On Friday night, I found myself in an experience I’d never thought would happen to me.
My fiancee and I were watching Annabelle: Coming Home at our local Nu Metro for date night. We’re both avid horror fans and we’d been anticipating watching the movie.
In the cinema, it was us in one of the middle rows and, two rows behind us, sat three teenage girls.
My fiancee and I were originally worried that the girls would be those screechy types who wouldn’t shut up during the movie, but they turned out to be quite pleasant. They talked among themselves about as much as we did. They even laughed when I would exclaim, “Ag nee f*k, man,” in exasperation when a character was being stupid.
About 45 minutes into the movie, the film was setting up for the scares to begin.
We noticed a man standing at the entrance to the cinema, presumably watching the film.
We observed him for a few seconds and then dismissed him as either an employee just checking in on us or a curious passerby who didn’t want to commit to watching the full horror.
After a bit, he moved towards us, walking up the stairs. He said something unintelligible to us as he passed, to which I responded “Hello?”, and then he proceeded to sit one row behind the girls.
The girls were a bit panicked and confused by this and one of them switched on the flash on her phone to see the man better.
My fiancee and I couldn’t really hear too well but we picked up the girls asking him what he was doing and who he was and he responded by telling them to switch off the flash.
We heard something about him working there and were instantly relieved. We thought, hey he must just be a bored employee who wants to slack off and watch the movie.
We heard him say something about how he could hear us even though he was in the projection room and that we were loud. The girls replied that we’d been cool with each other and we had been enjoying the movie. He repeated that we were being too loud.
I turned back and asked: “Wait, so you actually work here?”
He responded that, yes, he did. He worked in the projection room.
In relief, I laughed nervously: “Dude, thank f**k you work here, otherwise I would have to kick your ass.”
He replied: “You wouldn’t have been able to.”
I laughed nervously again since my attempt at defusing the situation wasn’t going according to plan. Trying to hopefully calm everything down and continue watching the movie, I said: “Okay, cute, but sure.”
The man said again: “You wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”
At this point, my gut was telling me that something was definitely not right.
I could feel my heart pounding in my ears, I couldn’t even hear the movie any more. My mind was jumping from fact to fact.
My fiancee is blocked from the stairs next to me; he can’t get to her easily, I thought. We’re fairly close to the exit; if I intercept him, she can run out. The three girls are right in front of him. If he climbs over the seats, he can block them in.
I’m a 5’3 trans kid and I’ve never fought anyone before. The most I can hope for is that I’ll be able to hold him back or distract him long enough for the girls to get out.
Having published who knows how many stories about women being raped and murdered, I was scared. Seeing the hashtag #AmINext everywhere, I was panicking. Knowing that even though I am weak, I was the best chance these girls had.
I stood up, my back to the screen, and asked: “Hey, man, are you sure you work here?”
He said: “Yes, I do. I’m a supervisor.”
I didn’t believe him.
I remember how I kept my back straight, how I kept my voice level, how I kept my hands in my pockets. “Okay, sweet. Can you come outside with me for a minute?”
“Fine, let’s go outside,” he said.
Noting that he was being cooperative, I led him out of the cinema, fighting my instinct to watch him over my shoulder as he walked behind me.
Once we were out in the open, and I’d checked that, yes, it was brightly lit, and yes, there were other employees around, I turned to him and said: “Dude, what the hell is your problem?”
I saw his name tag; I saw his Nu Metro jacket. I felt the relief that he wasn’t just a random guy who’d walked in; that he was someone who worked here; that I’d probably overreacted; that my fiancee and those girls were safe; that I was safe; that the only problem was an employee who’d overstepped boundaries and that we could just talk this out.
I think he responded by repeating how we were loud and talking, or something like that.
My fiancee came out of the cinema and stood behind me. I didn’t know at the time, but she was filming the man. The three girls also came out and huddled out of the way, talking to each other.
I said something about speaking to a manager or bringing someone else into it, and he responded by saying that he was a supervisor.
I was incredulous. But if it was true, just my luck.
I asked: “Should you be speaking to your clients like this?”
“Are my clients allowed to talk during the movie?” he responded.
My fiancee and I pointed out there were only five of us in the cinema and, yes, we were allowed to talk during a movie if we were not bothering any other patrons.
He said: “That’s why I came in and I asked, remember? I said, ‘Hi.’ Didn’t I greet the first two of you in front? Before I went to the ladies at the back?”
I replied: “Yes, and then we were joking, we were scared, and I was like, ‘Ah, dude, if you weren’t working here’-”
“And then you overreacted.”
“Ja, because you started creeping out the girls behind us.”
“I didn’t creep out anybody!”
“Did you not see how they were scared of you?”
“No, I didn’t! That’s why I [said] that I work here, [and asked] can I please speak to you, and then I moved closer to them.”
“But why in the middle of the movie, though?” my fiancee asked.
“No, I heard them speaking,” he insisted. “‘Cause as I’ve been saying, I’ve been checking from up there, that there were other people, and I heard that while certain scenes were showing, I heard you screaming. So I just went in to do my regular checks.”
“Were you checking if we were okay?” I asked.
“No, not necessarily, I was checking the cinema, actually, before I went….”
“Is it part of policy to come in the middle of a movie, and check, and talk to us?”
“No, not talk to you.”
“Then why did you do it?” My voice was getting gradually louder and I felt panic set in.
Was I possibly in the wrong? Were my feelings of fear not justified? Should I just have left him with those girls, even though he was making us uncomfortable?
He said: “No, I asked you a question; I never spoke to you. I just kindly asked-”
I interrupted him: “You never spoke to us. You asked us a question?”
I was getting so frustrated and so angry. So naturally, my body was betraying me and I was shaking and tearing up.
But I also knew that this wasn’t going to end easily.
“Yes!” he said, but then he started sounding more aggressive. “No, you actually swore at me. That’s when you actually started speaking to me. I only spoke to the girls. I only spoke to the girls and asked them to-”
“Oh, I thought you greeted us, though?” I said.
I was getting tired, and I really didn’t want to continue fighting against a brick wall.
“My dude,” I said, “We are obviously not agreeing on something, so what do you want from me?”
“There’s nothing I want from you.”
“Then can we go back to the movie?”
“You may! You said I should come out so you could beat my ass, didn’t you?”
I think this was the point that I snapped.
“No, I did not,” I shouted. “I said ‘Dude let’s go out so we can speak to someone.’ I never f**king said I would beat you up.”
“Just listen to the language you’re using,” he said, at which point another employee approached us.
The employee seemed a managerial type and he had a badge on his jacket claiming that he was a ‘Customer Champion’. He tried to ask if we could continue talking calmly somewhere else.
The “supervisor” kept trying to interrupt and I kept telling him to just let me talk to his (hopefully) manager.
The manager said: “I’m very sorry about this, can I only ask that-”
The “supervisor” interrupted again and said something to the manager, but was ignored.
Eventually, the “supervisor” left to go and complain loudly about us to another employee. The manager continued talking to us and I tried explaining that this whole experience purely stemmed from fear.
I tried explaining that, especially during this time in South Africa, when I’d been publishing post after post about women being terrorised, that I found myself fearing for my own life as well as the other women in a public cinema.
He said he understood and led us away to talk about refunds or something.
I didn’t even care about refunds. I felt defeated. I felt like they didn’t believe me. I felt like they were taking the side of a male employee who’d needlessly scared five people in a cinema and didn’t want to apologise for it.
And, of course, the frustration had made me start crying, so I felt even more vulnerable and weak and humiliated.
We spoke to the three teenagers, who confirmed they were terrified and didn’t know what to do, and that they were grateful that I’d stood up to do something.
Another manager type saw my fiancee and I standing (and me crying), and asked if we were okay and if we had been watching IT Chapter 2 and had gotten scared. I explained the situation again and said we’d been watching Annabelle: Coming Home. He then asked if that’s why I got scared. I’m still not sure if he understood that nothing in that movie scared me as much as the possibility of what his fellow employee could have done.
We spoke to another manager type who seemed much more like an actual supervisor, and discovered that the man who’d scared us was in fact not a supervisor. He was only the projectionist.
They said that he was supposed to do a check, yes, but they didn’t confirm if he was supposed to interact with us during the movie.
They took our details and we took theirs. The supervisor watched the video my fiancee filmed and asked if she could send it to him.
And so it was over.
My fiancee and I went home, too shaken up to even think about continuing the movie.
I was skittish and panicked. Every loud voice or sight of a man from the corner of my eye made me jump. I was scared he would try to follow me and continue to rant.
My fiancee offered to drive but I said I needed it to calm me down.
When we got home, we explained the events of the evening to our roommates. Or rather, my fiancee did and I would only interject, fearing that I would work myself up again.
I remember my roommate saying: “Well, thank God you guys were there. Can you imagine what would have happened if it was just those three girls?”
I remember how my heart clenched and how I mumbled something like “I can’t do this” and ran upstairs.
I had a panic attack, sitting in the darkness of my bedroom, thinking about what if this man wasn’t just an unbelievably confrontational employee. What if he was a killer, a rapist? What if he wasn’t there to (albeit dubiously) perform whatever check he claimed he needed to do?
You can argue as much as you want about how I unfairly categorised him as the villain, but the point is that in those moments in that cinema, what was I supposed to think?
Was I supposed to just believe him? And if something bad did happen, be told later that I needed to be more careful?
Was I supposed to just listen to him and accept that he said he was working? And if something bad did happen, be told that I needed to fight back?
Was I supposed to just agree and say, yes, I overreacted, that movie is way too scary for me to watch, I’ll never talk during a movie ever again?
This isn’t a horror story of a terrible crime that did happen. This is my story of the fear of something that could have happened. This is my story of women and trans men and just people in general feeling vulnerable and scared and helpless.
And that our fear isn’t justified because “not all men are like that”.