So you want to talk while you’re at the movies. Well OK then, you’re allowed.
There are movie genres that call for relative silence when viewed inside a public theater: “art” films, socially conscious documentaries with no ostensible sense of humor, Oscar bait, dead (and/or dying) -children and/or -animal movies. There are movie genres that you should expect to hear/could get away with contributing to a moderate din: Pixar shorts, socially conscious documentaries featuring eccentric subjects, mockumentaries, dramedies, comedies that are tasteful enough to potentially be nominated for Oscars, living-children and/or –animal movies. There are movies that exist to raise a fracas from time to time: gross-out comedies, really, really sad tearjerkers, anything featuring the Minions.
And then there are horror movies, which offer as close as you can get to an anything-goes situation in a movie theater.
Notice I wrote “as close as you can get to an anything-goes situation” and not “anything goes,” because while most things may go during horror movies, everything and anything certainly does not go. Movie theaters don’t turn into kindergarten playgrounds when teens start losing limbs and getting holes poked into their bodies. We’re still talking about a shared space in which those who pay money to enter can expect to absorb the majority of what’s being displayed onscreen.
On the other hand, if you go to a horror movie expecting chill, you’re a fool. People talk during horror movies, and if you’re not on board with that, you’re the one with the problem and you need to diversify your genre portfolio. In fact, you’re a fool if you expect anything less than a frequently boisterous hubbub. Audience reaction is part of what makes horror movies fun. So many horror movies are so bad that the audience often is the factor that makes horror movies worth watching.
What’s below is not a set of rules, but of general guidelines for a pleasurable horror moviegoing experience, whether you are a screamer or the silent type. I understand that people’s behavior is often subject to their whims. I understand that the relative freedom that horror moviegoing offers will be taken to an uncomfortable extreme on occasion. But I’ve also sat amongst vocal horror fans dozens of times and observed the elements that have made for the most pleasurable, harmonious scenarios. These situations have instilled a sort of idealism in me that I’m excited to share with the world in hopes of making it a better place, one ghost with an impeccably cinematic sense of pacing at a time.
Be (mostly) quiet during the first 30 minutes.
After releasing some energy during the opening scene, which should provide you with a jump scare or two as well as the tone-setting first death, simmer down. I know, I know: Exposition is boring. You’re not there for character development, you’re there for carnage. You’re starvin’ for carnage. Where for the love of god and the devil is the carnage? It’s coming and you can loudly voice your approval or dismay when it occurs. Until then, give your fellow audience members the courtesy of deciding for themselves how terribly the story is constructed and how few dimensions the characters that you’re supposed to care about (or whatever!) have.
“Shhhh!” counts as talking.
If you combat every audience-generated peep with a whisper-shrieked shush, you are making noise yourself and automatically a hypocrite. You know what happens to hypocrites in horror movies? They’re either killed or the killer—neither is a particularly good look. Don’t sport those looks. If you’re forceful enough about wanting to keep the noise level down, you risk starting a fight that goes: “Shut up!” “No you shut up!” “No youu shut up!” “No youuu shut up!” Don’t take your aggression out on the people that you sit amongst; take it out on the people who are making stupid decisions onscreen. That’s more than half of the point of watching horror.
The freewheeling atmosphere makes people feel generally more comfortable about expressing themselves. This means things that would be mouthed with barely a whisper accompanying them in other movies—“Can you pass the popcorn?” “Are you sure this is diet soda?” “Let me borrow your napkin.” “Where’s my hand job?”—might be said at a higher volume during a horror movie. That is fine as long as these interactions don’t turn into a meditation on whether or not popcorn counts as a vegetable, an exploration of how all fountain soda always tastes like it has at least some sugar in it, a tug of war using said napkin, and/or an argument over whether movie-theater “butter” topping can be used as lube.
I mention this mostly because at the press screening of The Gallows I attended this week, a woman directly behind me began explaining something to her friend during the movie’s first act. She just blabbed and blabbed. When her blabbing stretched into its second consecutive minute and I found that I could pay attention to nothing else, I had to ask her to lower her voice, making me feel like one of those shushing hypocrites I discussed in the item above. I hated that feeling. Don’t make me or anyone else have to be that person. Declare what you will, but leave the explainers for after the show.
Stay off your goddamn cell phone.
No matter how quietly you whisper, your steady stream of one-sided, unrelated discussion plays like a scream against the media that’s being projected. And not one of those good screams! Oh my god shut up already.
If you’re going to shout out your responses, be great.
Perhaps you think you are especially funny, and are tempted to regale the audience with your humorous quips, snappy responses, and critical insights. By the time the bodies start piling up, everyone’s just screaming shit out anyway, why should you have to suppress anything, right? You shouldn’t, but if you really insist on making your commentary ring so loudly it bounces against the theater’s walls, please be very clever. Don’t shout to shout. Shout with purpose.
When Rolling Thunder revived Lucio Fulci’s gory and surreal The Beyond in the late ‘90s, I saw it at the Angelika. The theater was mostly empty, but there was a guy a few rows ahead of me whose running commentary made the movie even more enjoyable (sample: a character picked up a giant pair of hedge shears, and the guy shouted out, “Oh! I’ll need these to get murdered with later”). He achieved Mystery Science Theater 3000 levels of excellence. Be a fifth of that and you’re fine.
When I saw Wrong Turn at the United Artists Court Street 12 in Brooklyn (the best place you could possibly go to see a movie on opening night), at one point one of the characters strategically disappeared during a moment of tension in a manner that was uncannily smooth and a kid yelled out, “Matrix!” In my heart, a classic.
During The Gallows, a character escaped the haunted school he’d just been trapped in, only to notice that his female companion had suddenly disappeared. When he signaled his decision to go back into the school to look for her, someone in the theater yelled out, “Hey, he’s white. He knows what he’s doing.” That made the audience freak out in a greater magnitude than anything that happened on the screen for the entire duration of the movie. Aspire to these highs.
Don’t press your luck.
Just because your one shouted comment went over well doesn’t mean that you’re now part of the show. Nobody’s depending on you. We can’t even see you. Be felicitous with what you share with the group. If you’re that consistently great, consider putting your energy into writing horror screenplays. God knows the genre could use some good ones.
Just do what feels right.
If you aren’t out to showboat but still feel inclined to respond verbally, you need to consider your reactions far less. Scream at the idiots onscreen, scream at yourself into the darkness for your questionable life decisions (including paying for the film you’re watching), cackle, snort, gasp, faint so hard your head thuds when it hits the ground. Whatever! If the mere presence of the macabre hasn’t caused you to lose control of your facilities, try to match the intensity of your reactions to the general tone of the crowd. That may seem a bit contradictory (I’m telling you to have fun…but not too much fun) and anti-individualist, but this kind of a setting is ideally a communal experience. Save your ego for Twitter, an app that you should only open after the movie is over. Don’t make me go Patti LuPone on you for holding an illuminated screen in a dark theater, you fucking animal.
[Image via Miramax]