At a recent screening of The Gift, a sneakily great psychological thriller partly about, amongst many relevancies, the unknowability of other people, I felt that familiar paranoia. I’d noticed a man in the parking lot on my way in, walking in circles and talking to himself, hands never leaving his pockets. I told myself I was being unreasonable, misjudging this poor guy who, like me, only wanted to pass an idle Thursday at the movies. I bought my ticket and my popcorn. I took my preferred seat in the theater, in the center of the center row. Then the man entered, mumbling louder now, hands still in his pockets. He chose a seat in the first row, reconsidered and moved back one, thought again and moved back a few more. I decided to wait out the trailers in the lobby.
The rise of the movie theater shooting is, for the consummate moviegoer, a threat both mortal and existential. As a writer and a cinephile, I proudly consider myself a member of that special class of Americans—surely a growing class—who feel most fully themselves when situated in front of a screen; for all its ordinariness, no public space seems as momentously personal, to me, as the movie theater. That this secularly sacred place has become a stage for unthinkable, deathly violence is pure tragedy, one that I’ve condemned simply and processed complexly. Choosing between a matinee and a midnight show shouldn’t be a life-or-death decision, but the lurking, random terror of our violent present has leant that choice a terrible new weight. It’s a cruel inverse relation. Americans have never had more reasons to escape to the movies, and yet never has that escape been so dangerous.
The story of my life could easily be written—or perhaps more accurately, mapped—as a series of trips to the movies. Stepping into the theater, searching for my seat in the dark, my memory’s reels will start to spin. I see seven-year-old me in the front row, holding my grandfather’s hand through the scarier parts of Jumanji. Six years later, I’m squished in a middle row, experiencing my first kiss during the otherwise forgettable Save the Last Dance. Nearly a decade after that, I’m in the back row of a Christmas Day screening of Benjamin Button, yawning through the last movie my family would ever see as a family, before my parents’ divorce. Every time I step into a theater, these scenes play on my mind’s screen. Then I take my seat, and, if a shooting hasn’t broken out, the feature presentation begins.
Lives have been lost in Aurora and in Lafayette and, most recently, outside of Nashville. I’d shutter the doors on each and every of the United States’s 5,700 movie theaters, forever, if it meant having even one of those lives spared, and I cannot think I am alone in this thinking. I was in another midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises when James Holmes opened fire in 2012, killing 12 people and injuring another 70. Last month, I saw Amy Schumer in Trainwreck just days before John Houser shot eleven more people, ending the lives of two, then his own. The ear-piercing volume at which these shootings play seems to exist in total contrast to the silence our lawmakers have exhibited in response. Be they Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, politicians would rather actively endanger their constituents than potentially alienate them. No body count appears able to change this, and it is a reality scarier than any fiction shown on screen.
Catching a movie today requires a new kind of vigilance, not for identifying theme and subtext, but for perceiving potential threats. This means both recognizing signs of malcontent in others and anticipating how others could impose those same perceptions onto you. In a given year, I will often make upwards of 50 trips to the movies, many of those trips willingly by my lonesome. Being a straight, white American male who goes to the movies alone, the unsettled feelings I’m likely inspiring in others aren’t lost on me. It creates a second-order paranoia: I become paranoid that everyone else in the theater is paranoid about me. That I am possibly marring someone else’s experience, simply by being there, makes me less inclined to go to the movies. I expect this is exactly what these maniacs want, why they terrorize our churches and schools and movie houses. They seek to deny us the joy and community they feel has been denied to them. Perhaps it is working.
In retrospect, when I saw the suspicious man when I went to see The Gift, maybe I should have alerted a manager, to be certain. The story of my time at the movies, that treasured second life within my life, could have ended that night, along with the stories of so many others. I could have pointed the man out, so my fellow moviegoers wouldn’t be afraid to do so in the future. I could have done what now seems impossible: made going to the movies a little less scary.
Instead I did what came naturally. I stepped back into the darkness of the theater, and, this time, I took the seat nearest to the exit sign.