Laurel Hill's "Cinema in the Cemetery'

This cemetery really comes to life

Vincent Price would feeel right at home here.
Vincent Price would feeel right at home here.

In any movie theater, there's a moment when you stand in the half-dark to pick your seat, whispering to your date about the right distance from the screen. Choosing a seat at Laurel Hill Cemetery's outdoor movie screening was a very different experience.

I felt both guilty and excited as I picked my way through obelisks and across headstones to get closer to the inflatable screen. I never thought of cemeteries as fun spots, but perhaps that's the point of "Cinema in the Cemetery," Laurel Hill's series of outdoor screenings smack in the middle of the graveyard.

The film series isn't Laurel Hill's only outreach program: It's also offering nature tours, photography walks and yoga in the graveyard. Clearly, Laurel Hill wants to transform the cemetery into an active cultural venue— creating, in its own words, "a cemetery the way you've never seen it before: full of life."

A cemetery full of life? I was dubious, mostly because of recent changes in my own relationship to cemeteries.

Harmless fear

Not long ago I learned that my family had bought a plot in our local cemetery— Merion Square Cemetery in Gladwyne, Pa.— a place I used to stroll through without hesitation. Now, horrified at the thought of seeing my future grave, I refuse to enter the place. This tiny graveyard can stop me in my tracks in broad daylight, so why would I watch a horror film in the dark of Laurel Hill Cemetery?

Nevertheless, I was drawn to "Cinema in the Cemetery" for much the same reason that many people attend horror films: Both venues offer a safe, contained and even exciting way to tap into our deepest fears and anxieties.

Spooky memories of Washington Irving's Headless Horseman notwithstanding, the particular thrill of a cemetery after dark is really a harmless kind of fear. It draws on an impersonal idea of death"“ spirits, ghosts and, ultimately, strangers— as opposed to your own gravestone. By offering the chance to experience this fear, Laurel Hill has performed a useful therapeutic service. As it turns out, it has also discovered a magnificent venue for a horror film.

Dinner and death

Last weekend's movie— the original House on Haunted Hill, from 1959— opens with the floating head of Vincent Price, who invites you to join him for a haunted night. This old movie trope, which seems silly on TV or in a theater, felt utterly appropriate in a cemetery.

Indeed, the graveyard setting heightened the effect of the entire film. As you munch on your picnic dinner while surrounded by death wherever you turn, the venue encourages you to suspend disbelief and sensitizes you to all the spooky nuances— both on and off the screen.

The bizarre combination of death, film, novelty and irreverence sufficed to draw a large crowd, most of whom seemed to really respond to the occasion. As the moviegoers settled in to their blankets and folding beach chairs, I marveled at how comfortable all of us seemed in this burial ground.

And why not? Here was a chance to enjoy rather than avoid this beautiful space; a chance to discover new fascination in a dated horror film and make it fascinating again.

What is it they say about cemeteries— that they only come to life at night? As the whole crowd of us sat waiting for the sun to set over Laurel Hill so the film could start, I couldn't help thinking: In this case, at least, it' really true.♦


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