Horror in the Aisles: Terrifying Times in the Theater

I have had both good and bad experiences at the movies. Some of the best, such as a midnight showing of The Conjuring in 2013, were thrilling, communal experiences akin to what it must have been like for the first audiences to view Méliès A Trip to the Moon.  Transcendent and terrifying. Others, well, weren’t quite as good. I saw Insidious: Chapter 3 three times in theaters, having left prematurely during the first two. A PG-13 horror flick released in the dead of summer aroused the rowdiest and loudest teenagers in a fifteen-mile radius.

That said, going to the movies– particularly to see horror movies– is likely my favorite recreational activity. Recreational might be a bit modest, actually. It’s less a recreation and more a religion. It’s a bi-weekly service among like-minded peers where I can watch specters terrorize families and slashers chase down teens (teens like those who ruined my Insidious screening). It’s troubling to me, then, that for the foreseeable future– or, according to some pessimistic augurs, much longer– that experience has been compromised.

Shuttering movie theaters made sense. That much is true. It can also be true that, for as much as it was the right thing to do, it hurts. Going to the movies with my family for whatever the latest genre release was that respective weekend is a perennial divertissement. We saw The Lords of Salem. We saw The Pyramid. I even dragged them to 2016’s The Other Side of the Door during the maybe one week it was in theaters. If it was a genre movie and it was playing near me, odds are, I was there to see it. It’s disappointing, then, to see so many genre releases, both high-profile and original IPs, have their release dates shifted or recast to streaming platforms in a quasi- day-and-date release strategy that still (quite honestly) doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me.

Upcoming genre juggernauts such as Wrong Turn, Malignant, and The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It will release with considerably truncated theatrical windows. The latter two will be available on both HBO Max and theaters on the same day, while the former will be available for an exclusive one-night-only premiere at a time where most theaters across the country are still shuttered. Even in regions where theaters are open, it still seems premature (and risky) to pack audiences into clammy auditoriums like churros in a cardboard cone.

It’s disheartening to me in the sense that, were it not for the theatrical experience, I might not be the genre fan I am today. Had my mom not taken me to The Amityville Horror in fifth grade– inciting a year-long refusal to use the bathroom in the middle of the night out of misplaced concern that a ghost might snatch me– who’s to say whether my affinity for the genre would be what it is today. Scoring tickets to see It Follows a month before its wide-release or catching an early screening of Evil Dead were dynamite experiences, opportunities to bask in the gruesome delight of the genre with some of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure to meet.

Yes, not all theatrical experiences are created equal, and depending on where you live, your mileage will vary. I caught A Quiet Place in Orlando and had an exceptional experience in a packed auditorium. Two weeks later, I caught it again in Jacksonville, and despite there having been only four other people in the auditorium, were the monsters in the movie real, we’d all have been dead. Loud candy wrappers, whispers, embellished screams, and sighs– it was infuriatingly disruptive. Yet, just as not all theatrical experiences are created equitably, neither are all home-viewing experiences.

I say this not as an out-of-touch auteur– if someone wants to watch a movie on their phone, Hollywood directors, by God just let them– but as someone with the capacity to empathize with those whose access to quality home-theater equipment is limited. My bargain-bin set-up works well enough, but I certainly don’t have the sound or picture quality to give a movie like Godzilla Vs. Kong, for instance, justice. Some people have roommates and some people have pets. For some people, their general circumstances make it difficult to find convenient and non-disruptive times to sit down and watch a movie without interruption.

The primal urge, too, to perhaps confront fears with others– a keystone of the theatrical experience– is missing. It’s a fact of life for the foreseeable future, but it’s still discouraging. There’s little anyone can do beyond following their local COVID protocols and supporting horror in any way they can. Even with theaters closed, there are dozens of stellar titles currently streaming– Hunted on Shudder and Bloody Hell are both worth a look– and some horror is better than none. I can only hope, though, that this course is transient, an intermittent stopgap on the way back to full-bore theatrical horror. It’s an incredible experience, and one I’d be remiss to not see again. What do you all think, though? Where do you stand on the theatrical experience? Do you prefer streaming from home or the communal experience? Let me know on Twitter, and here’s to a horrifically wonderful 2021!

New From DREAD

The Maid (2021)

While working as the newly hired maid of a royal house, Joy finds herself haunted by the previous maid who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Can she uncover the truth behind the disappearance in time to escape a similar fate?