Joyland

New York |

Man, Alone At Movies

by Frankie Allegra

edited by Michelle Lyn King

I am afraid of getting murdered at the movies. Allow me to rephrase: I am afraid of getting murdered by men at the movies. Men are the ones who do the murdering in movie theaters. Likely they are not the only ones who have this impulse, but historically, they are the ones who are doing the murdering at the movies.

In July of 2012, a man murdered 12 people and injured 70 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. He wore a gas mask and a ballistic helmet. He shot with a Remington 870 Express Tactical shotgun, a Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport semi-automatic rifle with a 100-round drum magazine, and a .40-caliber handgun. He listened to techno music so that he could not hear the reactions of the people he killed, the sound a bullet makes when it tears into flesh and sinew. His victims were between the ages of 6 and 51.

Three years later, in 2015, at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, a man opened fire during a screening of a comedy, murdering three people and injuring 9 others. Two women, ages 21 and 33, were his victims. The third person killed—not a victim, just killed—was himself.

Here we are in 2018, and I am hoping men murdering at the movies is not a triennial occurrence. I don’t know why men feel the need to murder people in movie theaters. I don’t know many people who dislike the movies that much, or dislike people that much, or feel the need to merge their dislike of people with their dislike of the movies. But perhaps I don’t know that many people. You can blame the female species for many things, but shooting up movie theaters is not one of them. If you learn one thing from us, pay no attention to our humility or our compassion or how we will always be paid less than you. Take note that we are not killing people in movie theaters. Try to heed this lesson.

I do not want to get murdered at the movies. I want to enjoy the movies. I (and what feels like the rest of the human population) recently got Moviepass, an app that, for $80 a year, allows you to see one movie per day, every day. Living in New York, where a movie can run you anywhere between $15 at Cinema Village East to $17.40 at Union Square Regal, this feels like a dream.

I love movie theaters, even the worst things about them: the racketeering on popcorn prices and the fact that you need to self-butter, the seats that haven’t been cleaned in a questionable amount of time, being confined to specific hours to see whatever it is you’ve chosen to see. I like the experience of going through something with strangers.How will we feel? What will we think? The we is different every time. So is what we endure, the story that unfolds before us.

I saw every Oscar contender but one this year. During each of the eight films, I held my breath the entire time. It seems to me that a lot of men like carrying bags with them to the movies. I wish they didn’t. I stare at their bags and try to make judgment calls on whether or not they could pack an assault rifle in that backpack or that duffel bag. The problem is that I have never seen an assault rifle in person, so the judgment is hard to make.

I think there’s a pecking order of the right theaters in which to murder people in, which is why I have a preference for the wrong ones, the indie theaters. You can’t cause a lot of carnage in an indie theater because niche films don’t give you a lot of bodies to aim at. This is why I like the Angelika Theater in SoHo, or the IFC in the West Village. Boring independent cinemas where you can’t get as much murdering accomplished. You’d have to go elsewhere for that. When I do go elsewhere, I always regret it.

Take for example last weekend, when I went to see the new Natalie Portman movie. My boyfriend Will and I went to the 9:40 showing on Saturday night at Cinema Village East. We sat down in the second tier of the theater and were chatting when a man with a backpack sat down two seats to my right. I began bouncing on my mental trampoline, jumping to all kinds of conclusions. Will has a mind less wired at the timber of tragedy and did not seem to notice, but then the movie started and this changed. The man had all sorts of behaviors that made me certain the massacre he was planning was imminent. For instance, his texting, which was rampant. To check a phone in a movie is one thing, but to maintain a consistent conversation—such as, with another sniper, or telling one’s mother in another state that one is about to commit atrocity and he is sorry—is egregious. Every time he took a sip of his drink, he groaned slightly. I visualized this in headlines that would be published later: “He bought a drink and a medium popcorn so as not to arouse suspicion.” At first, I thought he might be masturbating to Natalie Portman, which felt less offensive than the impulse to decimate. But he wasn’t masturbating. I knew, because I was watching him instead of the movie. There was only one other logical conclusion. He also wouldn’t stop touching that damn backpack, reaching down and touching it every few minutes. To check on his rifles. I was certain of it.

The man became unbearable when, 40 minutes into the film, he stood up and instead of shuffling past the two people on the end of his row in order to go wherever it was he needed to go, he jumped beneath the bar on the second tier and ran out of the theater. Jumping and running is appropriate in cardio classes or parks. It is not appropriate in movie theaters. It can only mean that one’s destination is to go get the guns he has stored in the trash cans outside the theater or in the bathroom, return to the theater, and end people’s lives, strangers with families and favorite foods and feelings, who only wanted to go see this movie, who didn’t want to die.

This was when I turned to Will and said, “We need to move.” I typically get a lot of pushback for my neuroses from my boyfriend but this was mercifully not one of those times. We scrambled down the steps and walked to the far left of the theater, right next to the exit. “Is this okay?” Will said.

There was a binder clip of fear, angular and obtrusive, fastened in my throat but I said yes. From our vantage point, I could see the man’s empty seat, and I could get out of the theater if I needed to. We sat. The man came back into the theater without a gun. He got back in his seat and resumed his incessant texting and backpack touching. This went on for about three minutes, when Will turned to me and said, “Get out. We need to get out.”

In that moment I did not think of why. I thought of my mother, who I had not texted a final message of goodbye to, the draft of my swan song thanking her for life on earth that I keep in the Notes section of my phone, typically reserved for bad airplane turbulence when I purchase Wi-Fi and pray. I got out. I ran. Will ran. We ran down the stairs and into the lobby, to the door, when I turned to him and asked, breathless and shaking, what he’d seen.

“That guy across the aisle from us.”

The guy across the aisle from us, it turned out, was another man sitting alone with a backpack, also continually texting. I did not notice him because I was too busy looking at the first man alone with the backpack, but Will saw that when the second man would send a message, the first man’s phone would light up. Two men, sitting alone and on separate sides of a movie theater, each with a backpack. Why? We all have limits of what we are willing to survive, and Will’s threshold was when the second man lifted his phone to his ear and began to whisper into it. “I thought it was go time.”

So we stood there, holding each other’s trembling hands, and then we left the theater. Yes I know—if you see something, say something. But what was there to say? “Two men are sitting alone and likely texting each other.” It sounds ridiculous. Not as ridiculous as the impetus to kill people in a movie theater, but ridiculous nevertheless. We went and got a drink and on our phones we kept updating the Google search: “Cinema Village East shooting.” That’s how confident we were. The event became inevitable.

What struck me most was that, in relaying this story about not being murdered, everyone I told said they were feeling the same way each time they went to the movies recently. “We’re like sitting ducks,” said my roommate Dana. I research the idiom for kicks: “Someone who waits unsuspectingly for doom or destiny.” This feels right. Women are afraid of being murdered by men. Men are afraid of being murdered by fellow men. This is not what the human contract stipulates. I don’t know the terms and conditions of it specifically, but I’d like to think there’s a rider of some kind that says it’s not acceptable to murder at the movies. “Being a person is getting too complicated,” writes Margaret Atwood in The Edible Woman. I think she was right.

Two nights later, I went back to Cinema Village East with my friend Trevor to finish the Natalie Portman movie. I wanted to make it to the end. I’d told Trevor about what happened on Saturday, and he was a good sport as we sat in the movie theater, watching and commenting on men coming in, some of them together, some of them alone, most of them with bags or backpacks. It was 8 pm. Men should be allowed to carry bags filled with vestiges of their lunches and papers and their wallets and whatever else they want and not be scrutinized. I know they deserve that. But I also know I don’t deserve to be killed when I go to the movies. I know that.

There was one man in particular I was anxious about. Trevor assured me, when he pulled out a plastic container of mixed nuts, that if you were about to shoot up a theater, you wouldn’t be eating almonds. For whatever reason, this assuaged me. We watched the movie. We did not die.