'Have you ever done a bungee jump from a crashing aircraft before?' said a voice in my ear.
'I beg your pardon,' I said.
'What happens,' said the voice, 'is that you will make your way to the emergency exit of the plane because it is on fire and the engines are failing. You expect to be handed a parachute. Instead, you find to your terror that you are being offered the chance to do a bungee jump, by a man who looks suspiciously like Sir Norman Fowler, out of the aeroplane down towards the invisible sea below.'
'Why is it invisible?'
'Because it is dark.'
'But surely, if I do a bungee jump, I will then be dangling below the aircraft as it falls to its doom?'
'Well, not necessarily. If you do the jump correctly, you may well bounce right back into the plane.'
'Which is still falling?'
This conversation took place recently between me and a man who prefers to be called Rodney, in a small, suburban house in south London. We were not, I am glad to say, actually in a blazing aircraft. But I was about to go through all the sensations of doing so, as Rodney strapped me into a large helmet that, he assured me, would bring me 'virtual reality'.
Sure enough, seconds later I was undergoing all the experiences he had described. The burning aircraft, the rush to the exit, the
man who looked like Sir Norman Fowler - he looked so much like Sir Norman Fowler that I half-
expected him to lean over to me and say, 'Of course, it is a matter of record that the Government has spent far more on bungee-jumping than any previous government ever did' - and the descent into the night, the sickening fall, the even more sickening bounce at the end of the elastic rope, the return to the aircraft and, even worse, the discovery that they had not cancelled the movie after all but were about to show an old Burt Reynolds film.
'What is the point of all this?' I asked him as I tottered from the helmet, shaking and pale. 'Why put people through it?'
'I started out in life as a kidnapper,' said Rodney. 'I used to kidnap people. Hold them captive. Get the ransom. Let them go.'
'Dodgy business,' I said.
'Not at all,' said Rodney. 'One or two successful jobs a year and you're doing well. A couple of ransoms of pounds 40,000 each and you've finished working for the year. Only thing was, it took so long. You'd have to keep the victim for weeks and months before he cracked, or before the money came through.
I blame the Beirut hostages.'
'For presenting an image of endurance. People kidnapped by me used to say to themselves, well, Brian Keenan could take it, so I can, too. So they stood up to it a lot better. But then I met a guy who sold this 'virtual reality' experience, and I thought, 'Hold on, I could use this in my game]' So I got him to prepare several programmes of pretty horrific experiences, like the bungee-jumping from the plane. There were others, like walking down the middle of the fast lane
on the M4, being given a lift by a joy rider on Ecstasy, sitting in a
police car chasing a joy rider on
Ecstasy . . .'
'And you strapped your kidnap victims into these experiences,' I said. 'Made them forcibly under-
go the most horrific peacetime
degradation . . . ?'
'Not just peacetime,' said Rodney. 'I had wartime things as well. Being bombed in Baghdad, being beaten by the Burmese government, being practically anywhere in Bosnia.'
'It's unthinkable,' I said. 'It's vile and sadistic and . . .'
'Hold on a moment,' said Rodney. 'What you don't realise is that almost all of them liked it. Incredible though it sounds, they all enjoyed it. People watch so many horror movies these days, and see so many terrible things on the news, that it's hard to shock them any more. To my disgust, I found that the kidnap victims were actually asking for a repeat of certain programmes. So I thought, stuff this for a pair of muskets, and I gave up kidnapping and went into the Horror Experience game full time. Now people queue up to get it.'
And, indeed, as I left, there was a small queue outside Rodney's door, and a man saying to him: 'Is this the right place for the flogging and keelhauling experience?' He was dressed in 18th-century naval uniform. I am not an intolerant man, but I think the authorities should act before it is too late.Reuse content