At the Drive-in

Tucked in the foothills of Central Pennsylvania is the Mahoning Drive-in Theater, which has existed since the mid-20th Century and currently plays retro films on 35 mm. This past weekend, they hosted the second Universal Monster Mash, featuring Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Surprisingly, as a Scranton native, I’ve never been to the drive-in, but what I experienced this past weekend, part nostalgia, part community, part everyone unplugging, made me a fan of the classic drive-in movie experience.


(Photo credit Daryl Sznyter)

For each film weekend, the all-volunteer staff decorate the concession stand and grounds with props pertaining to the themed weekend. For Universal Monster Mash, they had a Gil-man prop, a six-foot coffin surrounded with garlic, a mummy, and Universal Monsters trading cards that you could purchase. Most impressive was the Frankenstein’s monster set-up outside, complete with a medical table and electrical towers that smoked. As fans dressed in black Universal Monster t-shirts awaited dusk, they snapped pictures next to the decorations or lingered over Screem magazine’s table, purchasing blu-rays of rare horror films. Families with children slipped on monster masks and posed for group photos, before lining up at the concession stand for popcorn, which, by the way, was only $4 for a large and included free refills.


(Photo credit Daryl Sznyter)

By the time night fell and the projector’s beam of light cut through night and shined on the screen, everyone planted their camping chairs in front of their cars or huddled in their vehicles. As I looked around, I didn’t see the glow of cell phones anywhere. Everyone’s gaze was focused on the big screen. We were treated to vintage movie trailers, including one for Jaws 3, before they screened an episode of “The Three Stooges.”

Finally, James Whale’s classic 1931 Frankenstein played. I have seen the film countless times, written about it, and have taught it as a companion to Mary Shelley’s novel. Yet, there was something about seeing it at the drive-in on 35 mm with other fans that made it all the more special. Its iconic scenes were so much more striking, especially when we first witness Karloff in the Frankenstein make-up, looking at the camera with those dead, sunken eyes. I was pleasantly surprised that no one whipped out their cellphone during the films, not even the children. Maybe no one wanted to be “that person,” or maybe they were as awe-struck by the experience as I was.


(Photo credit Daryl Sznyter)

Before and between the films, my girlfriend and I talked to other moviegoers. Some were local and knew that for a few bucks, they could have a fun weekend with their family. Others were horror or drive-in fans that travel hours and hours to the Mahoning when they host the horror weekends. One gentleman encouraged us to attend a drive-in event in September outside of Pittsburgh, the Super Monster-Rama, and he assured us that many in attendance at the Universal Monster Mash would be in Pittsburgh, too. While I always knew that a horror film community existed, I didn’t know about its drive-in subculture. Looking around, though, I saw plates from NJ, MD, NY, just to name a few.

During intermission, one of the hosts said that at one time over 300,000 drive-ins existed in America. Now,  about 400 remain. I suppose it’s easier to download a film to your laptop or watch it on your smartphone, but there was something strangely rejuvenating about unplugging for an evening and watching those Universal films with other drive-in moviegoers. For a few hours, I didn’t check my email or latest headline. So much in or hyper-consumer culture feels disposable, but this experience didn’t. I came away from it wanting to attend another event soon.

For anyone interested in the Mahoning Drive-in, which plays all types of retro films, not just horror, check out their Facebook page for the most updated information

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