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We Clapped: Or How I Learned to Stop Hating and Appreciate Applause at the Movies

By Britton Perelman · December 30, 2018

I hate to admit it now but, until very recently, I was one of those moviegoers who hated when others clapped in the theater. 

You know the scene. 

The final moments of the movie play out. Cut to black. A brief beat. And then light, faltering applause. 

It used to make me cringe, stuck to my seat with embarrassment.

For what reason?

Turns out, applause dates back to the Roman Empire. Applause was mentioned in the Bible. Centuries ago, the main actors used to shout “Goodbye and applause” to signal the end of a performance. Scientists have found that babies clap almost instinctively.

While the exact reason for and the origin of applause is unknown, it’s undeniable that clapping is part of crowd mentality. 

A crowd of hundreds — or thousands — of individuals can’t congratulate a performer one-by-one, so we clap. We come together through the same repetitive movement to create sound in order to give approval, show appreciation, or encourage continuation. 

Now, we clap at so many kinds of events. Plays, musicals, speeches, concerts, comedy performances, the list goes on. 

I admit, clapping has a long, lauded, and interesting history. That doesn’t mean I liked doing it myself at the movies.

But a few recent experiences made me fully embrace the applause-at-the-end-of-a-movie phenomenon. 

Earlier this year, I went to an opening night showing of Operation Finale near where I live in Los Angeles. There wasn’t a single empty seat in the house. 

Operation Finale centers on the team of agents tasked with finding Adolf Eichmann and bringing him back to Israel to stand trial for his crimes during the Holocaust. It’s gripping, well-made, emotional, and incredibly paced. 

Given that it’s a true story, I’m not ruining anything by saying that the team does, in fact, get Eichmann out of Argentina — but not after a few tense close-calls. 

It was after the final close-call, the moment the plane took off for Israel and the team knew they’d succeeded, that I found myself, without thought, joining in when some of my fellow audience members started clapping. 

We clapped out of relief. 

The same thing happened when I saw Life Itself a few weeks later. At the end of the film, after I’d cried and laughed and smiled while I cried, I clapped. So did others. 

We clapped out of gratitude. 

And even when I attended an outdoor showing of La La Land, a film I’ve seen over a dozen times already, when those last notes play and the choir joins back in, I clapped along with the hundreds of others stretched out on a foggy Manhattan Beach golf course. 

We clapped out of joy.

There are so many different reasons to clap after — or during — a movie. But no matter the reason, it comes back to emotion. 

We clap because we feel. 

The filmmaker may not be there in the room with you as a performer would be after a live play or concert. But if a film — the amalgamation of pictures and sound and all kinds of movie magic — can make you feel something, anything, you should clap anyway. 

And, unlike me until recently, you should never feel ashamed.

Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

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