Something to Ponder: Joyce Carol Oates and Domesticated Cinema

I’ve just finished reading an Essay by Joyce Carol Oates about Todd Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s dracula that I’m planning to assign to my
students this fall. While reading, one of Oates’s points caught hold of me, and I’ve spent the past few hours pondering what she means by it–and what
it might mean to me. Discussing the thrill of Dracula and the story’s enduring presence in our collective imagination, she argues that the cinematic experience
is “domesticated and diluted” at home as opposed to in the theater–a point with which any avid moviegoer would agree, hands down.

I certainly agree, but the objective portion of my brain–the one forced to play devil’s advocate with my students and find new and torturous ways of challenging
their interpretations of what they read–began thinking about what Oates means and wondering whether or not her idea is one exclusive to the experience
of watching horror films. I certainly think it’s far easier to get caught up in the thrills and chills of the horror film in the close, semi-darkness of
the theater in a way that might be difficult to replicate in the warm, well-lit safety of our living-rooms. Even if you do enjoy watching films at home
with the lights turned off, you’re still arguably in a place wherein you feel protected from the ghools and goblins intended to frighten you. We might
be surrounded by friends in the theater as well as by strangers, but even when the movie is over–when the lights have come on again and the ilusion has
slunk back into the shadows from whense it came, we’ve still got to leave the theater and walk across the eerily-lit parking lot to our cars, and what
might be lurking out there? For all we know, the guy seated in the row across from us might be the Craigslist killer. Even if this is highly unlikely,
our recent cinematic experience has tightened our nerves and heightened our senses just enough to make us believe, temporarily, that we have cause to be
afraid–very afraid. It seems far more difficult to be taken in by the ilusion in the comfort of home–the place that exudes light, warmth, hope, laughter–those
talismans against terror. (On the other hand, if you live alone, and especially if you’re female, though I hesitate to succumb to the stereotype, it might
be a bit easier).

I wondered too if this idea only translates to the experience of the horror film. No matter what the genre, none of us can deny that there’s something
magical about watching our favorite actor or actress stride across the big screen that definitely tops watching them at home, unless you have a pretty
impressive home entertainment system at your disposal. Then too, nothing can cap the experience of sitting in a darkened theater with your date of choice,
hands bumping and slipping against one another in an extra buttery tub of popcorn, though more than likely your thoughts are occupied with other matters
than the action playing out on the screen. Even so, perhaps there something about the thrill of the theater that heightens the horror-viewing experience.

I definitely think it’s worth creating a journal prompt for my students based on this idea, and I’ll certainly be interested to see what the Netflix and
Torrent generation makes of it.

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