One of the highlights of my youth was a trip with my grandparents across Arizona. It was on that trip, on July 5th, 1968, that my life was altered forever.
Crusing along Interstate 10, we had just barely entered Arizona when we saw the signs: great big red arrows pointing the way ahead, the text black on a lemonade-yellow background, and in big, green, "dipping font" letters was the reason for the existence of these signs:
"The Thing!" 150 Miles Ahead!
"The Thing!" 60 Second Death!
"The Thing!" What Is It?
"The Thing!" You...Will...Be...AMAZED!
The signs seemed to stretch on forever when suddenly, there it was in Dragoon (or Cochise), AZ: my first taste of an honest to goodness roadside attraction/curio museum (and, really, neither "honest" nor "goodness" have much to do with any roadside attraction in the middle of the Arizona wastes.
Out front, "The Thing!" could have been mistaken for anyone of thousands of auto-outposts along the many highways and byways of America. At the edge of the road, of course, was yet one more billboard: ""The Thing!" You Have Arrived!" Pulling into the parking lot (last paved, or so it looked, as a part of the 1956 Highway Act), there was ample parking for cars, trucks, buses, mules, UFOs and at an island to one side we could fill up on no-name-o gasoline: "Ethyl at 42 cents a gallons? Robbery!"
The compound itself was, for the roadside archeologist, a look into the past not only of roadside attractions, but of this desolate stretch of highway. To one side it might have been a truck repair shop of some sort, or maybe a supply depot, possibly connected with a local mining company (the hills in that part of the world are dotted with the decaying remains of mines). The name of the original company had faded in the summer suns of years past and covered by many coats of paint (also faded) for the many incarnation that this place along the road had gone through before becoming the center of "The Thing!" universe.
The main "business" part of the place was a wood-framed building, slightly newer than the metal building onto which it had been grafted. Once upon a time, who knows what purpose it had served. An open space with large windows: perhaps it had actually been built for the purpose of being the lobby of a desert highway curio museum. More than likely, it had began life as a diner or as a market. Had to tell as the place had been, over the years, thoroughly "The Thing!"-ized: the same wonderfully garish red and black and yellow and greens as the endless, endless, endless billboards.
Inside was the "lobby" and ticket counter of the museum behind which sat a couple of ancient folks behind the sales counter staring off into the distance and smiling in that way people smile when it's easier to smile and stare off into the distance than to fall over dead. Off to one side was the Snax area (cold pop, also no-name-o snack pies, perhaps manufactured by the same people who supplied the gasoline out front. Perhaps made out of the same stuff as the gasoline out front).
The entrance to the actual museum was off to the side, with a big red "The Thing!" arrow pointing the way into to Curio Museum Land, USA.
I must confess that most of the stuff inside is lost to me now, down the dusty trails of real un-recovered memory. Two high points of note that have stayed with me down the years are "Hitler's Staff Car!" (a mid-1950's Mercedes with English license plates) and, naturally, "The Thing!"
Now, the staff car was a highlight because of the name recognition, certainly, but more so on a deeper, personal, level because I knew that it was a bogus deal. Hitler in a car that had to have been built at least 10 years after his death? And from England, to boot? But rather than feeling gypped by this, I felt enthused: I was 12 and I knew that I was face-to-chrome grill with a 100% "yeah, but the sign sez..." fake! At first it was the thrill that someone -- adults! -- had tried to pull a fast one over on me that no doubt actually did get a few highway suckers. But that I Knew It Was A Fake! But then, the experience became mixed with something quieter, and every bit as thrilling as the overt fakery: that at some level, who ever it was who had put all of this stuff together knew that this was bogus and while they hoped to pull the flimflam on some of the rubes, they also knew that there'd be some of us who'd see that it was a fake that was supposed to be a fake.
I was that day, in that hot and dust shed, suddenly included into a vast, secret tribe of illuminated tricksters. And this membership has served we well in the years since.
The other great high point was, of course, "The Thing!" itself. And for as shoddy a presentation it was, it didn't disappoint.
"The Thing!" was located in the back of the place, about three-quarters of the way through the experience. Flanking the aisle leading to "The Thing!" where smaller versions of the highway "The Thing!" signs warning the public of the shocks that lay ahead. If people didn't think that they could take it, they could easily leave through a convenient doorway and meet up with the rest of their party later. That "chicken door" led, big surprise, directly into the gift shop out in the lobby of the place, leaving the lost souls who couldn't take the "You...Will...Be...Be...AMAZEMENT!" of "The Thing!" to kill time by buying somewhat pricey items such as hand-crocheted poodle toilet paper roll covers.
For those of us who had the intestinal fortitude (as one of the signs put it) to really see "The Thing's!" close-up, we found "The Thing!" area to be somewhat less than grand: A simple 6 inch-tall platform over which hung one last smaller "The Thing!" signs with the words we had been waiting for: "Here...It...Is!!!"
"The Thing's!" display room was really an alcove, separated from the rest of the exhibits by old sheets of pegboard suspended by bailing wire from the rafters overhead. The back of the alcove was a wood-slat door that had been swung open for ventilation, revealing the desert, and several rusted out junker cars dotting the landscape outside (the predecessors to the current "death car?").
On the platform was a wooden box, something of a suspiciously slick-looking creation that must have been salvaged from a commercially produced display of some sort or the other. Slick from a distance and against the glaring light from the desert beyond actually kind-sorta...alter-like. Up close, of course, I could see that the box was somewhat shopworn around the corners, the chipped press-board showing through the places that the 79 cent-a-can Krylon© paint and duct tape hadn't been able to cover.
The top of the case was sealed by a thick sheet of scratched Plexiglas, salvaged from who knows where and held in place with a frame of two-by-fours nailed securely into the insecure box, all in an effort to keep out the prying hands of the rubes.
Or was it to keep "The Thing!" in it's box?
We stepped up on the platform and approached. High spirits, sure, 'cuz we were about to finally get a look at "The Thing!" itself, but also more than a bit of trepidation. I mean, after all that build up, all of those many, many billboard, what the heck were we really going to see?
We crept slowly -- reverently? -- toward the box and we peered inside. The arrangement was a box within a box: inside the "fancy" outer case simple wooden coffin. Had the owners of "The Thing!" merely thought of this as good showmanship and good security, sealing the plain, functional coffin inside of the outer, "all for show" case? Or had they attempted to emulate the funereal practices of the ancient Egyptians, with the heavy, flashy outer sarcophagus and the simpler inner coffin? Or was a bit of both, some odd quirk in the ancient human psyche that makes such arrangements -- outer for show, inner for go -- the natural way to present "The Thing?" Freud or Barnum, Forest Lawn or Tutankhamen?
Because of the glare from outside, it took us a moment to see just what it was inside the box. Looking past the glare of the summer sun, past the scratched Plexi, past our own cynical expectations, we looked into the box...
Down in the gloom, lay the inner coffin. And in the coffin lay, finally, "The Thing!" After all that build up, I'm not certain just what we thought we were going to encounter, but nothing, I am sure, like what we did see. Laying there inside the box-within-a-box was "The Thing!", a rather ratty-looking "mummy" clutching the also mummified remains of a baby "The Thing-ette!" Strange that "The Thing!" should have been dressed in what appeared to be the remains of "typical" Navajo ceremonial clothing. Stranger still, "The Thing!" had double teeth, a second set behind the front, both top and bottom.
The effect was, well, one of immediate amazement. And then incredulous laughter. As we peered into the coffin of "The Thing!", and having just seen the bogus Führer-Mobile and all of the other "exhibits" in the museum, my grandparents and I scoffed mightily at this even greater bit of roadway fakery: "The Thing!" Iindeed! Papier-Mâché and mud with a painted baby doll for effect; a couple pair of thrift-store dentures for weirdness.
We made our way back out of the museum, into the heart of the gift shop (show of hands: who thought that it was they who first had the great idea to have guests exit through retail?), past the smilers who may not have moved an inch since we had passed through earlier, and back out into the parking lot.
Scarcely an hour after we had pulled off the road into the parking lot of "The Thing!", my grandparents and I had done the museum, spent a few minutes and (unless there was a crocheted poodle toilet paper roll with my grandmother's name on it that has escaped my memory) very few dollars in the gift shoppe, used the restroom, and set our collective sights once again on the horizon to the east.
Flash forward some 33 odd years. What had been a young life, blissfully unaware that there was such as thing (which, at there time, there only sort-kinda was) as themed entertainment design, even more blissfully unaware that there was even a chance that at my now advanced age I'd be spending too much time and effort trying to figure out how to make a buck at it. It's a high-tech, cutting edge, RDE/THRC/A & FE kinda world we live in, and so very, very far removed from some jerk-water, roadside tourist trap B. S. in the middle of the desert.
Despite all of the wonderful buzzwords and theories of group entertainment interaction, and what makes for a satisfying out-of-home experience, and what is the nature of a first-person story in VR, and how do you get the average family of four to purchase an average of 12.5% more in both merchandise and food products (figuring this both with and without the addition of a fleet of well-themed churro wagons to address the impulse-buy snacking needs of the post-parade crowd dynamic), two things came out of that brief and definitely strange interlude at the roadside in the sweltering desert heat so long ago.
The first was something I didn't realize until some years later: from the time we saw the first billboard until we saw the "'The Thing!' Come Again Soon!" sign, the entire experience had completely rewired my brain
The other thing was that, yes, I had been taken by roadside tricksters. I had been a rube, a mark, a...a...tourist. But so what? It was great! It was fun! It was weirdness of low AND high order at the same time. And all hand-made, relying on the imagination and guile of the ancient folks behind the sales counter staring off into the distance and smiling in that way people smile when they know that what's coming is a fake and they know that soon you'll know it, too.
That was show biz, pure (again, not a word much to be used in this context) and simple. Recovered wood, a questionable mummy, and real appeals to some weird mechanism in the ancient backs of our brains. And all of it just as effective as any one of the mighty S. Charles Lee's astonishing atmospheric movie palaces. The show had started, to paraphrase Mr. Lee, on the highway when the first of the innumerable "The Thing!" billboards flashed past at 80 MPH. All along the way, we had built in our mind an image of "The Thing!" that had to be satisfied with a stop there in the desert. And the show was paid off, of course, though not in those tin-roofed sheds. Rather it had happened the moment that the first of these signs whipped past, coming finally to fruition deep in the back of my still-developing mind.
"The Thing!" That maybe-mummy and it's maybe-baby. Yes, they had to be there, of course. Can't do the pitch without delivering the goods. But in the end, they were just the come on, the wienie, the MacGuffin.
But in the end, all of that was a transient experience and not the thing -- or "The Thing!" -- at the heart of it, but rather satisfying the itch to see something that would, in that modern age of 1968, still have the effect of leaving we, the 80 MPH asphalt voyagers (as the billboards promised), "AMAZED!"