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Keys to the Kingdom

Many years ago, I became strangely enamored with sneaking into movies. I can't really remember how it started, and the funny thing is that I don't even like most movies — but somehow, in some strange way, the experience of sneaking into a movie theater was just unrelentlessly fulfilling at that point in my life.

It wasn't even just the sneaking part, either, because I'd actually stay for the movies. There was just something nice about that feeling of being tucked in safely behind enemy lines, eating free popcorn in the dark, watching the lights flicker across the screen — all without the ticket takers or security guards even suspecting that something might be amiss. Maybe it made me feel like I was getting away with something right in the belly of the beast of entertainment and consumption. Or I don't know, maybe stolen watermelon just tastes sweeter.

Either way, I developed a whole gambit of tricks for getting in — some of which were really quite elaborate. I had tricks for going alone, with a friend, or even for getting big groups of people inside. I'd try not to linger on one trick for too long, and instead challenged myself to come up with new creative ways for getting in. And at one point I started branching out from the theaters closest to me, in an attempt to explore the setups of all the different theatres in the city.

One week a friend was visiting from out of town, and I suggested that we try sneaking into a movie. We had been out exploring the hidden rooftops and alleyways of the city, and I knew there was a theatre nearby which I'd never been to before. So we rode our bikes over there, faces feeling brisk in the late night air, and arrived to have a look around.

I was truly amazed. Somehow, probably by accident, the theater had been designed in a way that almost perfectly stymied all of my standard entry repetoirs. "Self-tear," "east berlin / west berlin," "slick shoes..." my entire littany of tricks was basically useless here. We'd gotten down there pretty late, too, so we didn't have a lot of time before the final round of showings began.

We huddled up and roughed together an improvised plan which... just didn't work. It didn't fail spectularly or anything — no alarms went off, nobody caught us. It just failed to deliver us indoors. And by that time the last round of movies had started, which effectively made it too late to try anything else.

I couldn't believe it. I'd never not gotten in before. I was almost dazed by the prospect of it. It was unfathomable, insulting, confusing. But of course, I knew that I'd be coming back the next day with a new plan.

Before leaving, we walked around back and noticed that there were locked exit doors leading away from each theatre. I looked at the commercial locks on those steel doors and realized that if we could only somehow open them, we'd be unstoppable. I thought about it the whole ride home. Lock picking was never what I wanted it to be — it always took too long and wasn't realiable enough in realistic situations. But I'd heard vaguely about bump keys.

The next morning we woke up and did as much research about bump keys as we could. There wasn't really a lot of information available back then, but we pieced together the general idea. So we went to a local locksmith shop and got two key blanks — one for the keyway on my door, and one for the keyway on the movie theatre.

We spent some time filing the blank for my keyway down, with much hemming and hawing. It seemed pretty crude, and we weren't really sure what it should even remotely look like. We didn't have a bump hammer, so I grabbed a cheese grater instead.

I put the key in my now-locked door and knocked it three times, each time feeling more absurd — as if this whole concept was just a big pracical joke designed to place us there, knealing outside my door, whacking on a carved up key with a cheese grater. I mean, what were the odds of this actually working? On the fourth knock, though, the lock turned open sharply.

We couldn't fucking believe it. Not only did it work, it worked fast and reliably. Over and over, we took turns opening the lock on my door in continued disbelief.

We didn't waste any more time, and quickly filed down the key for the keyway at the theater. We rode straight there, and ducked into the alleyway full of locked doors that we'd stared at longingly the night before. It took about eleven knocks with the cheese grater, kneeling up against the door and looking like the total sketch-balls we were, but the lock snapped open to our continued amazement.

We quickly ducked inside and shut the door behind us, only to find that we were in the pitch-black darkness of what seemed to be a short hallway with no lights. We shuffled down to the other end of the hallway and found another door. Heart racing, I slowly started to pull it open. Incredibly bright light immediately flooded in, and I reflexively slammed the door closed again. We were tensed to run, but after nothing happened for a few seconds, I tried opening the door again.

I stuck my head through the opening, looked around, and realized... we were behind the screen! I whispered to my friend "Dude! We're behind the screen!" "What the fuck?" he whispered back.

Eventually I knelt down, pulled up a small section of the little velvet curtain that hangs under the screen, put my head against the floor, and peered out. "There's nobody in the first row!"

So we both belly-crawled out from under the screen towards the front row, then slowly eased our way up into the chairs. As if, you know, we'd been there but slouching the whole time. After sitting there for a few minutes, we got up and walked out into the lobby. We were in!

From that day forward, this was the only theater worth sneaking into. I'd go with big groups of people — eleven of us simultaneously belly-crawling out from under the screen towards the chairs in the front row. The whole thing had an added edge of danger, too, because for some reason this particular theater had an armed guard who was constantly on patrol. And not just standing by the front door, either — he'd discreetly walk into theaters mid-screening and do a little loop around the place with a small flashlight. I couldn't imagine what would have happened if he'd stumbled upon eleven of us belly crawling out from underneath the movie screen.

This was also the first time that I began to understand why people might be so enamored with stories like Harry Potter. I began to realize that people want magic to exist in the world — that the idea of knowing something which can transcend the ordinary way things work and open up new possibilities in an otherewise predictable life is incredibly appealing. And we had discovered magic. Our wand was a bump key and our spell was just that right bit of tension you used before whacking the key with a cheese grater. We could open doors, and man was it fun.

© 2012 Moxie Marlinspike