John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In front of us, a July wind rippled the screen. Its blank canvas shimmered in the headlights of a handful of cars. Among the few already parked in the field were a pickup truck and a Rolls Royce so shiny I could see myself in it. In previous years we would have been inside, wearing sweatshirts brought along to combat the freezing AC, and there would have been an advertisement for concessions, a cartoon popcorn bag singing to a cheeky box of Raisinets. But this summer, we were told to bring our own food, stay in our vehicles, and wear a mask if we needed the porta potty.

Back when things were normal, I used to love sneaking off to the movies in the middle of the day. I told myself I was seeking artistic inspiration, but more often than not I was driven by a paradoxical desire: to be both alone and with a crowd. Sometimes just being in an audience was as important to me as the film that was showing. I sought out the cinema as a place where I could feel my own emotions without anyone watching, while knowing there would be no lack of human connection. I loved listening to the other moviegoers, their laughter, their tears, their gasps at the jump scare of a horror flick. I even delighted in the rowdier fans, the ones who would quip back to the characters on screen.

My boyfriend told me that one of his film professors always likened the cinema to church. Both are built around the ritual of families congregating together, sitting in some kind of dark and waiting to be shown the light. In quiet contemplation, the movies provide a safe space for the unconscious; despite viewing the same film, each audience member inevitably watches their own projection, filtered through the lens of their personal realities. But now there are no movie theaters open, nowhere to pop in and enjoy some escapist respite from the grueling summer heat. The past few months have drastically changed, and even exaggerated, what it means for us to be “alone” and “together.” The pandemic has left us deeply lonely, while at the same time desperate for space from our children, partners, and roommates. Weddings, birthday parties, and graduation ceremonies have all been postponed indefinitely, and if they are held they’re either online or involve some kind of awkward social-distancing protocol that makes everyone more aware of their own isolation. In a moment when every viral photo of a crowded beach sends chills down the spine, is there anywhere that offers an experience merging solitude and solidarity? Enter: the drive-in.

On that July evening, my boyfriend and I pulled our beat-up Nissan into the parking lot behind the Y. We turned on the radio, waiting for the movie audio to come over our speakers. Our antenna was bad, unbeknownst to us, and the sound crackled with static, presenting the possibility of a very long two hours ahead. We tried flipping the stations, but eventually gave up and climbed up on the car’s roof to listen to the film boom from some hundred meters in front of us. I counted a few others who had done the same, but most of the audience stayed safely, and anonymously, tucked away inside their cars. The day had been hot, sticky and close, the kind that pastes even the starchiest of polo shirts to sweat-drenched backs. But the night had been taken over by a chilly New England fog. As it swirled around us, I worried we wouldn’t be able to see the screen, which hung loosely on the back wall of the local ice-skating rink. Instead the projector’s light seemed only to blaze brighter.

Had I ever been to a drive-in before this summer? I have faint memories of seeing The Shining in a field in Michigan, running through mosquitos toward the canteen for a box of salty, steaming hot fries. But looking back on it, I realize this memory is not my own. I’m recalling a scene from the 1996 action film Twister, in which The Shining plays at a drive-in. In Twister, we get a glimpse of the terrifying child-twins beckoning for little Danny to come play with us right before a tornado tears through the screen, threatening the viewers who, only moments ago, had been lounging in their flatbeds, sneaking teenage hands underneath scratchy blankets. I have also half-internalized Denis Johnson’s beautiful description, in his short story “Emergency,” of the main character Fuckhead, blazed out of his mind on psychedelics, mistaking the abandoned screen at a drive-in for something far more celestial:

On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.

Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in, man!”

So while I may not have actually ventured to a drive-in before, I arrived at this one already steeped in nostalgia, aware of something haunting the spectacle of all those cars lined up in front of that glimmering screen. It’s a relic from a bygone era of filmgoing that we’re resurrecting during a moment when we are forced, at least temporarily, to say goodbye to movies as a shared, collective experience. Though we’ve spent the past several months at home with access to a seemingly endless supply of films on demand, I hoped the drive-in might offer a sense of the communion with strangers I’d longed for amid the pandemic.

Typically, I would have demanded that we arrive early, in time to see all twenty minutes of trailers that reliably accompany a summer blockbuster. This time there was no need; there aren’t any new movies coming to the theater anytime soon. (Hollywood seems to have been about as prepared for COVID-19 as our federal government.) So we do without trailers, and watch movies we have already seen. It would make sense for these films to go down easy, to lull us into our own daydreams, the recognizable images on screen only heightening our ability to drift away and roam elsewhere in our minds. This drive-in mostly offered a rotating selection of family-friendly fare like The Princess Bride, ET, and The Goonies, with each title playing just once over the week. There was only one film that stood out to us from this collection of 80s feel-good classics: Get Out. My boyfriend and I both remembered loving it and were excited to see it again. But it turned out to demand my attention even more forcefully than when it was first released.

When Jordan Peele’s electrifying debut came out in 2017, Get Out was talked about as the horror version of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, for a culture still embedded in what Peele calls the “post-racial lie of the Obama era.” The monsters in Get Out don’t don hockey masks or rise up from the dead; instead, when young couple Rose (Allison Williams) and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) pay a weekend visit to her parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) welcome Daniel, who is Black, with open arms and embarrassing attempts to show they are anything but racist. For many white viewers, there was an uneasy familiarity in the film’s depiction of an elite liberal milieu, one that often congratulates itself on its enlightened anti-racism. At least that’s what I experienced the first time I saw Get Out in a packed showing at Brooklyn’s BAM cinema.

At BAM we were a young, stylish, mostly white crowd, the kind that would inevitably peel off after the credits to spend even more money on complicated cocktails at the neighboring bars. Sipping our sloe gin fizzes, we’d be looking to process the movie together, to relive our experience of seeing such an important, if also highly enjoyable film. The genius of Get Out is that it’s a pitch perfect horror movie, easily oscillating between terror and laughter. On a superficial level, it reminded me of what I had loved about the genre as a kid watching scary movies at sleepovers: the thrill of not knowing whether I’d be able to sleep that night. I hadn’t experienced the adrenaline rush of a horror movie since—mainly because I believed nothing could improve upon The Exorcist. Get Out fulfilled that need for me, sending pine needles down my spine and leaving me clinging to my armrest. Even after I left the theater, I was surprised to find that I still felt buzzed hours later. In retrospect I feel ashamed—of how much I liked watching the movie.

At BAM I was part of an audience, which both heightened the tension of the film and offered relief every time the movie inched me toward recognizing myself in any of the villainous characters. Somewhere in the stadium seating, there was always a person willing to laugh first, giving us all tacit permission to join in—and creating moments of reprieve. I could feel a certain kind of unity in the tension—together, we were coming to terms with the essential importance of the film. Seeing Get Out in a traditional theater setting presented us all with the possibility of catharsis, or at least offered the illusion that by viewing the movie together, we were working towards something. That in the end, there would be something achieved by watching the film.

A few years later at the drive-in, and in what felt like a very different world, I found nothing to “enjoy” about Get Out. Along with my nostalgia, that night I had also been hoping for romance, but my boyfriend and I didn’t touch at all during the movie. In fact, as the film went on, we seemed to slide further away from each other, turning more inward with every scene. By the end, I was so far off to one side, I was holding onto the roof rack for fear of falling off. And the sense of separateness went beyond the two of us: Not only was I so removed from my partner that I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, with everyone confined to their cars, I couldn’t hear or see anyone else. Without the real life laugh track I had come to rely on, the drive-in was devoid of the collective giddiness that accompanies so many horror movies and that I was so desperately longing for. In its place was a darkened field where my loneliness felt like a tangible presence, turning up the volume on the dull drumbeat of my own dread. There was no one to let me off the hook with a shriek from the back row, or a joke lobbed at the screen. Instead my isolation forced me to reckon with the fine line that separates the uneasy anxiety of being Black in a white space (the focus of the first half of the film), from the brutal sadism of being hunted down in the second act.

Many of the movies I’ve watched during the pandemic have taken on an antiquated quality: There’s so much hugging, or even worse, a sneeze let loose in a crowded elevator! It all feels horrifying in its own way. Get Out is different. Three years after its debut, its reflection of our current reality feels eerily prescient. That’s the real tragedy at the heart of the movie—how it continues to hold up a funhouse mirror to a country unable to confront its unending cycle of brazen racialized violence. In that country, the horrific murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (and Ahmaud Arbery and Elijah McClain and Oluwatoyin Salau…) sparked a fury that segued into a fierce wave of protest-amid-pandemic, in which Black Lives Matter protestors were beaten with batons, shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with what seemed like limitless amounts of tear gas. In the opening of Get Out, we see Andre (LaKeith Stanfield) wandering lost in a wealthy suburb at night, talking nervously on his cellphone. A car pulls up next to him and a man hammers Andre over the head, pushes him into the backseat, and abducts him. At the time, many likened the scene to Trayvon Martin’s murder, recalling the deep paranoia and racist fear of the neighborhood watch. In 2020, a new stratum of fear is encoded onto the opening, as protestors from Portland to New York are being disappeared into the backs of unmarked cars.

The last scene of Get Out presents a much loved horror film trope. Chris has battled his way out from the murderous white homestead, only to see the blue and red flashing lights of what we assume are the cops coming to lock him up, in spite of what he has just escaped. But in a “gotcha moment,” it turns out to be Chris’s buddy, a TSA agent named Rod, showing up to rescue him against all odds. The first time around, that’s where Get Out ended for me. Chris was saved; the bad guys were gone. But at the drive-in, I could see that there was no real happy ending for Chris, even after he drives safely away. Eventually, and probably sooner rather than later, he will have to contend with the police. The grim look on his face in the film’s final moment is the only reminder we need that as a Black man, his life is still in jeopardy.

That evening at the drive-in felt like a bizarre kind of alchemy, one that conjures a Venn diagram of life during 2020. There we were, sequestered from each other in our cars, parked the proverbial six feet apart, eyes glued to a film about the horror and violence of American racism. It was like we were all actors playing out the story of what happens when a country endures a pandemic at the same time as it experiences a revolt—a story about how the denial of togetherness forces us to account for our individual responsibilities. I was faced with how the role I’ve played has allowed me to skirt my own collusion: with a witty remark from the back row, or by covering my eyes when the images on screen got too scary.

Even the movie’s title, Get Out, has taken on a deeper, more sinister meaning. None of us can get out. Not only have our American passports, that sacred blue book that once allowed admission to the rest of world, been rendered useless, but—occasional trip to the drive-in and grocery store aside—we are largely confined to our homes.

I’ve developed a sneaking suspicion that, as Americans, we’ve confused the definitions of guilt and shame. Though the two words are broadly used interchangeably, shame often gets a bad rap. It tends to be seen as something that’s felt in relation to one’s community—an emotion understood as the consequence of others’ reactions—while guilt is personal, and requires a certain amount of self-awareness. Yet as I look around, I’ve started to think the inverse might be true: that guilt is what is experienced, and even performed, publicly, while shame is felt privately. Having been raised Catholic, I always understood shame to be something secret, between God and myself, while guilt was more of a parenting strategy employed by my mother. This meant guilt came with the possibility of attrition, the understanding that with a witness, you also have a forgiver. Perhaps this was the difference between my two viewings of Get Out: At BAM, I was part of an audience, and within that collection of people, I experienced what gets called “white guilt.” That guilt, along with the presence of my seatmates, offered me a kind of pardon. I had, after all, done the work, seen the movie, even felt uncomfortable during some scenes. My time was put in, my penance paid. I met Oscar Wilde’s classic definition of a sentimentalist: “one who wants to have the luxury of emotion without paying for it.”

Online, we rely on the crowd to praise and to punish. Those who trespass are subject to a kind of modern-day stoning: Everyone—strangers, neighbors and even employers—piles on, until they are “shamed” into apologizing. We depend on the same crowd for affirmation and feedback when we gesture at righteousness—how brave we are! How virtuous! At least, I have desired this validation each time I’ve posted anything vaguely in the realm of activism; counting on the dopamine hit when a like or heart emoji lights up my phone. Why did I need that form of applause? Locked away, and mostly alone in that boxy Nissan at the drive-in, what I was feeling, possibly for the first time, was the acute punch of being knocked off center by a surge of shame. With no one around who could offer me absolution, I recognized the feeling for what it was: not a guilt that could be alleviated by performance, but a shame that I must contend with, and continue to pay for, on my own.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter whether we call it shame or guilt. The important thing is that it reflects the muddled way so many white people respond to racism, and underscores the way we require acknowledgement for our good deeds, instead of simply altering our behavior. Over the last seven months, I have been afraid of the isolation brought on by the pandemic, but the uniquely 2020 experience of seeing Get Out at the drive-in pushed me to face my suspicion of solitude, turning it over in my brain until it made a strange kind of sense.

On Still Processing, the podcast she co-hosts with Wesley Morris, Jenna Wortham recently pointed to the difference between passive and active discomfort. In order for the feeling to transcend simple icky-ness, she said, it has to be engaged with head-on until it becomes a complete “emotional, psychological, intellectual state.” I wonder if part of that difference comes from being in an audience—the experience of seeing art with a group of people can prevent us from being fully destabilized, in a way that moves us toward meaningful change. If applause is just another form of avoidance, I want to embrace my anxiety so it never totally dissipates, but demands that I meet it with action: action that I take every day, on my own, without the flurry of emojis or constant pats on the back. My night at the drive-in asked me to do the work that I had been sidestepping for years: to sit, alone and uncomfortable, with only myself to play both audience and actor.

As the credits for Get Out rolled, the coastal fog thickened around us and the screen lost its torchlight, fading to black. On the drive home, we slowed to twenty miles an hour, afraid that if we went any faster, we might not see the curves ahead. I leaned closer to the windshield, as if I could physically will myself forward through the milky white haze. We only passed one other car; luckily, we could spot it from a distance. Through the shimmering mist, it blinked its headlights twice, like a projector clicking on and off, letting us know there were others on the road as well.

Lacy Warner

Lacy Warner has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and has written for Longreads, Tin House, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She is currently at work on a book-length project about the work and lives of Francesca Woodman and Nan Goldin that blends art criticism and memoir in order examine the power and burden of female pain and desire.

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One Comment on “At the Drive-In

  1. First person non-fiction is having a bad week with me — first in The New Yorker with “Wanderlust,” a piece by Jon Lee Anderson and here with Lacy Warner. In both cases I lost interest in the teller of the story. I just didn’t care;their emotional lives were not why I came to hear them speak — even when their actions were less than ordinary and should have been of interest.

    Not so when I took down “The Road Back to Paris” by A. J. Liebling and read his telling of a trip across the Atlantic on a Norwegian oil tanker, just as WWIi was getting underway. Not fair to hold any writer to that standard—I’d agree, but that’s what bubbled up this Sunday morning.

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