You are in a dark room with dozens of strangers.
You are all looking at the same thing. There is that strange semi-synthetic smell of butter in the air.
You are laughing. You are crying. A voice shouts something, and everyone shushes or chuckles. You whisper to your friends in the next seat. You spill your popcorn between the rows.
And you feel safe. The worst thing that can happen is that Fred Willard may become overexcited by the film.
There is something both frivolous and numinous about the movies. There is danger, excitement, the dilation of time. In the course of two hours you grow an extra life or get new eyes, or maybe you only laugh once and Jason Statham explodes something. It varies. It is supposed to vary. And afterwards there is a magical solidarity between you and the others who came on that voyage to a place that did not exist.
You exit the theater with the same lines on your lips, and hours later dozens of strangers in bars on different sides of the city are still making the same indignant gestures. What did you think of that trailer? Prometheus was a let-down! Why did they bother rebooting Spiderman so soon?
And all of this is a small miracle. But when a miracle happens every day you cease to notice, until the one day it doesn’t.
Thursday night in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., a 24 year-old shooter allegedly opened fire on a crowd of people there to see “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12. And now there is the usual mad, sickening dash to shout the loudest and keen the most ostentatiously and tar the people with whom you disagree. To talk about gun restrictions and safeguards and drag in ideologies and posit dark theories about the malign influence of film and unleash the shadowy winged things that sleep inside the box.
That there were thousands of theaters where this did not happen does not make this news less horrible. But one of the reasons it is so startling is because it is the exception, not the rule.
Sometimes when awful news hits, when places you expect will be safe become scenes of terror, when the person sitting next to you in the darkness acquires a face in the saddest possible circumstances, this is easy to forget. No, people are dangerous. Stay home. The world is dark and cold and nowhere is completely safe.
These acts of terror make the one horrible person stand out in relief and blur the faces of everyone else. Suddenly we all know the name James Holmes. For weeks we will pry at his head and forget how many good, civilized people there are. There are so many. There were so many in the theater that night.
Civilization is not an impersonal clockwork. It is the constant accretion of small politenesses. It abounds in these wonderful, small things that we do together. We buy tickets and walk into the room with the giant screen and say, “Excuse me, is this seat taken?” and sometimes we even pick up our trash on the way out. We sit together in the dark and tell each other stories, secure in the knowledge that the only horrible things that will happen will be on the other side of the screen.
Now AMC is already banning people from wearing any kind of masks. Fear creeps in.
That is the most horrible side effect of terror, to make us afraid to take part in these daily miracles. To make us scared to get on the bus or the train. To set a nervous stutter-step in the pit of our stomach every time there is a loud noise in the theater.
And it would be awful if we let that happen.