“You two are the first Yale students I’ve ever picked up from that place,” said our cab driver, with laughter in his voice. It was easy to believe him; “that place” was the Fairmount Theater, the local adult movie house. Given that it’s just an $11 cab ride away from Old Campus, in East Haven, one might expect at least the occasional Yalie to undertake the journey, if only for the experience. Having been inside, however, I greeted his comment with relief.

When I was assigned to scope out the Fairmount, I expected an adventure. Surely, it would be a questionable venue, but the thought of an after hours voyage to the dark side promised journalistic delights. I immediately asked a female friend to accompany me, thinking that her perspective would be invaluably distinct from my own, and also believing that a pair would be less likely to run into trouble than an unaccompanied investigator. She accepted, and at 9:00 p.m. Tuesday we arrived outside the Fairmount.

From the outside, the place seems discreet. Two sets of fogged glass doors shield the theater from the street, and nothing about the exterior suggests decay. But upon entering, we were confronted with a different scene. A ruined ceiling overhangs a long aisle of graphically packaged pornographic videos leading to the ticket booth, where admission is $10 for men, and free for women (the films run continuously from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays, and later on weekends). Before drawing back the tattered curtains leading to the auditorium, we were confronted by two large wall displays of sex toys, ranging from the modest to the massive. With a clear sense of purpose, and a fair degree of nervous trepidation, we walked past these into the darkness of the theater.

There were about four people inside, all older white men, all standing in the back of the theater with their belts undone. Several seats were cordoned off, broken beyond the point of use, and the screen was filled with a projection of “Up That Latin Ass” streamed directly from the DVD. We made our way down the aisle, taking a seat on the left side of the theater, well away from the other patrons. From behind us came the sounds of masturbation and heavy breathing, which we did our best to ignore. Then some of the men decided to get a little more bold.

The first simply walked up and down the aisle on which we were sitting, hand in pants. A few minutes later, another man took a seat directly across the aisle from us. I switched seats with my friend so that I was in between her and the stranger, hoping to show that we were not interested in interacting with him. Either oblivious or unfazed, he pulled himself out of his pants and began masturbating, frequently turning to leer at us. At this point, we decided to leave for a moment, and try to learn a little more about the establishment.

On our way outside, we asked the ticket taker a few questions. According to him, the theater is busiest in the daytime, on weekends the auditorium is entirely full, and the audience is almost entirely male. Next, we went out to the parking lot to look at the patrons’ cars. They were remarkably unremarkable, neither broken down nor especially fancy; the clientele clearly were not just scraping by in other aspects of their lives. As we turned to re-enter the theater, the man who had been leering at us passed us on the way to his car. Outside the theater, he looked like an average older gentleman. His clothes were clean and respectable, his smile no different from any other person you might pass on the street. As we opened the doors, his red sedan pulled out of the parking lot and joined all the other cars on the highway that night.

While we were outside, the movie had changed to “Spin the Bottle.” We chose seats in the back of the theater, but were again soon surrounded by strange men. Their exhibitionism was disturbing, but it was their brazenness that we found most surprising. Gone was the stereotypical man in the heavy coat, discreet in his indiscretions; the men in the Fairmount had no qualms with everybody else in the theater knowing exactly what they were doing, and when.

We moved again, to seats in the front. Looking over my shoulder, I saw two men standing in the back, masturbating each other. A third man slowly approached and was quickly welcomed in. It was unclear if the men were single or married. After we left, we wondered if they were gay, or just lonely to the point of being indifferent as to who they were touching and by whom they were being touched.

Any notional eroticism inherent in the idea of a porno theater is nowhere to be found in its actuality. The aisles were full of men, sitting alone or wandering aimlessly around. That they came from outside the theater, or would be leaving it again, seemed impossible. On the cab ride home, we asked our driver if he had previously encountered the Fairmount in his work. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “people come here all the time, sometimes from as far out as Milford. Mostly older guys.” He then went on to tell us that the Fairmount used to have a twin, the Princess, in New Haven. When he was 14, he said, he snuck in with a friend. “We saw a movie called ‘Vixen,’” he reminisced, “I can still remember the title to this day. It was like a rite of passage or something.” The Princess closed long ago, and that particular rite of passage has largely moved onto the Internet, inasmuch as it still exists. In other times, maybe, the Fairmount could have had the thrill of discovery, of transgression and, in some strange way, of community. Now, as the curious and the innocent do their discovering in the privacy of their own homes, the ramshackle old theater in East Haven stands like a lonely motel; haunted by shrieking spirits chained to passions of nights long gone, as headlights stream past on the highway.