No, it came when the gentleman 30 feet to my right started snoring.
My mind raced. “Is he wearing a mask? He is. Well, that’s good. Will masks properly muffle his exhalations? Is this like being in a library with someone whispering or a church where people are singing? Is he a super-spreader? Is this how I get the disease that 99.98 percent of people in my age cohort survive?”
Despite the fact that I’ve been critical of those who would fearmonger about the safety of movie theaters — especially critics who say they’ll go to a theater, sure, but not with the filthy plebs — it’s in the back of my mind. Yes, I know Jose-Luis Jimenez, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disease transmission, told the Atlantic that theaters haven’t been tied to a single outbreak in the medical literature. Yes, I know Robert Lahita, chairman of medicine at St. Joseph’s Health in New Jersey, told Vulture that there’s no reason theaters in New York City should remain closed while restaurants, gyms, barbershops and tattoo parlors reopen with safety measures in place. Yes, I know that South Korea’s amazingly effective contact-tracing program hasn’t tied a single infection — not an outbreak, mind you, but a single infection — to the 31.5 million people who have visited that nation’s movie theaters.
But still. The snoring! I worried. Fear crept in.
And this is the bind that theaters, and their studio partners, find themselves in. One “bad” patron, be he a snorer or one of those loutish ne’er-do-wells who simply refuses to wear a mask because of “muh freedoms,” undoes every precaution theater-owners themselves can take. That fear overrides our appreciation of the lengths theater owners have been going to to keep moviegoers safe. The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) has done good work highlighting those CinemaSafe protocols, which include requiring the use of masks by employees and patrons when they aren’t consuming concessions, reducing overall capacity in theaters, socially distancing patrons and ramping up the air filtration systems and ventilation capacities of their screens. Along with massive scrub-downs daily and intense between-screening cleaning sessions, and you’ve never seen cleaner auditoriums.
I myself have been enjoying this new regime to a certain extent. On every trip I’ve taken to the theater — whether to my local Alamo Drafthouse to watch “Unhinged” or the 4K rerelease of “Akira”; the Studio Movie Grill I visited to watch “The New Mutants”; or one of the two Imax theaters in which I’ve watched “Tenet” — the auditoriums have been spotless and the crowds have been sparse and well out of my line of sight. The experience has been a nice reprieve from the daily horror show that is doomscrolling through Twitter to see what ridiculous nonsense is being perpetrated by our political caste at any given time.
But the snoring gentleman demonstrates the limits of that reprieve. Whereas the theaters were once a haven from the outside world, they are now a reminder that everything is weird and bad. I’d posit that this is why sports ratings are down across the board, from the NBA Finals to the young NFL season to beloved baseball teams to the Kentucky Derby: Watching sports played by teams in stadiums that are either empty, filled with cardboard cutouts or populated by strange video avatars is alienating, a reminder that nothing is normal. Rather than serving as an escape, live sports remind us that everything is broken.
Normally that snoring would be an annoyance, one typical of the moviegoing experience. Now, however, the snorer feels like a health risk. Now we have to worry about ourselves, our friends, our elderly relatives — regardless of how much of a risk there actually is. It’s not the fault of theaters that this worry is there: We in the media have done a poor job relaying the facts about transmission statistics in theaters, and politicians like New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) have done little to dispel that fear, seemingly deciding that it’s fine if theaters die.
And fear is hard to reason with. As they say in “Dune” — Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of which has been delayed to October of next year thanks to audience hesitance and government intervention in theater operations — “Fear is the mind-killer.” It turns out that fear may end up being the theater-killer as well.