I was nine years old the first time I saw a horror movie in theaters. Horror is sort of a loose term here, as the film I’m about to describe follows perhaps more under the bracket of, “psychological thriller.” But it scared the jeepers out of me, so it seemed appropriate. The term movie theater, as well is sort of loose, as it was actually a drive-in theater in Welfleet, near the tip of Cape Cod. Despite in later years my impression the drive-in was geared exclusively to “family friendly” audiences, the movie they were showing that night was Robert Zemeckis What Lies Beneath, which as a child, I remember being explicitly NOT family friendly.
The whole night is fragmented, as are many childhood memories. But I remember that my dad, my step mom, my older sister Dylan (than 14 probably), her friend, and I piled into the car. Now, the way this drive-in theater worked, and for all I know the way all drive-in theaters work (this is the only one I’ve ever been to), was that the car radio had to be dialed into a certain station to play the film’s sound. As my father tried his best to imitate a theater-going experience, the sound was loud. I couldn’t see too well in the backseat, but the washed out tones and the loud sounds made my heart race. My sister and her friend were noisy and making fun of the whole thing, causing quite a stir with the other patrons. In fact, if I recall correctly, the chain-smoking man in the beat up Honda Civic next to us was throwing beer bottles at them.
Everyone was engrossed in the experience in a completely individualized way. To begin with, the very act of experiences in a car, implies a barrier between you and the world. In a movie theater, you’re immersed in a sea of people, presumably ones’ having a similar emotional experience. But not in a car. My father was trying to watch the movie and simultaneously ensuring the sanctity of the viewing. My step-mom was casting concerned glances back at me and yelling at my sister to knock it off. And I was slunk in my seat, watching as Michelle Pfeiffer lost her mind.
Between the commotion from those teenage hoodlums (I’m looking at you, Dylan) and the sheer fear and adrenaline pumping through my body, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. Without saying a word, I exited the car and walked to a swing set in a sandbox. I took off my shoes and let the sand run over my feet as I sat on a swing, twisting the metal chains absentmindedly. I’m not sure when it happened but my step-mother showed up with popcorn and a hot dog and I watched the rest of the movie without sound, lessening my nerves considerably. The memory now is of smoky salt, the exfoliating feel of the sand on my toes, my butt hurting after sitting on the swing for so long, and how sad I felt for Michelle Pfeiffer who really seemed as scared as I was. But, of course, the theme of What Lies Beneath is memory is incomplete, so who’s to say for sure?