A Horror Movie Screening In The Woods Caused Me To Question The Nature Of Fear

Last week, an experiential screening of It Comes At Night was held in the woods, just east of Austin, TX. The movie takes place at some undefined point in the post-apocalyptic future and is also set deep in the woods. The effect of watching this particular movie in this particular setting is exactly the sort of foreboding, immersive experience that the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow is known for. It appealed to me on every level.

Attendees gathered together at sunset and were loaded onto a series of school busses that took us about 40 miles east of town. The Alamo staff wore gas masks, and, in muffled voices, instructed us to put on surgical masks that had been handed out prior. As we climbed aboard, we were told that each bus had a letter, which was then written in sharpie on our wristbands.

Earlier that day, an email had given me a list of requirements for the event: no open-toed shoes, no shorts, some bug spray, and a warning: “Don’t approach any animal you happen to run across.” None of this seemed out of the ordinary. After all, this was the same crew that’s known for its Satanic-themed escape rooms and explosion-filled press junkets, so why wouldn’t there be some extra scares hidden along the way?

It wasn’t until we got closer to the location that things started to get weird in unexpected ways.

As the lights of the city faded, we were warned to keep our voices down, so as not to disturb anyone. It seemed to be a reasonable enough request — especially when a glance out the window revealed houses scattered alongside the increasingly dimly lit roads. Pushing further out, the paved roads ended altogether, giving way to gravel, then dirt.

With low-hanging branches whipping against the bus, we were instructed to keep our eyes peeled for anything troublesome. If that wasn’t ominous enough, the exterior lights of the bus shone on thick foliage, dotted with the occasional campsite. This also made sense — we were on the outskirts of a popular state park — but still… I didn’t put it past the Alamo crew to go so far as to rent out a large stretch of campground and hire people to lurk about in the woods.

As we drove deeper into the wilderness, the road got continually rougher, until we finally reached our destination. Before exiting, we were given one final warning: “Everyone stick together, and absolutely do not use cell phone flashlights.” The group naturally huddled close to one another, in one large mass. A natural lone wolf, I lurked around the edges, peering out into the darkness. The thought was that I’d be able to see anything coming before the others; the reality was that if this were a real-life horror movie, I’d be first to die.

With only the lights from lanterns held by the staff to guide us, we walked down a short path to a small patch of wall with a large, red door in the center. “Keep quiet, or they’ll hear us” someone said through his gas mask, as we filed through the entry one-by-one, before being led to the actual screening area.

By the time I saw the rows of folding chairs laid out in front of the giant, portable movie screen that I stopped waiting for the legions of paid scare-actors to leap out at us. All was clear and safe.

With my more material fears dissolved, I was soon absorbed by It Comes At Night, where the terror was confined to two dimensions. The only real-life fear during the movie came during a quick trip to the bathroom. There, a total stranger standing in front of me wondered if there might be something terrifying inside the bathroom itself. It turned out there was, because this was one of those campsite pit toilets, and… you get the idea.

Once the movie was over, followed by a Q&A with writer/director Trey Edward Shults, my paranoia started to creep back in. It was announced that there’d be a slight delay in leaving because the busses were having trouble turning around. So we made the most of it by hanging around and helping ourselves to whatever beer was left in the coolers around the edges of the seating area.

After lingering around for 15 minutes or so, a time filled by talking with fellow attendee and Uproxx writer Josh Kurp about the film, we were told to get back on the same busses we were on before. The ones which corresponded with the letter scrawled on our wristbands. Even though the boarding seemed to go without incident, we continued to sit idle. It seemed like the crew was plotting something.

“Is everyone sure they’re on the right bus?” the staff member asked, explaining that there were now four more people on the bus than had been earlier. Everyone traded glances with one another while we double-checked the letter on our wristbands. The question was asked again, with increasing urgency.

What would’ve normally seemed like some kind of safety measure to make sure no stray filmgoers were left behind in the woods, instead seemed like part of this gonzo horror experience. I felt myself questioning whether or not these four extra passengers would turn out to be performers who’d slipped onto the bus to terrorize us after the movie, when we’d least expect it.

After another ten or so minutes went by, the same question was repeated a few more times. Passengers were repeatedly counted by both the Alamo staff and the bus driver until we eventually started to leave. I told myself it was just my over-active imagination over-acting again, and this was all circumstantial, and we’d be back to our cars after another 40 minutes or so.

Just as I’d gone back to shrugging off all these setbacks, the bus got stuck trying to climb a hill on the way out. As we sat there motionless on a steep incline, it was easy to think about just how many slasher films start this same way.

Writer: “A bus full of people gets stuck on a lonely road.”

Movie Exec: “Let’s fast track it.”

I started checking to see if I had enough of a cell signal to just call a rideshare and get the hell back to my car. Then I wondered if I’d even be allowed to get off this overcrowded bus. With the conversations around growing louder and more concerned, the bus driver asked everyone quiet down. After a couple tries, he managed to clear the incline (to roaring applause, no less). Once the lights of the city slowly became more visible, my paranoia eventually subsided once more, and we exited the bus and made our way to our vehicles.

Even days later, when I should be benefiting from hindsight, I’ve yet to fully admit that I was being just a little bit ridiculous. On one hand, the Alamo Drafthouse’s Rolling Roadshows are known to make the best use of the environment to create the most immersive experience. Knowing that, having me and everyone else spend hours looking over both shoulders is totally plausible.

On the other, Shults’ film has an uncanny ability to really get inside your head, making you question everything you see. It didn’t rely on classic horror tropes or moments where you’d jump out of your seat, but rather tension and subtext that created a much more intrinsic sense of fear and unease. It’s a feeling that lingers long after the credits roll, and one that’s sure to follow you out of the theater. It sure as hell followed me out of the woods.