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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A&E >  Entertainment

That’s Life: Theatrical scares, on and off the big screen

It’s not November, the month of gratitude, but sometimes life hits you on the head with a reminder that gratitude is all-season, like a good set of tires. My reminder came through a larger-than-life encounter with a big-screen bear.

Curtis and I have always enjoyed going to movies, though after having a family we’d usually wait for the DVD release we could watch for less money with more comfort. This is fine for most genres, but when we see a trailer for action, adventure or visually active films, we fork over the extra cash for the box-office experience.

Car chases, explosions and gravity-defying feats are fabulous fun to watch with our senses fully stimulated by surround-sound and better-than-technicolor imagery.

After watching an intriguing and action-packed trailer, Curtis had been anticipating watching “The Revenant,” a drama/thriller based on a true story. He talked about going to that movie almost as much as seeing the latest “Star Wars” episode.

So last weekend we headed out for a matinee date with movie vouchers I’d been given. The show was sold out. We headed across the state line to watch the flick and buy a lottery ticket along the way.

Unfortunately, that show also sold out. After driving back to our local theater we bought tickets for an evening show, leaving just enough time to gab over a couple of drinks and an appetizer in a restaurant in the adjoining mall.

There wasn’t time for dinner because we wanted the good seats smack in the middle of the crowded theater. We figured we’d fill up on concessions, ignoring the fact that popcorn and candy don’t make a meal.

At 26 minutes into the film I dropped my candy to put my hands over my mouth. I gaped while helplessly watching the protagonist fight for his life against an angry mama bear. I clenched my hands and winced a few minutes later when his companions examined his injuries.

Then I heard a strange sound, and it wasn’t coming from the speakers. It was coming from Curtis. I turned to see him twitching in his seat, his eyes rolling skyward.

Dropping my popcorn to the floor, I stupidly asked, “Are you OK?” even though I knew he wasn’t.

But Curtis sat up, shook his head and said, “Yes. It was the bear scene. I passed out.”

Then his head lolled to the side and he started twitching again.

The man on the other side of Curtis had heard me and was watching our exchange. He immediately jumped into action, shouting above the movie to see if there was a doctor or trained medical provider in the house, getting someone to call 911.

By the time Curtis was fully conscious again all the lights were on, the paramedics were en route and we had a circle of helpers, checking his pulse, asking him questions, making sure he was OK.

As a stereotypical youngest child, we often joke that Curtis likes to be the center of attention. He certainly was this time: Every eye in the theater was watching him as if he were the featured attraction.

With typical Spokane compassion, they clapped as Curtis got to his feet and headed for the hall where he was hooked up to monitors and thoroughly assessed by our fast first responders from Spokane Valley Fire Department.

Curtis had probably suffered a vasovagal episode, they said, an assessment confirmed by the ER doctor after further monitoring, an EKG and blood test to rule out other causes.

Essentially, Curtis’ nervous system couldn’t tell the difference between reality and movie. It overreacted. His heart rate and blood pressure plummeted, making his blood pool in his legs instead of going to his heart and head.

As he lost consciousness, the accompanying seizurelike twitches, I learned, were a benign but common occurrence during a vasovagal episode, though alarming to observe.

I wonder if our theater had been equipped with those comfy reclining chairs if his elevated legs would have kept him conscious. I’m not going to test the theory. He’s supposed to avoid triggers.

My husband has always been squeamish at the sight of real blood or gore. He learned in his early 20s to lie down for awhile after giving blood and to avoid looking at any oozing injuries.

And during the birth of our first child, he learned he shouldn’t watch. When the nurse exclaimed that the baby was crowning and had a full head of hair, Curtis took one look and suddenly the nurses were exclaiming over his head, which they’d shoved between his knees in an effort to keep him conscious.

Since then he’s watched countless movies that contained enough graphic blood and gore to require a “not suitable for all audiences” warning. I guess Hollywood has outdone itself.

Does this mean the immersive movie experience has become too lifelike? Is it still escapism and entertainment if your body goes into fight, flight, freeze or faint mode?

Or is this episode another reminder that we live largely safe and sedate lives? While people around the world experience real danger in situations that trigger real terror, we go to movies for the thrill.

For that I’m grateful, just as I’m grateful for the quick access to excellent medical care and a husband who is just fine. Thanks to all who helped.

Jill Barville can be reached at

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