Bane for Real: How the Aurora Killings Shattered Movie Fantasy

An outrage that mimics the mayhem in The Dark Knight Rises renews the debate on the link between violence in movies and in real life

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Mario Tama / Getty Images

NYPD officers keep watch in front of an AMC movie theater where the film 'The Dark Knight Rises' played in Times Square on July 20, 2012 in New York City.

They thought he was part of the show. When James Holmes stepped through an exit door into the Century 9 auditorium showing The Dark Knight Rises Thursday night, the audience members nearby took him for one of those fans who arrive a multiplex dressed as favorite characters from the movie they’ve come to see. Outfitted in a gas mask and Kevlar suit, sporting an assault rifle and a Remington 870 shotgun, Holmes bore an initial resemblance to Bane, TDKR’s gaudiest villain, who may well have been on the screen at that moment. But he was not the costumed surrogate of the audience in that Aurora, Colorado, theater. If the testimony of eyewitnesses is accurate, Holmes proceeded to do what Bane does in the movie: invade a public place and terrorize the people in it. He was a surrogate for the violence on the screen — Bane for real.

In slaughtering people guilty only of wanting to be among the first to see the summer’s most avidly anticipated entertainment, the gunman ended and ruined lives in a town just 19 miles from Littleton, site of the massacre at Columbine High School 13 years ago. He imposed a sick sense of déjà vu on Denver-area citizens, who must cordon off a still larger part of their hearts for perpetual mourning. He also revived two longstanding American debates: on the real-life effects of violence in movies, and on the easy access to guns for wildlife sportsmen, cautious homeowners and murderous psychopaths.

(MORE: Don’t Blame Batman for the Aurora Shooting)

For a movie industry primed to celebrate the blockbuster  premiere of the last film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the tragic news hung black crèpe over TDKR. Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, is withholding statistics on the domestic and foreign earnings until Monday, when TIME’s box-office report will appear.

The killings had one effect new to American culture: they toxified the whole experience of moviegoing. They turned a movie house, which people attend believing that all the mayhem will be on the screen, into a charnel house. They overturned the notion of the multiplex as refuge. This weekend, it became one more venue for police patrols and pat-downs, and for U.S. civilians’ queasy anticipation of a copycat terrorist attack — an apprehension that is its own terror. Briefly or lastingly, the murders punctured the aura of the movie audience as one of the last great American communities.

Let’s All Go to the Movies

In the computer age, many Americans are approaching the status of hermits and invalids. We stay at home to work, to shop, to have sex (actual and virtual) — and to watch movies. But about 1.5 billion times a year, this housebound generation ventures outside to see a film. What Variety’s Art Murphy noted 35 years ago about the persistence of moviegoing is still true: it’s a great cheap date. Except for attending church, it is also our largest communal activity. And in both venues, the communicant accepts and surrenders to a higher power: a deity or a movie.

Watching a film at home, the customer is in charge; he can pause or rewind, fast-forward or stop. The film’s ability to cast its spell may be broken by a phone call, a text message, dinner time or boredom. And the image, even on a 55-inch wall screen, is just one element of the decor in a home viewer’s line of sight; the movie is always competing for attention. But in a theater, we moviegoers are totally vulnerable: small creatures in a huge dark room, with nothing to focus on but a giant image over which we have no control, and which keeps unspooling even if we are so terrified that we think we want it to stop. We don’t want it to stop; its power over us is the thrill and thrall we’ve paid for.

(PHOTOS: The Aurora Movie Theater Shooting: Scenes from the Aftermath)

Who else is so vulnerable? Children, tucked in bed at night, perhaps also in a darkened room, hearing their parents tell a story. The tale may be set in a distant realm, where princesses battle trolls, or it could be as immediate and threatening as the one about the monster in the closet. Whatever the subject of a bedtime story, kids usually don’t beg the parent to stop; no, they want to know “What happens next?” That is the hook for moviegoers of any age as much as for preschoolers in pajamas. The movie house is our bed at night, with filmmakers as the tale-spinning parent. And the excitement for all of us is that the scary story could be true but, for now, isn’t. Maybe later, in our dreams.

The Aurora killer shattered that compact. He leapt through the fourth wall to create the vilest kind of performance art and, for now, made it hard to make believe in a movie house.

A History of Violence, from Thomas Edison to Christopher Nolan 

The twist to the Aurora outrage is that it mimics the subject of the movie whose screening it interrupted: terror in public places. Bane and his gang commandeer of the Gotham City Stock Exchange, blow a hole in one of the city’s bridges and set off explosions under a football field in a stadium filled with horrified fans. These scenes pack a memorial queasiness for many Americans, especially New Yorkers, since Gotham City is clearly Manhattan. Thanks, Mr. Nolan, but we’ve been through that. Instead of scaring people with the usual fantasy scenarios — visions of what might be — Nolan used the Batman template to create revisions of what already happened.

That’s nothing new; movies have been exploiting tragedy for more than a century, in documentary and fictional form. The 1903 Electrocuting an Elephant, from the Thomas Edison company, presented exactly what it promised: the spectacle of Topsy, a Coney Island elephant who had killed a worker, standing with heavy cables attached to its body, then teetering and collapsing as it sizzles with electricity. In 1912, the silent one-reeler Saved from the Titanic was released just one month after the foundering of that unsinkable ship, and starred an actress who had been onboard. In the intervening hundred years, Hollywood has been in the business of making entertainment out of the darkest headlines. But whatever their topic, whomever they put at risk, movies are essentially sensational; they transform the senses of seeing and hearing into feeling.

(MORE: How to Talk to Your Kids About the Shooting)

And that means playing or preying on fears. TDKR manipulates the fears of its audience (especially its New York City audience) in exactly the same way that horror films exploit the viewer’s fear of grotesque assault, and a romantic drama threatens the death of a loved one, and the early Disney animated features — Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo — tapped kids’ fears of being separated from or losing a parent, or morphing into a braying donkey if they skipped school. People went to see TDKR Thursday night for a good scare, to be virtually violated, while realizing, if only as they walked out, that it’s only a movie. The crowd at the Century 9, tragically, got a different show.

The Movies Made Him Do It

Earlier in the week, some readers of the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate website of movie critics saw a couple of negative reviews of TDKR and pelted the writers with abuse and, in a few cases death threats; for a few hours, Rotten Tomatoes shut down its comments page. Those angry bloggings may be an expression of the increasingly rancid tone of public debate, but they were still irresponsible and creepy. The people who went to TDKR probably weren’t aware of those threats, but they did see a trailer for another Warner Bros. film, Gangster Squad, which features a scene of gunmen blasting away from behind a movie screen and strutting through the theater, the audience panicked as police rushed in. Warners pulled the trailer and, according to a story in today Los Angeles Times, is mulling changes to that scene — the movie’s climax.

TDKR, which is rated PG-13, doesn’t have nearly the violence level that Gangster Squad showed in the trailer. It does include scenes of intense peril. But of all the people in the Aurora auditorium that night, the only one who hadn’t seen any part of the movie was the killer. If his psycho spasm had occurred in a theater showing The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the urge to generalize on violent culture might be replaced by head-scratching about the assailant. I think he invaded that particular movie house not because TDKR is a drama about a city in the grip of terror — though that could be a side perk — but because he knew the theater would be packed with potential victims.

In April 1999, the week of the Columbine killings, I wrote a TIME story defending popular culture against those who thought that action movies like Natural Born Killers and the ghoulish songs of Marilyn Manson had contributed to violence in American schools and on the streets. “Revenge dramas,” I wrote, “are as old as Medea (she tore her sons to pieces), as hallowed as Hamlet (seven murders), as familiar as The Godfather. High drama is about the conflict between shades of good and evil, often within the same person. But it’s easier to dream up a scenario of slavering evil and imperishable good. This is the moral and commercial equation of melodrama: the greater the outrage suffered, the greater the justification for revenge. You grind me down at first; I grind you up at last. This time it’s personal.”

But I argued, “movies may glamorize mayhem while serving as a fantasy safety valve. A steady diet of megaviolence may coarsen the young psyche — but some films may instruct it. Heathers and Natural Born Killers are crystal-clear satires on psychopathy, and The Basketball Diaries is a mordant portrait of drug addiction. Payback is a grimly synoptic parody of all gangster films. In three weeks, 15 million people have seen The Matrix and not gone berserk. … Flash: movies don’t kill people. Guns kill people.” That point applies to TDKR as much as to The Matrix. The debate should be about the Second Amendment, not the First.

(MORE: Read Corliss’s story on Columbine and violent pop culture by subscribing to TIME)

Before Thursday night there had been no incidents of mass killing in a U.S. movie theater. Now there’s one — a minuscule sample from which to draw inferences about the mortal effect of popular culture. Of course it’s arguable that violent movies encourage violent behavior, if only in a few people who already have violent inclinations. Typically, though, the point of view in even the goriest film is usually that of the victim, not the perpetrator. These movies say that violence is exciting but bad, evil and wrong; it has consequences. And there’s almost always a good guy to beat the bad guy in the end.

Let’s Go Back to the Movies

Terrible things happen; people weep for the victims, curse the villain, calibrate the impact on their own safety and move on. Massacres take place at universities like Virginia Tech, but kids still go to college. For all the indelible memories of 9/11, air travel in 2012 is above the level of 2001. A man’s dearest friends may have died in a highway crash, yet he gets in a car every day.

Granted that schooling, flying and driving may be seen as essentials, whereas moviegoing is a luxury, an entertainment decision. But isn’t it just as important to be amused, thrilled or frightened in the dark, to be part of the community of strangers? They convene in a place of commerce that, when the lights go down and the picture starts, is transformed into a Mesozoic cave where elders enlighten and frighten the young with tales of woolly mammoths (Ice Age 4) and superhuman warriors battling infernal foes (The Dark Knight Rises).

“Tragedy Lowers Grosses,” read a headline in Nikki Finke’s box-office report today on the Deadline Hollywood website. No question that some Batman fans stayed away from TDKR this weekend. Yet Finke’s estimate of a $161.1-million gross suggests that the film will achieve the third highest three-day opening of all time, after The Avengers and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. People went to the movie. Just as important, a lot of them went to a lot of movies: business was up 35% from the same weekend last year.

That’s some good news out of a bad-news weekend — not that Hollywood made money, but that the anticipation of a fun night out will always triumph over real-life anxieties. In the community of moviegoers, hope trumps fear.

MORE: TIME’s Full Coverage of the Aurora, Colorado Shooting

24 comments
Eagle88
Eagle88

One of my many questions is, "Could this have been prevented?" If Mr. Holmes allegedly opened an emergency exit and propped it open... why didn't that set off a magnetic door alarm that the main office can pick up and respond to_? Maybe a detail like that becomes important to start to trip up his plan to kill innocent people.  I hope that criminal psychologists, college administrators and movie theatre management learn from this tragedy and prevent the next "quiet" person from doing a horrific deed. 

l0bl0
l0bl0

One of the things that's bothered me about the coverage of this tragedy is that anyone who brings up the role of mental illness does so in a dismissive or ignorant way when I think it needs to be openly discussed. I don't doubt for a minute that the gunman suffers from a mental disorder that was severely aggravated by the stress of his graduate program, but that doesn't mean I excuse what he did. He was still present of mind and is responsible for his decisions, but I bet if someone had recognized what others have described as "off" about him as a potential disorder, he probably would have learned healthier ways to deal with stress than violence.

As someone who has an anxiety disorder, I know firsthand that after learning what aggravates it and how to control it there are some days I completely forget I have the disorder. But before I was diagnosed I had let it escalate to a bad place and was afraid of being judged if I sought help for how I was feeling so I was completely trapped in the anxiety, and that was just under the stress of being an undergrad. But I repeat that I don't at all excuse what he did mental disorder or no, because I think it's likely that he was similarly suffering from something that could have easily been controlled with the right therapeutic tools. If I were to do something rash out of anxiety, I would hold myself responsible for not taking the steps I needed to control my anxiety and not just blame it on the disorder because I'm still a rational human being.Our society should be less focused on making guns available to everyone and more focused on making mental health facilities accessible to everyone and removing the social stigma of mental illness. If we would stop shaming people who suffer from mental illness and encourage adults to earnestly screen the children in their lives for symptoms of disorders so they can be caught early, maybe these random acts of mass violence would slow down.

Henry Freebourn
Henry Freebourn

This was the fault of a mentally ill person.  Not someone who made a movie designed to entertain.  This article is nonsense.

Lauro Andrea
Lauro Andrea

Sorry folks. It's the access to the guns. I'm sure that shooter was at some point a normal person who eventually ran into mental issues and found guns to be the perfect weapon of choice.

Yes I'm all those insults you want to throw. 

Pot smoking libtard...whatever.

Say anything you want. I live in a 4th world country that has been through a genocide with a postwar mentality and VERY low education almost no religious-based morals.

People here watch those same violent movies- trust me!

They just don't go around shooting each other because GUNS have been outlawed. They lean to deal with their problems without guns.

Down with the NRA!

Insults are welcome from the gun maniacs. Please be original.

sordatos
sordatos

Religion, sure that is the solution for violence:  more religion based ethics; is not like people have been killing each other over whose magical invisible friend is better....

I do agree that if guns weren´t so easily available an outer outcome could´ve happened.

The thing is that that person was disturbed, whether he did it because the movie or just because the number of victims he could claim, is irrelevant no regular persona would´ve done this, not at least without a some sort of reason..

Debbie Ledford
Debbie Ledford

You know the sick thing about this is that it will probably increase box office sales.

tonia_j_clark
tonia_j_clark

 How is that "sick" the movie was gonna do well regardless of this incident,  just like the author said that's why he picked that movie on that night

Leo Dukes
Leo Dukes

He was wearing a gas mask because he had tear gas to throw into the room, not because he wanted to look like Bane.

It's always the same! ALWAYS! ALWAYS! ALWAYS! Jesus Christ, stop jumping on this pathetic bandwagon, always assuming that if something horrible happens, it's the fault of the entertainment industry. We aren't living in the dark ages! It's 2012! We're civilized and it's about time we acknowledge that some people are unstable. Some people are sick. That isn't the fault of hollywood! That isn't the fault of video games! People like this don't need a trigger. It doesn't come from the entertainment industry. Stuff like this was happening before entertainment was even a concept!

Just STOP DOING THIS! It's sensationalist journalism cashing in on a horrific incident, pointing the blame at an industry that has nothing to do with what happened. Want to know why the guy attacked people at the dark knight rises premiere? Because he knew it would be full and he'd get a higher bodycount. He wanted to be known as "that guy who killed a lot of people in the cinema" because he's mentally unstable. He just wants the fame, and idiots like you are giving it to him by writing BS articles like this!

RoyShastid
RoyShastid

"We're civilised "  Really ? From where I stand and every time I turn on the TV  all I see is blood thirst and hatred. From the "hunters" who glory in meaningless killing to the so called unlimited fight fans, suffering is the common coin of this civilization. We love body counts and  blood.

Dan Trudeau
Dan Trudeau

And yet violent crime has been dropping steadily for the last 20+ years, especially in youth.  Don't confuse coverage of violence, which is way up, with actual violence, which is way down.  Pick up a history book sometime and find out how far we've come.  I'm not trying to gloss over the types of terrible things that happen but people watching fights or killing animals is not new behavior.  You may be horrified by MMA but once upon a time people used to watch guys bare-knuckle fight each other with no one to stop it when someone got hurt too bad.

Leo Dukes
Leo Dukes

Define civilized. I consider civilized to mean respectful and peaceful towards others, something I try to be from day to day.

Leo Dukes
Leo Dukes

 I play violent video games and watch films full of death and violence, but if I speak to another person, I'm polite, well mannered and respectful. Enjoying forms of entertainment doesn't make us uncivilized. Besides which, it was a throwaway comment meant to put my point forward in less than three words. We are civilized. About 80% of humanity is civilized, but the media doesn't like to report on the nice things that happen every day, since that doesn't make a "good story", so they report things like this and keep them going for three days.

Yes, this is horrible, and when I heard, I was shocked, but it's now Sunday, is there any more information that we, the people not involved, need to know, other than the fact that the survivors are being cared for and the attacker is locked up? No, there isn't. We don't need to know about this stuff, but they harp on about it because, guess what? It sells. This is worse than the "Ultimate fighting championship" that you talk about. This is a number of newspapers trying to sell copies of their product by capitalizing on the deaths of 12 innocent people.

Lauro Andrea
Lauro Andrea

Leo Dukes.

I agree. I don't think its the movies and the video games.

I think its a combination of the availability of the guns and selfishness of America's material society.

I live in a country where most people have nothing and they do see these incredibly violent movies due to pirated copies. It starts with a wrong mental perspective. This is a post-genocide society and people do have a twisted sense of morals.

People here don't solve their problems with guns because its just not an accessible method: they have been outlawed.

RoyShastid
RoyShastid

I imagine that the inquisitors who burned unbelivers at the stake considered themselves very civilised and humane. Future generations will look back on us with the same horror that we look at to those monsters. The way we treat the animals that end up as out food is just one of the horrors of our time that we all approve.

Avalongod
Avalongod

On balance, although I'd put it more gently, I'd have to agree with Leo.  I respect Mr. Corliss and appreciate that he wrote carefully, but if this shooting had happened at a church (which is far more common) would we be encouraging people to introspect on the meaning of religion in encouraging these events?  Ironically it's possible that the shooter may have chosen a moviehouse, not because he was influenced by movies, but simply because he knew (from history) that he'd get more attention provoking just such a "red herring" discussion.

I've seen (blessedly) few articles on this shooting and the issue of movie violence.  Just about all of them acknowledge the research evidence has largely discredited any link between movie violence and real life violence (despite some scholars who irresponsibly insist on claiming links exist when they don't).  Yet some of these articles still seem to encourage introspection on media violence despite acknowledging it would do no good.

The youth of today are the least violent in 40 years, and most likely to engage in civic and helping behavior on record.  This despite the wide availability of media violence.  The idea that they are being "desensitized" by movie violence is little more than "moral panic"...a red herring. 

For some reason media is commonly (going back to the Greeks) a scapegoat for societal ills.  Encouraging such scapegoating, even in a gentle and careful form does us no good whatsoever.

Leo Dukes
Leo Dukes

 Glad to know I'm not the only one that is aware of this.

Remember when Socrates was "poisoning" the youth through his teachings? Things are no different today. I'm not saying films are philosophical teachings, but it's still society pointing the finger of blame away from itself. It seems a lot of humanity can't accept that maybe we're responsible when someone does something terrible. I remember reading that this kids mother said instinctively "You have the right person", like she knew he'd do something like this. So why didn't they do anything? Why didn't they, say, have him sectioned or take him to a psychiatrist?

BUT HEY, LETS JUST BLAME FILMS AND GAMES AND STUFF, CUS THAT'S THE EASY WAY OUT!

I weep for humanity.

Nilson.Laura
Nilson.Laura

.. My friend gets more than $2500/Month  working few hours on his personal computer , Story Exposed =>

Brad Holman
Brad Holman

This is just another guy pissed off at The Man, so he goes and kills a few of his fellow citizens. Sounds like another day in the middle east.

Reverse_K
Reverse_K

James Holmes is suffering from schizophrenia - the right age with the classic symptoms. Another young man with a similar mindset was Jared Lee Loughner in the Tucson shooting incident. Such people have difficulty resolving fantasy (as presented in movies, games, etc) from real life. To prevent these incidents, society needs to somehow identify these people early on and help them before they become completely unhinged and do harm to others.

Debbie Ledford
Debbie Ledford

 My thoughts exactly. This really isn't a gun issue it is a mental health issue. I just hope the canisters he threw were just tear gas. You see, he worked in a research lab and could have put all kinds of long acting nasties in those canisters. Also, emerging schizophrenia is hard to differentiate from a schizo effective disorder but someone, his parents had to know he was sick.