Behind the Rider's glassy, threatening smile lie a host of other smiles: the sliced psychosis of The Joker's smile, the glittering sway of the Cheshire Cat's grin (an allusion made stronger by the shitty use of CGI in both the advert and, less forgivably, Burton's recent Alice in Wonderland), the allusion to a Vincent Price-esque hammer horror madness.
Above all, what is happening here is that the smile is being used as a threat. Roller-coasters make bank by promising a kind of institutionally regulated violence. If the advertisers are doing their job correctly, they elicit your total fear whilst promising you via an officious whisper in the ear a total care. I suppose Baudrillard and all those would want to talk about the roller-coaster as simulated hyperreality. I'm more interested in why they chose a SMILE to represent this nexus of fear and care.
The ride begins, and the boy is transformed. First, his eyes are infected and inflected with light in images that are weirdly reminiscent of the trippy SF classic2001: A Space Odyssey. Then, his mouth begins to open in a shout of fear or an exultant sounding of joy or a life-affirming evacuation of breath or a suicidal intake of purple-tinted air that circulates his car. That we cannot tell the difference between a shout and a laugh, between fear and joy, is precisely where laughter gains its philosophically useful coordinates: it is an affective jumble that comes to represent a thousand affective stances or postures that have been marginalized in the current Affect Studies attentiveness to weeping and melancholia. Laughter rises up to fill in the gaps during moments on the brink - of life, language, selfhood. This is not to say that it cognitively occupies these gaps to provide a master-narrative of identity. Instead, it positively and materially squeezes in between philosophical spaces to show the meatiness of experience without cognizant coordinates.
The laugh, however, almost immediately is transformed into a smile. The smile grows wider on the boy's face, and for a moment we see a gigantic TV screen wrapped around a pillar with just the boy's decapitated grinning head, eyes vacant and staring, occupying every pixel. This too is reminiscent of SF movies, of the dystopian future society of total surveillance and affective conformity utterly oversaturated by replicated smiles of happy consumers (Bladerunner, Minority Report) or calm decapitated heads reporting and regulating the masses (Equilibrium, 1984).
The transformation of the ontologically disruptive LAUGH with the gaping reproducible SMILE, I argue, is the difference between a liberating lapse of power and control in a joyful affective surge; and a return of power on the individual in a smile that is fixed, inert, dead. The laugh is forced down into the belly and plastered over with a rigid smile. The smile is historically associated with regulatory social etiquette ("don't show your teeth, dear, it's common"); and finds its most perfect form in the regulatory apparatus of the insitution in what I call the "institutional smile."
Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a perfect example of the cold, institutional smile which barely conceals an almost pathological will to violence. Ratched's smile embodies the nexus of fear and care that adverts for "The Smiler" is tapping into. Kesey describes her smile over and over again in the novel as neat, painted, stretched, solid, settled. My favorite description goes like this:
"[The Big Nurse] walks around with that same doll smile crimped between her chin and her nose and that same calm whir coming from her eyes, but down inside of her she's tense as steel."
To harness your laughter into a gaping smile is to commit yourself, to the simulated death event of a roller-coaster ride, to the policed borders of an institution, to a set of behaviors sanctioned by a glittering, terrifying, grinning system.
Forget the trope of mad laughter, it was always the smile that was pathological.