A young man's visit into an old theater to watch a silent film takes an unsettling turn.
By Jennifer McCollom
“Step inside, everyone!” the young woman standing the theater’s side door cries. “Step inside! Come witness the technical wonder of the last century! The marvelous innovations of Georges Méliès and the Lumiere Brothers! Be swept off your feet by Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino! Laugh at the antics of the great Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin! Come in and witness a long-gone, black-and-white era,; soundless and distant, but glowing in its timelessness. I promise you a nostalgic and immersive experience. All you have to do is step inside.”
The offer sounds tempting. A night of entertainment? A step into the past? Most people would say that silent films are boring, but movie lovers can’t deny that there is something oddly alluring about these ancient moving pictures. There is something both glamorous and eerie about these old images. Washed out, yet heavily painted people racing about with jerky motions and wide-eyed looks on their faces, even when they are standing still. Sultry poses set against a fluttering light. Old-fashioned music dancing from an out of tune piano. It all seems so unreal and familiar. Silent films really emphasize the fact that movies are only illusions. Mere shadows flickering on a wall.
The theater itself appears to be a hole-in-the-wall, judging by the fact that the entrance is nothing more than an olive-green painted door set into a nondescript brick building. Well, nondescript is probably not the right word for it. It was probably nondescript a hundred years ago, but now its slightly Art Noveau roof and lack of windows stand out. Above the door is a small, faded marquee with a few of its bulbs burned out. It doesn’t say anything, but it is as lit up as it can be.
The woman is standing by it, hawking her cinematic wares. She has a raven-colored bob, ivory skin, blood red lips drawn up in a Cupid’s Bow, and a black fringe dress. All in all, she looks like a gothic Snow White from the 1920’s. She’s really selling it with that weird flapper style.
“Hello!” she says, locking eyes with you. “Won’t you come in? You like movies, I can tell. Who doesn’t like movies? You would appreciate this kind of cinema, though. Silent films. History and art combined. The beginning of the last century brought back to life. Come in, and I promise you a life-changing experience.”
She opens the olive-green door and stretches out her arm, inviting you through it. It’s too bright outside and too dark inside to see what lies beyond the open doorway, but the sounds of a piano and an accordion playing a fast, lilting tune together in harmony reaches your ears, and you breathe in an odd, musty scent that smells like buttered popcorn, wax candles, dust, and sweat all mixed together. Despite the nauseating aroma, something compels you to go inside. You don’t even realize that you’ve taken a step forward until you are standing in the theater lobby and Gothic Snow White is standing next to you, shutting the olive-green door with a subtle click behind her.
The lobby is smaller than any modern movie theater’s lobby and is more dimly lit. The whole room seems darker than it should be. Forest green walls edged with mahogany wainscoting surrounds you on all four sides, the carpeting is such a deep brown that it might actually be black, and the ornately patterned ceiling has a copper veneer covering it. A single brass chandelier hangs from the ceiling, but that is the only lighting you can find. The scant amount of light emanating from it is glowing out of four tiny globes that resemble hot air balloons. You notice a set of large wooden doors on the wall across from you. Next to it is a plain, old-fashioned popcorn maker, manned by a gentleman wearing an apron and a bowler hat. As your eyes adjust to the low lighting, you also see some black-and-white photographs lining the walls. They’re all the size of movie posters, so maybe they are movie posters, but something is off. None of them have titles or film credits or names of studios. They’re just a bunch of pictures of people, most likely silent film actors, with exaggerated, slightly comical, expressions of surprise or horror. Maybe these are film stills?
The popcorn is free, so you grab some, and Gothic Snow White opens the mahogany double doors for you. They pop open like a music box lid, revealing the true theater inside. The movie has already started.
A single character, a young man, is walking nervously across the screen, making his way through what appears to be a dusty, abandoned room. White sheets are draped over all the furniture like shrouds, and there are no windows to allow in any light. The man is trembling and keeps looking over his shoulder, as if expecting to see something ominous appear behind him. Despite his vigilance, someone manages to sneak up on him. It is a woman. She is wearing a long, black veil that goes past her face and trails all the way down the floor. She’s more like a wraith than a person. The only thing signifying that she is a woman is the Victorian mourning dress she wears.
When the man sees her, he panics. He silently screams and bolts offscreen. The ghostly woman follows after him. The next shot shows her chasing him through an empty and cavernous ballroom. You quickly realize that this is a silent horror film. The best kind of silent film.
In the real world, you notice that the theater is a lot smaller than you’re used to. It’s the size of an average living room, and only seats maybe a fifty people. The seats are incredibly old-fashioned wooden ones with wrought iron legs, but they’re in good condition, so you don’t hesitate to take a seat. Gothic Snow White has disappeared. She probably went back outside to lure more customers in. There are a couple dozen people sitting in the audience around you, all staring up, transfixed, at the movie. You give them all a mere cursory glance, a simple acknowledgment of other human beings sharing the same space as you, but none of them seem to care about either your entrance or your existence. They are busy watching the entertainment in front of them.
Thinking no more of them, you lean back in your chair, savoring the experience. The movie is fairly interesting. It doesn’t take long for you to figure out the plot. There is a young man who is trapped inside a haunted house. He keeps searching for a way out but is constantly beset by various spooky figures, like ghosts and skeletons, that keep popping into existence. It’s rather like that one Buster Keaton movie, only there isn’t as much slapstick in this. Here, the protagonist seems genuinely terrified.
The camera keeps cutting to other characters too. Other people that are wandering around in this house of horrors. This happens so often that you begin to doubt whether the frightened young man is the main character. Still, the movie keeps zooming in on him, so he’s probably the star. You’re not sure why, though. He’s not particularly handsome or appealing. Perhaps it’s because he’s acting more scared than the rest of them.
The confusion of character focus is really the only flaw in the plot, though. It’s intriguing and is creepy enough to merit your attention.
You’re enjoying the weirdness of the movie’s style as well. You sit back, observing the rustic and wonky practices of early filmmaking. The way-too-close close-ups that turn the innocent protagonist into a giant looming menacingly over you; the thick makeup that makes everyone look like harlequin puppets; the bizarre lighting that changes randomly, causing one frame to be sepia-toned and the next one to be a vivid purple. It would all be poor quality by today’s standards, but, somehow, it adds to the movie’s magic instead of detracting from it.
That’s when things take a turn for the surreal.
The color of the film changes. What was once purely black-and-white begins to both fade and saturate, and colors, bright colors, appear on the screen. Not the pastel ones that were painted onto the still frames of some old movies to give them color. No, these are vibrant and realistic. The eerie thing, though, is that this is only applied to the characters. The world they inhabit is still a sepia-toned, silent world, but they themselves are in living color.
New, stranger characters begin to enter the scene too. Black figures that appear to be taking some sort of defined shape, but you can’t figure out what shape that is exactly because your eyes won’t let you look at them for too long; giant, paper-mache cats that look like they were plucked straight from a Victorian-era Halloween postcard; scary, turn-of-the-century clowns that stalk the poor main character throughout the black-and-white, shadowy, abandoned house. All of these things are in color, and it only makes them even creepier.
“Enjoying the show?” a voice whispers in your ear.
You nearly fall out of your seat. It was Gothic Snow White that whispered to you. She’s sitting behind you, her arms draped over the back of your chair. You had no idea she was there.
“Uh, yeah,” you mutter.
Her eyes glance up at the screen for a brief moment, then alight back on your face.
“You know,” she says, sounding a bit wistful, “you’re a kinda cute boy. You should be in pictures. Pardon the cliche.”
You blush. “Thanks. You’re... uh... pretty.”
It’s the truth, but you mainly said it out of a lack of response. You’ve never had someone come right up and say that you’re cute.
“You think I could be in movies?” you say after you think about it for a moment.
“Yeah. You have a kind of 1920s look.” She nods towards the screen. “Of course, this is the only place that values that kind of beauty anymore.”
“Do you own this theater?”
“I bet it’s a challenge to find an audience for this kind of thing, especially as out of the way as it is, but there’s a lot of people here.” You gesture slightly at all the people staring fixedly at the screen. “You did great work. This is a really nice set-up. Adding the little bit of color was neat.”
She cocks her head to the side. “You think so?”
“Yeah. I like this. It’s pretty cool, but I’m a geek. I think old stuff like this is fun.”
“Thank you! That’s a sweet thing to say. Can I keep you? Maybe I can lock you up in the supply closet and bring you out to compliment me once in a while? Cheer me up with your pretty face.”
She laughs softly under her breath. You manage an awkward smile. That joke had been specific enough to be a tad unnerving.
“It’s hard to find people that truly appreciate this,” she says, staring straight ahead. She’s not watching the movie. She’s just... staring. “I don’t like them to leave. I want them all to stay and enjoy it.”
You nod slowly and turn back around, now thoroughly weirded out by this strange woman, but she keeps talking, though you feel like she’s not talking entirely to you anymore.
“They do stay, of course, but they don’t enjoy it. I tell them they’ll be fine; that nothing can actually hurt them, but they don’t listen. After a while, they stop having fun. Only out here is the only place where they still enjoy it, but they're mindless now. Still, I do get some entertainment out of seeing them running around like mad up there. It’s especially funny when they find each other and form teams. But maybe you’ll be different. You know, I’m absolutely certain you will be.”
The protagonist is back on screen, this time being chased by an unimaginable creature lit up in glorious, frightening technicolor. Something about the man’s face raises an alarm bell deep within the recesses of your mind. He looks familiar. Not just from this movie, and you don’t think you’ve seen him in anything else. You’re too busy trying to pinpoint where you know him from that the full weight of Gothic Snow White’s words haven’t sunk in yet. Then, with a sickening, icy, and unreal feeling settling in your stomach and crawling over your skin, you realize why exactly this young man seems so familiar.
He’s in the audience with you.
He’s sitting right behind Gothic Snow White.
You turn your head, slowly and mechanically, in order to get a good look at him. He’s staring with rapt attention up at the screen. Your eyes are then drawn to a person sitting a few seats away from the young man. They’ve also appeared in various scenes throughout the movie. Your heart nearly stops when it dawns on you that most of the people in this audience have at least had a terrifying and horrid cameo in this film.
“Here we go!” Gothic Snow White says, her eyes shining brightly as they fix themselves on the screen. “It’s your grand entrance! All eyes on you!”
You forget to breathe as you follow her gaze, and, right before your world turns upside down, you see yourself wandering around, panicked, in that silent, haunted house.