PERSONAL ESSAY, NONFICTION
The House Lights Will Come Down
Issue 5, Winter 2022
The last movie I saw in the theater was on March 8, 2020. Standing outside afterward, rain sparkled on the pavement as we milled around in that way you do when no one really wants to go home, not quite yet, but no one wants to go to the bar either, and that’s the only other place to go. The posters were brightly lit in their casements and none of us knew, in that moment, that they were about to be frozen in amber, yellowing and edges curling, advertising films that had come and long gone.
Someone asked when I was going to New York. “Tuesday,” I said, but even then I knew I would not be boarding that aircraft, that something was starting to slide sideways and go the kind of wrong that happened to other people in other places. The lights inside the theater went out; the teenagers behind the concessions counter turned the popcorn machine off for the night. They slipped out the side door and waved at us because they didn’t know things were changing either, that just a few nights later they would lock up the theater for the last time, leaving dust to gather slowly on the scarred glass counters that we used to peer through while we debated Junior Mints or Milk Duds, or, for the luxe among us, the chocolate ice cream bonbons in the buzzing freezer behind the counter.
I was a theatre kid and not a theater kid, truth be told. I loved unlocking the theatre and walking to the middle of the stage to put away the ghost light. Inhaling the smell of dusty curtains and looking up into the messy tresses of lighting, running my fingers along the railings and turning on the stage lights, one by one. The sound of actors warming up and the sound of the audience milling around the lobby, waiting for the doors to open. I was a filthy little goblin and so was everyone else, in a messy, imperfect world that changed night by night — unlike the stylized metronome of the movie theater where the same thing played over and over again in the same way, the air thick with the smell of fake butter and rife with the sounds of people eating and slurping Pepsi, the floors vile with fallen snacks and other things, things I preferred not to think about.
I would kill to smell burning popcorn again, though, can I tell you? To stand in a line of restless people, to be overcharged for brewers’ yeast, to have a coughing fit and have to duck out of the movie for a cup of water, fragile and waxy, handed to me by a bored teenager rolling their eyes. It would be a delirious joy to watch the local advertising slideshow before the trailers, where a series of photos set to jaunty music with stiff narration invite you to call Redwood Roofers or stop by Simply Succulent. I yearn for the horrific display of typography warning you to turn your phone off during the film, and the moment the lights begin to dim for the trailers. I want that all so much I can feel the little chill that always dances across the back of my head when they play the promotion for Dolby surround-sound (all around!) at the beginning of the movie.
“Be a superhero. Wear your mask,” the marquee said for a while in mid-2020, while the darkened movie theater tried to figure out what the fuck you do with yourself when you can’t open to the public and can’t pivot to an online business, either.
So many things shifted in that first pandemic year, and there has been much speculation about the future of movie theaters as we sit home streaming simultaneous releases and talking about how much better they are. You can pause to take a pee or fish a snack out of the fridge, abandon ship halfway through if the movie is bad. The movie theater has since reopened and some of my friends have started going, have told me how jittering and strange it is to sit there in the dark with their masks, muted, not quite sharing in a collective experience, like when we went to see 50 Shades of Grey and the whole audience offered so much running commentary that the attendants came in to scold us because we were upsetting the people next door.
What shifted in me was something older, lizard-like. It was fear, I think, which I found in new places because it was there waiting for me, a shimmering pool of something clingy and acrid that cleaved to whatever I touched.
We go to the movies to be made afraid in a controlled, manageable way. After we left A Quiet Place, I realized that my nails had dug sharp half-moons into the flesh of my friend’s hand, my body so seized with fear that I didn’t realize I was doing it. During one of the first movies I remember seeing in the theater, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, I was so terrified that my father had to carry me out kicking and screaming. I remember sitting out in the lobby with my father, and that the teenager behind the counter offered me popcorn. (I asked my father about this the other day, but he does not remember; in the 80s he had another epidemic to be afraid of.)
I would kill to smell burning popcorn again, though, can I tell you?
Now fear is everywhere, and even the popcorn is scary. Thinking about the smell of that movie theater popcorn, I am reminded how wildly unsafe food used to be. Before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, you could sell pretty much anything sprinkled on anything. Poor handling, transportation, and storage practices meant that any food item could be contaminated, with no oversight. Food still kills people; outbreaks in cheese, lettuce, and meat are reminders that these things stalk us in the modern era, too. Popcorn can carry hidden depths of rancid butter and tainted salt.
Rational people are afraid during a pandemic, for obvious reasons, especially if they are obsessive consumers of pandemic-related media —The Coming Plague, The Hot Zone, Spillover, The Andromeda Strain. A few months before everything, I read a news story about a city under complete lockdown to halt the progress of a virus, and I thought: how odd, that’s wild, you could never do that here. Whatever it was wouldn’t come here anyway, said me, the person who was constantly reading about precisely that scenario. Probably nothing. Even as the first cases popped up and we knew only that other people were potentially dangerous, I was watching movies in a poorly-ventilated room with a bunch of strangers spitting out shreds of candy and blowing their noses into thin napkins from the lobby. Eating at a restaurant with friends, crowded together at tiny tables, air filled with the fog of human beings and their various secretions, tablecloth smeared in soy sauce and hot chili oil.
Then that nothing led to the kind of abject fear that leads people to make bad, confused choices, panicking and trying to take control of their surroundings. Bleaching groceries in isolation, leaving mail on the porch for days. They told us not to wear masks, then oops, we should wear masks. They told us to go to school, to not go to school, to stay home from work, to go to work if you’re “essential” and sacrifice yourself for the good of society. It was the year of a million Zoom meetings on endless screens and still, all I wanted to do was watch a movie in the theater. I wanted to be scared, the kind of scared that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up as my hand jerks involuntarily, a fear I couldn’t replicate at home on my tiny screen, the cursed toilet bubbling to itself and the refrigerator humming, the cat standing on the spacebar and bringing the proceedings to a grinding halt.
A fear that ends when the credits roll.
Even though it’s open, I don’t want to go to the theatre, that place of echoing memories and people. Too alive and real and palpable for comfort, the creaking stage and too-human breathing overwhelming reminders of our shared humanity. I don’t need to be reminded that other humans exist; they’ve done plenty of that on their own lately, selfishly, chaotically. I just want to be in silent community with them in a momentary suspension of hostilities at the movie theater, also open, but a place I fear now. I don’t want to prop up my laptop on the end table and open Netflix, not even with a bowl of homemade popcorn by my side — I want to go to the movies, any movie, an art house movie or a superhero movie or a spy thriller, something that would root me in a slightly staticky seat for two hours, in a room of people sharing the same experience, all glaring at the person crunching during the quiet scenes and gasping at the same moments. I pass the marquee every time I go to the pharmacy, but I don’t go in.
There is a collectivism to the movie theater, a deep sense of belonging that spans identifiers and brings a room full of people together in a way we could only ever do in the most limited of senses. Sometimes the film starts to warp and the house lights come up and you collectively decide to roll with it, even though everything is very wrong, because you are together and people who can explain will be here soon. That shared frisson of confusion and mild fear — is there a fire? what’s happening? — is allayed as we cheer each other up, swapping stories and offering pieces of chocolate to strangers. When I read that people fear the death of the movie theater and all the things that come with it, I think first about all the sickness and death and loss we have experienced, and the limits of our capacity to care for each other in a shared moment. Then I think about the older man who cried silently through The Fault In Our Stars as a teenager with pink hair leaned forward from the row behind to hand him napkins. I think about shoes crackling on sticky floors and that delicious taste of movie theater butter, about how we cannot have these things in isolation at home. How we need to live in a world of movie theaters, kind teenagers, and fellow audience members, and instead, we are terrified behind our front doors.
But. We will creep back. We must creep back. The juggernaut of cinema is unstoppable. I believe this. We will sit in darkness together, legs tensed on the edge of our seats, and we will spill the popcorn, and we will shush the person who insists on maintaining a running commentary to defuse their own fear and uncertainty. But things will be different, and not just with better ventilation and more customers who opt for matinees because they’re less crowded. They’ll be different because we will have lost something, and firing up the popcorn machine again after all those months fallow, we will smell it in the dust and see it in the dulled colors of the floors we’re never supposed to see in full light. They will be different as strange, giddy emotions sweep over us, the strange passage of pandemic time and fear leaving bubbling scars and elliptical marks on us all.
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The safety of the movie theater has been stripped away and replaced by something else, but it will prevail. If a pandemic and the internet were enough to kill the porno theater, they couldn’t touch main-run movie houses because those offer us something we cannot get anywhere else in the world, a few hours of escapism, a curated fear, a break from the real life terror that has traumatized so many of us. We are a country that loves its movies with fevered intensity, and our hearts flutter to the roar of the MGM lion and the sweep of the Universal logo over an unwitting earth. We cheer unabashedly when we see the Marvel opening and wait to the bitter end of the credits, just in case. We have turned movies into an entire secondary mode of expression from arch .gifs tweeted at politicians to reflexively quoted lines in casual conversation.
The complicated web of money wound around the movie theater cannot be untangled now, either, no matter how much studios and distributors flirt with alternative distribution methods during the pandemic. “We love you,” we whisper to the movie theater, and “I know,” it says, as we sulk alone in the back after a bad breakup or pour excitedly through the doors to stake out seats with our friends.
The theater brings us something we want, need, are thirsty for. And just as surely as norms eroded to allow people to eat on Zoom calls, that concessions counter will be open again, selling $8 boxes of Red Vines and charging $5.50 for a small cup of root beer. Someday in our future, we won’t have to pull our masks aside to take a deep slug of that watery soda through a decaying paper straw, feeling furtive and criminal. I believe it. I believe in you.
Oh — and turn off your phone, the movie’s about to start.
s.e. smith is a National Magazine Award-winning writer based in Northern California, with appearances in publications such as Bitch Magazine, The Nation, In These Times, Catapult, Vox, Time, and other fun places.