Who needs movie theaters?

Story highlights

  • Recently, a man alleged attacked filmgoers in a movie theater in Nashville, Tennessee
  • Jeff Yang: Despite violent incidents at movie theaters, and rise of streaming, big screen experience is more special than ever

Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Imagine yourself sitting in the darkness, raptly watching the post-apocalyptic world of "Mad Max: Fury Road" unfurl onscreen, lost in the balletic choreography of that movie's manic commando raid on a fleeing caravan. Then imagine being shockingly jerked back into reality by the horror of an actual assailant in your midst, swinging a hatchet, gassing audience members with noxious orange pepper spray and waving an authentic-looking firearm.

This is what happened a few days ago, when Vincente David Montano — a man who had been committed to a mental institution four times — alleged attacked film-goers in a movie theater in Nashville, Tennessee, before being shot dead by police arriving at the scene.
And this incident was just the latest in a series of shocking movie theater assaults: News headlines are currently filled with updates from the trial of James Holmes, who in 2012 committed a mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 dead and 70 wounded. Just two weeks ago, an armed assault took place in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, leaving three people dead.
    Jeff Yang
    The harm in these attacks goes well beyond the assault victims themselves. Survivors have already reported experiencing PTSD, triggered not just by watching media coverage of the event, but even by walking into darkened rooms or seeing large moving images. It's understandable: Seeing larger-than-life scenes of mayhem onscreen is cathartic; but when that mayhem is happening in the neighboring seats, it becomes traumatizing on a primal level.
    The movie theater industry is concerned that this cinemaphobia might spread into the general population, as anxious movie-lovers choose to skip multiplexes and hold out for home releases, watchable from the safety of their living rooms, rather than expose themselves to the potential for deadly harm in a crowded public place.
    Still, there's reason to believe that these fears may not be fully founded. Even as digital media have dealt crushing blows to newspapers, books and traditional television, the cinema business has stood relatively firm in the face of the Internet onslaught — and even flourished, as new emerging markets have discovered the glory of big-screen movies.
    In fact, in a world where a staggering amount of our time is spent staring at palm-sized rectangles, movie theaters are more special than ever. They are still our primary source for everyday magic — a golden ticket to stirring spectacle, electric thrills, passionate fantasy and palate-cleansing hilarity, in an all-embracing, communal-yet-private environment that is as close to a fully immersive experience as is readily available today.
    The movies are a uniquely pleasurable and powerful medium, and the root of their addictiveness is psychobiological. Researchers doing MRI studies on movie-watchers have found that while they're watching films, their brains are essentially "time-locked" to what they're watching onscreen, pulsing in rhythm to the scenic beats of the cinematic narrative.
    As Norman Holland, author of "Literature and the Brain" and expert in psychology of the arts, has written, moviegoers are engaged in "the greatest method of telling a story since language itself."
    I couldn't agree more. Even as security measures are poised to become more stringent at multiplexes across the country, it's hard to imagine that there won't always be a special place our hearts for watching a film on a big silver screen.
    For me, few things compare to sitting in the crisply air-conditioned darkness in the shadowy proximity of other people, reveling in the infectious way that laughter, shock or excitement spreads across the audience. I love the coming attractions, the roaring Dolby sound test. I even love the huckster get-some-soda-and-popcorn ads and "turn off your phone" PSAs that herald the arrival of the actual feature.
    I stream video on my phone. I have a half-dozen pay movie channels. I'm as excited by the imminent prospect of virtual reality as the next geek; I've got money saved up for Hololens, and am awaiting Magic Leap with bated breath.
    But regardless of what superlative new technology descends upon us in the future, despite the anxieties that these events have now indelibly associated with moviegoing, it's hard to imagine anything coming close to comparing with this singularly epic experience.
    Because even a bad movie is better on the big screen, and a great one can be transformative.
    The theater is a womb with a view: Walking back out into the daylight after seeing a brilliant film amidst a crowd of fellow fans feels like a collective rebirth into a subtly changed reality, in which one's life is placed in an exhilaratingly fresh context. It will never get old. And as long as we keep going through the process of immersion, release and renewal that the movies give us, neither, perhaps, will we.