We’re All Doomed: The Communal Experience of Horror
I’m with about 20 other people in a public library on Friday the 13th. We’re here because we are part of what some people call the horror community. We’re all here to watch Friday the 13th. This is the first time in more than two years that this library has hosted their “Viewer Discretion Advised” series, screenings designed to show R-rated films such as the first Crystal Lake movie. And what better night to do so, right? Bottles of water and individual bags of chips and premade popcorn are available — it’s a library, still, and the crowd is not a wild and rowdy one. But it is a group gathered for the love of a movie or in some cases, just to hang out with friends. About a quarter of the audience says they’ve never seen the movie and so the host saves spoilers for after the show.
For me, I’m happy to be in this place at this time. The pandemic induced some social anxiety — not that I was much of a people person to begin with — and like many, I’m barely coming out of it. But it reminds me of those movies about the theater experience. The ones about gathering with friends and strangers to be scared, titillated, and entertained.
I didn’t get to see Popcorn or Lamberto Bava’s Demons in the theater. The home video experience is something different, but the theater experiences captured in those films are what I think a lot of non-horror fans believe will happen. We’re all a bunch of Satan-worshiping-potential-psycho-killers and getting us in a group is the worst idea possible. Not all of us are maniacs (leaving the door open for some of us to be, but that’s true of any group), we just like to have a good time with people who like the same things.
After the show, I chat with the librarian who runs the series, the co-hosts of a local podcast who served as hosts for the night, and a museum curator who is looking to start up a film series at his location again. “Now that the pandemic is over,” gets tossed around, but we are horror fans. We know better. If you don’t shoot the monster in the head or lop its head off or burn it to ashes, it can always come back.
No one seemed too scared during the movie and that’s okay. The twist is common knowledge, and we just have to let that go. I wasn’t scared during the John Goodman movie Matinee but sharing the experience is part of the thrill. A bunch of rowdy kids watching a bunch of rowdy kids watching a monster movie. We’re all afraid of something and the movie helps us deal with that. If we can deal with it together, then we aren’t alone.
That’s the greatest gift: not being alone.
Despite — and maybe because of — the social anxiety, I had to go to the movie. Often, I’m alone when I go to first-run horror movies. I saw Malignant alone, except for a brief moment when a theater usher peeked in. Perhaps he heard me laughing. My enjoyment of the film echoed throughout the auditorium. But in that exact same theater, I saw Halloween Kills with a near-capacity crowd, wearing Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger t-shirts and no one said anything to anyone who they didn’t come with. Community? Not so much, although we were in a shared space for a communal experience. Does a community have to talk to each other to exist? Can we still be alone in a crowd?
During my teens, we had an active drive-in theater. One night, I went with two girlfriends to see Twister. Drive-ins lack the sense of togetherness that an enclosed theater has but when the storm clouds formed and the rain came down, we were all sharing the best thing about these kinds of movies: pure fear. But that fear can go the other way, too.
I saw Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell twice on the same day. I went alone for a matinee and the audience was okay. Good reactions but nothing spectacular. I absolutely loved the film and took my mom along with me that night for the second viewing. About 30 minutes into the movie, two girls in their teens began sobbing with fear. They left before any of the really good stuff happened. When the movie ended and we left the auditorium, I noticed the girls were still at the multiplex, but now on the phone, trying to reach a parent to pick them up (teens didn’t have their own cellphones in 2008 Utah). That meant they didn’t get to go home right away; they stood for another hour in the hallway, stuck with their fear.
I think about the words of comfort that come with every horror movie since it was first used as a tagline: “Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.”
I don’t tell you that to shame those girls, but I think about them a lot and wonder how it would have been different if they’d had more than just each other to watch the movie with. Perhaps more friends, relatives, or other people they knew. I hope those girls had a chance to try horror again, maybe at a place like the library event I went to. I hope they eventually found their own community.
I also hope I get to help rebuild my community, as the pandemic fades (fingers crossed) and no one funds a sequel. That Nicole Kidman ad is right: movies are best in the theater and with people to share the experience. 🩸
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.
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