it can’t possibly be real, but it is. It was full of teenagers willing to risk their lives testing rides, as long as the owner, Gene Mulvihill, was at the end waving hundred dollar bills. It was wild and crazy, horrendously unsupervised, and continued to operate, despite its dangers, because of Mulvihill’s unscrupulous behavior, which included having fake insurance and not paying his bills, including legal settlements. But it gets much darker.

You couldn’t just get seriously hurt at action park, as thousands did; people died at Action Park. The park kept operating and thriving in some sense because of the risk, after multiple fatalities. Action Park’s reputation throughout the area as dangerous fun was simply accepted and even venerated. As actor and comedian Chris Gethard explains succinctly as he recounts his time as a guest, “We would try to die for fun.”

But this was the eighties, right? This was the last generation of latch-key kids who were allowed to just run off and wander without their parents knowing where the heck they were. It was “a different time,” as they say, when people were more willing to just take dumb risks for fun. The times that allowed Action Park to thrive are long gone because we have improved rules and respect for life and the law. We know better now.

Except we don’t.

Once again, it’s summer in America, and for the entire season, people have continuously proven that they value their fun over their own lives and the lives of others. We haven’t grown up at all.

When I look at the people who were willing to die in an over-crowded wave pool at Action Park, I see the same people who think it’s fine to have a party in the midst of a global pandemic. When I consider the way people continued to throng the incredibly dangerous Alpine Slide, where people also died and were hurt every day, I see the same people who flocked to the Sturgis Motorcycle rally last month and created what has been confirmed as a coronavirus super-spreader event.

It seems our human habit to kill ourselves with sheer stupidity doesn’t go away in a generation.

Class Action Park raises so many questions, but the biggest one is “how was this place allowed to continue operating?” The answer is complex, but it amounts to an attitude of “we let people make their own decisions back then.” But that doesn’t really cut it, because so many of the people who got hurt at Action Park were teenagers who we don’t allow to make decisions, for some very good reasons. There are limits on how much we can trust people, both teens and older, to look out for their own welfare. Sometimes people need an adult to tell them, “No, don’t do that.”

But what happens when people don’t listen, and there’s no adult in charge? Action Park and COVID-19 happen. One of the other reasons the park lasted as long as it did is because the owner, Gene Mulvihill, simply ignored the law. He was Trump before Trump, a man who so blatantly and belligerently refused to work by the rules of society that society just let the rule-breaking slide. (Coincidentally, Trump himself makes a cameo in the doc, when it’s noted he considered investing in Action Park but even he thought it was too dangerous.)

Action Park is what happens when society ignores the rules, when people forget the social contract that we all rely on to stay alive in society? When a bunch of people decide that having fun and going wild is more important than silly rules and, you know, staying alive, how can you stop them? And it’s so easy for people to selfishly say, “Well, it’s my life,” but that’s never true because death and, in our current case, an infectious disease always affects more than just the person who accepted the risk.

While Action Park may seem like a strange, baffling curiosity from another era, it’s really not. The eighties were not that long ago, and even more importantly, people are still willing to be incredibly stupid in the name of fun. It’s just that now, it’s not just teenagers that are risking their lives for a thrill and “freedom.” It’s an entire nation.

(image: HBO Max)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.