“I really want you to meet her.”
That’s how it started.
This is the story of how I cried so hard during King Kong I almost died of dehydration. It was 2005 and I was attending college in Worcester, Massachusetts. My best friend had just started dating someone, and he wanted us all to hang out together. His reasoning was that A) If he was going to have a girlfriend and a best friend at the same time, they might as well get to know each other, and—hopefully—get along, and B) He really liked this girl and wanted to get my opinion of her.
I was an anti-social cat under the best of circumstances, but meeting my bestie’s new girlfriend—and how dare she steal him away from me—was hardly the best. But for once in my life I tried to be nice, so I said okay. We decided to go see a movie, Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong.
We piled into his car and headed to Worcester’s glorious Showcase Cinema. It was opening night, and the place was packed. But we had good tickets: dead center in the fourth row. Using the logic of the clinically insane, my friend decided that because the purpose of the evening was for me and his girlfriend to get to know each other, it made sense for us to sit next to each other… So our seating arrangement for the film was me on one side, girl I was meeting for the first time in the middle, and my best friend on the other side.
As an aside, I should take a moment to quickly mention that the typical crowd at the Worcester movie theater in 2005 was 90% made up of the most intimidating people known to man: teenagers. Teenagers in giant groups. I don’t know about you, but Middle School kids terrify me; they make me want to cross the street even when I’m feeling cocky. And this evening turned out to be among the worst, most humiliating of my life, so… Anyway, that’s who was sitting to my left. And everywhere else.
The movie starts, and it’s pretty good. I’d suggested the film because I was a fan of the original King Kong and I liked Jackson’s other work. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I hadn’t thought it through; I hadn’t thought about the ending.
Here’s the thing: I can’t handle violence against animals on screen. Obviously not in real life, either, but the point is, I can’t see it on screen. Can’t, can’t, can NOT. Seeing animals harmed in any way in movies on or television is one of the cheat codes straight through my armor, past my icy cold cold exterior and directly into my heart. It causes me to cry instantly.
(That, and heartbroken old people, but one story at a time.)
So the movie’s going along, and for most of the runtime, like I said, it was pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. There’s some decent action, the CGI Kong looked amazing, and Naomi Watts really gave it her all. Everything was going fine until we reached the part of the film where Kong is brought back to New York City. This is the last act of the film, and I, having seen the original King Kong, realized what was about to happen, and I started to get nervous.
I am now in my mid-30s (and to the extent possible) I am a mature, adult man. Which is to say, I no longer care if people see me cry. I’m past that shit. But in 2005, when I was 20, I was still pretty hopped up on toxic-masculinity and the idea of crying in public—and in front of a girl!—was just appalling.
But appalling or not, it was going to happen. King Kong escaped his captors in New York, and began his rampage through the streets. And very shortly thereafter, I began to cry. And the worst thing was, the animal cruelty hadn’t even started yet! I didn’t even make it to the Kong getting harmed scenes. Nope. I started crying during this scene:
This scene of Kong and Naomi Watts playing in the snow is very sweet, but it’s clearly intended as the calm before the storm. And because I realized that, this is where I started crying. I mention the scene because, at this point in the film, there is still about 45 minutes left in the runtime. I did not stop crying until the movie was over…
Just the anticipation of having to see Kong hurt was really upsetting me. It was so sad! Seeing that giant ape and the girl he kind of proto-loved playing on the ice, laughing and having fun, not realizing the horror awaiting them just over the horizon—I couldn’t take it.
I wish I could tell you it started slowly, that it started as just a trickle, maybe a single tear escaping from my eye and running silently down my cheek. But that would be a lie. I went from zero to sixty. This a was full on, hardcore, deep-breath-sobbing ugly cry from word go.
And then the first artillery shell landed in the middle of Central Park, and Kong started to actually get hurt, and it was so much worse than I feared.
Here’s the thing that bothers me about pain inflicted on animals on-screen: It’s not just that they’re cute; it’s that they’re helpless. They do not understand what is happening to them. You can see the lack of comprehension in their eyes. And because they don’t fully understand why this horrible thing is happening, they are unable to do anything about it. Even animals as big and as powerful as King Kong, when faced with the greater cunning, intelligence, and technology of humans, are ultimately powerless. They suffer with unanswered questions echoing in their minds—“What is this?” “How can I make this stop?” “Why?”—or at least they do in my anthropomorphized version of their minds. And that makes it all so much worse.
And in this movie, Kong wasn’t just hurt, he was murdered. In the last act, Kong is machine-gunned to death by weapons that, to him, are tiny. It is a death by a thousand tiny pinpricks. Thousands of tiny, hot metal pellets shoot into his body, bury themselves there, and remain embedded under his skin. You see him blown up and knocked around by grenades and artillery fire. It’s painful. It’s confusing. He bleeds. He is slowly tortured to death. The last hour of Peter Jackson’s movie has more in common with The Passion of the Christ than Lord of the Rings. It’s the Passion of the Kong.
As I watched this animal snuff film, I just cried harder and harder. After the first ten minutes, it started to get embarrassing. At that point it wasn’t just tears; I was wailing, and gasping for air, and oozing a fair amount of snot. The nice girl I was meeting for the first time sitting to my right slipped me some napkins; I demolished them in a minute. The aghast middle schoolers on my left handed me his napkins; I shredded them immediately. When you’re blowing your nose that hard, movie theater paper doesn’t stand a chance.
I tried to hide my face by burying it in the bottom of my shirt, but that got soaked fast, and I wasn’t fooling anybody. It wasn’t even muffling my whimpers. My friend’s new girlfriend was shifting uncomfortably in her seat, and most of the teens were sneaking glances. The rest were outright staring.
I just kept crying and crying. How did I keep crying?! Surely I should have run out of water eventually? My body could only hold so much! But no, it just kept coming. Tears and tears and more tears and nose gunk and tears. I never ran out. Maybe it was because I was fat; I just had tons of water weight to spare. Regardless, it was like Niagara Falls up in there, and the flow never even slowed down.
You might be wondering: Why didn’t I just get up and leave? Maybe salvage my dignity a bit by waiting in the lobby? Good question! I mentioned earlier that the movie was sold out, and we were in the center of the row, so there were like 25 people on either side of me. And the seats and rows in this theater were small; we were packed in like sardines. I felt stuck. Even if people stood up, I’d have to practically climb over them to escape. Given that, and additionally that I was shooting so much fluid from my face that I was extremely likely to drip on people as I crawled over them on my way out, I was too afraid of making an even greater spectacle of myself by trying to flee. We were right in the front, after all, the whole theater would have been watching. I don’t know, it’s probably that toxic-masculinity, again.
The movie finally ended. Just as Jesus dies at the end of his bit of cinematic torture-porn, King Kong breathed his last breath, and fell a thousand feet to his final resting place on the street below. The lights came up, and I fled to the parking lot.
I stood next to the car, trying to put my self esteem back together. My friend walked up. He looked concerned, and more than a little freaked out. “Hey,” he said, “What’s up?”
In that moment, standing next to my best friend’s car in that Worcester parking lot, I knew there was only thing I could say. I wiped my nose on my sleeve, took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and looked him dead in the eye.
“I don’t think she’s right for you.”
David Haffner is a writer, dog-lover and podcast host living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Check out his podcast about movies and pop culture, Better Late than Never!, on Apple Podcasts.