Us And A Little Bit Of Hell

Spoilers, obviously

I’ve had two unusual experiences at the movies recently. The first was when Grace and I went to go see the remake of Pet Sematary at a theater in Berkeley. (I’d never really gotten into Stephen King until I met Nicole, who’s crazy for him, and I read Pet Sematary a few years ago as we were winding down The Toast and absolutely adored it. He is a wildly popular author for a good reason, I think!) About forty-five minutes into the movie, the following happened three times in quick succession:

  • The door at the back of the theater opened abruptly

  • A man walked through it and stood in the triangle of light spilling out from the hallway, looking around and generally giving off an air of assessing the room

  • After a minute of this, he just as abruptly walked back out

This happened three times in maybe fifteen minutes. The second time it happened, most of the people in the back half of the theater were sitting up and turning around in their seats to get a better look at the guy. I had the sense all of us were running through the same internal monologue: It’s nothing, of course it’s nothing, but should we go? If it is nothing – which of course it is – what kind of stunt is he trying to pull? Who just comes and scopes out a theater in the middle of a movie? Should we – No, that’s stupid. The third time both Grace and I power-walked out to the lobby (it was the last showing of the night, and there were just a few employees left cleaning out the popcorn machines) and buttonholed one of the concessionaires.

“I’m sorry?” I said in that voice you use when you want to let a service worker know you think your question is stupid and that you’re sorry for bothering them. “We were just wondering? This guy keeps coming into our theater and looking around? It’s happened like three times in the last few minutes? Do you know anything about this?”

“Oh yeah,” she said, “We send someone in to check the theater a few times to make sure nothing crazy is going on.”

“Oh,” I said, both relieved and terrified, because that is the worst check-in plan I can possibly imagine. “We thought he was the ‘something crazy’ going on!” Then, because there was nothing left to say about it, we went back to watching Pet Sematary, feeling sheepish. (Surely there must be a better way to make sure “nothing crazy” is going on!)

The other moment came a week or two previous, when we went to see Us, which I enjoyed immensely, although I agree it’s a bit messy. The scenes underground stayed with me for days afterwards, and I found myself thinking that there’s a particularly post-evangelical anxiety I think it activated. Not that this is a specifically post-evangelical anxiety, you see it in everything, including Buffy, and it’s probably more post-something else I’m not as familiar with. And you certainly don’t have to be anti-evangelical for the anxiety to manifest – I have a suspicion it follows around as many late-in-life Episcopalians as it does atheists (who, let’s face it, aren’t exactly far from Episcopalianism themselves.)

But the basic anxiety is this: Most of the complicated and energetic supernatural power you once believed animated the universe in is of course gone, but there’s just enough left to maintain a low-stakes, low-input version of hell. “Nothing’s real, but maybe there’s a little bit of hell” is the best way I can sum it up. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a worldview any more than my dogged, irrational belief that Lyndon B. Johnson would have found me charming is. It’s a tic like many others, but since there’s always a part of the modern brain that whispers the worst thing you can think of is true, but only barely, it’s a particularly robust one. Buffy spent about fifteen minutes on the subject of Heaven and never (as far as I can recall) managed to populate it with any individuals, only a general sense of well-being that’s still, somehow, able to make life on earth unbearable merely by way of comparison (“I went to Heaven and all I got was this lousy post-traumatic stress disorder”). Hell and Earth, on the other hand, were absolutely chockablock with demons and bad gods, albeit usually disorganized ones.

And so the idea of a hell that is thoroughly bad but almost completely natural, human, and limited in scope is one that feels immediately recognizable and compelling; the idea of a hell that exists mostly beneath the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, that’s characterized primarily by grimness, repetition, and a lack of personal power, one that’s connected faintly but persistently to life on the surface made immediate, intuitive sense to me; the fear that each act, no matter how neutral-seeming, is in fact acting as a point against us, feeding a large and low-level engine of resentment. It can be difficult to scare up a sense of the transcendent, or faith in the immanent and saving power of the God of the valley of dry bones, but the little, petty Hell of the post-evangelical mind comes easily and readily to hand. A man walks into a theater and walks back out again three times to make sure nothing crazy is going on. That’s the punchline. End of joke.