I am fighting real panic as the attendant straps me into the X-Scream, a ride that begins on a ledge atop the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. In recent decades, the U.S. epicenter of legal gambling has also become a paradise for adventurers in search of extreme experiences.
There’s this one, and also dune buggy odysseys, race car driving schools, and zip lines. You can fly a fighter jet for an afternoon or skydive off this very skyscraper, too. I’ve come here to explore the world of thrill seekers as an anthropologist might approach a baffling tribe.
I know the odds of the X-Scream malfunctioning are slim, but when we catapult off the edge of the building, I want to cry. The ride—essentially a gigantic seesaw that rises to 866 feet above the Strip—abruptly tilts, and all the cars slide earthward until we stop with a heavy thump. There is nothing between us and the street below except dry air. I shut my eyes and don’t open them until the 30- to 40-second nightmare is over.
That my companions had a different experience becomes apparent only when I see a photograph later. Virtually everyone else is laughing, while I look like a child bracing myself for a flu shot. “I’ve bungee jumped off Victoria Falls in Africa over a river full of crocodiles,” says Diane Simmons of Blue Springs, Missouri, who is in town to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday. “This is nothing.”
It seems obvious to me why someone would hate the X-Scream. The question is, why do some people love it? David Zald, a neuropsychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says two discrete groups are drawn to radical experiences. Some people enjoy the exhilaration that comes with a burst of adrenaline—a hormone our bodies typically release when we’re scared out of our wits.
Others, who have a robust production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, also enjoy rides like the X-Scream. For them, the motivation and pleasure come not from the giddy high, but likely from the sense of mastery and accomplishment they feel after they’ve succeeded at a new endeavor, whether that’s stepping off a daredevil ride in one piece, starting a company, or making a bold scientific breakthrough. Sadly, my terror of the X-Scream suggests I’m not destined for greatness.