This Is Why Elevator Rides Are Dripping With Sexual Tension
In the 7th season of “Mad Men,” Don Draper (Jon Hamm) steps into the elevator of his midtown Manhattan apartment complex with his latest mistress, Diana (Elizabeth Reaser) and his neighbors, Arnold and Sylvia Rosen (Brian Markinson and Linda Cardellini). The scene is ripe with drama because Don was, until recently, romantically involved with Sylvia.
“How many women have you had in this elevator?” Diana asks Don once his neighbors step out.
Who doesn’t love a sexy elevator scene? In television and film, the elevator is ground zero of sexual tension. Lovers fight, make up and give each other the silent treatment — and, of course, get down and dirty. The forced intimacy of an elevator is an incubator of suspense. As a narrative device, the elevator is a portal taking characters from public to private space, revealing their deepest longings and true selves in the in-between moments.
Which makes sense, considering that the rise (heh) of elevators coincided with women’s introduction into public life. In Victorian times, social mores kept men and women as separate as possible. Both sexes rarely questioned codes of etiquette. But as the 20th century dawned, more women sought opportunities outside of the traditional, wife-and-mother path. They needed jobs. They moved to cities to find them.
And cities were growing upward. As skyscrapers popped up in metropolises like New York and Chicago, taking the stairs just wasn’t a viable option. Elisha Otis installed the first public elevator in New York City in 1874. It was the latest innovation in urban technology, inspiring people to desire rooms on higher floors. Suddenly, the allure of the penthouse held sway over city dwellers, who conflated height with wealth. The higher the floor, the deeper the pockets.
Elevators and skyscrapers were just two of many contributors to the unprecedented social changes taking full effect at the turn of the 20th century, as cities grew and the built environment changed.
Suddenly, total strangers found themselves stuck in tiny spaces with captivating members of the opposite sex. The silence (or schmaltzy background music), total lack of distractions and physical closeness set the scene for sparks to fly.
Hollywood has capitalized on the real-life drama of elevators with great success. In “Mad Men,” for example, over 60 key scenes take place in the elevator at the 1960s ad agency. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, series creator Matthew Weiner explains his use of the elevator is a strategy to get characters who otherwise wouldn’t interact in the same room. In the privacy of the lift, normally stoic characters give us rare glimpses into their emotional lives. After his secretary-turned-wife Megan (Jessica Paré) quits, for example, Don Draper stares into an empty elevator shaft — a fitting metaphor for his life and future.
An elevator scene can also be a microcosm for an entire film. In “Drive,” the entire plot is summed up by a three minute elevator ride: There’s a passionate kiss and a brutal murder. By the time the elevator car comes to a stop, the relationship between the nameless antihero (Ryan Gosling) and his love interest (Carey Mulligan) is over.
In lieu of the outdated cross-fade, the elevator’s gliding but substantial metal doors serve as a transition between scenes. “Elevators are a great place for anticipation and for resolution,” Weiner says. “It’s both an entrance and an exit.” In “Drive,” the doors shut slowly, like a stage curtain, separating the two lovers forever.
The theatrical touch also works in reverse. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the first time we see the powerful Vogue magazine boss, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), she’s emerging from a polished brass elevator wearing sunglasses that barely conceal her withering glare.
The potential for the elevator to get stuck is central to the Hollywood hookup. Grinding cogs and winding gears combine to build a mechanical crescendo. The potential for getting trapped in a tiny space with a sexy stranger makes some people really, really horny. The elevator is an ideal location for characters to build sexual tension while staying within a tight frame.
In “500 Days of Summer,” Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls for Summer (Zooey Deschanel) after they ride an elevator together and she sings some Smiths lyrics. By the time the elevator bell dings, he’s infatuated.
On “Grey’s Anatomy,” the elevator is a key location for coworkers to have private conversations — and makeout sessions. Dr. McDreamy even asks Meredith Grey to marry him in an elevator.
One of the elevator’s main draws? One press of the Stop button turns the car into a private room. Who can forget the intense sex scene in “Fatal Attraction”? Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) halts a hulking freight elevator mid-5th floor to get down with Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas).
In Season 5 of “Gossip Girl,” ex-couple Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) and Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) find themselves alone in a hotel elevator at yet another extravagant party (because everyone on “Gossip Girl” is always attending some lavish soiree). Blair smashes the Emergency button to make a point that ends in drunken sex with her ex.
Most elevators are democratic in that they’re public spaces — anyone can get on or off at any point in the ride. You’ve probably fantasized about rubbing elbows with an attractive stranger and getting caught in the act — a fantasy that half of Americans act on. Yes, I said half. According to a Business Insider survey, 50% of people have had sex at work. Wonder how many of those liaisons occur between floors…
The connection between elevators and sex is as old as advertising. Elevators often figure in ad campaigns for intimate or personal products, like deodorant, or those that feel like forbidden indulgences (Campari or ice cream).
From crucial character developments, to stolen moments and forbidden dalliances, the elevator is a prime place to hook up. So next time you spot a hottie going up, maybe it’s time to get down.