Essays · Movies

Back to the Movies: An Ode to Watching Horror on the Big Screen

Nothing can replace the power of seeing fear on the big screen.
The Strangers
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on May 28th, 2021

Welcome to Back to the Movies, a special series of articles in which we’re exploring how we feel about returning to movie theaters after the pandemic. For this entry, Mary Beth McAndrews gets excited to be thrilled by horror movies in theaters and the communal experience of being scared alongside strangers again.

On May 30, 2008, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers hit theaters, the weekend of my thirteenth birthday. For weeks, my dad and I planned to see it opening night, excitedly discussing what could happen and watching the trailer over and over again. It may sound a little early to see such a film at thirteen years old, but I’ve been watching horror films since I was four. Blame it on a horror-obsessed parent.

When May 30th arrived, I practically floated home from school, waited for my dad to pick me up, and we eagerly drove to the theater. It was packed, with every seat filled and a group of loud teenagers sitting behind me. But once the lights went down and the movie started, those annoying kids went silent.

What ensued was the most traumatic ninety minutes of both my and the rest of the whole audience’s lives. Together we jumped, screamed, and never stopped sweating as the couple onscreen was tortured by their three horrifying masked tormenters. It was a communal experience with people whom I would never see again. But in that moment, we shared a bond.

As my dad and I walked into the parking garage, we got spooked just thinking about the film, and we sprinted to the car, making sure no one in a mask would grab us out of nowhere. The whole experience is why I love the movies, why I have missed them so deeply, and why I am so excited they are finally back.

There is truly nothing more exhilarating than going to see a horror movie on opening weekend. People buzz in their seats with anxious energy about what they’re about to see. Everyone is there to be scared and to experience fear on the big screen.

The atmosphere is electric, and as the film begins, it begins to crackle. Tension ramps up, and when one person yells, many follow suit. Audience members are prompted by one another to express their own terror, and after the screams comes the wave of nervous laughter. It’s like riding a rollercoaster, similarly with a bunch of people you don’t know: you’re all there because you want to be absolutely terrified.

When Hereditary was released, none of the people in the theater were quite prepared for what we were about to see. With all of the hype calling it this generation’s The Exorcist, it felt like we were all ready for the challenge; could this really be that scary? The answer is a resounding yes. When Charlie hit the telephone pole, we all gasped in shock. When her disfigured head was shown on the side of the road, we cringed and uttered expletives under our breath, an eerie whisper that floated through the theater.

And when our eyes started to slowly adjust to the darkness of the screen and we saw Annie hiding on the ceiling, there was a ripple effect as one, two, five, ten people realized what was going on and yelped. The entire theater then got excited as they searched for the scare, wanting to join in rather than shrinking in their seats. We all were experiencing this trauma together, and there’s something special about that.

While we’ve been lucky to see so many studios pivoting to streaming and VOD releases, the lack of the fear factor and that sense of community just isn’t the same. Sure, slowly realizing Toni Collette is lurking the shadows of Peter’s ceiling would be scary on my computer, but nothing beats sharing that horrifying realization with one-hundred-plus strangers.

There is, of course, merit to watching a horror movie alone in a pitch-black room while wearing noise-canceling headphones; you feel isolated and vulnerable. But you also don’t have anyone to grab when you’re scared nor a cathartic laugh to share with the person sitting next to you when they’re snagged by a jump scare. Nothing can beat the community created during a horror movie screening.

I would have loved nothing more than to have seen the strange and phenomenal The Empty Man on the big screen with a group of incredulous and enthralled viewers who couldn’t look away from David Prior’s saga. I can just imagine the sounds of shock after the twenty-two-minute cop open, the murmurs of confusion during the explanation of tulpas, and the bursts of laughter when the character James exclaims, “Fuck this,” and runs away.

Groans and exclamations of frustration would also be heard from the crowd as the story gets more complex and goes to some very strange places. Even negative reactions are a part of the communal horror film experience. It’s like heckling at a live show, funny at first but quite annoying if it continues. The Empty Man elicits such a response even when watched at home, so seeing the horror movie in the theater would only amplify its emotional journey.

A Quiet Place Part II, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and Candyman are all finally getting wide theatrical releases this summer that are guaranteed to attract the large opening night crowds that I miss so dearly. The sound of crunching popcorn will feel dangerous during A Quiet Place Part II; the audience will be ready for the jump scares in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It; and a new version of a horror icon will grace the screen in Candyman.

These are all movies begging to be watched in a theater with a group of horror fans either dedicated or new. This summer I can finally spend my hot, humid Friday nights in a leather recliner telling my partner every fact I know about the film. The lights will go down, the audience will go quiet, and we’ll all prepare to be absolutely terrified.

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)