One Saturday afternoon at the Mt. Lookout Theatre in Cincinnati where I grew up, I ducked under the seat in front of me. There had been other bouts of movie hiding, but this particular moment a flying saucer sliced off the dome of the Capitol Building ( Earth Versus the Flying Saucers), and I just couldn’t take it.
I wasn’t alone. The grown-ups often seemed a little jumpy, despite mammoth steaks on the grill and cars with tail fins. Ordinary people had begun building fallout shelters in their backyards. At school we ducked under school desks during drills, so why not hide on the floor of the theater where I went each Saturday?
Fast forward to 1976, when, as a young adult, I helped run The St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat movie palace in Staten Island. I was grown-up, but still afraid. The fall of Saigon that finally ended the bloody war in Vietnam was only a year behind us; the recession was slowly winding down, New York City’s near-bankruptcy was still fresh in everybody’s memory, and the Cold War was hardly over. Watergate had sent a president into exile, reminding me of the Goya etching I’d seen at the Met in Manhattan, The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters.
We ran plenty of scary stuff the year we worked as theater operators; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) comes immediately to mind. Based on a presumably true story of a mentally-disturbed man, Ed Gein in Plainfield, Wisconsin, Tobe Hooper’s early slasher film did fairly well in our single-screen palace. As a theater operator, I had plenty of opportunity to observe its effects on the audience: concession sales were heroic, a sign that people felt the need to get up and move out of the darkened auditorium for a moment, nervously grabbing another popcorn or seeking the comfort of Snickers, standing outside the glass that separated lobby from theater, for a few moments of rest. You could see but not hear the movie from there. Those who stayed put in the auditorium were a little bit jittery, jiggling around and poking each other. As for myself, I sat through the better part of the movie one afternoon, shading my eyes at intervals and pulling my long hair tight over my ears.
Ever wonder why people pay to ride fast dangerous rides? Roller coasters are hardly for the faint-of-heart, in the literal sense. They increase heart rate and trigger fight-or-flight responses involving adrenaline and cortisol; but as long as your heart can take it, you may get a dopamine/endorphin rush, fun, if your particular physiology is set to run that way. Horror and/or slasher movies are one cheap-and-safe (think virtual) way of getting those same roller coaster highs, without being hung upside down high in the air.
One movie that did draw all the thrill-seekers out and into our baroque cave of wonders was The Exorcist, the only movie we ran in our theater year that sold out the house (four times, to be exact). I remember it well, counting out $13,000 in receipts on the old piano in the office. The fact that we had to turn most of that money in to Warner and his brothers, is, perhaps, the thing that makes my memory of the movie truly horrifying. As for what happens on screen, call me an oddball, but I’ve never found Exorcist particularly scary! I was not raised in any church, and priests, even ones who act nobly, leave me cold; that and I have difficulty with suspending my disbelief, when it comes to “possession.” Here, for your perusal is an excellent treatment of why The Exorcist is the scariest movie of all time according to one watcher. Others don’t agree, putting the original Exorcist at the bottoms of long “Exorcism Movie” lists (if you wait long enough, everything becomes a genre!).
Other “scary” movies we ran: Carrie (yes, thoroughly frightening, but also objectionable from a feminist perspective); Embryo (too improbable — a scientist figures out how to turn a fetus into a full-grown miniature human); The Devil Within Her and Burnt Offerings (both about possession), and Don’t Open the Window, (aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, depending on which country you see it in). That’s a movie with more aliases than the average con artist.
Interestingly enough, I find One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which reveals the horrors of a psych ward, the scariest movie we ran that whole year! (It figures prominently in my meditations on the act of crying at the movies). Crying, cringing in fear, how close?
Here’s a little something on movies that reflect our fear of the Internet; that’s something we could never have imagined in the more brutal, hardly virtual 1970s.