We Thought We’d Always Have the Drive-In

banner reading Horror Drive-In by Mark Sieber

If you had asked me if I knew that life was constant change, and that none of the things I loved would last forever, I’d have surely shrugged and said, Sure, everyone knows that. But when you get right down here, where it counts, I believed it all was permanent.

The Book ‘n’ Card where I bought comics and paperbacks in my youth and young adulthood would always be open for business. It closed sometime in the late ’80s.

The great little used bookstore right up the road, The Book Worm, would never close. Remember when there were bookstores right up nearly any road? It closed around 1991.

The mall where I went on payday would always be a mecca of humanity. Teens, kids, adults, seniors enjoying the stores, the food court, the arcade, WaldenBooks, the music store that had great deals on movie rentals, all of it still a social experience for people. It turned into a sad conglomerate of office spaces in the mid 2000s.

photo of movie theater marquee showing Don't Go in the House and Friday the 13thThe two side-by-side independent theaters where I waited in line to see Halloween and Friday the 13th and a plethora of other slasher movies…where I partied like a lunatic at insane midnight shows, where I saw action and horror and comedy and even dramas. They would still be places of dreams and nightmares. AMC drove them out of business in 1997.

All these and more hurt my soul, but none were as emotionally devastating as the fall of our local drive-in theaters.

We had three drive-ins. The writing was on the wall about one of them early on. It didn’t show current features and the screens (two of ’em!) were in disrepair, as were the speakers. But I saw second run showings of Rabid, Death Race 2000, Deathdream, Caged Heat, The Brood, Piranha, and many others at the Peninsula Twin Drive-In. The screens fell somewhere around 1982.

We had two others, and my and my old best pal Dennis used to go as often as possible. We often would go on Sunday nights; Friday and Saturday were for more serious partying. We’d whoop it up to close out the weekend too, and it was always great.

We thought they would always be there. Why wouldn’t they? Who didn’t love the drive-in? Everyone enjoyed going, but few as much as Dennis and me. It’s tempting to say that we should have appreciated them more, but we really did cherish them.

There was nothing, nothing we would rather be doing. I don’t care if they were showing a juicy horror movie, an action extravaganza, a bawdy youth comedy, a martial arts marathon, or even a crappy mainstream snoozer. We were outside, watching the biggest screens in the history of the world. We braved the icy cold and the smothering heat. Neither snow nor biting mosquitos kept us from the drive-ins.

photo of a drive-in movie theater

Our last drive-in, the wonderful Cinema City, succumbed to the evil of WalMart in 1990. Attendance had been sparse, and we would beg, literally beg, our friends to come. VHS was going strong, and people paid a handsome price for their players. Why not utilize them? I wore out my first video cassette recorder, but I never abandoned the drive-in.

When they were gone, everyone mourned.

We thought life as we knew it would remain the same. Drive-ins, ’80s movie sensibilities, gaudy paperback horror novels. Of course it didn’t.

Would we really want drive-ins now? There are still some scattered around, and they have thrived in the pandemic, but they mostly show overblown superhero retreads and animated family movies that are cranked out by the score.

Sure, there are anomalies. We saw an all-night horror show at a drive-in theater in North Carolina a couple of years back. It Part 2, Friday the 13th (the first; the only), Fright Night, and House on Haunted Hill. It was glorious, and almost like the old days. These things are rarities though.

We have a lot of good things now.

Amazon gets us our reading materials at discounts, and they arrive extremely quickly. But we lost a lot of bookstores along the way.

We can stream almost anything we wish. The Fulci and Argento movies I craved are mostly all available in crystal clear, uncut prints. Funny, I don’t seem to have the same desire to seek them out as I used to. Somehow the thrill has waned.

Nearly every book in history is for sale at eBay, Alibris, and Abebooks. I have been able to obtain beautiful hardcover editions of beloved lifetime favorites of mine. My library is more complete than I ever dreamed possible.

Still. I’d trade it all for the drive-ins to be back. To see conventional makeup effects. Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, and even Lou Ferrigno beefcaking it up. Kung Fu epics without digital editing. Monsters with zippers showing, bloody good gore effects, or fratboy grossout comedies. To walk down a crowded mall corridor and into a bookstore and see all the colorful titles screaming out from the horror section. Or a brand new issue of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine.

Things are far from being all bad. As I write this I just opened a package that contained the new Stephen King novel, Billy Summers. I am as excited about it as I was back in 1986 when It tested the strength of the shelves in WaldenBooks. I’m rediscovering the joys of black and white classic horror movies. Last weekend I had a blast at Scares That Care Weekend VII in the company of an army of wonderfully horror-obsessed fans. Life is good and horror is healthier than it ever has been.

Yet I still miss the days when drive-in theaters were the coolest places in town. I think about it a lot. Too much, probably, but the memories are among the sweetest I own.

Photo of Mark Sieber with a cat on his shoulder
Mark Sieber and friend

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at [email protected], and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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