Filmmaker explores ‘glitch in the matrix’ park

“Class Action Park” uncovers the secrets of New Jersey’s most dangerous water park. HBO Max

NEW YORK — Seth Porges didn’t believe his own memories.

The tech journalist, who lives in Brooklyn, grew up in Washington, D.C., and frequently visited New Jersey as a child to see his dad’s family. And some of those trips ended up at Action Park in Vernon, N.J., a wild water park as famous for its seemingly unregulated rides as it was for tragedies during an almost 20-year run from 1978 to 1996.

“I grew up going to so many amusement parks: Universal, Disney,” Porges said. “It was very clear, the second you walked in, that Action Park was not like those places.”

Action Park is recalled by some as a pinnacle of teenage fun: A 2,700-foot-long alpine slide, speedboats that went up to 40 mph in a snake-infested pond, a bungee cord that often dropped jumpers into the frigid water below.

For others, it was a terrifying death trap that killed at least six people, including a 27-year-old Long Island man who was electrocuted by a live wire underwater, and several people who drowned in the tidal wave pool.

“Class Action Park,” an HBO Max documentary from Porges and collaborator Chris Charles Scott out now, tries to balance both versions.

“It was a glitch in the matrix,” Porges said. “People who grew up in the ‘80s or ‘90s, we think the world works in a certain way. The fact that Action Park existed for so long makes us question that. It flies in the face of the way we thought the world works.”

The 90-minute documentary includes interviews with former park employees, an archival interview with the son of park founder Gene Mulvihill and comedian Chris Gethard and “Parks and Recreation” alum Alison Becker.

“Class Action Park” sounds unbelievable. Porges insisted it’s not, but Scott, a Texas native, needed more convincing.

“I was like, ‘Seth, this would make a remarkable documentary,’” Scott told The News about their night at a bar. “But I still went home that night to look up if Seth was telling the truth.”

The research took longer than either expected — few news outlets paid attention to the park — but almost all of the stories they heard were backed up.

“You have to be very skeptical when talking about Action Park because it’s this place of such lore and such myth,” Porges told The News. “But what you find is that most people are pretty honest about it because the truth is so crazy that there’s no reason to make anything up.”

Mixed with vintage footage from old news clips and a 1993 episode of MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball” with Alice in Chains, “Class Action Park” both marvels at its subject and asks questions: How was this allowed to happen? Why would anyone go there? Who kept saying “yes” to Mulvihill?

“Everyone knew this place was dangerous,” Porges told The News. “It wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.”

At one point, the amusement park had to buy its own ambulances because the town of Vernon couldn’t handle the influx of medical calls.

But it wasn’t all fun and games and scrapes and bruises.

George Larsson was 19 when he was thrown off the Alpine slide and hit his head on a rock in 1980. After a week in a coma, he died.

His family settled with Mulvihill for $100,000. An interview with the teen’s mother, Esther, darkens the documentary and represents the worst parts of Action Park, but Porges and Scott said they couldn’t ignore the reality just to maintain childhood nostalgia.

“The existence of Action Park is hilarious,” Porges told The News. “It’s an innately human reaction to just laugh. But we wanted to make sure we weren’t just laughing at it. We had to acknowledge the human toll of it. A lot of our laughter isn’t shoving aside the injuries. It’s a dark coping mechanism for that. People laugh about things they endured because they came out on the other side.”

There is no moral to “Class Action Park,” the directors said. Action Park existed in a bubble that likely couldn’t be replicated, or should.

“It was such a formative experience for people who grew up in the New York/New Jersey area,” Porges said.

“Everyone has an Action Park story. And it really was all true.”

Tribune Wire

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