Updated on 10 May 2021: how long has it been since we were in an actual proper cinema? Far too long, in my opinion. The last time I slipped into one of those velvety seats was in the weeks before lockdown, for a late-night showing of Robert Pattinson’s The Lighthouse. Which was an interesting experience, to say the least. Especially as I was basically the only one in there.
For months, I’ve waited patiently for Boris Johnson to give cinemas the go-ahead to reopen. And, on 17 May, my dreams will finally come true as multiplexes and indie screens begin unshuttering around the country – albeit with a whole new list of social distancing rules in place.
So, with a whole host of blockbuster treats on the horizon – Cruella, A Quiet Place II, In The Heights, Black Widow, Candyman, No Time To Die, West Side Story, Downton Abbey 2, and The Eternals are among the glittering array of films due out this year – it seems 2021 is the ideal time to embrace all that the cinema has to offer. Particularly a socially-distanced one.
Because, while you may think of going to the movies as a… well, as a social activity, trust me when I tell you that there’s genuinely nothing better than hitting the flicks alone.
As reported on 13 January 2019: I have to confess that I’m a cinema purist; through and through.
If I had my way, anyone who dares whip out their smartphone during a movie thoroughly deserves to have said smartphone inserted into one of their more unspeakable bodily orifices. Whispering during the trailers is tolerable – just – but speaking at any point after the lion roars is absolutely not allowed. Not if you want to maintain your place in civilised society, anyway.
And what of eating and drinking? Well, popcorn is fine, so long as the person who insists on eating it is sure to place each kernel gently on their tongue – always being careful to avoid the teeth – and allow it to dissolve to mush before swallowing. But anything that crunches? No. And don’t get me started on those toddler-sized soda cups: the crashing of the ice cubes is more than enough to set one’s teeth on edge, let alone the slurping.
Yes, I may call myself a cinema purist, but my friends - the ones who know about my little quirks, that is - have another, less flattering name for me: the cine-nazi. Which I suppose is fair, considering I once threatened to insert a plastic straw (so bad for the environment) up one of their noses and into their brain if they continued in their mission of trying to slurp up every last drop of their Coca-Cola.
Over time, I’ve learned to grit my teeth and deal with my pals and their little quirks. Sure, I refuse to speak, even when they whisper their theories about the main character’s intentions, but I do acknowledge them - maybe even treat them to a small smile or a slight raising of the eyebrows. I don’t roll my eyes if they have a coughing fit: instead, I am the paragon of concern, offering them water and patting them on the back. And I no longer mime a shudder when they open a bag of sweets, although I do persist in setting the standard of stealth eating for them all. For those who have yet to be initiated in this ritual: slide the hand into the bag, don’t disturb the wrappings, ever so slowly remover the Smartie, or Malteser, or whatever treat it is, and place it in your mouth as if you’re receiving the body of Christ at Holy Communion.
I know what you’re thinking. If I hate human noise so much, why do I put myself through the torture of going to the cinema? Because I love it, that’s why. I’ve loved it ever since I was three years old, when I slipped into one of those plush red seats for the very first time and watched all of my favourite dinosaurs roar into life on the screen before me. And I love it because it’s difficult, and because it demands the entirety of my attention, and even because of the annoying audience members around me. I’m a mild-mannered person, after all: sometimes it’s good to let the blood boil up a little.
Most of all, though, I love the cinema because the very act of going is a form of self-care. And it is for this reason that I, and so many others, visit the cinema alone.
On average, research has shown that we require two hours alone per day, and do so to escape from social media and work pressures, plus improve mental health and wellbeing.
Is it any wonder, then, that a survey by Showcase Cinemas has revealed that the big screen has become a sanctuary for those looking for a little ‘me time’, with solo visits on the increase. Indeed, almost a quarter (24%) of those surveyed revealed that they go to the cinema on their own up to three times per year, and more than a third (36%) say they much prefer the solo cinema experience over going with company.
But what impact does a solo cinema trip have on our mental health? On 13 Jan 2020, the results of an academic experiment conducted by Vue Cinema and UCL’s Faculty of Experimental Psychology revealed that a group of volunteers were tested with biometric sensors to see what happens to our minds and bodies during a two-hour film screening.
The findings showed a noticeable increase in participants’ heart rates during the film, with viewers in the healthy heart-zone for 45 minutes – equivalent to a light form of cardio. Fascinatingly, as viewers watched the film their heart rates became more closely aligned, often beating in unison. Skin conductance tests also showed that certain events in the film triggered an increase in emotional arousal levels.
Secondary research suggests that three unique elements of the cinema experience drove the findings; the focused activity, the shared social focus and the cultural element. Further analysis by UCL demonstrates these elements have proven long-term benefits on our overall brain function, memory, focus and productivity.
This is largely due to the fact that, much like yoga or meditation, watching a movie on the big screen demands that you park yourself in the present moment and let it unfold. Unlike yoga or meditation, though, it doesn’t require that you contort yourself into a pretzel-shape and focus on your breathing – which is ideal for someone like me (when I focus too much on inhaling and exhaling, I start to panic that I’ll forget how to breathe automatically).
Dr Joseph Devlin, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL commented: “Cultural experiences like going to the cinema provide opportunities for our brain to devote our undivided attention for sustained periods of time. At the cinema specifically, there is nothing else to do except immerse yourself.
“On top of this, our ability to sustain focus and attention plays a critical role in building our mental resilience, because problem-solving typically requires a concentrated effort to overcome obstacles. In other words, our ability to work through problems without distraction makes us better able to solve problems and makes us more productive. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to step away from our devices, this level of sustained focus is good for us.”
In essence, watching a movie in public – with strict rules around mobile phone usage, talking and even fidgeting – breaks the cycle of attention and gives the brain better things to do than focus on potential (not real) outcomes. And, even if we feel anxious while watching, we become too preoccupied to imagine the worst.
When that glorious movie fills up your head, there’s no room for anxious musings about work, or life, or the future. We forget to worry about having forgotten to send that important email. We stop texting, scrolling, filling our heads with all the anxiety-inducing stories of the 24-hour news cycle. We stop thinking about the hen party we can’t afford to go to.
Our broken hearts are soothed, if only for a couple of hours.
I remember one dark day in my head, when my thoughts wouldn’t stop whirring and my eyes wouldn’t stop leaking, that I took myself to see three films in a row. Three of them, back to back, with barely a toilet break between each showing. Each time I returned to the desk to scan the posters and select my next movie, the cinema staff smiled at me and treated me like a normal human being. Nary a word was said about the fact I’d basically shacked up in their auditorium for the day, because I was just another cinephile to them. One of their people.
And even though I was completely by myself for those three films, I was also, at the same time, not by myself. Instead, I was an island of solitude surrounded by people, which was exactly what I needed on that particular day of my life. Particularly the silver screening of a popular sci-fi film, which meant I found myself sat next to a sweet grandmotherly woman. She spent much of the film offering me buttered honey sandwiches – which I gratefully accepted, I’ll have you know. To this day, I firmly believe that there’s no food more perfectly suited to cinema than fresh white bread and honey: it doesn’t crunch or stink out the auditorium, and that sweetness seeps into the soul and soothes it wonderfully. God, I want one now, actually.
Ahem. What I mean to say is, taking myself to the cinema has become – just like playing video games – something I do when life feels impossible and I want to switch off from reality. To leave the world, for just a little while, and enter a new one. It gives me the breathing space I need to re-engage, reboot and regain my sense of self.
And it allows me to do so without being dragged back into the real world, kicking and screaming, by my noisy popcorn-chomping friends*.
* A note to all my wonderful friends who may be reading this: please still invite me to the cinema with you. I promise to behave myself…
Please note that this article was originally published on 16 January 2019.
Photography: Mark Harrison/Getty/Monkeypaw Productions/20th Century Fox
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
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