Dim the lights: the spell of watching films in the dark

Peter Conrad, the author of The Mysteries of Cinema, explains how darkness shapes the allure of the movies.

24 May 2021

By Peter Conrad

Un chien andalou (1929)

What first attracted me to the cinema was the artificial darkness in the room as much as the light that flickered on the screen. In my schooldays in Australia late in the 1950s, Saturday matinees enabled me to escape from the sun, and from having to play or watch sport. The excitement began when I was ushered into a dim cavernous space that seemed as large as a cathedral. I sat anxiously counting the minutes until the curtains slid open and I was projected into other worlds, larger and more fantastical or more thrillingly dangerous than the one I lived in during the rest of the week. 

Those dark rooms were for me places of revelation and initiation, where I could look ahead into adulthood and perhaps peer beyond the limits of life itself. From those early days I remember two especially daring and seditious occasions, when I somehow managed to sneak in to see films that were classified ADULTS ONLY – Psycho (1960) with its lurid killings and its exposure of secrets that are usually hidden in the grave, Some Like It Hot (1959) with its cheeky eroticism and its nonchalant attitude to gender.  

Psycho (1960)

Much later, I discovered that mine was an archetypal experience, which I shared with those who ventured into the same threatening or seductive gloom during cinema’s early days. In 1896 at an industrial fair in Nizhny-Novgorod, Maxim Gorky saw the first films made by Louis and Auguste Lumière. The Lumières called their offerings ‘actualités’, but although what Gorky saw was an anthology of convivial street scenes filmed in daylight, he was perturbed: he felt he had descended into a kingdom of shadows, like the post-mortem region ruled by Pluto in Greek myth. Mute and drained of bodily colour, surely the people on the screen were spectres? 

His shudder of dread was not an affectation. F.W. Murnau’s vampire film Nosferatu (1922) almost paraphrases Gorky’s essay on the Lumières when it describes the Tatra mountains, where the demon occupies a mouldering, cobwebbed castle, as “the land of the phantoms”. “Beware that his shadow does not engulf you,” someone warns a traveller who is on his way to discuss a business matter with the blood-drinking Count Orlok. For those of us watching the film, the warning comes too late: we are already spellbound. It has always been one of cinema’s ambitions to lure us into its dusky cavern – or, in the case of Psycho, into a fruit cellar – and scare us to death.

Nosferatu (1922)

In Paris in 1927 the surrealist Robert Desnos sang the praises of “les salles obscures”. Less alarmed than Gorky, more happily licentious, Desnos thought that cinemas were dormitories or perhaps opium dens, occult places where you settled down to nod off in the company of strangers, confidently expecting that the images on the screen would duplicate your dreams. No wonder Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company advised the proprietors of the first cinemas to install ambient lighting to deter misbehaviour in the audience. Luis Buñuel in his collaborations with Salvador Dalí did his best to satisfy this demand for scenarios of flagrant perversity: sexual frenzy in Un chien andalou (1929), blasphemous outrages in L’Age d’or (1930). 

The novelist Joseph Roth, seated in a Berlin cinema in 1925, saw things more metaphysically. When the curtain parted, the vast emptiness of the Ufa-Palast was infused, he said, by “a mysterious light that God could never have created and that nature will never manage to reproduce”. The radiance must have derived from some “unknown and powerful divinity” housed in the projection booth; Roth was unsure whether the strange glow had a celestial clarity or was exhaled from some infernal underworld. 

He was right to have his doubts. Cecil B. DeMille adds his own gloss to scripture at the start of his Ten Commandments (1956), when he quotes the primal command of God the director, “Let there be light.” DeMille then shows the sun smiting through clouds, after which his voiceover adds “From this light God created life.” No, from sunlight backed up by electricity the Lumières and Edison created cinema, and in doing so they contradicted the biblical account of our beginnings. God in Genesis declares light to be good and divides it from darkness, which is evil. In cinema’s twilight zone, the opposites are not so easy to separate. 

The Ten Commandments (1956)

DeMille aged into a sanctimonious bore, but as a young director he too had a taste for devilment. In Madam Satan, released in 1930, a wronged wife disguises herself as a feline vamp to trap her errant; she tracks him to an orgy on a dirigible, where they are entertained by a ballet of humanised spark plugs and batteries, with a male dancer impersonating Electricity. The quarrelling couple are reconciled as the dirigible crashes to earth, ripped to tatters by an electrical storm. 

Cinema had an ancestor in the 19th century’s spooky magic lantern shows, and the earliest films were exhibited in naughtily intimate peep shows: audiences in the dark room have always wanted to be traumatised or titillated. For the last year, of course, we have been compelled to stay at home, and the films accordingly have to come to us. The new technologies have been a life-saver, but they alter the experience of cinema and muffle its impact. I remember watching my first films on a screen that seemed as enormous as the night sky; nowadays the entrancing illusion sometimes has to fit the scant dimensions of a laptop computer. 

Nor are we on our own, secretly fantasising in the dark as Desnos liked to be. Snuggling up to a member of our household on the couch to watch Netflix, we are sharing an experience that the surrealists thought should be private, and because we are free to comment on it with our companion, we remain at a critical distance. Most damagingly of all, a remote control allows us to stop, start or pause the phantasmagoria. Hitchcock often compared movies to roller-coaster rides: we have to stay on until the end, and are not permitted to disembark if we suddenly develop motion sickness or vertigo.  

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

What matters above all is that the lights should be turned off. We have forgotten what a radical and initially disturbing requirement that was, dating from the day in 1895 when the Lumières hired a back room in a Paris café to exhibit the results of their recent invention. Gustav Mahler was probably copying the cinematic practice when, during his decade in charge of the Vienna Opera at the start of the 20th century, he insisted on dimming the auditorium during performances; the Viennese audience protested, because they had come to look at one other in their finery, with the stage as a backdrop supplying incidental music to their socialising. No wonder that Lon Chaney’s silent Phantom of the Opera (1925) takes such vengeful pleasure in having a chandelier crash to the floor of the Paris Opéra while a wheezing organ, like a cinema Wurlitzer, plays from somewhere under the floor. 

Mahler demanded surrender to the music and to the drama; cinema has always expected that of us, and in return it offers us the chance to dream with our eyes open. 

Will films be able to recover from the diminution and domestication they suffered as viewing habits changed over the last year? Let’s hope, now that we’re allowed back, that the dark room retains its power over us. 


Peter Conrad taught English literature at Christ Church, Oxford, from 1973 to 2011. He has written more than 20 books, including Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life and The Hitchcock Murders. His latest book, The Mysteries of Cinema: Movies and Imagination, is published by Thames & Hudson.

Ranging from the late 19th century to the present, The Mysteries of Cinema explores the ways the medium of cinema has changed the way we see the world. Combining contagious enthusiasm with an eye for the subjective quirks of filmmakers and the allure of favourite performers, Conrad delivers an astonishing addition to the literature on the seventh art.

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