You're climbing slowly up the roller coaster's first hill. Tiny cars gleam a few hundred feet below and trees look like broccoli forests. The rickety chain clanks as it thrusts you forward, and then there's nowhere to go but down. As the car teeters at the pinnacle, one thought flashes before you: "I paid to do this?"
Crazy as it seems, we are predisposed to pay up for heart-pounding thrills. A few thundering turns on a roller coaster set off a chemical reaction--the release of adrenaline and dopamine--that makes us feel giddy and intensely alive. As roller coasters continue to push the extremes of acceleration, speed, and corkscrew-like inversion, what does it take to be among the world's scariest?
The answer turns out to be highly personal; there's little consensus among even the most discerning riders about the recipe for a good scare. "Some like smooth rides full of floating zero Gs while others want to be thrown around and brutalized so they can live to brag about it," says Scott Rutherford, a senior writer and editor for Amusement Today who has experienced more than 500 coasters on four continents.
Even so, record-breakers can be counted on to deliver some of the biggest adrenaline rushes. At 45 stories, Kingda Ka is the world's tallest roller coaster, one of only two Stratacoasters that plummet more than 400 feet. (Call the other, Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster, the scariest and you could be in for a heated debate.)
The most infamous, The Cyclone, still draws thrill-seekers to Coney Island, NY, where the first roller coaster debuted in 1884. Today, 2,472 are operating around the world, and there's one for whatever scares you the most, be it speeds of 150 mph or a series of 10 stomach-churning inversions. As Rutherford says, "You have no choice but to let go, to surrender to the ride."
See if you can stomach what Travel + Leisure found to be the world's scariest roller coasters, and share your opinions in the comments below.