Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fear of Flying: How Airplane Movies Evoke High Anxiety

 It started out as a simple flight, a short Sunday afternoon hop from Tucson to L.A.. I was returning home from the Tucson Festival of Books, where I was treated like a celebrity, even to the point of being chauffeured to the airport by a very friendly festival volunteer who offered cookies and good cheer. (Hey, Jude -- thanks for the lift!) When I discovered that my 5 p.m. flight would be delayed by an hour, I took it in stride, even though the news that the plane had not yet left LAX was far from encouraging. Eventually the departure time was changed to 6:15, and then pushed a bit later. But when the passengers arriving from Los Angeles debarked, things started looking up.

It was one of those tiny jets – two seats on either side of the aisle -- that could have been left over from an earlier era. There was some confusion about which roller bags would actually fit in the overhead compartment, and which would have to be checked and then (hopefully) retrieved at the other end. But I was on the plane, and it seemed as though we were about to head for home. And then . . . we weren’t. Slowly, slowly, our mini-jet inched back toward the terminal, without any real explanation from the crew. We were told to sit tight, and to use the one tiny bathroom if we chose. I wended my way to the aft of the plane, and discovered a young couple desperately trying to soothe a toddler who couldn’t be persuaded to go to sleep. 

And then . . . a uniformed airport police officer walked down the aisle, glancing to his left and right. At such a moment it’s easy to feel guilty—what have I done NOW? And, in today’s uncertain political climate, it’s even easier to feel scared. Was there, perhaps, a terrorist aboard, or an out-of-control crazy, or a disgruntled airline employee determined to wreak revenge? To my surprise, two sheepish-looking young women were quietly escorted off the plane. The word was that they’d been drunk and disorderly in the rear of the vehicle, though from my seat I had seen and heard nothing. The remaining passengers looked stunned, and then we all waited for arrival of the refueling truck. After that, things were uneventful, though I felt sorry (but not too sorry) for passengers with tight connections to Paris and Madrid.

What does all this have to do with movies? It was for me a vivid reminder of why so many film thrillers, past and present, are set on planes. For most of us, flying is mysterious business. We understand it no better than we can grasp how Harry Potter soars into the air in a game of Quidditch. No matter how many times we’ve flown the friendly skies, the enormity of flight can seem a bit overwhelming. So it’s totally credible that things can go, in the blink of an eye, horribly wrong, and that passengers and crew may suddenly find themselves in a life or death situation. Filmmakers have been capitalizing on this fear as far back as 1954’s The High and the Mighty. Whether it’s a storm, a terrorist, an impaired pilot, an attack of food-poisoning, a flock of Canada geese, or snakes on a plane, it’s all too easy to convince the audience that the skies are not so friendly after all.
The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock, though, flew to LAX quite uneventfully. It was only when he touched ground that the trouble began. But that’s another story.

This post is dedicated to the friends, fans, and facilitators of the Tucson Festival of Books. Special kudos to Lynn Wiese Sneyd, Sam Henrie, Jeff Yanc, Michael Mulcahy, Heather Hale, Jude Johnson, and super-fans Cheryl and Howard Toff. My thanks to all. 


  1. Yikes! That was quite a pre-flight experience!

  2. But all's well that lands well!

  3. The fodder for film rears its head at the most unexpected times! Yikes.

  4. Thanks Beverly!

    Glad you got home safe and sound! You were such a huge asset to the Festival!

    And thanks for the reminder of what a great set/location an airplane is for a thriller! ;-)

  5. Great hearing from you, Hilary, Lynn, and Heather. I hope you all visit Movieland again soon!

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