The Big Screen Becomes the Big Scream
Don't call me sentimental because I insist on clinging to memories of going to the movies as a youngster. Back then, for a buck or two, you saw a double feature, on a gigantic screen, in a movie palace. In retrospect, though, the best part of the experience was: You never had to fear for your hearing.
A few months ago, I rushed to see the third sequel to one of my all-time favorite sci-fi flicks, Aliens. What an infuriating letdown. Not only did it cost a whopping $8.75 to sit sardine-like in a puny slice of a carved-up movie palace. Not only was the story line so transparent as to be a slap in the face. Worst of all, my ears were killing me.
Every time one of the acid-blooded monsters was blasted to smithereens, or a weapon was unleashed for some other reason (which was constantly), I felt as if my eardrums were being tortured. At several points, I barely restrained myself from hollering, "Either stop killing them or just kill me!"
A little exaggeration, yes. But my gripe is sincere -- and legitimate. In a phone interview, Gail Blatt, an information specialist at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) in Bethesda, Maryland, told me that action pictures in particular are too loud and that their "noise levels can cause hearing loss over a period of time or once." Or once? "It depends on the individual. Loud noise affects people so differently," Blatt explained before again warning: "But it can take only one very loud movie to cause someone to have tinnitus." Just one.
"Tinnitus," Blatt continued, "is a constant ringing, buzzing, clicking or other sound in the ear. Some people manage to live with it. For many, though, it's debilitating and depressing -- absolutely horrible."
We're too greedy for our own good in our expectation of realistic sound effects at the movies. Explosions, above all, have to be true to life in every respect except physical destructiveness. However, in meeting our demands, technology has endowed on-screen detonations with enough intensity to wreak real-life havoc. And hearing is not the only potential casualty. While we're being exhilarated by recurrent blasts and booms, our body reads the experience as reality, and fills up with potent hormones that prime us to fight or flee. In other words, mentally we're having fun, but our body is having a fit.
Sadly, our lust for acoustical realism isn't countered by even a half-hearted openness to the reality that sound levels at the movies are harmful. For example, when I tried to broach the topic with a bright, talkative, twenty-something co-worker who takes in several action films a week, he halted me in mid-sentence to crow: "You know I love that s--t, John -- the sense-surround sound, explosions, and all that. The louder the better." He's proudly joined by many millions of young -- and, increasingly, middle-aged -- men and women in his veneration of deafening sounds as the ultimate medium for a good time. Because of the physical danger posed by super-amplified sound effects, and our placement of thrills over risks, going to the movies -- though a sedentary activity -- qualifies for inclusion into that growing field of recreation known as extreme sports: bungee jumping, snowboarding, bare-knuckle mountain climbing, etc. Of course, there's no chance of losing life or limb simply by sitting though a film. Or is there?
In a world where hearing is as crucial as handling and seeing, permanent damage to the inner ear, depending on its depth, can be tantamount to the loss of an arm or an eye. What's more, acute hearing loss -- and let's not forget tinnitus -- can make one feel that life is a lost cause.
Ed. note: In a previous column, the phone number for The National Foundation for Depressive Illness was listed incorrectly. The correct phone number is 1-800-248-4344.
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John Dallas is founder of the Bronx Campaign for Peace and Quiet. Write to him in care of: Norwood News, 75 E. 208th St., Bronx, NY 10467.
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