It’s remarkable that in an age of seemingly infinite movie viewing options, ranging from individualized viewing on computers or handheld device to Megaplex, 3D, or IMAX environments, that drive-in movies can still draw a crowd. For me, the closest drive-in is nearly an hour and a half away in Mansfield, a rural town in northern Connecticut. The route there is lined with farms and roadside fruit stands on winding, unlit country roads. The aim is to reach the marquee just as dusk relents to twilight. After paying admission at the halogen lit booths, drivers are permitted access to a large dirt clearing in the woods. Cars line up before a choice of three screens that are set against the black frame of trees. Lawn chairs are cracked into position and towels spread in the grass or on car hood as children dart about. The smells of pine, burning mosquito-repellent coils, popcorn, intermittent cigarette smoke, and automobile exhaust mingle; the marriage of a camping trip and a carnival.
In spite of the proximal inconvenience, my wife and I make it a point to attend at least once a year. Last weekend, we attended a double feature of World War Z and Man of Steel, two special effect behemoths optimal for big screen viewing. I was happy to see that the drive-in, which boasts a 1,000 car capacity, appeared to be booked to its limit. With time to spare, we made the obligatory trip to the concession stand for clam fritters, popcorn and soda. Its checkered tile floor, old-timey signs, vintage video game cabinets, and prices considerably lower than those of modern movie theaters evoke a sensation of stepping into the past.
Developed in the 1930s, the drive-in movie enjoyed the height of its success in the late 1950s and early 1960s being attended by nuclear families and amorous teens alike. Increases in the cost of real estate, the adoption of daylight savings time, and public’s shift in attention to improved home viewing technologies ranging from color television to VCRs led to their gradual decline and near extinction. I had a few opportunities to experience the drive-in at some of the steadfast hangers-on in my hometown in Massachusetts. At the age of four, my parents took me to see Star Wars and Bambi. Naturally I don’t recall too much, having only vague flashes that are probably more second-hand recollections handed down by my parents than actual memories. Perhaps it’s because this occasion features my parents and me as an intact family unit, but I think back on it with an overwhelming fondness and nostalgia.
Later, after my parents’ split, my father would talk his mother or brother into going to see a movie. We’d all pile into his Camaro and all head to the drive-in. He never let my presence affect his choice in movie. His selection usually resulted in me peeking out from under a blanket in terror and confusion at the gore and nudity on the screen. In 1980, at the age of six I witnessed the Troma splatter fest, Mother’s Day. In 1983, at the age of nine I trembled through two Stephen King adaptations, Cujo and Christine, both of which are great car-centric horror films that are extra effective when viewed from within a dark car. In 1985—by this time a seasoned eleven-year-old veteran of horror—I bravely made it through George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead. In this latter experience, it was the drive home on inky black rural roads that sent me spiraling in terror. Regardless of my father’s questionable parenting, I retained a love for the drive-in movie as a viewing experience, and as I got older would long to return.
In my adult life, I’ve been to two different drive-in theaters. In addition to the Mansfield Drive-In, my wife and I happened upon the Wellfleet Drive-In while vacationing one summer in Cape Cod. In both cases, the picture quality is less clear than that of indoor theater experiences, contending with atmospheric light sources of the snack shop, neighboring cars, or the moon. In the past, individual parking spots were outfitted with mono RCA speakers that theater goers would hang on their car windows, receiving the movies audio track in monaural low-fi. Currently, the film’s audio track is broadcast on low range frequencies allowing viewers to tune in on their car radio limiting the sound quality to that of the car’s stereo system. With each car broadcasting from different distances throughout the lot, the audio track reverberates throughout the drive-in.
I regard these “flaws” as the charms of the experience. In addition to offering a double feature complete with vintage intermission trailers, the drive-in is typically cheaper than the modern megaplex in both ticket and concession prices. Ultimately the antiquated experience of the drive-in movie offers just that; an experience. For me, the movies that are featured on the screen hardly matter. I enjoy the drive-in for the atmosphere. It represents a simpler time before the advent of brain rattling THX surround sound and gallon-sized soft drinks. In addition to tapping into a personal nostalgia—and potentially undoing some psychological trauma—I appreciate it as the preservation of a nearly extinct bit of Americana. I’m grateful the drive-in theater is currently enjoying a revival and that I have been able to experience it as an adult, forging new memories.