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Caring for ''Cape Fear'' victims

Caring for ”Cape Fear” victims — Theater ushers are doubling as therapists at screenings of the hit film

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Gasping for air, clutching my briefcase in front of me like a protective shield, I stumbled out of the movie theater, begging for mercy. Clearly, Cape Fear was not my kind of entertainment. I collapsed on the lobby stairs, shuddering, trying to shake the deadly image of tightly coiled Max Cady (Robert De Niro) clinging to the axle of the Bowden family’s Cherokee. Granted, I still can’t watch The Wizard of Oz alone (the Wicked Witch of the West does it to me every time), but the sight of those unsuspecting Bowdens hurtling toward some grisly disaster seemed more than any high-strung moviegoer could bear.

Suddenly, a young woman in a lavender uniform ran up, arms outstretched. I instantly recoiled (after all, this is New York). ”Let me help you,” she said softly. ”Would you like some water?” Before I could answer, she dashed behind the counter and returned with a large plastic cup. I thought I was dreaming. When was the last time you got free ice water at a movie?

Then a teenage male usher appeared at my side. ”You’re scared, right?” he asked, flashing a sympathetic grin. ”Don’t worry. We’re getting used to this. Want to talk about it?”

They sure are getting used to it. As I sat there, another shaken woman came barreling out of the audience, and the staff said that such flights from Cape Fear‘s brutality take place a few times a week. In fact, Cape Fear is creating a growing grass-roots movement: theater therapy.

Though most major chains decline to comment, calls to individual theaters suggest that Cape Fear‘s viewers are seeking emotional first aid across the country. A female usher at Ronnie’s 8 Cine in St. Louis ran into the rest room to comfort a woman who felt faint after Cady assaulted Lori (Illeana Douglas). ”She was lying on the floor all pale,” recalls the usher. ”She said that scene really freaked her out.”

At another Midwestern theater, a middle-aged woman walked out just before the graphic ending, telling manager Nicole McCollough, ”I can’t watch this anymore.” She eventually went back in, ”but not until I told her how it ended and who lived and who died,” McCollough says.

”We’ve had wives leave at a scene they found too intense,” admits a Cineplex Odeon spokesman, whose company is showing Cape Fear on 181 screens. ”They always say, ‘My husband won’t leave. Can I wait here?”’

For all its suspense, Cape Fear is no match for The Exorcist, the 1973 film that had moviegoers fainting in the aisles. In a Chicago theater at the time, the Cineplex Odeon spokesman says, a woman had to be carried out by the manager. ”Six weeks later they were married.”

No such luck here in New York. But our usher had an alternative. ”What if I tell you the ending?” he asked me and my shivering soul sister. And once he did, he said, in his best group-leader voice, ”Now, why don’t we all go in and stand in the back and watch together?” It worked.